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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Movie Review: "Lady Bird"

I first noticed actress Saoirse Ronan two years ago when she starred in "Brooklyn." She had done other movies, but that was her breakout role. Now she's really getting noticed for her work in "Lady Bird," and every bit of praise is well-deserved.

When the title was included this summer in a list of upcoming films, I thought it was going to be about Lady Bird Johnson, onetime First Lady of the United States. After all, its release more or less coincided with that of Rob Reiner's "LBJ," with Woody Harrelson in ridiculous makeup as the 36th president. But this "Lady Bird" has nothing to do with that one.

Ronan is fantastic as Christine McPherson, a 17-year-old who, for reasons unexplained, wants everyone to call her Lady Bird. Chalk it up to teenage rebellion, and there's lots of that in this character as she navigates her way through a Catholic high school, dating, a school play, applying to college, and the everyday frustrations of pretty much every human who's ever been that age. It's a time in life for expressing your individuality, and Lady Bird doesn't miss an opportunity to do so.

That means a lot of clashes with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who loves her daughter but doesn't much like her. Marion -- already stressed from having to work double shifts as a hospital nurse because her husband (Tracy Letts) is having problems at his job -- is constantly disappointed in Lady Bird. She's weary of their battles over every little thing, not the least of which is her daughter refusing to use the name she was given at birth. Marion has impossibly high standards and a near-aversion to happiness, which doesn't make for the smoothest home life.

That relationship, at the core of the movie, is about all of the other issues that will be recognized by anyone who's been exposed to the dynamic between a mother and her 17-year-old daughter, best summed up in this exchange in a clothing store where they can't agree on a prom dress:
Marion: I just want you to be the very best version of yourself.
Lady Bird: But what if this is the best version?
The other characters in Lady Bird's life -- her best friend, her new best friend, the boys she's interested in, her brother and his girlfriend, the teachers -- seem familiar, but don't spew the usual cliched dialogue you expect in a movie like this.

That's what makes "Lady Bird" work so well. Greta Gerwig -- a critical favorite for her work in Noah Baumbach movies like "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" -- hits just the write tone in her directorial debut. Gerwig's script is based in part on her own youth, growing up in Sacramento. She knows these characters and how they'd sound in real life, which keeps them from being boring or predictable.

Like its title character, "Lady Bird" isn't perfect, but it's the best view of this world we've seen in a long time. It also contains two must-see performances by Ronan (the Irish newcomer who portrays a northern Californian without a trace of an accent) and Metcalf (a veteran star of TV and Broadway whose silent driving scene towards the end of the movie is the best acting you'll see this year). They, and the movie, will surely get more well-deserved attention when Oscar nominations are announced.

I give "Lady Bird" an 8.5 out of 10.

Moody Memories

The 2018 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees will be the Moody Blues, Bon Jovi, The Cars, Nina Simone, and Dire Straits. Of those, the only ones I've interviewed are the Moody Blues, and I've dug them out of the archives for you.
  • From 1996, here's a transcript of my conversation with Justin Hayward about performing with a full orchestra, among other things.
  • From 2003, here's the audio of my conversation with John Lodge about their Christmas album, "December."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Best Thing I've Read Today

In the NY Times, James Poniewozik writes about the president's TV addiction:

The problem is not how much TV Mr. Trump watches. It’s the kind of TV he watches.

As Mr. Trump’s associates report and his Twitter feed confirms, his video diet of choice is cable news, the most agitating, psychically toxic programming you can immerse yourself in, even if you don’t have possession of the nuclear codes.

This is not to say cable news is bad journalism. There are talented people in the business doing great reporting. But it is to say that cable news — as a genre, a gestalt, an environment to spend hours a day in — is by nature agitating and provoking.

That’s the cable-news business model. Conflict means urgency, and urgency means viewers glued to the channel. So it seeks out arguments and pushes buttons. It is a machine designed to generate stress and negative emotion.
He's absolutely right about the programming that makes up hour after hour every day on all the cable news outlets. No matter what your political persuasion, it is toxic. I've seen its effect on my mother, who used to live in an apartment by herself with the TV spewing that stuff all day long, and witnessed how it turned her sour, angry, and anxious. Now that she's in assisted living facility, she has more activities to take up several hours of each day, but when she's in her room, those are still the only channels she watches -- and they don't help make her day better.

Similarly, I have seen the same effect on friends who obsess over every story those outlets over-cover and the arguments they produce. For some of those friends, the only time they turn away from the TV screen is when they turn towards their phone or laptop screen to vent about what they've seen on Facebook, where they then consume even more noxious content. A couple of them even take their cable news obsession with them in the car, listening via SiriusXM or the TuneIn app, or listening to just-as-pernicious talk radio hosts. Do you think that might have something to do with instances of road rage in this country?

Poniewozik's advice isn't merely valid for the president, but for everyone. Turn that trash off. It's the same thing I urged in my "This Isn't Fake News" speech earlier this year:
I give you this advice because it’s exactly what I have done. When I used to have a daily radio show, I had to jump into the information ocean repeatedly throughout the day to catch whatever would make an interesting talking point for that day’s show. Now that I’m only on once a week, doing a show that’s dedicated to everything but the hard news of the day, I have pulled back dramatically on my news fetish. I am anything but an information luddite, but I’m happy to find other things to do with my time than bathing my brain in the fetid backwash that exists in our information overload.

I strongly suggest you cleanse yourself of it, too.
Poniewozik goes on to recommend that, if the president is going to watch so much TV, he should change the channel to find an old movie, or a sitcom, or the Golf Channel.

David Goldfield, "The Gifted Generation"

David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written 16 books on southern and American history. His newest is "The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good," which focuses on the social benefits provided to the early baby boomers under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson.

Among the questions I asked him:
  • Were they (Truman/Ike/LBJ) more sympathetic to working class Americans because they didn’t have much when they grew up?
  • Truman proposed universal health care 70 years ago, but couldn’t pass it — why?
  • What was public opinion on these matters, and were those men leading or pandering?
  • When did the belief that the federal government must work for all Americans begin to erode?
  • Are there other countries where the government continues to support its people that way?
  • Was there ever such a thing as progressive republicans?
  • Considering its current state, can American government ever be good again?
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Matthew Salganik, "Bit By Bit"

Here's my conversation with Matthew Salganik, sociology professor at Princeton University and author of “Bit By Bit: Social Research In The Digital Age.”

We started by talking about how the digital revolution has changed how our behavior is observed, how that gives companies and researchers more accurate portraits of us, and whether we should be wary of all the data being collected without our consent. We also discussed how selling information has become big business, what kind of ethical rules should be in place for that data, and how it can be misused. Matt also revealed a project he did last spring with his students that taught them how to manipulate their Facebook news feeds (and they're not even Russian!).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Political Prediction

If Roy Moore is elected today, I predict there will quickly be calls for a boycott of Alabama akin to the one in North Carolina after that state's bathroom law was passed. Of course, Alabama can't lose a Super Bowl or MLB/NBA/NHL All-Star game, but businesses and tourists might stay away.

If he does pull off a victory, you can forget about the Republicans in the Senate throwing him out, as many of them publicly professed they would a few short weeks ago. No, they'll keep him in there because our over-caffeinated president wants him there -- and because that entire party is morally bankrupt.

While I'm on the topic, in case you missed it, how about this lead paragraph from a CNN story about Moore on Sunday:

Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore appeared on a conspiracy-driven radio show twice in 2011, where he told the hosts in an interview that getting rid of constitutional amendments after the Tenth Amendment would "eliminate many problems" in the way the US government is structured.
Let's see, what came up in the amendments after the first ten that make up our Bill Of Rights? Since Moore was a sitting judge for many years, he probably knows that:
  • the 13th Amendment abolished slavery;
  • the 14th Amendment defined citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection;
  • the 15th Amendment prohibited denying the right to vote based on race;
  • the 19th Amendment prohibited denying the right to vote based on sex.
Do you get the feeling old white man Roy Moore thinks he's living not in 2017, but in 1817?

Or, considering his extremist religious views, perhaps he just thinks it's the year 17.

No, wait, that's the age of the girls he lusted after in his thirties. Damn!

Chris Matthews, “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit”

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who was then three years into his first term as a US Senator, and just 80 days into his candidacy for president of the United States. Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, has written about RFK’s brother in the books “Jack Kennedy—Elusive Hero” and “Kennedy and Nixon,” and now has published “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.” In our conversation about the book, the topics we covered included:
  • What made him want to return to tell more stories about the Kennedy family;
  • How Bobby was different from Jack and Ted;
  • What was his role in his brother’s administration;
  • If he’d lived, would RFK have been the Democratic presidential nominee in ’68;
  • Would he then have gone on the beat Nixon, and how that would have changed US history;
  • Whether Chris, a grad student at UNC in 1968, was an RFK-For-President supporter;
  • How Bobby Kennedy tangled with the Mafia and Jimmy Hoffa, and whether that affected his support from unions;
  • A touching story about the crowds that gathered to see his funeral train.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Kael Maness, Ex-Addict Helping Addicts

A couple of weeks ago, I read a piece by Michele Munz in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Kael Maness, one of several recovery coaches working with addicts who overdose on opioids and end up in hospital emergency rooms.

I contacted Kael and asked him to come in to talk about his work, which is so effective because he speaks the same language as the addicts he helps because he's been in their shoes, addicted to pretty much anything you could name over the course of more than a dozen years. He's been sober for three years, and now works with Project EPICC (Engaging Patients In Care Coordination) through the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis.

Kael was very open about the road he'd been down with alcoholism and drug addiction, and offered some tough love suggestions for parents who have children -- of any age -- who have followed the same path ("if you baby your kid, you'll bury your kid"). With opioids killing more Americans last year than died in the Vietnam War, the efforts of Kael and other recovery coaches are part of the solution.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Dan Steadman and Tom Oldcroft, "The Shoe"

Dan Steadman is a writer/director who makes movies in the St. Louis area. Tom Oldcroft has appeared in a couple of them, including Dan's latest, "The Shoe," an anthology story that takes place over seven decades. When they joined me in the studio, we talked about that project as well as Dan's previous work, why he likes creating content in St. Louis, and his earlier life making movies and TV pilots in Hollywood (with stories about Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, and Jim Carrey).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, December 11, 2017

On My Monday Radio Show

I'll be back on KTRS today for my regular 3-6pm CT show. Among my guests will be: I hope you'll listen over the air, via the station's free app, or at

Movie Review: "Darkest Hour"

"Darkest Hour" is the third movie this year whose plot centers on the British Army being trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk by the Nazis in 1940. The first was "Their Finest," a light drama starring Gemma Atherton and Bill Nighy (my review is here). The second was "Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan's epic told from three perspectives in three different timelines (my review is here).

Now we get "Darkest Hour," with Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his earliest days as British Prime Minister. We've seen Churchill portrayed on screen before (both John Lithgow and Brendan Gleeson have won Emmys playing him in the last decade), but this is the best of the lot. The makeup job on Oldman is astounding, and his performance (sure to be nominated for Best Actor) is even better.

After the disastrous reign of PM Neville Chamberlain, Churchill was chosen to lead his country at a perilous time. The Germans had rolled through most of Europe with little resistance, and had trapped virtually the entire UK army at Dunkirk. Once they were wiped out, it wouldn't be long before the Nazis crossed the English Channel to attack Britain. While some in his government urged Churchill to try some sort of back-door negotiation with Hitler through Italy's Mussolini, he abhorred the idea, understanding that surrender could not be an option.

"Darkest Hour" portrays Churchill's meetings with Parliament, his war council, and King George VI during those difficult days. Unlike the action-heavy "Dunkirk," this movie is very talky, but never slow. We see Churchill portrayed not as a perfect man -- he drank too much and was never in good health -- but as a statesman trying to figure out how to lead his country and inspire its citizenry.

Joe Wright directs "Darkest Hour" with a keen eye for the subterranean corridors of power that Churchill must navigate, while also giving us scenes of his home life with wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his meetings at Buckingham Palace with the king (played by my "Mississippi Grind" co-star, Ben Mendelsohn), whose advisers were telling him to leave the island and rule in absentia for his own safety.

The biggest flaw in "Darkest Hour" is a scene towards the end in which Churchill rides the subway with common Brits in order to get their opinion on what he should do about the Nazis. The problem is that never happened. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten invented the whole thing, which is a shame, because they got the rest of the Churchill story right.

Nonetheless, you should see "Darkest Hour," primarily because of Oldman's work in the role, but also because it's yet another part of world history most Americans know far too little about.

I give "The Darkest Hour" an 8 out of 10.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Brian Regan Tickets

I have two tickets to Brian Regan at the Peabody Opera House on 1/12/18 that I can't use because something's come up. The seats are in Row W, Orchestra Left Center, and come with Premier Parking in the Abrams Garage next door. If you'll cover my cost ($189), I'll be happy to transfer them to you. If you're interested, email me: paul (at)