Category Archives: Entertainment

At least one of us has made his living as an entertainment writer … or was that a short-order cook? In any event, enjoy these musings on pop culture and easy-to-make finger foods.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Never Replaced

By ROBERT CHARELS

Stevie  Ray Vaughan must have been special.  At times, he seemed to embark in every blues cliché in the book, yet everything he did reeked with originality and style.  In a world where so many guitarists strive to pack as many notes into a solo as possible, when “SRV” did it, he changed the landscape of blues guitar forever. Today marks the 20th  anniversary of his untimely death when he went down in a horrifying helicopter crash. I remember saying this on the day he died:  “He’ll never be replaced.” Sadly, it’s pretty much the way it’s been.

We’ve heard Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang and “Monster” Mike Welch and Susan Tedeschi and so many others, but not a one a one of them has 1/100th  the verve, style, and originality of Vaughan.  The Texas-raised guitar master wasn’t handsome, or even particularly tasteful in his attire choices; the constant boots, soul patches, and feathered hats seemed like a desperate reach for attention; his talent was such that he didn’t need the flash.  But when he picked up a guitar – as always, buoyed by his underrated, utterly soulful singing – he was pure magic.

As I write these words, I am doing so without even a cursory glance at the Internet for notes or fact-checking. Here’s what I remember about Vaughan, and how, through the tree of blues music, he impacted my life (margin for error, 100 percent):

I first saw Vaughan in what I recall as 1981 in a small club called Radio City in Scotia, New York.  After a half-assed new wave act finished its short set, Vaughan and the rigidly rocking Double Trouble hit the stage and blew the roof off the place – almost literally. I must state it was the loudest concert I’ve ever attended; I felt physically sick for about three days afterward, I was so jarred. I stuffed my ears with napkins, but I knew, even then, I was watching the best blues guitarist in the world. It can’t be defined; like B.B. King, Albert King, and few others, Vaughan took the best of the past and enveloped it in the best of the current. Lots of licks, sure, but every one was musical, necessary, and real. That was Vaughan.

When I found out that Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie Vaughan, was the guitarist of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, I went out and picked up every T-Birds album and began to love them every bit as much as Stevie Ray. They were a vocally based blues and R&B combo, but they were every bit as great in a completely different way; Jimmie plays rhythm guitar as if he had invented the entire idea. In 1983, I walked onto a  stage as a professional blues singer for the very first time; my biggest influences were Vaughan and The T-Birds.

When Stevie Ray died, I looked for other guitarists to get into; I discovered the great Duke Robillard, who filled the void for me as a truly gifted blues star, yet very tasteful, and he could play swing music as well as anyone ever on this planet.  As fate would have it, Robillard replaced Jimmie Vaughan when he left the T-Birds; the branches of the tree started to widen. A few years later, I got to work with Duke when he produced my Metropolitan Blue album in 1999. Some musicians dream of working with a Beatle; as for me, a blues addict, I got to work with a T-Bird. I still consider the album the greatest thing I’ve ever done.

All considered, I’ve had a great life and a wonderful music career, but I’m not the story here, other than my reverence for all things Vaughan.  I can’t imagine how different the blues world would have been had Stevie Ray Vaughan not perished so young. The blues would certainly be more popular than it is today; he was that powerful and influential. And I have no doubt that Vaughan would have been changing, modifying, and honing his sound through the years. Like Jimi Hendrix, Robillard and the great jazz players of our time, Stevie was a perfectionist, and you could hear it on every recording he made.

For now, my advice is to get to the store and pick up Jimmie Vaughan’s great new album. I’ll never let the Vaughan brothers go; they are still part of my musical dreams and hopes. Through it all, neither man ever seemed to realize how truly great they were, and still are.

And as I write these words, I’m missing Stevie Ray Vaughan every bit as much as when I first heard the bad news.  Some wounds never fully heal.

Robert Smith’s professional music moniker is Robert Charels; the blues singer’s albums – Metropolitan Blue, Three Leg Dogs & Old Skool Cats, and Deception In Your Eyes – are available everywhere.

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TV Review: Red, White & Puke

Macy’s Fourth Of July Fireworks Spectacular
July 4
NBC

Review by ROBERT SMITH

Photo by HERLENE SMITH

We have reached the point in the never-ending dumbing down of America that TV networks can’t even broadcast a fireworks display without the viewer eventually lusting to throw red, white, and blue bricks at his own HDTV unit.  We must ask: How in the good name of the Gruccis can they manage to mess up a televised fireworks display? Isn’t it – and shouldn’t it be –  pointing some high-def cameras at the sky, and allowing the viewing public to enjoy?

Not any longer.  July 4’s Macy’s fireworks special from New York City on NBC was unwatchable, overproduced, and, well, sickening; the event was about as sincerely patriotic as an evening in a Guyanese cathouse.  From the insipid, language-mangling host Nick Cannon to meaningless music (a lot of it taped) from the likes of flavor-of-the-month Justin Bieber to appearances from the cast of whatever Twilight film is out this week, the entire production was geared toward getting brain-addled tweens to stop Tweeting during the holiday weekend.

Sure, all of the musical mediocrity was on display pretty much before the fireworks started – but yes, Virginia, they managed to screw up even the pyrotechnics display itself.  The telecast was nothing but endless crowd shots and the worst, remade quasi-patriotic music ever recorded – they actually played a voice singing “la la la” over patriotic songs at the top of the fireworks display.  Other pure schlock music was served up by such modern pop music atrocities as the a cappella abomination Straight No Chaser, which makes Rockapella sound like Parliament/Funkadelic.

The actual fireworks – as usual, best viewed from Queens without the disgusting music – might have been great, if you were on that side of the river. On NBC, the actual fireworks were presented as pretty much an afterthought.

Know what would have been more patriotic than ogling Taylor Lautner’s pecs? How about 11,000 or so righteous, intelligent  Americans peacefully holding signs with sayings such “Our Sons & Daughters Out Of Afghanistan & Iraq Now!”  At least, it would have put a proper, somber, meaningful touch on this year’s July 4 holiday.  Our put-upon troops are what we should be celebrating, as well as an assembled wish for logic from our people and our government, with hope for peace and prosperity for all.

Instead, here’s Maxim girl Kristen Stewart, who is still a good girl since she didn’t choose Playboy in which to pose semi-nude.

What a country.

© 2010 Robert Smith

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The Three Stooges: Digitally Remastered Delirium

Reviews by ROBERT SMITH

A few months back, my esteemed colleague, Steve Ricci, noted how The Three Stooges were influential in his life. I now happily report that last month, a significant moment in Stooge history was logged. It was in early June that the eighth and last in Columbia’s lovingly digitally remastered box sets of complete, uncensored, and restored Three Stooges films, The Three Stooges Collection, was issued on DVD; these 190 films have never been completely released on DVD before this. Combined with AMC’s recent decision to return Stooges shorts to its regular lineup of classic films, there is – as seems to happen every decade or so – a serious case of Stoogemania going on. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

For serious Stooge aficionados, these DVD collections are truly an answered prayer. The Stooge shorts have not only been released in chronological order, but many of these films have never looked so clear, and in some cases, new. The remastering job isn’t without its pitfalls; a couple of packages come with 3D glasses for films released originally in that format, but they still look awful. As well, the overall remastering job is actually so good it reveals everything in pristine black and white – including pies being pulled from ceilings with strings, and what used to look like flying Stooge heads in the opening of Spooks! now show Moe, Shemp, and Larry in black cloaks, running around as if they’d lost their minds (as if that’s anything unusual). It’s actually fun to see the old-time movie magic exposed.

So let us sing the praises of these master comedians, who have been underrated since their heyday, but answer me this: Are television stations still showing Charlie Chaplin? The Marx Brothers? Laurel & Hardy? Yet, times come and go, and Stooge shorts are still being shown on national networks, some films being a whopping 76 years old. It is testament to The Three Stooges’ knockabout, zany comedy that it can still be appreciated and loved by audiences after such a passage of time. The reason? The Stooges are damn hilarious, that’s why.

A look at the sets: Volume One, which covers 1934 to 1936, begins with the first Stooges short, Woman Haters, a musical number so stilted it’s a wonder the team ever got a second go. But things pick up with the boxing-themed Punch Drunks, and the hospital parody Men In Black, which was actually nominated for an Academy Award. Indeed, “Dr. Howard! Dr. Fine! Dr. Howard!” is quoted to this day, and few Stooge efforts were ever funnier.

Volume 2, 1937-1939: The Stooges, Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard, find the formula, and it works like gangbusters. Highlights here are Playing The Ponies, where the trio leads a nag called Thunderbolt to racing glory; Healthy, Wealthy, and Dumb, where the three idiots win a radio contest and rent a snazzy hotel room only to discover that after taxes they’re as broke as ever; and Violent Is The Word For Curly, which features the famous “bickey-bye” song that everyone still knows but can’t remember where it came from.

Volume 3, 1940-1942: The team is getting more popular, the slapstick is getting more violent thanks to the burgeoning presence of director Jules White, and this just might the Stooges’ prime. The best here include the classic Nazi era satires I’ll Never Heil Again and You Nazty Spy!, All The World’s A Stooge, where Curly delivers one of his most manic and inspired performances impersonating a little kid (and Larry never looked more beautiful), and A Plumbing We Will Go, which might be the high point of the team’s career; it’s the classic “running from the law” Stooge short, complete with wacky pratfalls, high society torn asunder, and the best plumbers who ever plumbed a plum.

Volume 4, 1943-1945: Something’s wrong; Curly is slurring his words and the pace is starting to slow down. Around this period, the hard-partying rotund comedian began to fall into ill health – so much so that an impending stroke would not only end his career, but eventually his life as well. However, there’s still a lot of comic gold in this set, including Micro-Phonies, featuring Curly impersonating the golden-voiced Senorita Cucaracha; Dizzy Pilots, where The Wrong Brothers take to the sky; and If A Body Meets A Body, which features some hilarious haunted house gags. However, Curly really starts to fade during this set; White’s They Stooge To Conga is nothing but garishly filmed violence including Moe getting his eyes and ears poked with climbing spikes; and shorts such as Booby Dupes and I Can Hardly Wait, finally, start to miss their mark.

Volume 5, 1946-1948: With the film Half-Wits’ Holiday in 1946, exit a very weak and tired Curly, enter Shemp. The floppy-haired comic surely had his critics, most of whom claimed he wasn’t the comic genius Curly was. That’s true, but Shemp brought his own manic energy and pretty much brought the trio back to life for the next couple of years. Included here are his debut with the team, Fight Night, which is nothing but laughs, and Hold That Lion, featuring a cameo by Curly and yet another hysterical two minutes from frequent Stooge regular Dudley Dickerson.

Volume 6, 1949-1951: Just as the TV era starts to heat up, the Stooges begin to slow down. Film studios aren’t making many shorts by this point, with Stooge studio Columbia being among the last holdouts. It’s easy to see the budgets going downwards short by short here; rekindled footage is sprouting up regularly. There are finally films that just aren’t funny at all, and they’re becoming disturbingly common; wit is being replaced with violence and repeated gags and phrases. The Tooth Will Out and Baby Sitters Jitters are poorly directed and mirthless, but, thankfully, there are still gems: Hula La La breaks the code and is one of the most original of all the Stooge shorts (a rare one of this period that doesn’t go by the book), and Malice In The Palace ranks with the best Stooges offerings of all time. Try not to crack up when the restaurant-owning Stooges supposedly serve up some “sliced dog and cat” to a pair of Arabian aristocrats.

Volume 7, 1952-1954: Bigger trouble in Stoogeland. Even more budget cuts forced the team to remake shorts from both the Curly and Shemp eras, and a lot of them are pretty much a waste of time. For instance, Rip Sew & Stitch is an almost note-for-note remake of the earlier, funnier Sing A Song Of Six Pants with just a couple of scenes re-shot. Few film fans or distributors noticed the cost cutting at the time – most theaters, at this point, were showing fewer and fewer shorts to begin with. There are laughs here with the western spoof Shot In The Frontier and in Shemp trying to install a TV antenna in Goof On The Roof, but things are getting sloppy and sad. The witless Pardon My Backfire is all new, but all unfunny, and Shemp and Moe are starting to look very old. Saddest of all, Shemp’s starting to look very, very tired.

Volume 8, 1955-1959: It’s all over but the slapping for the troupe; Shemp (the first 16 shorts here, again mostly remakes) suddenly dies, and is replaced by veteran comic Joe Besser for the trio’s final 16 efforts, after which Columbia shuts down its shorts division forever. Even the supporting players aren’t good; long gone are Stooge legends Duke York, Dickerson, Symona Boniface, Vernon Dent, and Christine McIntyre. Hardy and versatile player Emil Sitka helps, but other roles are filled by actors like the insipid Frank Sully, who delivers astoundingly awful performances. During the Besser shorts, Moe and Larry seem to be trying too hard, gesturing and overacting like madmen, probably realizing their new fat foil wasn’t up to the task. Besser, to his credit, was much more likable and funny working with Joey Bishop and Abbott & Costello; he simply seems out of place here. Still, two horse-themed shorts bring a few laughs, but Quiz Whizz, Outer Space Jitters, and the final Stooge short, Sappy Bullfighters, are as bad as any movies ever released by a major motion picture studio. As a Stooge fan that wanted to complete his collection, I purchased this set, but of the eight, this is the hardest to recommend.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia for my youth, waking up to watch a single Popeye cartoon and a Stooge short before heading off to school. Maybe it’s longing for a simpler time. Maybe, secretly, there’s a desire to bop my employer over the head with a lead pipe just to hear the beautiful steely “KONK!” sound. Whatever the reason, these lovingly remastered, low-priced collections are perfect for anyone who ever loved The Three Stooges. And how I do dearly love them.

I believe that after all these years, I’ve figured out the reasons why. Moe, Curly, and Shemp Howard, as well as Larry Fine, Joe Besser, and Joe DeRita (the last Curly replacement), never became millionaires from acting as most of today’s film stars do. However, even as an old man before his death in 1975, Moe always was trying to find ways to keep the Stooges going. He reportedly was going to team with DeRita and Sitka even after Larry could no longer go on. One gets the feeling that if Moe were alive today at 113 years old, he’d still be a member of The Three Stooges. From all accounts, Moe Howard, the brains of the group in real life as well as on-screen, loved what he did, every moment, every poke, every pie fight, and every slap. A magazine article printed just before Moe’s death reported that the elderly comedian saw a child in a store, and at that moment, he became a Stooge again, delighting the kid with impromptu, crazy antics. Moe Howard was born to be a Stooge. If someone loves what he does that much, he’s got soul and heart, and those are attributes too few of today’s entertainers possess.

But I think it all really boils down to this: When a Stooges scene shifts to a hotel, and to let you know, a sign is shown with the name “Hotel Costa Plente,” I still laugh like a hyena. Yeah, those corny old men still crack me up.

May their heirs be richly blessed, every one of them. Dare I say, few people on this earth have given this writer more pure joy than The Three Stooges. May they poke, slap, gouge, and woo-woo-woo till the end of time. And if you don’t get to the store to pick up these beautiful DVD collections, well, you’re just a knucklehead.

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The Greatest True Statements Ever Bein’ Gave

A few months back, we favored you with a bunch of words and phrases that we believe have never and will never be uttered by human beings. In this edition, we bring you a collection of statements and phrases that – scout’s honor – have actually been either overheard, reported, said to us, or written and actually printed. There’s some real song lyrics and other oddities reported here for lilt as well. WARNING: There is some “adult” language here, so if you’re easily offended, now’s the time to bail.

“You know, that son of a bitch…you try to teach the god damn kids right from wrong, and this is what happens, god damn it.”
– A frustrated Little League father complaining about an umpire’s bad call

“I wanted to quit smoking, so every time I get the urge for a cigarette, I reach for some coke. Helps me lose weight, too.”
– A very bad female date of one of ours

Now offered for sale at places like CafePress.com and GulfCoastBands.com, perfect for the debonair ladies’ man in your life: T-shirts with statements such as “Bitch – It Won’t Suck Itself” (see photo).

“None of your business. I will kill you.”
– A trucker to this writer, asking why he was delivering milk and dairy products in an un-refrigerated delivery truck

“We’re going to have the greatest concerts ever bein’ gave.”
– A crackpot concert promoter on a phone answering machine in an infamous underground comedy tape

“If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fuckin’ mouth.”
– Raymond to Peter in another infamous underground comedy CD culled from actually sticking a tape recorder microphone through a screaming alcoholic neighbor’s wall, “Shut Up Little Man!”

“Get fucked, Texas slut!”
– A chant directed at a blonde woman being jeered by an entire section of fans at Yankee Stadium for wearing a Texas Rangers cap during a playoff game (when the woman complained to a security officer, he joined in the chant)

“You’re nothing but a big bullshit. I want my god damn tape recorder!”
– Woman complaining to a Long Island Radio Shack employee that her tape recorder didn’t work

“You stupid instable.”
– God bless him, a relative of one of ours

“The Beatles ruined this country and all the kids in it.”
– Man buying an Ernest Tubb cassette in a Poughkeepsie, New York Record World store, 1981

“Jesus Christ, everywhere you look nowadays.”
– A vending machine rack jobber, filling a gumball machine; the brand of gum on the machine featured a photo of an African-American woman

“Where’s all the douche bags at?”
– An actual female customer in an upstate New York drug store

“To our seniors, I have a message for you: You’re going to die sooner.”
– Sen. Tom Coburn (R- Okla.), scaring old people before health care reform passed

“Hey, this kid could be the Mets’ center fielder for the next 10 years.”
– Former baseball player – and former baseball commentator – Fran Healy, summing up New York Mets rookie Jason Tyner. To date, Tyner has been up-and-down from the minors to the majors, and played 440 games for four teams over eight seasons, and has been released or waived several times

“The rule states that if your team is here and ready to play, and the other team isn’t here and not ready to play, there should be a forfeit, and we believe there should be a forfeit.”
– Classy New York Yankees president Randy Levine, upset that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays weren’t in New York for a baseball game – the day after devastating hurricanes in Florida in 2004

“That mines? That MINES?”
– A refined apparently homeless gentleman lunging for a shopping bag dropped in Times Square in 1991

“Tar baby! Tar baby!”
– Professional wrestling manager Lou Albano, shouting at African-American wrestler S.D. Jones – during a televised match, no less, circa 1974

More T-shirts we’ve actually seen people wear:
“I Fucked Your Girlfriend” (seen at a baseball game)
“I Made Linda Lovelace Choke”
“Ho” (worn by a teenaged girl)

Real Statements That Have Been Printed On Panties:
Baby, This Is As Far As You Go
Never On Sunday
Heaven (with an arrow pointing toward the crotch)
Sweet As Honey
Juicy
Fuck Time
Here Comes The Bride
You Wish
Yummy Mummy

“What sizes does this medium fit?”
– Buyer at a country music concert T-shirt concession

“Standing in line marking time–
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old ladies’ eyes
Just for fun he says “Get a job”
– “The Way It Is,” the 1986 hit by Bruce Hornsby, which, in a pop songwriting first, rhymes “job” with “job”

“Next time I fall in love
I’ll know better what to do
Next time I fall in love
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo”
– Peter Cetera’s “The Next Time I Fall,” which rhymes “do” and “ooo,” which makes Hornsby’s songwriting prowess seem like Shakespeare

“I don’t want you reading those books. They give you ideas.”
– Numerous husbands to wives since, say, 1940, in Greene County, NY

“The only good Latin is a dead Latin.”
– Professional wrestling manager, the aptly named “Classy” Freddie Blassie, in a statement actually said on television

“If I wore pink ferrets for slippers, I would never – ever – want to clean another ashtray.”
– From the Survey Central website (surveycentral.org)

“What are your dogs’ names again … Kierkegaarde and Ed Asner?”
– Said by Robert Smith after he met his eventual wife’s dogs, which were actually named Kodi and Spooky

“Ooh! I tooted.”
– Said by a very large female convenience store clerk after she let go of a very pronounced fart, Norfolk, Virginia, 2007

JUST ADDED!

“Warning: Driver Masturbating”

– Bumper sticker spotted on a car in Westbury, NY, June 28

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What if you could (fill in the blank)?

by Jon Pine

I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite movies might all fall into the category of “What-If” Films – films with highly conceptual themes, usually comedies, that generally turn reality on its head. They explore philosophical and spiritual ambiguities, with a liberal dose of irony, but do so with a light hand, thus avoiding one of the cardinal rules of comedy: Thou shalt not be overly preachy.

Jon Pine

“Groundhog Day” is one of those films. What if a shallow, arrogant and cynical weatherman found himself stuck in a podunk town, forced to live the same day again and again, covering the same podunk “human interest story” over and over until he learns that the true meaning of love and life is to be selfless?

Then there’s “Sliding Doors,” an overlooked gem of a film in which the story of a fired PR professional literally diverges into two wildly different scenarios – each showing what might have happened to her depending on how she reacted to a split-second circumstance of fate.

In one of my favorite Woody Allen films, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a dashing depression-era movie character literally comes off the screen to rescue a young audience member from her miserable life and abusive husband. But then the actor, concerned that his come-to-life character might ruin his career, comes to town with a tough lesson: Real life ain’t like it is in the movies.

More recently there is “The Invention of Lying,” a fable set in a world where lying simply does not exist – until one man tells his dying mother a small fib just to ease her suffering a little. One lie leads to another and another until we, the audience, realize that our entire existence relies upon the little lies we tell ourselves all the time.

And then there are the bizarre, darker fantasies imagined by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: In “Being John Malkovich” he explores what it might be like to actually get inside the mind of another human being, if only for 15 minutes at a time – after which you are unceremoniously dumped in a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman exposes a fantasy we’ve probably all had at one time or another: What if you could completely erase the memory of an ex-lover who has caused you deep pain?

Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti in "Cold Souls."

Falling somewhere in the middle is a wonderful bit of existential (or is it anti-existential?) escapism called “Cold Souls,” written and directed by first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthes. It is now available on DVD, but not yet on Bluray. The idea, Barthes says, was sparked by a dream she had in which she was standing in line at a doctor’s office, right behind Woody Allen, each of them holding containers with their souls inside, to be examined by the doctor.

Initially, she intended to expand the dream into a screenplay for Allen – no stranger to “What-If” comedies himself – but a chance meeting with actor Paul Giamatti convinced her to write the script with him in mind instead – not only as the lead actor, but also as the lead character. Hence, “Cold Souls” opens on Paul Giamatti, the actor, playing a character named Paul Giamatti, also an actor, rehearsing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya.”

But something is impeding Giamatti’s ability to nail the part. No matter how deep he reaches, he can’t summon enough of the character to breathe life into his stage performance. To a writer, this would be called writer’s block; to an actor, it is equally as crippling.

After struggling for a while with this dilemma, Giamatti’s agent tells him about a ground-breaking doctor who has discovered a way to actually extract the soul from the human body, thus freeing the person from the encumbrances of, well, you know – pesky little annoyances like conscience and feelings. This might be just what he needs, the agent says, so he can be free to concentrate on his acting.

Giamatti is the perfect choice for this character, and of course, for the actor. His droopy, hangdog look and edgy, forlorn demeanor encapsulate the very essence of one who is – dare I say it? – soul-weary. Not just on stage, but in his home life with his wife (Emily Watson), and out with friends –  not quite sad, but certainly not as happy as he would like to be. He seeks a change, but he’s not sure what sort of change he’s after.

Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn) shows Paul Giamatti a freshly extracted soul.

It is here that the story really takes off. Without giving too much away, Giamatti reluctantly makes an appointment to see David Flinstein, the soul-extracting doctor, played by Daniel Strathairn. After the extraction Giamatti finds that perhaps having no soul, while it is certainly freeing, may be worse than having a sick soul. But when he goes back to the institute to reverse the extraction, he learns that his soul is missing – “We probably shipped it to our New Jersey warehouse by mistake.” (Poor New Jersey seems to be the butt of jokes in several of my favorite “What-If” films!)

The plot twists and turns around an array of quirky characters: The members of an international “soul trafficking ring”; a Russian “mule” who has transported so many black market souls she no longer has the capacity for one of her own; a factory worker with the soul of a Russian poet; and a vacuous soap opera star who believes acquiring the soul of American actor Al Pacino will make her a better actress.

The laughs, while they don’t come fast and furious, are deeply satisfying nonetheless – some running gags with chickpeas, a confrontation with the Russian leader of the soul-trafficking ring, and even just the sight of Giamatti in a big furry Russian hat will make you laugh.

But beyond the laughs are the deeper questions that haunt all of us. What is a soul, and where does it really reside – in the heart, the head, or somewhere else? How much of our happiness depends on the health of our souls? And the question that has challenged scholars and theologians for centuries: What happens to our souls when we die?

While it’s fun to fantasize about ditching your soul for a more exciting model, there are always consequences in these “What If” stories.  In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray reveled in an alternate universe where he could eat, drink and womanize with no consequences. But he also realized he was powerless to prevent the pain and death of those around him.

In “Purple Rose,” Mia Farrow chooses real life over fantasy, and finds crushing disappointment in both.

In “Being John Malkovich,” John Cusack learns he can inhabit Malkovich’s mind long enough to get the girl – but since the girl really doesn’t love him, he is doomed to an eternal prison from which he is forced to stare at the object of his affection – just out of reach – for eternity.

And in “Cold Souls,” Paul Giamatti learns pretty quickly that the soul on the other side of the fence is not necessarily greener. But more importantly, he learns, as we all eventually do, that happiness is a stacked emotion, the result not of taking something the other guy seems to have, but of, little by little, layer by layer, making something out of what you have.

And that’s just about as preachy as I’m going to get with this review.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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Die, Newspapers, Die

By ROBERT SMITH

They’re at it again.

In yet another attempt at cheap heat directed toward the dumbest of sports fans, the once-great Chicago Tribune – founded in 1847 and the place where Roger Ebert has penned some of the best film reviews ever written – printed this photo as a full-page poster, ostensibly to get local fans riled up for an upcoming Chicago Blackhawks versus Philadelphia Flyers NHL Stanley Cup Finals game.

This, of course, is a blatant rip-off and complete steal from last fall’s now-infamous New York Post cover that lampooned the Philadelphia Phillies, who had the unmitigated nerve to serve as the National League opponents of the New York Yankees in the World Series. Wait a moment: Aren’t there female baseball and hockey fans?

Journalism, we hardly knew you, particularly in the sports section.

Years ago, there was a weathercaster named Tim Welch, who worked at a television station in Albany, New York, who gave the shortest and most profound summation of his job as a TV journalist: “We’re not here to hurt, we’re not here to help. We’re here to report.”

Unfortunately, it’s easy to assume that Welch is in another line of work by now. Today’s newspapers, even in large markets such as New York and Chicago, have decided to become pom-pom waving cheerleaders for their area’s sports teams, but that’s only part of the problem. Instead of printing “Let’s Go Whoever” color posters in their papers, they’re printing name-calling, bullying war cries instead. This, of course, is right up the alley for today’s beered-up louts that make attending a major sporting event akin to walking into Mugsy’s Pub in the worst part of town and calling the proprietor “you old fart.” Today, it’s not enough to root for your team – one must vilify the other squad, as if simply singing a contract with an out of town team makes a person evil beyond human redemption. Gee, we thought that’s what a .226 batting average did, but we’re old school.

Fox News is ruining television news, broadcast by broadcast, and now other newspapers are whiffing Rupert Murdoch’s fart stench and deciding it smells like roses. It’s easy to remember the days when periodicals like the Post would write the headline “Mets Nip Cubs 3-2” on the back of the dailies the morning after a game. Gee, somehow that would tell us all we needed to know, wouldn’t it? Now, headline writers come up with pith and pandering and jibes and insults, as if the punniest headline wins the tabloid booby prize. Whatever happened to simply letting readers know what the heck happened?

Currently, a bunch of tabloid newspapers in New York are having a field day with Debralee Lorenzana, who is reportedly suing Citigroup for allegedly firing her just for being too attractive and dressing in a manner some deemed inappropriate for the workplace. There have been editorial cartoons mocking and editorials ripping the beautiful brunette – and, of course, at the same time those same papers are printing as many sexy photos of her as they can get their exploitive mitts on.

As someone who tried to learn journalism, who yearned to learn style and syntax and skill, who tried, no matter what size publication I’ve worked for, to adhere to the highest standards that I could, I now say this to the newspaper industry: Go to blazes. Day after day, newspaper after tabloid, more publications are yellower than a canary’s butt, rife with factual errors and typos and pure hype. Columnists take sides instead of reporting; gossip lowers the human experience; sports pages, where there once were agate columns of batting averages and box scores, are now filled with name-calling and sordid locker room mongering. Small town newspapers are just as bad, but in a different way; they print only what their advertisers dictate. Trust me, I’ve been there.

It’s all over. As someone who used to pick up four newspapers a day and seek them out in any city I’ve traveled to, I’ve had enough. Editors are now just salesman, pandering to the dumbest of the dumb, scrounging for loose quarters like hobos on street corners. They’ll print anything at all as long as it creates self-promoting “news” about their own publications, instead of having faith in their readerships to covet, as Joe Friday once uttered on “Dragnet,” just the facts.

Years ago, the Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch made an error during the World Series. The next day, a local New York paper’s headline was “Blauchhead.”

Nope, that was I – for continuing to support an industry that no longer boasts even the lowest standards; they’re only in it for the money. And it’s not working; papers are closing up week by week, day by day.

May the printing presses slow and stop, one by one.

Robert Smith has been an editor and writer for … ahh, go look it up. Why should we print facts when no one else does?

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Filed under Current events, Entertainment, Journalism, Politics, Posts by Robert Smith, Sports, Uncategorized

… & It Really, Really Works

By ROBERT SMITH

Like Dan Aykroyd’s classic Irwin Mainway character in those classic early “Saturday Night Live” sketches, companies are always trying to put their hands in your pockets. It’s easy to be cynical in this Internet-driven, infomercial world, but sometimes – as rare as it might seem – some of the products sold though mass media can actually be decent. Amazingly, not every TV product is a get-rich-quick scheme, dubious male enhancement product, or “miracle” food preparation device.

The cheap plastic food prep stuff draws the biggest laughs from this corner. One of our infomercial shows on the airwaves these days concerns the Magic Bullet blender, a chopping/blending device so small that you practically have to pre-cut most every type of solid food that goes into it. So why not just keep going with the knife you used in the first place? We like a “full family meal” as much as the next guy, but cleaning our food processors and blenders doesn’t rank all that high on our list of problems.

While perusing the Rite-Aids and Walgreens of our neighborhood (frankly, those who order products directly from TV ads pay ridiculously inflated shipping and handling charges), in recent months we’ve become exceedingly bold and actually tried a handful of the products you see on the tube virtually every day. Miracle of miracles, some really, really work!

It all started with The George Foreman Grill and the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie; the makers of these excellent products deserve a tip of the cap for making goods that aren’t scams in the least, and they do what they are intended to do. Here are more recent products, all available through many brick-and-mortar stores no matter where you live, that are shockingly excellent:

The Swivel Sweeper G2: It works! This little mini-vacuum cleaner actually does a pretty fair job cleaning rugs and bare floors, and it’s so light that even kids and seniors can handle it with ease. The product has gotten even better recently with the addition of levers on the top of the canister that enable hands-free emptying of the dirt tray. Well worth the $40 or so you’ll pay for it (swivelsweeper.com).

MagicJack: It works! A recent sampling of MagicJack proved the service provided by this little plug contraption offers VOIP home phone service that’s as good (or better) than cable company phone services, and it’s a whole lot cheaper. Yes, you have to leave a computer on to use the phone or receive calls, but since the service includes voice mail, it’s virtually the same as using an answering machine. MagicJack’s faux “home shopping”-style infomerical is the worst such show for just about the best product available through TV. Go figure. However, those pondering switching from monthly phone service to MagicJack might want to give this a tumble; consider your lifestyle before making the move. Even Consumer Reports liked this device. (magicjack.com)

The Titan Peeler: It works! This sharp, well-constructed little slicer is one of the best ways to cut and slice vegetables we’ve ever tried, and it comes packaged with a versatile little mandolin board. This is a shockingly durable kitchen tool you’ll use for the rest of your life … uh oh; we’re starting to sound like Ron Popeil … (titanpeelersale.com)

UGlu Glue Strips: It works! A simple idea: Glue strips that peel off patches of fabric. This is such a good idea we’re shocked no one thought of it years ago. Actually, someone had; UGlu was available at hardware-type stores before some genius decided to make some splashy TV ads (getuglu.com).

Turbo Snake: It works! Another simple idea: Take a plumber’s snake and shrink it down to several inches long, and you get the idea of the Turbo Snake. This handy little contraption clears out clogged bathroom sinks far better and safer than toxic liquid drain cleaners, and it’s built to last. At about $10, this is the best buy of any of these products (buytheturbosnake.com).

HD Vision Ultra Sunglasses: It works! Well, we like’em, in both the wraparound and regular versions, but obviously these aren’t for everyone – just like no one kind of sunglasses are perfect for everyone’s particular vision needs. That being said, these are what we reach for first on bright, sunny days (buyhdvision.com).

TV Travails: Here’s a compendium of products told through television that you should at least think twice about: ShamWow (it’s … a towel); Invicta watches sold on ShopNBC (a D+ rating at The Better Business Bureau only begins to tell the story of the “quality” of these timepieces); any infomercial that looks sorta kinda like the Larry King show; any “health supplement” or exercise equipment sold via infomercials; and anything hawked by Kevin Trudeau – who actually has been banned from selling anything but books via infomercials and has been found guilty of credit card fraud, yet has reached the New York Times bestseller list a couple of times with titles such as Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About, despite warnings from groups such as The New York State Consumer Protection Board.

Thinking about that last one, we finally figured out how George W. Bush got elected to a second term.

We wouldn’t buy anything manufactured by Robert Smith.

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Filed under Current events, Entertainment, Humor, Journalism, Posts by Robert Smith, Television, Uncategorized