Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “A Few Good Scouts”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

For reasons that are probably obvious, a certain sketch from The Ben Stiller Show has been on my mind today.

Since I have previously written about precisely why this sketch — and everything from the one and only season of The Ben Stiller Show — delights me so, I will let the splendid parody speak for itself.

Beers I Have Known: Asheville Brewing Company Perfect Day IPA

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

perfect day

I probably haven’t given quite enough credit to Asheville for giving me back the pleasure of beer. Over fifteen years ago, I moved from Wisconsin — where beer is practically dropped into the bassinets of hospital maternity wards — to Florida. The Sunshine State had many welcome compensations, led by an escape from abusive blizzards. Good beer — merely palatable beer, even — was dreadfully difficult to come by, though.

I had all but given up on having a well-stocked fridge when I moved to the lovely mountain town on the western side of North Carolina. But when I asked my new fellow citizens about the must-visit places as I became acquainted with Asheville, the upstart craft breweries were mentioned over and over again. Having been to a brew pub or two, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I did not.

I had occasional to walk those highly sloped streets again in recent days, and the beer scene has only grown, itself a remarkable occurrence since it already seemed to have been closing in on the saturation point when I moved away just two not-so-short years ago. I wish I could have explored more, and a woozy tourist tour is undoubtedly in my future. Instead, I mostly stuck with mainstays, those beers I knew would make me happy, even as the took a meat tenderizer to my strained liver.

That glass of Perfect Day IPA, one of the gems of Asheville Brewing Company, was just as good as I expected it to be. Thanks again to my favorite cesspool of sin.

From the Archive: Real Genius

real genius

Here is another of the short reviews I wrote for the “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of The Reel Thing, aired during the sweltering season of 1991. Looking at this review now, I’m struck by how little I actually wrote about a movie that was a heavy repeat-viewing favorite among my friend group. I feel like I owe director Martha Coolidge and her uncommonly smart comedy another pass.

When Real Genius came out in the summer of 1985, it was amidst a glut of comedies with a scientific twist. Weird Science, My Science Project, and Creator all saw release at around the same time. But Real Genius was the only one that really deserved to enjoy some summertime success.

The film stars Val Kilmer as an offbeat, slightly frazzled but ultimately brilliant college student who joins his colleagues in developing an ultra-powerful laser. They’re elated by their discovery until they find out that their invention is going to be used to create weaponry for the U.S. government. The film presents a fascinating group of students who interact on the college campus and really has fun with the students’ abilities to use their scientific knowledge to create excellent parties; turning dorm hallways into toboggan chutes may be the most notable trick.

Val Kilmer delivers his most likable performance in the lead role, capturing every bit of his character’s goofy charm. Even when the film isn’t wildly funny or particularly challenging, it’s still filled with enough good spirits to make for a highly enjoyable venture.

One for Friday: Freelance Hellraiser, “A Stroke of Genius”

xtina strokes

So, in my digital collection, I have a couple versions of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” Sort of, anyway.

I’m not sure if mash-up artists have an abiding weakness for the first chart-topper from the young woman who would go on to star in Burlesque and refine gentle diva-dom on The Voice. Maybe it’s actually me who embarrassingly swoons a little any time Aguilera’s vocal track is laid atop the music of some mainstay single of college rock coolness. As I conceded earlier this year when I shared a track dubbed “Dirty Bottle,” when this particular set of sung lyrics is laid atop music that tickles my inner being, I find it fairly irresistible.

“A Stroke of Genius” (which I sometimes see styles as “A Stroke of Genie-us,” but come on) melds Aguilera’s vocal track with the downbeat layered guitar shuffle of the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain.” Crafted by the remix artist Freelance Hellraiser, it’s flat-out perfect.

By now, we should be living in a world that’s interconnected enough for an enterprising promoter or program producer to see to it that this derivation of song gets recreated live on stage by the proper artists. That’s not to much to ask, is it?

Listen or download –> Freelance Hellraiser, “A Stroke of Genius”

(Disclaimer: As I noted previously, I believe the very nature of this track means it is made for sharing, with the artist who created it — albeit not the artists who created the material he used to create it — unable by copyright law to collect royalties on it. I think. Unless he cleared things with the original creators at some point. It’s all too confusing, really. So I’ll just make my usual statement about a willingness to promptly and happily remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual of entity with due authority to make such a request. And then I will quietly recede, capped by a close parenthesis.)

The Art of the Sell: The Big Sick

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

big sick
I believe this image originated with the Los Angeles Times.

I’m planning to get to my review of The Big Sick tomorrow. As a precursor, I want to offer a commendation to the sales pitch that’s led up to and accompanied the release of the comedy penned by spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. In this, I don’t mean the sorts of more traditional promotional materials. The movie poster is mediocre at best, and the trailer isn’t much better.

Instead, those behind The Big Sick — led by Nanjiani and Gordon — have done an amazing job of using every other avenue at their disposal to tell the compelling story behind the film. Nanjiani and Gordon have seemingly been everywhere together, proving effortlessly engaging on podcasts, public radio staples, and in venerable outposts of celebrity celebration. That part of the campaign has been accompanied by the pair’s expert use of their respective social media presences, marked by effusive fan interaction and joyful wonder at the new world they find themselves in.

If there’s another recent instance of a film’s marketing campaign being simultaneously so ubiquitous and yet earnestly genial — defined by a humble gratitude that never feels calculated —  I can’t recall it. By the time The Big Sick made it to my town, I’d developed a rooting interest in it, as if it were crafted by a family member or a lifelong friend. Maybe that was someone’s devious plan all along. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter. Held up agains the bludgeoning insistence of other marketing campaigns, the affection I feel for The Big Sick — and the people who made it — is a lovely feeling.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Now Playing: War for the Planet of the Apes


As with its immediate predecessors, I admire the franchise film War for the Planet of the Apes for attempting to instill weightier themes into its high-concept hook. Also in accordance with the other offerings since the reboot was rebooted — Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — the new film isn’t quite as profound or moving as it aspires to be.

When War for the Planet of the Apes begins, the hyper-evolved simians led by a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis, continuing his reign as the master of motion capture acting) are still holding down their outpost in the woods, despite the fervent efforts of a human military unit led by a fuming figure known mainly as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). While Caesar insists he wants only peace — sparing a group of human soldiers who were taken captive after a battle, for example — his patience for detente is sorely tested when a raid on the ape camp leaves some of his loved ones dead. In a heartbreaking moment, vengeance asserts its appeal.

And the plot moves along with assurance if not urgency. There are unique twists here and there, but too much of the narrative is rigid enough to repel any deeper emotional attachment.  Perhaps the key example of this is a traveling cadre of simian soldiers becoming caretakers of a young human girl (Amiah Miller). What’s presumably meant to provide another layer of feeling to the proceedings — to up the stakes — instead feels mechanical, a way to set up the casting of a name twenty-something actress in a fourth installment someday.

About the only addition that makes a notable impression is the introduction of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee chimpanzee who has the same facility for speech as Caesar, though equipped with a more limited vocabulary (which smartly align’s with the character’s history). In that instance, the main appeal is the comic relief the character provides, a highly welcome development in otherwise grim proceedings. Even the positive element calls attention to the clicking motors of the storytelling.

Director Matt Reeves – who handled the same duties on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — knows how to balance his visuals between the blessedly straightforward and grandly striking. He also manages to drive home the highly cynical themes about the ugliness of organized humanity without lapsing into the didactic. It’s not every summer blockbuster that’s going to include the sight of militarized Americans engaged in vicious oppression while “The Star Spangled Banner” plays over tinny speakers. I can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes has a backbone.

But I also can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes left me a little cold. It offers a reminder that injecting franchise filmmaking with heated intent doesn’t automatically stretch sturdy bridges over the built-in pitfalls of a cinematic corner more hungry for dollars than art.

Martin Landau: 1928 – 2017


In describing his approach to acting, Martin Landau once employed a story about a drunk and a sculptor. In Landau’s recounting, the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on a statue of elephant. In order to get the drunk to stop pestering him in the middle of his intricate work, the sculptor agrees to share the secret of crafting such a piece of art. The artist explains the process: get a large, square chunk of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

“I chip away everything that doesn’t look like the character,” concluded Landau.

When I started reviewing movies, at the very beginning of the nineteen-nineties, Landau was on quite a roll. Only a decade earlier, he was getting by on acting jobs in the likes of the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. A committed working actor in his sixties — and without movie star cachet — he wasn’t totally free from wince-inducing projects, but he also had a couple recent Oscar nominations in his pocket. It was an impressive late-career resurgence for an actor who’d been around long enough that his first major film role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Tall and stately, he was called upon to play serious men: doctors and judges and gravely worried fathers. Underneath that simmering seriousness, there was one deeper, truer unifying quality to his myriad of performances, one clear piece of Landau’s self that was there for those who looked closely enough. He clearly loved what he was doing, and acting sparked with his contained but constant invention.

And he could transform a whole narrative with his relentless quest for emotional truth in his performances. Notably, he met Woody Allen’s offer to play Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors by explaining to the revered writer-director that his conception of the character was off. Landau felt the character was written as a hard-nosed villain and that Judah should instead be sympathetic, so that the audience could understand why he committed his morally bereft acts even as they found the infractions appalling. Allen hired Landau that day.

Landau explained how the collaboration shifted from there:

And about two weeks into the shooting, he came up to me and said, “You know when I wrote it, I didn’t quite see him as sympathetically or as sensitively played as you’re doing it. But I think it’s better, and I want to thank you.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a completely different film absent Landau’s adjustment to the central character. That performance delivered him his second Academy Award nomination.

It was the performance that nabbed Landau’s third Oscar nomination that most vividly exhibited the joy in the craft I mentioned above. As Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau takes a part that could easily be played as little more than a flinty stunt — and still be an effective and enjoyable performance — and infuses it with depths of feeling, giving a funny, mildly spoof-spun film a welcome vein of pathos. For his efforts, Landau finally claimed an Oscar statuette, one of the most deserving acting wins of the past twenty-five years.

Although I betrayed a disdainful view of some of the projects Landau had to sign up for over the years, one of the things I respected about him was the way he didn’t really seem to adopt the same harsh judgment of material that was, by many reasonable measures, inferior. Every part was an opportunity, a gift, an avenue to potential wonderment. He plied his trade at a time when an increasing range of entertainment options — especially on television — could allow him to play an actor bringing varied strategies to a theater audition, twin brothers mixed up in a murder case (in an episode of Columbo that includes a cooking demo that stretches to several minutes), and a starship commander.

No matter the role, Landau approached it with respect, which lent a dignity to practically everything he did. He believed in what he was doing, which helped the audience shift into agreement with that outlook, no matter the built-in shortcomings of the role or the piece that held it. Landau did the work to make that happen. He chipped away.