Bird, Coon and Skousen, Garrone, Huston, Paradisi

Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015). There’s nobility in Brad Bird’s oft-stated aspiration to use Tomorrowland to reanimate the futuristic optimism of his youth, countering the long meander into an endless procession of sci-fi dystopias. Intent is one thing. Execution is quite another. Bird’s second outing as a director of live-action features is a muddled, overbearing squawk of condescending nonsense that too often barrels headlong into disastrous inane storytelling choices. As a grizzled, grumpy outcast of a once-proud secret nation of innovators, George Clooney is in the mode of hammy, insistent twitches that rightly earned him derision when he made his initial attempt at leveraging ER stardom into a big, impressive movie career. Bird aims for Spielbergian wonder and gentle, approachable quirk (a scene featuring Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key as proprietors of a deceptive nostalgia shop smacks of the colorful busyness that defined eighties films under the broader Spielberg brand), but only winds up illustrating how difficult it is to pull off.

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 2015). Years ago, Jim Windolf wrote an article for Vanity Fair that is a pure delight. It detailed the quest of a few boys, middle schoolers at first, to craft a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A documentary on the same subject should be a natural, with the amateur footage providing its own argument about the thrill of creation. Instead, it winds up a fitfully effective entertainment, mostly because co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen choose to frame their documentary around an attempt by the now grown-up fledgling filmmakers shoot the one sequence that sat too far beyond their youthful reach. Kids banging around their basement to replicate a Hollywood blockbuster is fun. A middle-aged guy having an agonizing phone conversation with his fuming boss to take one more half-day off of work for a vanity project is far less so. Raiders! is best when it keeps its focus firmly retrospective.

The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). Best known as the final completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (and essentially the last significant screen work by Montgomery Clift), The Misfits is more than a mere curiosity. Written by Arthur Miller (married to Monroe at the time, though the relationship was splintering), the film delivers the agonizing, downtrodden lives of people who can’t find their footing in mid-twentieth-century America, as mores were rapidly changing and whole ways of life were drifting away like clouds of desert dust. Miller’s writing has a aching poignancy and brutish honestly to it, and director John Huston handles the material with characteristic empathy and clarity, even though his senses were notoriously dulled by the ample opportunities for decadent excess available in Nevada. All the actors are very strong, with Thelma Ritter delivers an especially jagged and enjoyable performance as a longtime Las Vegas resident who has taken Monroe’s divorcing beauty under her wounded wing.

The Visitor (Giulio Paradisi, 1979). This is the sort of wild-eyed science fiction-horror hybrid that could only burble to life in the feverish incubator of the late nineteen-seventies.  Adopting the more approachable and yet ridiculous billing of Michael J. Paradise to not unduly jar U.S. audiences, director Giulio Paradisi works here with the ever-nutty Egyptian filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis (who’d take co-writing and co-directing credits a couple years later on Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s directorial debut). The Visitor delves into bizarre mythologies involving outer space forces that occasionally plant a demonic being on planet Earth to wreak havoc. In this instance, it’s a little girl named Katy, (Paige Connor) introduced in the film by exploding a basketball hoop during a close game involving the fictional Atlanta Rebels, owned by a man (Lance Henriksen) who’s evidently cultivating the powers of the girl for a boardroom of shadowy executives in exchange for NBA glory. That’s only the beginning of loopy invention, with Katy increasingly terrorizing her mother (Joanne Nail) and snarling at the blowsy housekeeper (two-time Academy Award winner Shelley Winters) with a keen eye for the devilry afoot. Still, I need to admit the movie is packed full of things I’ve never quite seen before, like a car crash that leaves the occupant trapped instead the flaming vehicle because it got burrito-wrapped in the chain link fence when it went careening off the road.

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015). All right, so full-on narrative craziness can take hold around thirty-five years later, too. Matteo Garrone delivers his first English language film with this adaptation of fairy tales written by Giambattista Basile. Interspersed with each other, the different stories land with varying degrees of success, depending in part of the skill levels of the players Garrone has recruited. “The Two Old Women,” for example, might rush to a satisfyingly gruesome punchline, but the wholly characteristic drowsiness of Vincent Cassel in a key role is bound to blunt the story’s progression. In contrast, Garrone judged wisely with “The Flea,” as Toby Jones is perfectly equipped to highlight the ickiness and pathos that both reside there. Tale of Tales may be something of a mess, but it’s an admirably fearless mess.

 

 

 

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 118 – 116

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118. The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Just Like Honey”

“People don’t realize you can make much better records our way,” Jim Reid insisted, back in 1985. “A good record is a good record. What difference does it make how you get it? I realize you can make a good record going through the same process that others have done in the past, but it’s not vital.” Appropriately for a band whose music rattled the senses with abrasive pop lushness, the Jesus and Mary Chain always thrived on that sort of concerted contradiction. The group, led by brothers Jim and William Reid, threaded their songs with ear-clawing sonics, but truly believed they were destined to become the biggest rock stars in the world, playing arenas across the planet. While there would prove to be a long, lucrative career is forging cult hero identities in the alternative music world of the nineteen-eighties, at the time the band’s energized but modest fan base must have felt like a constant shortfall given the Reid brothers’ shared aspirations. Still, there were signs that certain tracks resonated in a unique way. “Just Like Honey,” a single from the band’s 1985 debut, Psychocandy, was the prime example. “It hit home pretty quick, that song,” Jim Reid later said. “This was during a time where there would be riots at Jesus and Mary Chain shows. There would be people knocking seven kinds of shit out of each other and then we’d start playing ‘Just Like Honey,’ and people would stop for a couple of minutes and it would be like ‘Ah, isn’t that nice.’ And then we’d start playing ‘The Living End,’ and it would be back to the baseball bats again.” The single became so firmly representative of the band’s early success that they alluded to it in the title of their 1992 album, Honey’s Dead, in an artistic insistence on putting the past behind them. While many associate “Just Like Honey” with a certain swooning romanticism — a perception bolstered mightily by its expert deployment in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation — the song, like many in the Jesus and Mary Chain catalog, is about drugs instead of love. By all reckoning, cocaine is the substance holding a simile-stated correlation to the sweet byproduct of bees’ daily business.

 

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117. JoBoxers, “Just Got Lucky”

Thanks to their suspenders-and-newsboy-cap style choices and loping pop sound, the British new wave band endured a flood of comparisons to Dexys Midnight Runners around the time their debut album, Like Gangbusters, landed, in 1983. They recoiled from that admittedly reductive association at the time, though they eventually came around to it, claiming they’d always liked Kevin Rowland’s band. It was another entirely different pop culture icon who amusing figured into the creation of “Just Got Lucky,” JoBoxers’ second single and sole Top 40 hit in the U.S. According to lead singer Dig Wayne, he wrote “Just Got Lucky” with bassist Chris Bostock, pulling the title from his notebook of jotted down phrases that he thought sounded like the stuff of pop songs. He drew some of the lyrics from outside sources, as well, including the memorable opening line of the song, which came from the lithe beloved of a certain sailor man. “The first line was ‘Your technique leaves me weak,’ which I got from an old Popeye cartoon,” Wayne later said. “Olive Oyl said it to Popeye. I thought, ‘That is a good rhyme. I’ll have to use it someday.’ And I did. Every time I hear ‘Just Got Lucky,’ I think of Popeye!” Though “Just Got Lucky” was the band’s second straight Top 10 song in the U.K., they faded fairly quickly after that, a trajectory the various members chalked up as a common too-much-too-soon phenomenon. “I do believe that any band that goes into the Top 5 with their first single has a hard time creating a lasting career,” Wayne said years later. “Where is there to go?”

 

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116. Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy”

It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Prince’s Purple Rain dominated pop culture upon its release, in the summer of 1984. The movie was a hit in its own right, opening atop the box office, briefly knocking Ghostbusters from that perch. (The comedy regained the top position the following weekend and stayed there for seven straight weeks.) It was the soundtrack that became a true sensation. Purple Rain, which doubled as Prince’s sixth studio album, hit #1 on the Billboard album chart the first week of August. It didn’t relinquish that position until the following year, ceding the top to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. on the chart dated January 19, 1985. In some ways, the chart path of “Let’s Go Crazy” is a good indicator of just how swell things for going for Prince at the time. Released as the second single from Purple Rain, “Let’s Go Crazy” debuted at #45 on the singles chart on the same week that lead single “When Doves Cry” was enjoying its fifth straight week at #1. Within a few weeks more, “Let’s Go Crazy” was Prince’s second straight chart-topper. While the Purple One was beset by criticism for his salacious lyrics elsewhere on the record (the hotel lobby activities enjoyed by a periodical-toting girl named Nikki was one of the main affronts on decency cited by the Parents Music Resource Center in their crusade against naughty lyrics), “Let’s Go Crazy” was a reflection if his deeply spiritual side, though he felt compelled to keep it somewhat veiled. “I had to change those words up, but ‘de-elevator’ was Satan,” Prince explained in a later interview. “I had to change those words up ’cause you couldn’t say ‘God’ on the radio. ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was God to me. Stay happy, stay focused, and you can beat the de-elevator.”

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Flashback Friday – 1981

I realize this weekend, I should ideally share an old review of one of the first Harry Potter films, but I barely ever put fingers to keys in service of analyzing those blockbusters. (At the risk of incurring the wrath of several of my friends, I’ll assert here that only one of the installments in the franchise is a satisfying film that stands as anything other than a glossy, moving companion memento to the books.) Instead, I’ll dig into the stretch of pieces from my formal digital home that were posted under the umbrella of “Flashback Fridays.” A friend of mine provided a welcome diversion this week in challenging folks to rank the first nine R.E.M. albums. Taken with yesterday’s release of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Out of Time (I am ever so old) and Michael Stipe suggesting he might be ready to make music again, it seems appropriate to revisit this little exercise in nostalgia.

1981: “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M. is released

What was it like to listen to that single during the summer of 1981? It couldn’t have gotten out to that many people. I doubt it was sent around to wide array of college radio stations operating back then, but a few surely must have gotten it. It undoubtedly made its way to WUOG, the student-populated broadcast outlet there in Athens, Georgia. Hell, Peter Buck could have taken a break from slingin’ comics to hand deliver the 45. Was there anyone who played it with the foresight to predict the success to come?

It’s a great song, maybe as good as a debut single can be, but it’s an overly romantic notion to think that a first listen to it, with no idea of who this band was, could stir someone into thinking, say, “This record is going to be considered an important part of music history someday.” But the three-and-a-half minutes contained on that thin slab did represent something special beyond its own innate quality. It was the crazy catchy opening shot of a climb to a certain brand of chart dominance, one that was, if not quite unprecedented, certainly unique enough from the traditional route that started with commercial radio airplay that it was worth noticing. They may not have been blazing a trail, but they were certainly help clear away the foliage to make the path wider.

Through the eighties, R.E.M. absolutely dominated college radio, and their ascendancy was mirrored by the medium itself. College radio went from kids goofing around and playing their favorite records for a handful of listeners that were mostly comprised of their friends to, well, pretty much the same thing, but with greater attention from the powers that be. College radio programmers weren’t exactly taste-makers, but record execs were scrutinizing the charts in publications like CMJ or even tracking the playlists of a few select stations to figure out which songs, albums and performers might have a chance of appealing to a wide enough audience to turn those vinyl records into gold or even platinum. It’s a process that arguably peaked with the colossal success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the early nineties.

And there it began, with that humble little record. It starts with the same sort of otherworldly, bending sounds that initiate the “Martian Hop” by The Ran-Dells, but rather than an intergalactic goof, the song transitions with a few sharp strikes of Billy Berry’s drum to a easy yet propulsive rock song that sounds like an earthier version of the post-punk that was the dominant sound on the underground scene at the time. Michael Stipe’s vocals are high and clear in the mix, but the words are almost indecipherable, inviting listeners to lean in to the speakers and strain to make out what’s being said, as if it’s a blurry page of letters and reading glasses are nowhere to be found. The vocals are half-moaned at times, almost ethereal. They’re built from tones instead of words, which only heightens the sense of a broadcast surfing static from across the globe that the title suggests. The song is like a coded note slipped into a pocket by s stranger, to be pulled out later and puzzled over all night.

Beyond their influence, R.E.M. was just a damn good band. I’m not sure how snugly this observation fits within the current conventional wisdom, but I think from 1983’s Murmur to 1997’s Up, the band put together a string of great to near-great albums that rivals any other stretch by any other act, including the runs of classic albums that can be claimed by bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And it all started on a little dinky label that only released a grand total of four 45s in its existence. As that HT-0001 on the label attests, “Radio Free Europe” was its first.

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One for Friday: Mose Allison, “What’s Your Movie”

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Photo by Michael Wilson, taken from the official Mose Allison website.

I’ve tapped out plenty of words about the glory of having ready access to an array of new music in my college radio days, an advantage of the gig that has been somewhat blunted by the clicking immediacy of the internet that has emerged in the years since. But the wild west of the worldwide web lacks the intensely personal recommendations that I found in those poster-adorned hallways of my past. The algorithms will keep improving, but I doubt they’ll ever truly catch up to a pal with different music tastes who alights on just the right track to share as an entryway to an artist.

My college radio station had a helluva a jazz collection when I arrived. I remember someone saying the tightly packed room of records stood as one of the finest jazz libraries in the state, at least in terms of broadcast outlets. Though I had a health respect for the form, I stood well outside of it. My own lack of musical ability and commensurate knowledge always made me feel like I was missing out on the intricacies of what was contained in those grooves. I could let it was over me, but I’d never properly understand it.

But I was also the guy who co-hosted the movie review show at the station, so that could be one of my secret doors in, whether locking on in relevant soundtracks or connecting with an artist through prominent use of their music in individuals films. Then there was the unique instant when the station’s jazz director came up to me and essentially said, “Hey, you like movies. Listen to this song about movies!” And that’s how I first knowingly heard Mose Allison.

“What’s Your Movie” is admittedly a little cheesy, but that’s part of its charm. The indifference to adopting some veneer of manufactured cool was perfectly in keeping with Allison’s commitment to do whatever he wanted musically rather than chasing avenues that were lucratively popular. As Nate Chinen noted in the New York Times obituary for Allison published this week, “For all of his elder-statesman eminence in rock, Mr. Allison never stopped seeing himself as a jazz artist.” Even if the nuances of time signatures and the interplay of major and minor chords would be forever out of my intellectual grasp, I could understand that lovely purity of intent.

Listen or download –> Mose Allison, “What’s Your Movie”

(Disclaimer: I also know this about jazz music, or at least the catalogues of jazz artists: I’m never going to be able to figure out of a single track is in print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. The material gets packaged and repackaged endlessly. But I can present this shared song here as encouragement to go to the previously mentioned record store and buy whatever Allison music is at the ready, either sitting nicely on the shelf or available for order. So that’s what I’m doing. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Now Playing: Arrival

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There’s so much to dig into when discussing the new film Arrival. The intricacies of the storytelling, the jarringly smart manipulation of the film narrative grammar, and the resonance of deeply moving themes are all worth topics, compelling pieces of evidence in the argument of the work’s special accomplishment. And yet the element of the film that made the strongest impression on me — that convinces me it is the linchpin that makes it all work — is the one that I suspect and worry will be overlooked by many, convinced that it is in service of a bigger picture rather than absolutely vital to its success. That element is the lead performance of Amy Adams.

An uncommonly heady slab of big screen science fiction, the latest from director Denis Villeneuve begins with a dozen alien spacecrafts arriving on planet Earth, hovering ominously above the landscape like gigantic Go tiles. The global authorities attempt to adjust to this mind-bending new reality, pulling together ad hoc teams of scientists, academics, and military and political leaders in an effort to bridge the considerable divide between humanity and the pilots of the visiting ships. Doing away with the typical narrative shortcut of aliens possessing remarkably versatile universal translators when they come calling, one of the most valuable members of the team assembled to interface with the craft in U.S. airspace is linguist Louise Banks (Adams).

After Spike Jonze directed Her, he spoke about what Adams brought to the project. “The thing I realized with Amy is, she can make any dialogue you write sound unwritten,” Jonze told The New York Times. “She just has a way of internalizing it. She’s such a thinker, and you can see her thinking her way through all of that until it’s all coming from within her.” In Jonze’s fanciful, near-future story about technology that’s taken a few important steps forward, bringing it to a point at which it’s almost indistinguishable from humanity, Adams was quietly invaluable. She instilled plausibility into the imaginative leaps, bringing a lived-in sureness to the interactions. She made the flightiest fiction solidly real.

That very quality is present throughout Arrival, keeping the film grounded even as it stirs the boundaries of expectations educated in cinematic storytelling. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, has an almost procedural march to it. Louise collaborates with her anxious and intense teammates, forming a particular bond with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner). Villeneuve doesn’t rush the material, using admirable patience to provide a sense of how agonizingly slow the process of constructing a communication scheme with an alien species would be. He presses in on Adams, allowing her to convey the burden of her task and the revelatory thrill of breakthrough moments. As Jonze said, her thinking is evident, present, and powerful. There are many fine points that allow the film to escape familiar tropes in considering how such a visitation would rock society, and Adams underlines accuracy of those details with the firmness of her portrayal. She’s the conduit to the film’s reality.

Arrival carries bold revelations in its final act, calling on Adams to scrape her way to especially challenging emotional notes, if only because the layers of those moments are shuffled in entirely unique ways. In a reductive but accurate description, Arrival is about first contact with an alien species. The closing moments cement what has been apparent all along: the film is about the deeply personal far more than any crisscrossing encapsulation of the cosmos. It is science fiction as a pathway to humanity rather than an escape from it. It’s difficult to think of a modern actress better suited for carrying the film to its resonant places than Adams. She matches the film’s the most noble aspirations, finding something that is beautiful and true.

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Then Playing: Heaven’s Gate

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I usually reserve the longer reviews for films still playing in theaters, but sometimes a title I’ve caught up on later merits a few extra words.

Like a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate, I’ve been anxiously seeking out distractions for, oh, say, the past week or so. My natural instinct is to seek solace in the movie house, in all its many iterations. As a general rule, the more time kept away from ruminating on the political toxins burdening the atmosphere, the better. So when the opportunity arose to sit before the three hour and thirty-nine minute cut of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, it struck me as a blessing.

The film looms large in cinematic history, and it was likely I’d never be more motivated to buckle in for the entirety of it. While I know plenty about the infamous feature, I came to realize that the details I carried were largely about its troubled production, brutalizing initial reception, and — in some quarters — generous reassessment. Beyond the period setting, I had only the vaguest notion of its plot and its thematic points. Thus I discovered that Heaven’s Gate is, at its core, about the wealthiest citizens in the nation preserving their power by callously manipulating the most susceptible members of society, largely by demonizing immigrants, distracting the classes with fewer dollars from taking democratic command of their collective destiny by pitting them against each other. It turns out the film wasn’t a helpful distraction after all.

Taking place in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Heaven’s Gate is largely set in rural Wyoming. It’s there that Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) operates as the sole law enforcement officer in Johnson County. In part because his own privileged lineage gives him insight on the workings of those who plot to keep their personal funds from being redistributed, Jim learns of a scheme to set hired killers loose against the immigrants that make up a good chunk of the population of the dusty lands he calls home. Even equipped with this knowledge, Jim learns there’s only so much he do to protect the people who have been added to the so-called “kill list.”

Cimino based him screenplay on the real events that were known as the Johnson County War. Where Oliver Stone might have steered such a film toward bloody outrage and John Sayles would have surely opted for a tone of a wryly disappointed schoolmaster, Cimino wants nothing less than the Great America Novel pressed onto celluloid instead of paper. The film is serious-minded and fully dedicated to its own agonizing sprawl. There is a moody love triangle involving Jim, bordello madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), and a hired gun named Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). There are enormous battle sequences and grand set pieces that may as well close with a flashing chryon requesting applause.

I completely understand why a subsection of cineastes have started arguing that Heaven’s Gate in a misunderstood masterpiece, presumably clearing their throats and straightening their ties before launching into impassioned oratory. It practically quivers with import. All by its lonesome, the dreamily gorgeous cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond is a persuasive argument for proclaiming greatness. Combine that with the nearly irresistible inclination to interpret any movie inflicted with studio tampering — dismayed by the vicious early reaction, United Artists pulled it from theaters so Cimino could trim over an hour from it ahead of a wider release — as the work of a great artist tragically unrecognized, and Heaven’s Gate is practically engineered for sympathetic rescue.

Opinions can reasonably vary, but Heaven’s Gate is not some unassailable, neglected gem. The film probably didn’t deserve Vincent Canby’s famed condemnation of it as “an unmitigated disaster,” but David Denby strikes me as spot on in assessing Cimino as “vain, foolish, and wasteful beyond belief.” For a film that spends so much unhurried time with a relatively modest cast of central characters, it exhibits an almost alarming lack of interest in developing them.  They are nothing more than Cimino’s game pieces, positioned to move through one elegant, controlled tableau after another. This is precisely what stultifying indulgence looks like.

The rising echo in the soul of the film drowns out even Cimino’s most noble intentions. He has a strong argument to make about the heartless ingredients baked right into capitalism, a system that compels the rich to champion “the idea that poor people have nothing to say in the affairs of this country.” The film is so defined by its overreach that nearly every political point Cimino raises is more reflective of his own blind ambition than the nation Cimino means to chide. For some, the film represents the inevitable wreckage of the unchecked auteurism of nineteen-seventies U.S. cinema, which produced works of genius before tornadoing into troublesome self-destruction. “The film that caused the crisis could have been Sorcerer or Apocalypse Now or 1941 or even Reds,” Peter Biskind wrote in his seminal Easy Riders Raging Bulls. “So far as the ambition and budget were concerned, Cimino didn’t do anything Friedkin, Coppola, Spielberg, and Beatty hadn’t done.”

The scope of Cimino’s hubris may have been in line with that of his peers, but Heaven’s Gate really does stand apart, carrying the sickly aura that suggests directorial ambition has finally crossed into a radioactive zone from which there is no return. Boldness has turned foolhardy, and the unsinkable vessel is taking on water. That facet, too, called to mind the current affairs I longed to escape.

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Laughing Matters: “Hungry Are the Damned”

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.

Now, more than ever, we need the Peace Through Dramatization Players.

“Shakespeare?”

“Dickens?”

“No, good guesses, though.”

Man alive, do I miss Late Night with David Letterman.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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December 2016
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