Archive for July, 2008

FINALE EXAM

Posted in The Popular with tags , , , on July 31, 2008 by Adam Sapiro

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THEY’RE considered TV’s greatest sitcom and its greatest drama, but when it comes to their finales, only one got it right.

With some extra time on my idle hands, I just finished watching the final seasons of “Seinfeld” and “The Sopranos” for the first time since they aired. I was hoping the final hour of “Seinfeld” would be funnier than it played 10 years ago, now that all of the pressure was off it, and that I’d pick up clues in “The Sopranos” to help me make sense of that abrupt cut to black. No luck on both counts.

“Seinfeld”‘s finale plays even worse than I remembered. Regarding the plot, I’d forgotten about NBC’s resurgent interest in Jerry and George’s sitcom proposal, or their narrow escape from death aboard a private jet headed to Europe — and for good reason: the twists are tired and lead nowhere. Well, actually, the diverted plane gets Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer to Massachusetts, where they’re arrested for failing to stop the carjacking of a fat guy (he’s fat, so that’s why it’s funny!) We didn’t need the law to tell us these four were not Good Samaritans. And we certainly didn’t need a lethargically paced courtroom parade of past characters like the Soup Nazi to prove it.

In the DVD bonus features, Jerry Seinfeld suggests that the finale was received poorly because Larry David (who returned to pen the episode) tried to do “big” when the show was best at doing “small.” Maybe, but size wouldn’t matter if the episode had just been funny.

Your best bet when revisiting “Seinfeld” these days is to just skip the cleverly titled finale, “The Finale,” as well as the infamous penultimate episode, “The Puerto Rican Day,” which proved the regular roster of writers could be just as unfunny without David. Kajillionaire Seinfeld crowed at the time that he wanted to end the show while it was on top. He waited two weeks too long.

A year after Tony Soprano suddenly vanished from our televisions, I’m still as intrigued by the final episode as I was the day I first saw it. This time, it seemed a bit slower than I remembered, but David Chase was smart enough not to “go big.” Instead, he simply shows how Tony’s life as a mob boss has altered everyone around him, from FBI Agent Harris to widowed sister Janice to his own kids. Meadow’s friend Hunter shows up for the first time in years, but there’s a point to her appearance — as opposed to The Bubble Boy returning in “Seinfeld”‘s finale to get one last desperate, nostalgic laugh.

And I could watch that final scene of Tony, Carmela and A.J. in the diner over and over again (and have). And what about Meadow just outside the door — has parallel parking ever been more suspenseful? Has Journey ever sounded better? Have onion rings ever seemed more ominous? I still interpret the sudden blackness as Tony getting whacked; let’s face it, he was doomed from the start. And the genius of that abrupt cut is that Chase found a way to kill Tony Soprano — whom we’d grown fond of against our better judgment — without taking him away from us. A year later, I still think the show couldn’t have ended any better.

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THE TIMES THEY ARE A-REPEATIN’

Posted in The News, The Popular with tags , , , , on July 29, 2008 by Adam Sapiro

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DIDN’T I live through this already? Here we are ankle-deep in a new millennium, for crying out loud, yet everything seems SO last century. I know our economy can be pendulumlike (shouldn’t there be a better adjective for that?), but does it really have to be? And why do we react like we’re living through this shit for the first time?

Take the subprime mortgage crisis. I don’t really understand it, but basically a whole bunch of financial institutions gave out billions in real estate loans to people they shouldn’t have, and then the housing market went kerplunk, right? And now it’s screwing up everything and we’re bailing out mortgage giants, because, yeah, they’re the victims here. Isn’t this a rerun from 20 years ago, when they called it the savings and loan crisis? Who let it happen again?

With the economy in a tailspin, grocery stores are introducing budget, no-frills “brands” because most people can’t afford to drive to the store AND buy food anymore. So now Stop & Shop and Giant are pushing their new Guaranteed Value™ line. Didn’t I not buy this crap in the ’80s, when everything was available in plain white boxes and they called it generic (like in the scene from “Repo Man” below)?

It’s sad that people are losing their homes, their jobs and their name-brand cookies (as well as their gas-guzzlers to the busier-than-ever repo men), but here’s the worst part about the sagging economy: Record labels (these still exist?) are signing up a slew of boy bands again, hoping to boost sales (“In Dark Times, Labels Look To Boy Bands,” Rolling Stone). Does every decade have to end this way, with interchangeable groups of talent-challenged kids wrangled up by pervy businessmen-overlords and forced to “sing” songs scientifically engineered by Swedish producers to be as annoying as possible? I thought we’d said “Bye Bye Bye.”

But here we go again. I would have guessed that the photo at left was taken in 1998, or maybe even 1988, but it’s actually a recent photo of some new boy band. I’m sure their name is like 2Cool+3 or VIPee or something. Or Summthin’.

Of course, if this never-ending pattern continues, the music industry will overreact to this poppy-crock in a few years and unleash a lot of angry thrash/metal/punk/rap/neo-grunge crap. And, if the economy keeps on doing what it does, we’ll all be stinkin’ rich again.

YOU DON’T GOTTA BELIEVE

Posted in The Web with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Adam Sapiro

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DON’T believe a word of this:

I used to get paid to be skeptical. As a newspaper editor, I was always asking reporters questions like “Did he really say that?”, “Are you sure these numbers are correct?”, “Why are we doing this? Are people still reading newspapers?” and “Did she really use the bloody fetuses from her self-induced abortions to make her senior art project?” (I’m not making up that last one — a Yale student made that claim and the media ran with it.)

I might be out of a job but I’m still a skeptic. Especially when it comes to videos of amazing feats that people circulate by e-mail. Instinctively, I just assume they’re fake until I can prove otherwise. (Maybe it’s because they arrive the same way I get messages about penis enlargement and my Swiss lottery winnings.)

Just recently, I received these three videos that fooled my family and friends:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Turns out they’re all advertisements, viral marketing schemes (I won’t name the companies or products behind them because that’s what they’d like me to do), and all it takes is a simple Google search to confirm they’re fake. I’m obligated to tell people they’re phony, right? Then why do I feel like I’m pooping on a party when I do, like I’m giving away some magic trick and spoiling the illusion? Everyone in the e-mail chain was enjoying that ball girl’s catch till I called bullshit.

Well, I’m gonna keep on doing it (with snopes.com as an ally), because even though I’m not paid to be a skeptic anymore, it’s still a worthwhile job. And there’s a lot of bullshit online.

Now, of course, just because a video is fake doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining:

THE PLOT THINS… (15 GREAT MOVIES IN WHICH NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS)

Posted in The Popular with tags , , , , , on July 24, 2008 by Adam Sapiro

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HAVE you seen ‘The Dark Knight’ yet?’ That’s what everyone keeps asking. Well, no. I hated “Batman Begins” and I’m in no rush to see yet another overstuffed superhero movie. I decided to go another way this week.

I watched a little-known 1971 film called “Two-Lane Blacktop” instead. There’s no villain, no real plot, minimal dialogue, only one real actor — hell, the characters don’t even have names — and yet I was mesmerized from beginning to end (and this film has one of the coolest movie endings ever). I could tell you what it’s “about” but that doesn’t matter — and that’s why I enjoyed it.

A lot of people complain about films like this — “There was no plot!” — but these are the films that amaze me. Like life (which also doesn’t have a plot), they can move you, sometimes to tears, and you never see it coming.

As a rule, if a movie’s characters are interesting, I’ll follow them anywhere — no plot necessary. Some movies get it half right — I remember watching “Sideways” a few years ago and being really pissed when the contrived plot devices intruded midway through and spoiled the ride. And then there’s “No Country For Old Men,” a film that tricks you into believing the plot is important when it really isn’t.

Unfortunately, summer movies are all about plot. But if you’re burned out from the sensory overload of all the season’s blockbusters and you want to cleanse you’re palate, here’s a list of 15 of my favorite movies of the past 15 years that have little or no plot, just interesting characters connecting in interesting ways. If you see some movies you already like, then you’ll probably want to check out some of the others. Click on the titles to see each film’s imdb.com page.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a film snob — I love my share of trashy movies too, like “Armageddon” and “The Fast and the Furious,” so back off. And I’m not listing stuff by directors like Cassavetes, who paved the way — the films below are all fairly recent and easy to get into. Also, I’m not including excellent movies like “Jackie Brown” and “The Big Lebowski” that are more enjoyable when you just ignore the plot. Fourth, while I liked “The Savages” and the way it rambled on, it does kinda have a plot, so that should serve as a guideline here. Finally, three of the films listed are by Richard Linklater, one of my all-time favorite directors and a big fan of “Two-Lane Blacktop.”)

15 Great (Relatively) Plotless Movies

Bonus: If you really like your movies without a plot, check out director Aaron Katz’s “Quiet City” and “Dance Party, USA” — two fine examples of mumblecore (and if you don’t know what that is, you will after you watch them.)