Sunday, November 30, 2008

Four the Holiday

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death - After a sleepless night, As Good As News has decided to address this topic, a quick-sand of potential bad taste. First, our belief that the Internet was created by God to eliminate in-person shopping is affirmed. Second, if you are overwhelmed by an irresistible impulse to wake up at 3AM on Black Friday, a name that works on just so many levels, do not, repeat, do not under any circumstances, select a shopping destination which leaves outdoor crowd control to local police using bullhorns and allows the patrons awaiting entry to organize themselves by fighting toward the head of the line - a destination marked only by the hand made sign "Blitz line starts here".

Disguised Mother Woos Juror in Bid to Free Son - Three years ago John Giuca and another man were convicted of killing Mark Fisher in a case celebrated partly because the victim was a popular college athlete and partly because he had no prior connection to his killers, showing up at their party as a friend of a friend. Giuca hosted the party, but no physical evidence linked him to the crime. He was convicted based on the inconsistent testimony of four witnesses, none of whom was a paragon of integrity. Giuca's mother, Doreen Giuliano, campaigned to free her son, but got nowhere. Finally she took matters into her own hands. Ms Giuliano hit the gym, found the perfect push-up bra and became a golden blonde, transforming herself into Dee Quinn (her maiden name) - a modern day Mata Harri. After false starts with two other jurors (false start, stalking - just semantics really), she established a relationship with James Allo, a juror in her son's case. Eventually, she claims, Allo admitted that he had a prior acquaintance with some of the witnesses, an acquaintance he lied about during jury selection. Allo now denies this, although Dee Quinn taped all.

First, Ms Giuliano/Quinn may be disappointed. It's extremely difficult to overturn a jury verdict, as today's follow-up story notes.

Second, Mr. Giuliano wants to know why it took a son's murder conviction for his wife to turn herself into a hotty. The couple also seems to have some fundamental disagreement over just how far she would go to get the goods on the jurors. Her own story on the relationship with Allo seems a little confused on this point - but it was all in a worthy cause (at least from a mother's perspective) so As Good As News won't pick at that scab any further.

Third, read Christopher Ketcham in Vanity Fair on-line. This is the new, new journalism, let's call it Lifetime Journalism - a made for TV movie, written from the perspective of an insider, who had a completed screenplay ready to roll when the story broke. As Good As News suspects Mr. Ketcham helped Ms Giuliano select the latest taping equipment and the push-up bra to hide it. He probably consulted on her hair color and he may even have sat in as her personal trainer. Mr. Ketcham seems to be the Henry Higgins to Giuliano/Quinn's Liza Doolittle, not just covering the story after the fact, but helping to plot the action in real time.

Corzine Pays $362,500 To End A Dispute - Not quite. The New Jersey Governor has paid millions to his exgirlfriend, labor lobbyist Carla Katz. He's waged war to keep their e-mails secret, even though she dealt with the State as a lobbyist and not just as the first squeeze. Now he's paying $362,500 to "end a dispute." Think about this. You tell your girl friend's brother-in-law that you will try to find a job for him. You make a few calls, but it doesn't work out. He grumbles so you pay him $362,500 to "end the dispute". This smells like hush money. It makes the $millions paid to Carla and the e-mail disclosure war even smellier by association. What are you hiding Gov? By the way, it's good you noticed early on that NJ has a budget crisis and it's good you are inventively trying to come up with funds. Now stop pay to play and its variations, many run by your closest supporters and pals. The grease of political contributions and favors for favors that seems to lubricate every government operation in NJ makes everything twice as expensive as it should be. You can't fix it unless and until you are willing to get ugly with the Democratic leadership, or maybe just give out some nice retirement packages to the party's leading fixers (using your personal funds) to "end a dispute" before it begins.

You're Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy? - 100 MIT students agree to participate in a study. Researchers will track their every move. The up-side? The students get a free smart phone and assurances that data will be treated confidentially. Why not, says freshman Harrison Brown, with Facebook, e-mail and blogs this extra intrusion is just "a drop in the bucket." Makes sense to As Good As News. The data might be helpful to the school and ultimately the students. So what? The story reminded me of an interesting fact, where else, but MIT, would a dormitory be named Random Hall.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rain on The New Year Parade

The New Year Parade does several things right, especially for a film that began life as a documentary and was converted forcibly to a narrative despite grudging resistance from the footage. It takes a sometimes interesting look at separation/divorce in a blue collar South Philadelphia family, particularly from the perspective of daughter Kat (age 16 turning 17) and son Jack (approximately 23). It features strong performances from Jennifer-Lynn Welsh and Greg Lyons (pictured) as Kat and Jack, extraordinary performances considering neither has acted before. It explains a subculture of heretofore alien life forms - the seeming crazies who choose to theme decorate, march and play music in the freezing cold every New Years Day in the Philadelphia Mummer's Parade. Most importantly, the film shows us that the banjo was critical to ancient Egyptian culture.

The New Year Parade is a slice of life, but one with limited organization, some false notes and an ending that resolves almost nothing. The mother's first major scene is an argument with Kat in which mom's lines emerge as stiff and artificial - something lifted straight from a psychology textbook. When Jack considers leaving his father's Mummer's club he gets an extended story about family loyalty from an older friend at a rival club in a scene that sounds great, but rings false. How many 23 year old males will sit silently through a three minute sermon which hits a raw nerve with every sentence -even the most patient will react somehow in the moment and absorb the lesson later.

I've seen too many indie flicks lately. I need automatic weapons, a car chase and a happy ending very, very badly. Where's one of those cynical, cater to the lowest common denominator studio executives when you really need one? Despite my pathetic individual circumstances, I don't think the problem is all me. Director/writer/cinematographer Tom Quinn's debut shows much promise, but As Good As News recommends this film only for those with a driving need to learn about the Mummers or divorce, South Philly style.

Hillary on Midnight Plane to Georgia

Two Presidents Say They Encountered Gunfire - This has nothing to do with Darth Cheney, who has actually been demoted to Vice President for the past year. With regular medication Darth has adjusted nicely to his new role. He didn't shoot at anyone recently, not even Barack Obama, not even by accident.

No, today's story is about a shooting incident in that other Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Polish President Lech Kaczynski heard gunfire as they disembarked from their limo for a photo op at a check point manned by Russian "peacekeepers" near the border of South Ossetia. The two Presidents were quick to say, "Look Europe, Look USA, see how crazy these Russians are, now that's what we're talking about." The Russians denied shooting anything, particularly in the direction of Georgia, and branded the whole incident a publicity stunt.

Secretary Designate Hillary Clinton immediately fired off her first diplomatic protest, demanding to know why she had not been invited to the shooting. "I've had plenty of experience with this type of incident in Bosnia", said America's soon to be top diplomat, "not only can I duck and cover, but I know just how to handle the press during the after shoot interviews. It's a shame Mikheil didn't think to get me involved, but I've packed my camo pantsuit and I'm leaving on the midnight plane to Georgia. I'll soon be in his world, because I can't live without this story in mine."

Everyone's A Critic: China Blasts "Chinese Democracy" - Guns N' Roses takes 14 years to release its new album, Chinese Democracy. When the group finally does, music critics greet it as the death of a genre. Just as Guns N' Roses is about to slide unnoticed back into oblivion, the Chinese Communist party comes to the group's rescue, denouncing the album as "venomously attacking China" and as part of a larger Western conspiracy to "grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn". What did Axl Rose offer Hu Jintao to get this kind of publicity? A diligent search has produced nothing on this, but do not be surprised if you see an elderly Chinese man getting a lap dance in the first video cut from Chinese Democracy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Today revisited on November 20, 2009

Bill Clinton Said to Accept Terms of Obama Team - One year after accepting a detailed set of conditions to facilitate his wife's appointment as Secretary of State, the former President nearly came to blows with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

"Don't take any speaking fees or gifts to my foundation from foreign states or lobbyists, don't take any new public policy positions on my own, I absolutely get all that", said the former President. "I even tried my best to live up to the secret condition - don't embarrass the administration with any extramarital sexual escapades - I mean, I took every possible precaution to avoid embarrassing the administration - I used a Days Inn in the middle of nowhere, signed in as William Smith, paid cash, how could I know there was FBI surveillance on the room next door. I really don't see what more I could have done, I can't understand why Rahm is so upset."

When asked to respond, Mr. Emanuel emitted a series of stifled, yet still feral, shrieks and assumed a martial arts position.

Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million -, a consortium of the Museum of Natural History, Bronx Zoo, Penn State University and Mt. Sinai Hospital, announced today that an elephant and a leopard had been successfully reimpregnated with their own embryos, now genetically modified into a woolly mammoth and a saber tooth tiger, respectively. The consortium was created a year ago to combine opportunities for genetic research and fundraising by capitalizing on prehistoric DNA supplies and new capabilities in genetic modification . The four institutions have incurred over $15 Million in expenses to date, but a StoneAgeDreams representative was optimistic that the program would more than pay for itself:

"First, just wait for these big mamas to give birth. Imagine the excitement, people will forget all about those cute Pandas - heck people will forget all about Brangelina. Then picture the lines at the Zoo. And what about movies? Hollywood spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Jurassic Park, come on, Hollywood spent hundreds of millions on Heaven's Gate, what do you think the chance to shoot a movie with a real Woolly Mammoth and Saber Tooth Tiger will be worth? Tar Pits I, II, III, IV and V here we come. Maybe we can even get someone funny to play Ben Stiller and remake A Night At The Museum."

Iran Said To Have Nuclear Fuel for one Weapon -Iran announced the conclusions of the targeting committee formed a year ago when leaders realized the country had enough enriched uranium for only one nuclear weapon. Although some technical obstacles remain before the device is completed, the final target priorities have been set and they include a major surprise. Actual targeting will naturally depend on conditions at time of use, including available delivery systems and target security, but the country's current strategic objectives produced the following priorities: 4) Baghdad 3) New York 2) Tel Aviv 1) Crawford, Texas.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To What Comes America?

Ted Stevens is a big fat loser (to quote a well known author). 538 has pretty much called this one, so it's more than official - it's absolutely certain. How did this happen. One measly felony conviction and the loyal citizens of Alaska turned on Ted like he was a week old salmon, thus depriving the comedy world of much needed post-election fodder.

Hope on, America. Topbunk Teddy is out, but Al Franken still has a shot. 538 has explained that the pro-Franken demographic includes more of the ballot challenged (people who can't figure out how to use the voting machine), so the hand recount will give Mr. Franken a fighting chance at becoming Senator Franken. Franken trailed by less than 3oo votes in the original count. It's poetic justice, 300 Vikings who were probably confused by the fact that the voting machine looked vaguely like a motel ice dispenser could now bring the Senate its first comedy writer. This is exactly what America needs. If you have ever seen the Senate, you know the comic material is already there, someone just has to punch it up a little.

Mr. Franken went to Harvard, which prepared him to create ringing, yet ironic, titles like "...Big Fat Loser". As Good As News is cleaning up its act before his arrival. The title of this post began life as "What's America Coming To"- straight from the Archie Bunker school of blogging. That kind of slop just won't make it when Senator Franken comes to town. We are already moving those prepositions away from the ends of our sentences (although we are not always sure where we should move them to --oops, make that-- we are not always sure to where we should move them) --and eliminating superfluous verbiage left and right and what the heck, independent too. Too's not a preposition, is it?

Australia Score - TV Trailer Pirates Pirates

Australia, the outback epic with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, is doing a lot of advertising. Check out the snippet of the score in those TV ads, remind anyone else of Pirates of The Caribbean? And that closing line - Nicole is channelling Daniel Day Lewis, straight from Last of the Mohicans.

Wendy and Lucy - Car Chase Wanted

Wendy and Lucy - Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy (Lucy the dog, as herself) may be acting at an Oscar level here, but the film is a sleeper, in the worst sense of the term. Three car chases (at least one of which could be a dog chasing a car), two Bond girls and a train derailment would not be enough to wake up this movie, or its audience. Wendy is travelling from Indiana to Alaska on a shoestring with her dog Lucy. Things go bad, then worse, then still worse in Oregon and Wendy has no cushion, no little bit extra, she can use to turn things around. There's no Hollywood rescue here, just a bittersweet choice of an ending. Relax, Wendy does not eat Lucy. I said bittersweet - not canine noir.

Williams does much with little. The film is foreboding from the first scene and Wendy's life matches the mood. Wendy is relatively calm and slow to ask for help, even as her situation deteriorates, but Williams produces some very memorable scenes with limited dialog and no false histrionics. Two moments stood out for me - a sudden shift from brazen to pleading with the grocery manager deciding her fate after she's caught shoplifting and a convincing display of sheer terror (somehow conveyed while wrapped in a blanket with her face showing for only a few moments) after a long overdue sleep is interrupted by a deranged hobo.

Despite Williams, and Lucy, few will enjoy this movie. Director Kelly Reichardt is getting festival kudos for a film with no wasted motion, but there is just not enough story here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sperm Crisis Rocks Brits

Shortage of Sperm Donors in Britain Prompts Calls for Change - Yes, the linked article has a self explanatory title, but what to do? Elect Barack Obama - relax that was not racial stereotype humor, just could not resist overwrought "Calls for Change" headline. Seriously, there isn't enough sperm in Britain. Why? Can't get enough donors. Why? Because the donors aren't allowed to remain anonymous, at least not when the resulting child reaches age 18 and looks for his or her father. Also because each donor is allowed to spawn only 10 progeny - a number selected somewhat arbitrarily (it's 25 in the Netherlands) - to avoid inadvertent inbreeding.

In the days before Margaret Thatcher, that shrinking group of Brit sperm donors would have known exactly what to do. Form a union, get the fees up, offer pensions, improve working conditions, attract new donors. See the (secretly) related story on unionized Air Traffic Controllers bouncing back from the Reagan axe with a new local at Gitmo - Ronnie would no doubt have taken advantage of the conveniently located severe interrogation facilities to head this off at the pass. While you're digressing on unions, see today's editorial from Thomas Friedman preempting what otherwise might have been a funny post here on management and union at GM producing a financial black hole rivalled only by the mysterious astrofinancial marvel AIG.

So, maybe a new union's not the way to go, but there must be some way to deal with Great Britain's Great Sperm crisis. New York would know exactly what to do. Disguise the donation center as a slightly seedy (ouch) Days Inn, allow all the politicians, sorry, donors, to register repeatedly under the name Smith, upgrade every room to include free movie service and hand out passes for complimentary lap dances at that gentleman's club next door - problem solved.

Google Knows First

Google Uses Searches to Track Flu's Spread -The linked story reports Google's ability to spot flu outbreaks quickly, 10 days faster than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, by tracking search queries like "flu symptoms" and "muscle ache". As MIT professor Thomas Malone notes, this is only the beginning.

Disease/Condition/Problem-------- Early Warning Search Keywords

Childhood Obesity------------------ Where is McDonald's
Early Onset Diabetes--------------- Snickers, McDonald's
Ozone Layer Depletion------------- SPF 48, Quantity Discount
Severe Ozone Depletion------------ Melanoma
Global Warming------------------- AC, sale
Severe Global Warming------------ Refrigeration Unit, room size
Extreme Global Warming---------- Lifeboats wanted
Iraq War-------------------------- Weapons of Mass Destruction
Iraq War-------------------------- Mission Accomplished
Iraq War-------------------------- Wikipedia Sunni, Shiite
Iraq War---------------------------Names of the Dead, 4188

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Herb and Dorothy Collect

Herb and Dorothy - Over forty years ago, Herb Vogel, a postal worker, honeymooned with his new bride Dorothy, a librarian, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Last year they were back, inspecting part of their own collection of minimalist and conceptual art, valued in the millions of dollars, with their names etched in stone at the top of the Gallery's wall of donors. The first feature-length film from director Megumi Sasaki, this documentary captures an extraordinary story. The couple is totally dedicated to art. They have no children. They lived in a one bedroom apartment so stuffed with art that just seeing it on screen induces an irresistible urge to shout the words "get out, fire trap" repeatedly. As their sister notes from her comfortable suburban home, Herb and Dorothy could sell one or two pieces and "live like us". Instead they donate all, overwhelming the National Gallery with over 5,000 pieces, some 2,500 of which will now be parceled out to one selected museum in each state (a fifty-fifty program - fifty pieces to each of the select museums in the fifty states). Their apartment purged, Herb and Dorothy have started collecting anew.
Herb has a strong, visual personality. He captures the film as the camera captures him. Herb is a self taught amateur artist who liked to hang out at the Cedar Tavern in the early 1960's with some of the young stars of the art world. Herb speaks rarely and briefly, but he is a man obsessed in a very visible way. When Herb spots a piece he covets he hunches suddenly forward with a rapt gaze - a hungry toad ready to capture a very tasty fly with a swift flick of the tongue. Herb clearly had an eye for what he wanted, an eye aided by his own training and his constant contact with the New York modern art scene.

Dorothy speaks freely, adding detail on the couple's history. She also talks about why the couple collects art and how they select specific artists and pieces, but on these subjects, one picture of the rapacious Herb says more than a thousand words from Dorothy.

The film marvels at the couples ability to build their collection on a modest income without ever selling a single piece, but it captures only part of how they did it. They started by collecting minimalists because that's what they could afford, the school was new and unpopular when the Vogels began to collect. They dealt directly with the artists, in fact the film includes one dealer complaining that he was cut out, despite his exclusive contract with the artist. The Vogels maintained long-term relationships with the artists, communicating regularly and buying multiple pieces. Negotiations are strictly off camera, but As Good As News is guessing Herb cut some truly extraordinary deals, especially after the Vogels had established their reputation as collectors. For an artist, a sale to the Vogels was validation and free advertising, all with the promise that no one would know the terms of a special deal and no work would ever be resold.

The story is intriguing, the film worth seeing, with one caveat. Ms Sasaki is preparing a shorter version for broadcast on PBS. With the right edits, this might actually be a superior product, and even Herb would like that PBS price.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sleepwalk With Mike Birbiglia

Sleepwalk With Me at the Bleecker Street Theater is a one man show, the one man being Mike Birbiglia. Mr. Birbiglia is an extremely funny guy, not to be confused with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the former dentist who is now President of Turkmenistan. Just to make sure you understand it's a one man show, the program lists the cast both alphabetically and in order of appearance. Most As Good As News readers already know that Mr. Birbiglia is a successful stand-up comic, and he's sleepwalking in top form. He's even funny when he asks the audience to turn off their cell phones, an exercise that takes about 5 minutes and establishes the Birbiglian variation on the Marxist dialectic - mention a topic, detour drolly on some very humorous, usually self-effacing tangents, then return to the topic - with a deadly honest point that is sometimes, but not always, deadly funny.

There's more going on here than a typical stand-up act (OK, I got the subtle signal - it's an off-broadway show produced by Nathan Lane instead of a Comedy Central special). This is a memoir centered around Mr. Birbiglia's real life problem with sleepwalking. The story meanders through his relationships with his father, the medical community, his first fiance, his wife, a La Quinta Inn, a pair of asymmetrical boobs and a climactic moment in Walla Walla, Washington- a moment that's circled for most of the show in the ultimate display of the Birbiglian dialectic.

The humor alone more than justifies the price of a ticket. Often, the story within the humor is told with compelling honesty. At times Mr. Birbiglia is cutting open an artery and spurting blood on the stage, but those comic tangents eliminate the cringe factor, the surgery is painless for the audience. I left the theater wondering about Mr. Birbiglia's life, a sure sign that the story worked on some level, but something is missing.

Beginning, middle, end - you can change the order, you can mix them together in the whirlpool of the Birbiglian dialectic, but the character needs motive to get from beginning to end. If the story is how did Mike Birbiglia get to that moment in Walla Walla, then some of the why never reached the stage.

The show does establish an inner conflict. Mr. Birbiglia has an intimidating doctor father who wants to keep everything secret, a history as a high school nerd (big deal, join the crowd), a touching story of falling in love with his first girl friend before he was ready to make a life-time commitment, a run-in with cancer. All part of what makes him funny, all part of the beginning and the middle, but not quite enough. This may be a conflicted guy who both desires and fears getting personal stuff out in the open and does not relish taking bad news head on, but he's not a paralyzed basket case. Before undertaking this show Mr. Birbiglia graduated from Georgetown and spent years successfully turning chunks of his autobiography into comedy. Why didn't he seek treatment for a sleepwalking problem so serious that he knew it endangered his own life and the lives of those closest to him? I don't know, but there is a little more to this story and Mr. Burbiglia's mother is conspicuous by her near absence.

See the show. Laughs are guaranteed. Maybe you'll spot the piece of the story I thought was missing. In any event, you will have something to ponder as your split sides are recovering.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Alaska First

This is a great moment in history. Why? Because equality of opportunity suddenly feels like a promise America can keep? Because in a difficult time that calls for real leadership, Barack Obama is smart, decisive and confident enough to listen, one of those rare leaders who actually knows what he doesn't know and is willing and able to learn quickly but with some real depth? Because change might be more than a campaign slogan thanks to some technically savvy organizing and fundraising that allowed the President-elect to keep one foot out of the special interest quagmire of quid pro quo contributions and cronyism that kills fresh ideas still born?

No (hey As Good As News is still a comedy blog), this is a great moment because Alaska, home to the Anchorage Anchor - Sarah Palin - has become the first State to elect a convicted felon to the United States Senate. (OK, we know the early ballots are still being counted and FiveThirtyEight is leaning blue - all the more reason to seize the moment, no other felon has come this close.) Alaska is remarkably low on qualified candidates for high office, explaining both Sarah Palin and Senator Teddy Topbunk Stevens. Steven's re-election raises some exciting questions. Will the Senate overturn the will of the Alaskan people (and caribou, reindeer and whatever else is voting in this Northern nuthouse) and refuse to seat Stevens even though he was re-elected after he was found guilty - guilty of accepting, and not reporting as a gift, home improvements for which he paid only a fraction of the cost? Will Stevens become the first Senator to vote via video phone, or maybe get prison leave so he can hit the Senate floor sporting the latest in wrist and ankle wear accompanied by a heavily armed posse of correctional officers?
In Steven's defense - if my own home improvement contractor had given me a bill for one-third of the actual price (which was stupendous in comparison not only to the estimate we received but to the gross national product of Turkmenistan), I would surely have paid it without even realizing I was getting a discount. If only Stevens had presented the jury with the "contractor run amok - who knew" defense, he would be a free man today.

Maybe Todd Palin has a point. This Alaska secession thing could work for everybody. Just remember, Todd, the oil is on Federal land, all bought and paid for by us, the American taxpayers, as part of Seward's folly. So take Alaska out of the Union, make your wife Prime Minister -she'll feel like she's on an equal footing when she's hobnobbing with her neighbor Putin and the real Sarkozy and all the other Prime Ministers are wearing those chic outfits from Neiman Marcus. Just don't forget to send the royalty checks for the oil and gas.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yonkers Joe -

Yonkers Joe - seems to have it all. Start with a name cast performing well - Chazz Palminteri in the title role, Christine Lahti as his girlfriend Janice and Tom Guiry as his son Joe, almost twenty-one years old with Down Syndrome. Add a background where mechanics, hustlers who use their hands instead of their mouths to cheat in poker and craps, reveal some tricks of the trade - real sleight of hand that is more impressive than a slew of special effects. Finish with a bang - Yonkers Joe risks all to build a real relationship with a son he has kept at a distance, just as he's risking all to run a pair of doctored dice into a Vegas craps game as he tries to pull off the score of his life.

So why didn't I like this picture more? The early pacing is slow, but the interesting background on cheating makes this tolerable and the story ultimately gathers speed and some pleasant unpredictability. The real problem lies elsewhere. Palminteri is too good at being bad. Yonkers Joe is adept at cheating rubes out of their paychecks, not just casinos. Joe has no relationship with his son, he just wants to rush him back into another institution so he won't have to put up with him, even for a few months. Lahti's Janice is fiercely realistic about herself, but what does she see in Yonkers Joe? Joe is so thoroughly repellent for the first two thirds of this film that by the time he finally shows some interest in his son it's a little hard to swallow. The story ultimately forces you to root for Yonkers Joe, but the early scenes just don't plant the seeds that would explain his conversion or make you want to like him. There's enough here to recommend a rental, but not a trip to the theater at full price.