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TV Review: Empire

empireFox’s breakout hit show, Empire, is an expensively entertaining blend of glamour and a stylized version of a certain black urban subculture. The recording industry’s hip hop genre is the Philadelphia-based series’ setting. The plot entails a gangster type, his determined ex-wife and three sons. The theme is no deeper than any daytime soap opera. Empire‘s unique mixture of Dynasty-scale production with a Glee-type musical cycle distinguishes the Fox drama.

Neither as broad and campy as ABC’s 1981-1989 series Dynasty—think of Empire as a black, hip hop soap with shorter, faster scenes and story arcs—nor as implausible and preposterous as ABC’s current hit Scandal, the first season of producer Lee Daniels’ Empire sticks with a solid story premise. Its leading male character is a hoodlum named Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, of Hustle & Flow, St. Vincent and Iron Man). With a nefarious and mysterious criminal background, Lyon has to some extent built a legitimate business, the Lyon empire with its popular music and related products, including a nightclub named Leviticus. Empire—that’s the company’s name—is run by Lyon and his college-bred first-born son, Andre (Trai Byers, Selma). Two other sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are groomed as the label’s recording artists.

Lyon’s three sons compete during the first season’s central conflict to be the heir apparent because Pop has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This soap opera cliche is well played, however, by Howard, an excellent actor who is somewhat constrained by this Jekyll and Hyde type role. From episode to episode, Lucious Lyon alternates between murderous, philandering thug and moneymaking visionary. Realistic dialogue keeps Empire grounded while stunning costume and set design dazzle and this balance distracts from the occasionally overwrought Scandal-like plots and forestalls total lunacy like later seasons of Dallas and Dynasty. Lyon’s sons take after their pappy, too, especially Andre, known as Dre, who is both the cliched dastardly, greedy and maniacal businessman and the cliched stud. The middle son, the most talented artist on Empire’s roster, is a closeted homosexual. The youngest is an impudent brat with a heart of gold and mommy issues (Naomi Campbell).

Speaking of maternity, the ex-wife—like Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington Colby on Dynasty—steals and powers the company, the family empire and the show. Her character’s name is Cookie Lyon and she’s an ex-con played by Taraji P. Henson (Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) who raises everyone’s stakes and comes back to Empire to get a piece of what she knows she seeded and arguably ought to at least co-own. Cookie, like the title character on BET’s Being Mary Jane, combines sass, ghetto and soul and Henson constantly keeps each plot contrivance from ruining all the credibility, plausibility and fun. She brings a knowing, winking playfulness spun with seriousness, so when she sticks up for her gay son, gets in her ex-husband’s face about business or sets her sights on a company security man (Derek Luke, Sparkle), it’s involving. Viewers may tune in for the melodrama and the music—by Timbaland and mostly good, though often forgettable and never inspiring—but they’re sticking around for some of what Cookie’s cooking up as she’s almost always got the best lines, though Smollett as a Lyon with integrity comes close, especially in scenes with Terrence Howard. A supporting cast of players is also good and it’s not hard to see why this briskly paced, smart, hip, musical show’s a smash for Fox. Rupert Murdoch ought to thank Henson as Cookie first for that.

Howard’s Lyon as the dying kingpin holds his own and defines the first season’s themes of crime, family and music. When the family comes together toward the end and subplot gaps become apparent, Empire‘s tip toward style over substance starts to show and grind. Plot points shift too quickly—at times, Lucious Lyon is almost sociopathic—which undermines the show’s foundation. Characterizations are realistically differentiated, with some issues such as blacks’ cultural collectivism and conservatism dramatized to fine effect, and Henson’s Cookie usually freshens up the entertainment with some display of humor or reformed convict/absent mother wisdom. But this character also has someone executed for sending a rose, so it’s best to enter Empire with an appropriately arched attitude.


Happy Birthday, Katharine Hepburn

Tomorrow is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday, so I’ve added a couple of articles about the late actress to the site archives to commemorate this great movie star, whom I called a woman for all seasons when I wrote about her upon her death in 2003. Read my commentary on why I liked her here.

I’ve also included an interview I did with Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne about Katharine Hepburn in 2007 for the centenary of her birth. Besides her extraordinary motion picture career across over five decades, we talked about her appeal, her television appearances and her relationship with Spencer Tracy. Though I haven’t seen all of her movies, I regard Miss Hepburn as among the screen’s greatest actresses and I think of her as the ideal actress to play my favorite literary heroine, Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. Read an edited transcript of my conversation with Mr. Osborne about Katharine Hepburn here.

Enjoy the newly archived pieces.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

tumblr_static_5dtiby7w824os4k0g0c0s0k4sTurner Classic Movies’ 6th annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California, sorely missed the impeccable brand’s knowledgeable and elegant host, Robert Osborne, and experienced growing pains judging by feedback from its guests. But it is a uniquely rewarding cinematic experience.

My own festival track record is extremely limited. When I covered movies on assignment, I avoided film festivals. I remain dubious of the premise of each festival. Many seem to exist to circumvent a creative and distributive process that ought to work well in the motion picture industry. Or they exist for self-aggrandizement or worse, such as meaningless awards based on anything but merit or segregation according to race, sex or sexual orientation, which I think is a rotten idea. I think film festivals are fine if they’re based on a legitimate idea, such as recognition of an artist, genre or theme, such as Buster Keaton, silent film or history depicted in comedy. This is why I accepted an invitation to host the centenary series of John Wayne movies during an Orange County, California, festival in 2007.

This is also why I decided to attend TCM’s festival this year. Classic movies are certainly a legitimate topic for study and celebration. I’m glad I attended and I plan to post more extensive coverage in the coming days, including new reviews of films coming up on TCM (‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup). Among the movies: Too Late for Tears (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, Gunga Din (1939), Malcolm X (1992), Viva Zapata! (1952), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Sound of Music (1965). This last picture celebrates its 50th anniversary, which afforded the festival an opportunity to invite its surviving principals to a special showing at Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where co-star Christopher Plummer (The Man Who Would Be King, Malcolm X) pressed his hands into the Chinese’s famous forecourt.

In fact, the 50th anniversary screening was presented as the festival’s opening night gala, though new media was not permitted to attend the screening or the gala and the film’s stars, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, were not available for interview. They were there, looking good and doing scads of snippets and shots for television, and they were joined by others in attendance, including TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

Also attending were producer David Ladd (The Proud Rebel), 100-year-old Norman Lloyd (Limelight, Saboteur), who’s one sharp fellow, cast members from Grease, Robert Morse (The Loved One, TV’s Mad Men)Zach Galligan (Gremlins), who told me that he learned to focus from a master when he worked with Christopher Plummer, Diane Baker (The Diary of Anne Frank), editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), sound effects editor Ben Burtt (Lincoln, Star Trek, Super 8), visual effects artist Craig Barron (Hugo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America, Terminator: Salvation), Leonard Maltin and Anthony Quinn’s widow, Katherine, my favorite guest speaker for her sharp insights about the work of her late husband.

The festival’s theme was History According to Hollywood. From films about Mexican revolutionaries and Islamic radicals to the musical about a family fleeing the Nazis, the theme played well with TCM’s Mankiewicz, Leonard Maltin and others filling in for the ailing Robert Osborne throughout the festival. The site of the first Academy Awards® ceremony is the festival’s official hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and venues include Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and other Hollywood Boulevard and nearby picture houses.

21-year-old Turner Classic Movies (TCM)part of Turner Broadcasting System, a Time Warner company, presents great films uncut and commercial-free from one of the world’s largest film libraries. TCM features commentary and insights by Mankiewicz and Mr. Osborne, interviews, documentaries, series such as The Essentials, annual programming such as 31 Days of Oscar®, this annual festival and the TCM Classic Cruise, as well as the TCM Classic Film Tour in New York City and Los Angeles (review of the LA tour to come). TCM also produces books and DVDs and a databsae at and through the Watch TCM mobile app.

Festival logistics pose a challenge because there’s so much to do and it’s held in a congested area. Between government road closures, which are common and sudden and can add 30 minutes to a pedestrian transport, and criminals and religious fanatics (Korean women screaming ‘please don’t go to hell!’ in broken English are an especially warm welcome), guests may feel lucky to make it from the Roosevelt to the Egyptian without being run over or assaulted. The dodgy area is policed by police officers that hide in shadowy corners chatting and generally not actively, visibly policing and that’s when they’re on patrol. One guest Tweeted that Loews overbooked and gave away her room, which she said she’d reserved in December, and she had no place to stay. Other gripes include overcrowding, spiked prices (packages went up this year, topping at $1,800) and a general sense that the quality of programming and organizing is not as high. People were peeved that TCM didn’t announce that Robert Osborne, the fountainhead of TCM, would not be attending as advertised until days before the commencement. Among media, consensus is that the red carpet was a bust.

The movies and guests comprise the whole value of the experience. These and a waiter at the Roosevelt named Ted who in one evening of exceptional service at the makeshift Club TCM (where the Oscars were first held) exhibited better branding and relationship building skills than everyone else in the 4-day conference combined. Guest demographics, and TCM’s viewers are the most passionate, knowledgeable, informed and intelligent moviegoers on earth, are overwhelmingly older and white, though not entirely, with the American middle class and upper middle class well represented. I met married couples from Long Beach, Atlanta and New York City, bloggers from Scotland, filmmakers and movie geeks from Hollywood and Asia and bright executives from TCM, the studios and movie industry centers around the world. It’s an amazing, whip-smart group of people. For instance, I talked with three young men from New York at the closing party whose favorite film was Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) starring Buster Keaton, which was accompanied by a live orchestra. These guys knew everything about the movie and its cast, history and availability. In my experience, the guests are better informed and more knowledgeable about movies than those asking questions.

My favorite part of the festival is watching movies with politically incorrect audiences and then speaking freely about the films, ideas and themes afterwards. It is refreshing and recharging. Everyone has a different perspective. Everyone has favorites. Everyone has constructive criticism of the festival, the industry, Hollywood and its environs. In other words, they’re freethinkers driven by values and a sense that the best in life is achievable, realizable and worth fighting for—and that the ideal can and ought to be projected in movies, then thought, written and spoken about with seriousness of purpose.

This is the best aspect of TCM’s Classic Film Festival; that movies once made should be seen, uncut and considered, discussed and, in a certain sense, revered. Reverence for classic movies, in keeping with the channel’s and company’s founder Ted Turner’s original vision, is what Turner Classic Movies does best. It’s what drives the channel, its products, growth and progress and its host and audience. It’s what keeps me watching TCM and wanting to see and talk about movies with those who do, too. Let others say “it’s only a movie”. TCM’s Classic Film Festival is for those who know better.

Jesus Garcia, Dolce & Gabbana vs. Elton John

The climax of the New Left in American politics continues, built as much on faith as is the rise of the religious right among conservatives, bolstering the idea that a new dark age looms over Western civilization. For those inclined to think that’s hyperbole, if the success of Duck Dynasty and its supporters’ intimidation campaign to pressure a television network to rescind a suspension does not demonstrate wider cultural acceptance of archaic ideas, there’s today’s stark battle of words and ideas between gay celebrities, too. More on this later.

For now, consider the possible election of a New Left blank slate, merely the latest such candidate, as mayor of Chicago. His name is Jesus Garcia, though apparently he goes by the name Chuy (pronounced chewy), and he is the subject of a blistering report in the New York Times. The article by Julie Bosmanmarch begins:

When asked for his position on the pressing issues facing Chicago, Jesus G. Garcia, the man trying to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel, often has an answer — and sometimes more than one. When Mr. Garcia was recently asked what he would do about the red-light cameras that endlessly irk Chicagoans, he said that he would keep some of them. But almost two weeks ago, he had said he would get rid of them all. On the nearly 50 public schools that Mr. Emanuel closed during his first term, Mr. Garcia initially said that he would reopen some of them. Later, he said that he has “not committed” to such a move. As recently as January, Mr. Garcia said he opposed using public parkland for an Obama presidential library. Then this month, he reversed course, saying that he would support using parkland for a library.

So, in the wake of other New Left blank slate candidates in recent years, such as Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio—to the extent they were blank slates to obscure, distract or divert from their New Left political philosophy—how do Chicagoans respond to this elusive candidate who “presents himself as a warm, inclusive alternative” to Chicago’s incumbent mayor, himself a New Leftist, Rahm Emanuel, nicknamed “Rahmbo” for being an abrasive power-luster?

Judging by Garcia’s unexpected electoral success, pushing Emanuel into a runoff as a New Left Democrat who’s too pro-capitalist (!) for Chicago, and the Times piece, Chicagoans may be ready to swap a government-controlled economy for a government-controlled life. This is what they’re likely to get under Jesus Garcia, 58, a county commissioner, former alderman and Chicago community organizer like Obama. Garcia, who came to America as a child, admires Cesar Chavez and seeks to impose “social justice” with more government control imposed by more police officers, giving government-run schools “back to the people” which usually means less school choice, more school dictates and higher taxes. As the Times described the views of one voter, Rosa Alfaro: “[S]he is not sure how Mr. Garcia would fix the pension crisis, or pay for the new police officers he has promised to hire, or improve the struggling public schools. But she is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

In the words of one of his biggest backers, people have faith in Jesus Garcia: “They’ll trust him, they’ll believe in him.”

With faith—in the state (“public” schools, TSA, NSA, DWP, ObamaCare, etc.), in God, in the collective—rising above reason, and Mayor DeBlasio and President Obama among others as examples of radical New Left politicians taking enormous power over people’s lives in real, demonstrable terms, Jesus Garcia may become mayor of Chicago. Will Chicago’s people have faith in the blank slate Jesus Garcia? No one in Chicagoland should be surprised if and when people will.

Rational, secular and freedom-loving Americans should look to pop superstar Elton John for an example of what to do when others go by faith and announce an intention to impose their dogma on everyone. Gay fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, a former couple who created Dolce & Gabbana, told an Italian magazine that they oppose gay adoptions. In true Duck Dynasty/Islamic state/Iranian ayatollah fashion, the gay designers proclaimed:

The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”

Speaking as a religious fundamentalist, Dolce said that procreation “must be an act of love”, adding: “You are born to a mother and a father – or at least that’s how it should be…I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Uteri [for] rent, semen chosen from a catalog. The family is not a fad. In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.”

When Elton John, who with his married partner has “synthetic” kids, promptly denounced them and called for a boycott of Dolce & Gabbana, pointing out that in vitro fertilization, which the Pope also condemns, adds value to the lives of heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, the designers affirmed their position and denounced Elton John as being close-minded, a favorite ploy of religionists, projecting their own bigotry to deflect from their irrationality.

This is the new faith, the new dogma, the new religion, same as the old. Watch for conservatives to rally around Dolce & Gabbana. Watch for leftists to rally against the designers, if not exactly around Elton John, a great artist with an independent, rational mind. The backlash against the New Left‘s incessant egalitarianism, pushing the transgendered as the same as gays, for instance, and other irrational ideas such as state-sponsored abortion and health care, is a stronger, more virulent strain of religious faith in fundamentalism. Besides the kneeling quarterback, Duck Dynasty patriarch, preacher, priest, pope, rabbi, mullah or ayatollah, add the gay fashion designer to those doubling down for a newer, darker age of faith, not reason.

It is fast approaching, it is happening and it is real. Watch it. Look to the rare, exceptional individual, such as Elton John, to act like a man, which is to say to act in his self-interest, defend his values—in this case, his family—and speak out against injustice with neither equivocation nor hesitation. He is the hero. He is the one who acts, who matters. He is the civilized man. He is the enlightened man: a man of both reason and action. This type of man is the avenger. Emulate this type of man if you want to live free.

Go ahead and feel free to boycott Dolce & Gabbana—also Duck Dynasty and absolutely reject and oppose dealings with religious dictatorships such as Iran—but above all stop putting others first and speak up for reason and justice. Start by naming the irrational when you see it, hear it and notice it going unnoticed, silently sanctioned, implying everyone’s consent. Don’t go quietly into the darkest times, places and chambers. Think, study, speak up, self-activate and don’t let up. Do it fast—or be damned to live under someone’s “supernatural sense of belonging”, whatever New Left or conservative religion or gang claims you as one of its own.

Merchandise links

Buy The Diving Board by Elton John

Buy The Union by Elton John & Leon Russell

Reference links

New York Times: “In Chicago Mayor’s Race, Garcia Is Upbeat About Prospects but Vague on Plans” By Julie Bosmanmarch 

My Thoughts on Activism by Scott Holleran 

Music Review: The Union by Elton John & Leon Russell

Music Review: The Diving Board by Elton John

The Shadow of Selma

King at Selma, courtesy of Bob Adelson

King at Selma, courtesy of Bob Adelson

On the 50th anniversary of the historic violence during a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, President Barack Obama once again disgraced the nation based on individual rights. He did so by minimizing the history of what happened at Selma 50 years ago, when peaceful Americans were physically assaulted and murdered by the government, reducing its importance, distorting its meaning and telling lies about America.

I say this because, while the first intellectual to publicly name Obama as fundamentally both dishonest and anti-American was Leonard Peikoff, I think that if America is to survive Obama’s calamitous presidency, Peikoff must be the first of many more.

Amid distorted visions, lies and coded signals for what he really aims to do, as against what he says he wants to do, Obama talked about the need to “roll back poverty” despite six years of failed economic policies and incessant dismantling of capitalism through massive government controls and takeovers of work, banking, business, finance and industry.

The president’s dishonesty worsened, as he railed against voting laws targeting certain types of people while he enacts voting laws targeting certain types of people. By reducing the historic injustice against blacks to the so-called right to vote, he insidiously persuades the passive listener into forgetting that Selma should be remembered for its unjust actions by the state against the individual, clearing a path for Selma to be revised in history as some vague, faceless collective crusade for some vague, generic, automatic government voting mechanism. Never mind the bloodshed at Selma that ought to be remembered as part of a struggle by the individual against the state. Blank out that the so-called “right to vote” is meaningless without the right to live, think, create, make money and pursue happiness or that the politician for “voting rights” is destroying individual rights by dictate or “executive order”.

Obama’s dishonesty climaxed as the speech went on. Referring to claims of race-baiting, he invoked his own administration’s report exonerating a cop in a local police shooting, which the black attorney general admitted found no evidence of wrongdoing by the white policeman who had been accused of racism, manslaughter and murder. Obama distorted the truth of the Justice department’s report—which, crucially, dispels the notion that the person who’d been shot had his hands up—baiting with some discovered racist e-mail messages to discard and evade the fact that police acted properly. “We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that [charges of race-baiting are] not true,” Obama said, baiting for race and evading the facts. “We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

Most Americans should know by now that it is the nation’s current president that casts the shadow of racism. Time and again, whether denouncing a white New England policeman or evading his administration’s exoneration of a white Midwestern policeman, it is Obama, who views his own life as a story based on race, who rushes to judge based on race. It is Obama who prejudges, judges and misjudges based on race. It is Obama who judges, and calls upon Americans to judge, based not on the sum total of a person’s virtues in action—what the Reverend Dr. King, Jr. rightly called the content of one’s character—but based on the color of one’s skin. The shadow of racism, which Ayn Rand rightly called a primitive form of collectivism, is cast by the president of the United States.

In this sense, Obama at Selma, having earlier this year exploited Oprah Winfrey’s mediocre movie Selma, dishonors King at Selma. Barack Obama belongs on the side of Selma’s oppressor, not on the side of Selma’s oppressed.

King in his magnanimously peaceful crusade sought to enlighten, unite and liberate Americans, to obtain for the wrongly deprived their inalienable individual rights. Obama in his unilaterally powerful government action seeks to confuse, divide and control Americans, forcing those he regards as unfairly privileged to serve those he regards as wronged. It should therefore by now be clear that Barack Obama lied when he invoked the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln those nine years ago in Springfield, Illinois. Obama lied yesterday, too, when he told those gathered at Selma:

America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can.”

Yes we can…what? On answering this question, contradictory Obama, who is himself the one person who regards America as his project to fix, blanks out.

The noble vow that “We shall overcome” refers to rising above the actions of an unjust government. America’s founders made reference to “We the people” …in order to form a more perfect union based on man’s rights. Obama’s Yes We Can serves only to negate and destroy: Yes We Can nationalize the medical profession. Yes We Can indiscriminately spy on Americans. Yes We Can destroy capitalism. Yes We Can refuse to wage war on states that sponsor Islamic terrorism. Yes We Can dictate what you eat, whether you travel, whether you use and what you say on the Internet. Yes We Can means No You Can’t do anything without the permission of the U.S. government.

“Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect,” Barack Obama said yesterday at Selma. This in practice means that Obama’s damage is not yet done; Obama the destroyer is bent on total destruction of the United States of America, its founding ideals and its highest laws. At its core, his Yes We Can means that Obama’s unthinking worshippers (“We”) can destroy America. With ObamaCare, the NSA, TSA and a gauntlet of government controls, and an unnamed Islamic enemy unchallenged across the world and appeased and encouraged to make catastrophic weapons, America’s end is closer than ever.

Obama closed his speech at Selma with another lie—a false profession of faith—that all Americans “believe in the power of an awesome God.” As usual, the president of the United States is 100 percent wrong. All Americans do not believe in God, let alone in “the power of an awesome God”, though Obama acts as if he wants Americans to believe that he possesses the power of an awesome God.

America is not a collective. America consists of Americans who are individuals. Some are believers. Some are atheists. All are considered to be infidels by America’s enemies, which is why all Americans should hold individual rights—including the right to not believe in a supernatural being—above all. While America’s Islamic enemies unite around what Benjamin Netanyahu rightly calls death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad, Americans must reject Obama’s conflation of the injustice of the past with a future of total government control and instead unite around the truth that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are protected by individual rights.

To do so, Americans must step out of the shadow of America’s dark past and away from the shadow of this dishonest, dishonorable American president and into a new, reunified enlightenment marching as a nation of united individuals toward achieving the promise of the future the man on the mountaintop once so bravely described.

Reference Link

Read Obama’s speech