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March 29, 2011

John Roberts: women's rights crusader?

John Roberts wearing his NOW pin

The Supreme Court heard arguments today for the Wal-Mart class-action gender discrimination suit. Some of the justices were questioning whether the women in the suit, Wal-Mart employees who say they've been underpaid and passed over for promotions in favor of their male co-workers, have enough in common with each other to all be part of the same suit. It's a reasonable question: there are many thousands of women in the suit, a few hundred of whom are the store managers who would have made the decision to underpay their female employees.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the case shines a light on the recalcitrant issue of equal pay for equal work, a central issue in women's organizations and labor groups for many decades.

But at today's hearing, a surprise supporter of pay equality may have stepped into the spotlight: Chief Justice John Roberts.

In looking at statistics about men's and women's pay at Wal-Mart, and men's and women's pay nationwide, Roberts asked, "Is it true that the Wal-Mart pay disparity across the company is less than in the nation?"

The lawyer for the plaintiffs replied that comparing Wal-Mart pay statistics to national statistics wasn't relevant, which I think is code for "Wal-Mart's pay gap is actually smallerthan the rest of the country's."

But did you see what Justice Roberts did there? By asking that question, he might have made the case for the Wal-Mart employees just a little bit harder, but he's really saying this: "Hey, look, people, the real question here isn't why is Wal-Mart, the world's largest employer, underpaying its female workers. It's this: why are women EVERYWHERE making 77 cents on the male dollar? Why do men get paid more than women even within female-dominated occupations? Equality now, my sisters! Bring the justice!"

Senator Hillary Clinton re-introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2007; it's been brought up year after year with no success. Going after Wal-Mart and other discriminatory employers is important, but it's going to be a lot easier to do that when the laws are better.

March 25, 2011

My Dinner With "Community"

My Dinner With Andre

Have you been watching "Community"? The show about a bunch of oddball friends going to a community college, that has Joel McHale and Trudy from "Mad Men" and Chevy Chase in it?

This is now the funniest show that nobody seems to be watching. It's the only show I watch that regularly makes me think, "I can't believe someone's doing this on TV."

Last night's episode, "Critical Film Studies" [video], is a perfect example. It's set up like an extended reference to Tarantino movies, mostly Pulp Fiction and a little bit of Reservoir Dogs, and then suddenly about 2/3 of the way through, it turns out that the whole episode is a long-form My Dinner With André joke.

WHAT? Yes! The 1981 movie where Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory have dinner and talk about life and their various experiences in the world. It set the bar for later movies about people talking where nothing actually happens: there might not be Richard Linklater or some of the weirder Gus Van Sant movies without this movie.

But it's hardly the kind of thing you tend to see on a network sitcom at 8:00. Maybe this is why fewer than 5 million people watch it and NY Mag named it the best show last year. It's the weirdest thing on network TV.

March 23, 2011

Liz and Dick

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in 1970

Hollywood and celebrity obsession today don't have much in common with the era of Elizabeth Taylor, but her death still feels like the end of some lost, revered image of glamour and excess (see tan, makeup, cleavage, and jewelry, above.) She was such a gigantic star for so long, she was so beautiful, and she so far outlived her stardom and beauty. In a lot of ways, we've been losing her for the last 30 years. Here's the NY Times obituary.

Last summer, Vanity Fair published an excerpt of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (my one-time professors) called Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. It's a great read. I knew the world was obsessed with Liz and Dick, as the papers called them, and their tumultuous, scandalous, tabloid-ready relationship, but I didn't know that this obsession formed the blueprint for every other media-saturating celebrity affair, marriage, and breakup that has become a self-perpetuating industry.

Liz Smith, gossip columnist at the Post until 2009, was writing about celebrities through the entire Burton-Taylor era, and has some wonderful stuff to say about why the world's appetite for Elizabeth Taylor and the couple was so insatiable:

"On the face of it, Elizabeth Taylor was just totally arrogant. She'd walk out in Capri pants and her Cleopatra makeup and her kerchief and go off to whatever local restaurant and drink up a storm with Burton. That's part of what excited the public: her vulgarity and her arrogance and the money. Oh God, their love story had everything."

The details of their consumption are spectacularly lavish. Despite owning six homes, they mostly stayed in hotels, and sometimes ordered room service to be flown in from other countries. Liz Smith points out that only one celebrity couple has ever been condemned by the Vatican (for "erotic vagrancy".) At the height of their married fame, nearly half of the US film industry's income came from movies starring one or both of them.

One fact I learned about Elizabeth Taylor today: she converted to Judaism when she was 27, and used to fight with Richard Burton about who was more Jewish. And here's a really cute photo of her:

Elizabeth Taylor, white bikini top

March 21, 2011

Who's Older?™: Meteoric rises

Russell Brand has had a big couple of years. Hardly anyone in the US knew who he was before Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now he's starring in movies and saturating late night talk shows (like this Conan clip from a few months ago, which is hilariously manic and infectious.) He's the only reason I want to see Arthur when it comes out in a couple of weeks, and that one also stars Helen Mirren.

Here's who's having a big year now: Michael Fassbender. The first time I saw him was in Inglourious Basterds, then last year's ickily disturbing but good Fish Tank, and this year he's starring in pretty much every exciting director's new movie: Haywire by Steven Soderbergh, A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, the new X-Men movie (by the guy who did Kick-Ass), Shame by new-ish British director Steve McQueen, and the directorial debut by Brendan Gleeson. Coming up later he's got Guy Ritchie's Excalibur (!) and Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

It's like every director out there watched Inglourious Basterds and said "that craggy-faced 1940's guy's got something." Entertainment Weekly did a piece about him titled "Meet Your Next Obsession" because of how hugely famous he's going to get this year. Right now, he's playing Rochester in Jane Eyre, and he's really great: blustery, tortured, but still funny. And manly. As IFC News' Matt Singer points out, "Fassbender, with chiseled features and simple, unfussy handsomeness, represents our modern ideal of what masculinity used to be, before it was screwed up by dorks like me."

He definitely looks like a man. The question is: how old a man?

It's time to play Who's Older?™!

Michael Fassbender and Russell Brand

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Michael Fassbender or Russell Brand?

March 17, 2011

Arcadia back on Broadway

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Raul Esparza and Lia Williams

I went to see Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia last night, on the final night of previews before the critics review it tonight. I'd seen it once before during its first run in London in 1994, back when I was a hardcore theater nerd, and at that time it was the best, most perfect play I'd ever seen. It was complicated and cool, funny and touching, an unabashed adoration of poetry that also made math and quantum physics into something accessible and neat.

The revival production is pretty good, and there are some wonderful moments and a few stand-out performances, but it didn't have the same magical spark that it had for me back in 1994. A theme that unites the two parts of the play, one set in 1809 and one in the present day, is the second law of thermodynamics, the idea that the flow of heat and energy only moves in one direction. When you throw a ball through a window, even if you gather up all the glass and put the pieces back together, you can never regain the energy that was released when the glass shattered into pieces. It's gone.

In the physical world, this is the same thing as entropy: once the milk is in the coffee, you can't stir it back out again. Once you've had your mind blown by one production of Arcadia, you can't unblow your mind and walk into a theater in 2011 expecting the same thing to happen again.

Still, there's some great stuff in this play. Both literature and physics are held up as the things that make life meaningful, and dismissed as esoteric nonsense. Billy Crudup, an arrogant and unbalanced Byron scholar, says: "I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole -- who gives a shit?" [you can listen to it on today's NPR story] There's a beautiful explanation of chaos theory by Raul Esparza (in the photo above), a stage actor I'd never seen before but who is totally phenomenal and great.

All this theatrical science reminds me a class my college offered that was popular among terrified English majors: Physics For Poets, a course that's been part of Patton Oswalt's routine. Hope Arcadia's on the syllabus.

Mostly, this play made me really want Tom Stoppard to write another one, already. He does a lot of rewrites and punch-ups of big Hollywood movie scripts, usually uncredited. I dug around a little, and Tom Stoppard contributed to the following movies, not necessarily what you'd expect from such an eggheady playwright:

Sleepy Hollow: he added Ichabod Crane's squeamishness, which is a lot of what made it funny.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Steven Spielberg brought him in at the last minute to rewrite the script (Stoppard also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.) Spielberg says "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue."

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas brought him in to redo dialogue (maybe not the greatest testament to Stoppard's chops.)

The Bourne Ultimatum: He did a draft of the script, but acknowledges that there's not a lot of his dialogue in the final version. Not much of anybody's dialogue, really.

UPDATE: Emily pointed out to me that Fermat's Last Theorem, which is a topic of heated discussion in Arcadia, also appears in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Higher math is very hot right now! I've seen a few mathematically-oriented discussions of the GWPWF treatment of it, which suggest that Stieg Larsson maybe didn't have the greatest understanding of math and what proving theorems is all about (in reality it's not at all like solving a puzzle, apparently.)

While Stoppard was writing Arcadia, a lot was going on in the real world regarding Fermat's Last Theorem: it was actually solved in 1994, while the play was still running. The 13 year-old probable genius, Thomasina, posits that the Theorem was a joke created by Fermat to drive future mathematicians nuts. That reference probably went over better when we all thought it was still unsolvable.

Here's a full list of references to the Theorem in literature.

March 14, 2011

Bobcat Goldthwait's next insane movie

Bobcat Goldthwait

I don't know how much you've heard about Bobcat Goldthwait and his career as a movie director. A year or two ago, I saw his latest movie, World's Greatest Dad, after hearing that it was some kind of super-dark hyper-cynical comedy that was sort of like if Heathers didn't pull any punches.

It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, certainly unlike any other Robin Williams comedy, and was simultaneously really funny and really sick. Roger Ebert thought it actually wasn't dark enough (it does sort of sell out at the end.) It made all of $200,000 at the box office.

His previous movie is called Sleeping Dogs Lie, a sweet romantic comedy about what happens when Anna Draper from "Mad Men" reveals an embarrassing early sexual encounter to her fiance, and he freaks out. Because it involves, of course, a dog. That one made $600,000, almost entirely in foreign markets.

Clearly this guy is doing something much more interesting than you'd expect if you only know him from standup and the Police Academy movies. First, he directed some "Chappelle's Show" episodes. Then he directed a bunch of Jimmy Kimmel's show. Then he made disturbing comedies about bestiality, masturbation, and suicide. It seems like he's waging total assault on all arbitrary standards of morality and mannered phoniness, and most pop culture, too.

The other day, Goldthwait was on Adam Carolla's podcast show talking about his next movie, encouragingly titled God Bless America. This one is about a middle-aged guy who happens to see a show like "My Super Sweet 16" featuring a standard-issue spoiled ditz, goes into a rage, and "drives 400 miles and kills that girl." Then the guy and a classmate of the dead girl steal a car and "drive around and kill people."

Obviously this one's going to be worth seeing.

It'll be produced by Richard Kelly, another admirably mental filmmaker, whose last movie, The Box, may not have made much/any money, but it sure was a radically weird intergalactic freak-out! Kelly's next movie is going to be called Corpus Christi, about a mentally unstable Iraq vet. I think it's safe to say he'll take that premise to its most bizarre conclusion.

These two guys are like an imaginary collaboration of Werner Herzog and John Waters, if they both continued making really great movies despite not making any money.

March 9, 2011

NPR and our screwed up news industry

Vivian Schiller from NPR, on Fox News

If I don't think about it too hard, I can almost understand today's ouster of Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR. Even if she wasn't the one who got suckered by a team of fake donors and made negative comments about the Tea Party, Republicans, and, awkwardly, the Jewish-controlled media, (though there's "not too much Jewish influence at NPR",) and even if the person who did make those comments made it clear that he was voicing his own opinions and not those of NPR, she's still the boss, so she's ultimately responsible for how NPR is perceived.

But at the same time, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This is in part because I personally agree with some of what Ron Schiller said while he was secretly recorded by con artists--the Republican party really has been hijacked by some extremists, and a lot of those extremists really do seem to be xenophobic.

It's also because members of the right-wing media loudly announce their irrational negative beliefs about Democrats and the left all the time. Roger Ailes can say that NPR is run by Nazis, and hosts of Fox News programs can call the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrators "union thugs" spewing "vitriol and violent rhetoric".

What makes Vivian Schiller's ouster sort of understandable is that NPR gets public funding, and Fox doesn't. OK. But that funding is only 1% of NPR's budget, and 9% of member stations' budgets. And the guy who made the questionable statements isn't a journalist or involved in news in any way; he's a fundraiser who's on his way out to his next job, and, frankly, he's probably already sort of mentally checked out.

In my opinion, NPR does real, thoughtful, high-quality reporting, without any identifiable political agenda. In my opinion, Fox News often falls far short of that. But Fox also seems to understand that there really isn't any such thing as pure, unbiased reporting. There never has been. The wealthy classes have always controlled major media in this country, and business interests are always central to news agency operations. I sometimes admire that outlets like Fox can so wholeheartedly embrace this, and not even try to pretend they're impartial.

But NPR and other public news services seem to strive for a noble, if ultimately illusory, concept of neutrality in reporting. I guess that's why Schiller had to resign: any evidence of bias in reporting lessens your credibility, if you believe that reporting can ever be free from bias.

What I really wish had happened is this: if all that separates Fox News and NPR and the standards we apply in the personal opinions their staff are allowed to voice is the little bit of public funding that NPR gets, I wish Vivian Schiller had stepped up and said that NPR was returning all the public funding it's received this year, and would no longer accept public funds. Let the public funds go only to local nonprofit stations, not to NPR itself. Yeah, it would be financially difficult, member stations would suffer, and her board would hate it. But if that financial freedom allows NPR to do its good work without getting harassed by a Congress that doesn't see the value of real reporting, it's worth it.

March 6, 2011

The Book of Mormon is really, really nice

The Book of Mormon on Broadway

The "South Park" guys' musical, The Book of Mormon, is still in previews, but when this thing opens, it's going to be a gigantic hit. These guys know how to write songs that are breathtakingly vulgar, and as light and catchy as the best stuff Rodgers and Hart ever did. They're funny, they're shocking, and they have a chorus you'll be singing (very, very quietly) all week. People are going to be doing these songs at karaoke bars by this summer.

So is it offensive? I'd seen the "All About the Mormons?" episode of "South Park" [video] from a few years back that actually was pretty mean-spirited. So I was a little concerned that all that unfunny, mean "dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb" kind of stuff from that episode would work its way into the Broadway show, and I'd come out of it feeling like a jerk.

The show is like the opposite of that "South Park" episode. I don't know if they changed their approach in order to have a successful show that people would genuinely love, or if they realized that, as Parker said, "A show that just bashes Mormons for two hours wouldn't be fun."

Sure, there are some aspects of Mormon beliefs that are odd and questionable and easy to make fun of, but what religion doesn't have those? The play includes all that stuff, but it's good-natured and, as many early reports are calling it, sweet. A brave Mormon family who attended the first performance found Matt Stone afterwards to tell him they loved it.

So, OK, one Mormon family thought it was good--we'll see if what happens once Glenn Beck decides to see how it measures up to "Spider-Man".

It's obscene and vulgar and totally profane, but the core value of Mormonism that's referred to over and over again is that you should always be really nice to everyone. As the creators say, it's a pro-faith, traditional, big Broadway musical, with a singing, dancing Johnnie Cochran. By the end it's sincerely devout, in its way. If you want to see it, it's probably a good idea to get your tickets now before all the gushing reviews come out.

March 3, 2011

Who's Older?™: Scarlett's Older Men

Today we've been hearing more reports about Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn spending time together beyond mere awards show afterparty canoodling: they were seen in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico this week while Scarlett was on a day off from shooting Cameron Crowe's new movie We Bought a Zoo (which hopefully will be better than her last three movies.) Guess Sean's taking time off from running tent cities in Haiti.

Her choice of an older fella, especially so soon after splitting from her husband Ryan Reynolds, brought to mind another example of her taste in gentlemen of a certain age: Benecio Del Toro, who allegedly made out (and more?) with a then-teenaged Scarlett in an elevator, semi-confirmed via sort of gross insinuation from both of them. That happened right after the Oscars, too!

Time for another round of Who's Older?™!

Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro

Both are great actors. Both are equal parts sexy and sleazy. Both dig Scarlett. But which one's older?

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Sean Penn or Benicio Del Toro?

As a funny little aside, there's a scene in Sofia Coppola's movie Somewhere when Stephen Dorff runs into Benicio in the elevator at the Chateau Marmont, which is where the "making out or having sex or something" with Scarlett occurred. Good one, Sofia.

March 2, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau

I caught a screening of The Adjustment Bureau, which is not one of the greatest movies of 2011, but still a fun time. This is the one with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as love-struck New Yorkers on the run from a group of stern-looking men in really nice suits who want to keep the two of them apart in order to maintain some mysterious plan.

The most interesting thing about the movie to me is all the other movies it reminds me of. It's got the shadowy figures freezing time and manipulating people without their knowledge, like in Dark City, the pseudo-spiritual sci-fi paranoia of The Matrix, and the sentimental neurologically-fated romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's warmer than Inception, but not as smart.

Being original isn't everything, and even with all its similarities to other movies, this one still has its own style. I especially like the old-timey technology that the members of the Bureau use in their work: notebooks (the kind with paper in them), fedoras, doors. A lot depends on which way you turn a doorknob in the world of the Bureau. I also like the name change from the original Philip K. Dick story that the movie is based on: changing "Adjustment Team" to "Adjustment Bureau" adds a sensibility of 1950's institutions and oak-paneled rooms in ancient office buildings, which is where a lot of the action takes place.

It's the first movie from screenwriter George Nolfi, who wrote Ocean's 12 and The Bourne Ultimatum. This guy is comfortable working with stories by other people. The writing here is not wonderful, with some real clunkers that ruin a few scenes, but his direction is nice and brisk. And he got a great cast: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are so easy with each other and funny, a huge step up from your typical romantic leads. John Slattery is good as a long-suffering, sort of inept middle manager, and from the moment Terence Stamp steps on the screen with his Darren Aronofsky scarf, he owns the movie. I love Anthony Mackie, but his character has a little bit of the stereotypical sage black man who exists only to dispense homespun wisdom to the white hero.

One other weird thing: the members of the Bureau are all walking around using old-fashioned notebooks and doorknobs to bend time and space, but then there are these other guys who work for them who use some kind of brainwave-disrupting laser wands and Tyvek suits.

The Adjustment Bureau's mind control

I wish they'd stuck with the mid-20th century aesthetic and used Theremins and leather aprons to do the dirty work of mind control.

About March 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in March 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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