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Monday, March 31, 2008

Hitting On PG-13 To Make 21

In late 2002, I read Ben Mezrich's terrific book, "Bringing Down The House," about the MIT blackjack teams that went to Vegas with a team card-counting system and made millions. I was so fascinated by the story that I read it in a day, and then spent an hour talking about it with Mezrich on my show. I've dug that interview out of my archives and posted it here.

During our discussion, he mentioned that Kevin Spacey had bought the rights to the book and planned to make it into a movie. Unfortunately, the Hollywood engine grinds slowly, so it took five years to get it made, but the movie finally opened this weekend with the title "21" (because in the interim, a Steve Martin/Queen Latifah movie had already come out with the title "Bringing Down The House").

After several introductory scenes that set the characters and place, you see the newest member of the team being recruited, taught the skills and the system, and then he and his teammates go to Vegas and make a lot of money very quickly, all the while enjoying their high-roller life to the fullest. It's a helluva ride, as the lead character gets torn between his mundane weekday life as an MIT student trying to win a scholarship to Harvard Medical School and his weekend life as a party-boy big-bet blackjack player.

Spacey gives his usual solid performance as the professor who runs and puts the team of students together (in real life, no professor was involved, but Spacey couldn't pass for a college kid these days). The rest of the cast, including Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth and their co-stars as the blackjack-playing MIT students, and Lawrence Fishburne as a casino surveillance thug, are all just about right -- and it's nice to see Jack McGee again, after his character was killed off last summer on "Rescue Me."

Remember how the movie version of "Pearl Harbor" made the Japanese attack on the US revolve around a love triangle (Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett), and the success of "Titanic" was less about the disaster at sea than Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet playing King Of The World? That's what was credited with bringing a PG-13 audience into the theater over and over again.

Director Robert Luketic and the writers of "21" have followed the same strategy and inserted a love affair between Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth. Fortunately, they don't overdo it, and the relationship doesn't become the fulcrum of the story.

But it becomes quickly obvious that while Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allen Loeb stick to the spirit of Mezrich's story, they forsake some of the details in their zeal to appeal to those PG-13's:

  • The actual MIT students recruited for the blackjack team were Asians and Mediterranean minorities -- because the organizers knew that Vegas pit bosses were less likely to be suspicious of them throwing around huge sums of money at the tables -- yet Luketic has Caucasians playing the (romantic) leads on the team;
  • The characters go to what must be the only Vegas strip clubs where the dancers never show their naked breasts (!);
  • Although the true story took place less than 20 years ago, Luketic chose to modernize the story to present-day, which allowed him to shoot in Vegas locales like the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood casinos that didn't even exist when the MIT kids first hit town.
Perhaps I'm being too picky because I liked the book so much and was entranced by the true story that Mezrich told. If you didn't read it, you'll probably enjoy the movie, which already had a solid opening weekend, with a box office take of nearly $24 million.

I hope you'll get a chance to read the Mezrich book, which has just been re-released as a tie-in with the movie. Or, if you want to see a better version which hews more closely to the story Mezrich told, get the DVDs of "Breaking Vegas," a 2004 documentary that ran on the History Channel, including interviews with Mezrich and actual members of the MIT blackjack team.

Listen to my December 9, 2002 interview with Ben Mezrich about his book, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Crisis In The Night

Interesting piece in the Washington Post about those "3am phone call" commercials the Clinton campaign ran a few weeks ago.

According to presidential historians and former White House advisers, the president probably wouldn't be awakened to deal with whatever crisis was occurring, because you wouldn't want the commander-in-chief to make snap decisions while bleary-eyed. Woodrow Wilson, who led the nation through World War I, once explained that "no one could pass intelligent judgment when awakened from a sound sleep and that he was not going to try."

On the other hand, sometimes a president who's fully awake doesn't respond right away to an emergency. I remember one guy who sat there reading "The Pet Goat" to an elementary school class for several minutes after being told the US was under attack.

Knuckleheads In The News ®

Today's stories include a snake in a duffel bag, a surprise in a speeding ticket, and a man in high heels.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Knuckleheads In The News ®

Today's stories include a boyfriend who wouldn't wake up, a man who really doesn't like the post office, and a bottomless drunk (in more ways than one).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

This podcast is made possible by Champion Windows Siding & Patio Rooms.
They've done great work for me, and I recommend them to you!
For factory-direct savings, call 314-692-7300 or visit their showroom.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Friday Night Lights

Good news for fans of "Friday Night Lights": Kyle Chandler tells David Bianculli that the show will go back into production in June and be on the air for its third season this fall.

Knuckleheads In The News ®

Today's stories include the call-me-back robber, the don't-shoot home installation, and the chewed-up tax refund.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

This podcast is made possible by Champion Windows Siding & Patio Rooms.
They've done great work for me, and I recommend them to you!
For factory-direct savings, call 314-692-7300 or visit their showroom.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Idol Predictability

If you're an "American Idol" contestant, and you're backstage on elimination night, and there are only two other contestants with you, and Ryan Seacrest calls your name to come to the stage to announce whether you're in the bottom three for the week, you have to know you're safe. "Idol" always go for the drama with those last two, so there's no reason for you to look all worried and upset -- you're going to be safe for another week, guaranteed.

After seven seasons of this formula, how do they not know this already?

Then again, this is a show whose viewers are keeping boring cute-boy Jason Castro (this year's John Stevens) and instantly-forgettable Kristy Lee Cook alive, but sending home Chikezie, who was getting better every week and can really sing. The judges keep talking about taking chances and being original, but the fans go for bland pablum-spewers rather than those who take risks.

Knuckleheads In The News ®

Today's stories include a horse in a hospital, bugs on a birthday dinner, and teens at the wrong counter.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

This podcast is made possible by Champion Windows Siding & Patio Rooms.
They've done great work for me, and I recommend them to you!
For factory-direct savings, call 314-692-7300 or visit their showroom.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hello, Hulu

I've been taking a look around Hulu, the new video website from NBC/Universal and Fox, and have been pleasantly surprised at the ease of use and the depth of content. While the "most popular" list contains clips from "Saturday Night Live" and lots of teen sex comedies, there's also an archive of true classics.

Not only does Hulu offer clips, but entire movies and TV series you can watch for free, including contemporary shows like "House," "Heroes," "Friday Night Lights" and "The Riches." It also has full episodes of older series from "Kojak" and "The Rockford Files" to "Barney Miller" and "WKRP In Cincinnati."

Netflix can't be happy about the competition that Hulu brings. While Netflix offers a "watch now" option via their website, you have to be a paid subscriber to watch their movies online. On Hulu, the content is free, with the option of embedded commercial breaks, or you can sit through a pre-roll ad for a couple of minutes, and then watch the entire movie without interruption .

Similarly, when you watch some clips, you'll see a sponsor logo pop up, which can be a little distracting. That's the bargain many people will make, however -- a willingness to sit through advertising in order to view copyrighted material (which YouTube and Google Video can't do), whenever they want, as long as the advertising isn't too obtrusive and doesn't take too long.

One advantage Hulu content has over downloading movies via iTunes or Amazon's Unbox is that you're under no time pressure. With those services, you have to watch within 24 hours or the content becomes disabled (even though you paid for it). On Hulu, you can return to the movie or other video anytime you like, scroll to wherever you left off, and resume at your leisure. That's a big plus, and it's free.

This is part of the new distribution wave for video content, which may soon make the DVD obsolete. But "soon" doesn't mean this year, because there are a couple of obstacles to overcome.

First, the technology for downloading video online and watching it on the big TV in your living room hasn't been perfected yet (although Apple TV and similar hardware are a good start). Second, the difference between streaming a movie and watching a DVD is that the latter comes with all sorts of extras -- featurettes, commentary tracks, deleted scenes, alternate audio, subtitles, etc. -- that add even more to the viewing experience.

Still, Hulu gets the clip mentality just right, and it's not hard to envision plenty of business people, college students, and others using their broadband connections to watch both short- and long-form content as it streams online.

So far, Hulu, well done. You have developed a new way to monetize existing content with minimal hassle for the user. Now, let's hope you're sharing that revenue with the creative people responsible for the content in the first place.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Merging in Space

The Justice Department has approved the merger of the two satellite radio companies, Sirius and XM. Now the FCC must okay the deal, which is likely.

I don't know what this will mean for consumers -- I don't subscribe to either service -- but I do know that it means fewer jobs, a subject I'm particularly sensitive to these days. The beach is starting to get awfully crowded.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Over and Overmyer

When Fark TV sent reporters to the "American Idol" auditions last fall, little did they know they'd catch a few minutes with eventual top-twelver Amanda Overmyer, and discover the secret of her husky he-man voice (wait for it)...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Erin Go Blah

I forgot it was St. Patrick's Day. I'm not Irish, and I don't drink, so it's not a big day on my calendar, although it used to be.

For the first 20 years of my career, St. Patty's meant I'd be working -- making a promotional appearance in some bar, emceeing drinking games, giving away prizes, and making jokes about green-died foods (has anyone ever eaten a green bagel without wondering for a moment if it was just a leftover that got moldy?).

After all that time, and since I stopped drinking, I've had no desire to spend time in bars, Irish or otherwise, and I certainly avoid them on one of America's National Drinking Days (e.g. St. Patrick's Day, Cinco De Mayo, New Year's Eve -- or for Lindsay Lohan, any day that ends in "y").

So, when I reached into my closet this morning and pulled out a green shirt, it wasn't on purpose. In fact, if I had remembered what day it was, I would have purposely chosen another color. I also wouldn't have asked my wife to meet me for lunch at a nearby place named Mike Duffy's.

Yep, Irish bar. Everyone dressed in green. Green balloons on the ceiling. Green beads dangling from waitresses' necks. Bartenders wearing tall green Cat-In-The-Hat-type hats (a photo of which should appear under Wikipedia's entry for "goofy-looking").

We considered going somewhere else, but we were hungry and know the food is good there, so we sat down. After the waitress got over her shock that neither one of us wanted corned beef and cabbage, my wife ordered the other special, lamb stew, while I went with something more traditionally Irish, the chicken salad sandwich and caesar salad (little known fact: that combo was invented more than 150 years ago by the famous Dublin restaurateur Twofer O'Toole).

As we waited for our food, I listened to the Irish music that was blasting through Duffy's sound system, and noticed something -- every one of the songs sounds the same. It surprised me that I had never noticed this before, even when working in bars with bands playing this stuff live. Then I realized why. I'd never heard them at lunchtime while completely sober.

I'm not talking about songs by U2 or other contemporary Irish artists, but rather traditional drinking sing-alongs that all have the same cadence and mention "me dear old mother" and/or "the Blarney Stone." There's a standard pattern to the vocals -- beginning with a man singing the first verse, followed by a large group joining him for the chorus, then the verse and chorus alternated six or eight times.

My wife commented that it was like the time we went to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a legendary group of musicians from New Orleans whose average date of birth was in the paleozoic era. They came onstage, sat down, and launched into "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" Each member of the band did a solo, from banjo to trumpet to clarinet to piano to trombone. When it was over, the crowd applauded and the band went into its second song -- which sounded exactly like "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" I glanced at my wife to see if she reacted to this odd similarity, but she didn't say anything as the soloists all took their turns again, in the same order. Next, without a word, it was on to song number three which, yes, also sounded like "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"

At this point, I turned to my wife and asked if she'd noticed the repetitive nature of the songs. She replied, "I'm glad you mentioned it, because I thought I was going crazy. They all sound like "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" to me!" I joked that if the fourth song followed this pattern, I was ready to leave. She agreed and, minutes later, we were headed up the aisle, cursing Bill Bailey for not coming home.

You're not alone, Bill. I think the snakes left Ireland for the same reason -- they couldn't get those damned songs out of their heads.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Government In The Toilet

Let's hear it for the Politician Of The Day, Florida State Senator Victor Crist.

Just days after my column about automated toilet paper dispensers, Crist has proposed a bill that would require eating establishments to always have enough toilet paper in their bathrooms. Since when is this the business of government, to have inspectors going around making sure the rolls aren't running out? That's your job when you go in, before you sit down -- and if there isn't enough, you tell an employee to get some for you. Problem solved. Perhaps Crist got caught copping a squat without checking the supplies first, but that's no reason to have the Florida legislature spend even one minute on his bill.

Besides, how is Crist going to define "enough" toilet paper?

Over the $3 Threshold Again

I managed to fill up my gas tank last night before this morning's 11-cent price increase to $3.09/gallon. While that's below the national average of $3.27, I hear pundits saying we'll get to $4/gallon this year. Why?

Reason's Ronald Bailey says it not the old law of supply and demand, because we're driving less and using more fuel-efficient vehicles, while gasoline inventories are at their highest since 1993. So, what's going on? He says we should blame the weak dollar, geopolitical uncertainty, and market speculation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fallen Idol

That thud you just heard was David Archuleta falling off the lock-to-win-it top branch of the "American Idol" tree. His horrendous version of "We Can Work It Out" -- complete with forgetting the lyrics -- would have eliminated him in earlier rounds.

Meanwhile, Chikezie and Dave Cook become the leaders on the guys' side, while Brooke White and Carly The Ringer top the women. Based solely on tonight's performances, look for David Hernandez to go home tomorrow night.

The Comment Police

Another politician who doesn't get it. According to WTVQ/Lexington,

Kentucky Representative Tim Couch filed a bill this week to make anonymous posting online illegal. The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site. Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted. If the bill becomes law, the website operator would have to pay if someone was allowed to post anonymously on their site. The fine would be $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each offense after that. Representative Couch says he filed the bill in hopes of cutting down on online bullying. Representative Couch says enforcing this bill if it became law would be a challenge.
Ya think? Is Kentucky, or the federal government, going to start monitoring the comments posted on every blog and website? Impossible. There's also no way for website operators to check whether a commenter is using their real name. Even if you register with me, how am I going to verify your information (without accessing the Patriot Act database, of course)?

Feel free to comment, but please make up a funny bogus name -- no real names allowed.

Open Primaries

Among the many things that have to be fixed in our American election system -- once they do away with superdelegates and the Electoral College -- is the concept of open primaries. Primaries are supposed to be for members of a party to vote for the person they'd like to represent the party in the general election.

This year, we've seen large turnouts of independents in both parties' primaries, which is partly responsible for the McCain and Obama juggernauts. We have also had Republicans, once McCain had their nomination locked up, crossing over to vote for Hillary Clinton, in the hopes of screwing things up for the Democrats and forcing the campaign season to drag on and on.

Why are non-members allowed to vote in so many states? That's like letting members of the Screen Actors Guild vote in the Carpenters Union election. You're either one or the other. You get to choose, but then you should stick with your own until the general election free-for-all.

Until then, no switching theaters because you don't like your movie.

Is Modern Radio An Oxymoron?

Consultant Fred Jacobs says radio has a design problem:

The NAB's quest to stop the satellite radio merger has been well-documented, and perhaps will ultimately be successful. But the bigger threat to broadcast radio is on the inside -- turning around perceptions that the medium is out-of-step with consumer tastes and desires. It starts with that old clock radio on your nightstand and that dusty boom box in the garage. Dated-looking products won't cut it in this new gadget-filled millennium.

The whole thing's here. Fred's right -- compare any product made by Apple with the average radio available to the consumer.

I'll paraphrase something research guru Larry Rosin said last summer on a panel I emceed for a Bill Sobel Breakfast:

Go into Circuit City or Best Buy and ask them where the radios are, and they'll look at you like you're insane. They might have clock radios, or iPod accessories with AM-FM receivers built in, but you can't even buy a stand-alone radio in most places anymore.

Spitz Takes

A few more thoughts on the Eliot Spitzer story (for legal reasons, assume the word "allegedly" appears throughout this post)...

  • How did Spitzer convince his wife to stand beside him at his 90-second mea culpa yesterday? If he spent thousands on hookers, how much will he have to spend on her now? Perhaps Kobe Bryant can recommend an appropriate piece of jewelry.
  • The Spitzers must have had separate checking accounts. In my house, if my wife noticed an entry in Quicken showing that I'd paid someone $4,300, she'd have a few questions for me. For instance, "where did we get a spare $4,300?"
  • To his credit, he didn't use a high-priced DC call girl. Instead, Gov. Spitzer imported a prostitute from New York. So don't go accusing him of taking jobs away from the people of his home state.
  • The booker for the hooker warned her that Spitzer liked to do things that she might not consider safe. Like what, being a public official who thinks he can get away with hiring $4,300/night call girls? Or something really kinky, like promoting the idea of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants?
  • Since when is a pimp called a booker?
  • The conventional wisdom today is that Spitzer hasn't resigned because he wants to use that as leverage to make a deal with prosecutors. But he has no position to bargain from. If they say, "no deal," what's Spitzer going to do, refuse to come out of the Governor's mansion?
  • As hypocritical and ironic as this whole mess is, it's still not the best northeastern gubernatorial sex scandal in recent years. That title still belongs to ex-NJ Governor Jim McGreevey. The only thing that would have put Spitzer over the top is if, when he found out his name had arisen in the federal investigation of the prostitution ring, he had tried the old "You're investigating me? I'm investigating you!" defense.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Client Number Nine

Kids, pay attention for another valuable lesson in how to be a hypocrite in politics.

NY Governor Elliott Spitzer is in trouble for allegedly having a hooker travel from New York to Washington to spend the night with him at the Mayflower Hotel. Normally, that would be a matter for no one but Spitzer and his wife (who probably had some questions about why he had other companionship on Valentine's Day).

Ah, but here's the rub, if you'll pardon the term. Earlier in his career, as he was making a name for himself on the way to being named Crusader Of The Year by Time magazine, Spitzer busted two big prostitution rings. In the past tense, it was not okay with Spitzer for you to pay for consensual carnal fun -- but in the present tense, it is okay for him to do the same. Understand the rules now, kids?

One more thought. The story is that Spitzer paid $4,300 for one night with "Kristen," the call girl. Compare that to 1990, when Richard Gere paid $3,000 for a whole week with Julia Roberts. Now that is inflation.

Dispensing Wisdom

On my way back from Chicago, I stopped at a rest area and saw something I haven't seen in a long time -- a public bathroom with entirely manual controls. In other words, no motion sensors on the faucets, the soap squirter, or the paper towel dispenser. I could use however much I wanted, rather than a predetermined amount, pre-set by some unseen corporate penny-pincher.

That meant none of the awkward waving-my-hand-around until I find the singular point in space where the sensor notices my flesh. Just turn on the faucet and water comes out. How quaint! Need three or four paper towels to dry your face and hands? No problem, help yourself.

It was a pleasure.

Then I remembered a press release I saw last summer, with the headline, "Kimberly-Clark Professional Crosses Final Touchless Frontier With Introduction Of First Electronic Bath Tissue Dispenser."

A no-touch toilet paper dispenser. The company is promoting it as a way to save paper, because the average amount dispensed is 20 inches. That's the length of five squares. Who uses that little? Even Sheryl Crow wants more than that!

It's already hard enough getting public toilet paper dispensers to give us what we need. How many times have you been in there, pulled at the dangling end, and had the toilet paper roll seem to pull back? You end up in a tug of war just to get a decent amount of tissue to take care of business. And if it's a certain kind of business, that requires a lot more care and a lot more toilet paper. Don't give me five squares at a time! Do the words Taco Bell mean nothing to you?

We all know to check that there's paper in the stall before we sit down, but with the automatic dispenser, how can we be sure? The last thing you want is to be stuck in there with an electronic sensor that malfunctions. Next thing you know, you're begging the person in the next stall to spare a square, preferably without the Sen. Larry Craig hand signals.

If you're a business owner considering installing this nefarious device in your public bathrooms, how about putting one in your private bathroom first, to see how much you like it before exposing us to it?

Funny thing is, the place I'd stopped a couple of hours earlier was a fast-food restaurant, and it had the automated dispensers in the men's room, no doubt installed to keep customers from using too much of the valuable bathroom supplies. Ironically, the restaurant had a self-serve beverage station, with unlimited free refills. The message: have all the soda you want, but don't you dare use up our soft soap!

Another Movie You Might Not Know


I saw "Primary Colors" when it was released a decade ago. Though I was impressed by John Travolta's performance as a Bill Clinton-like presidential candidate, I was distracted by Emma Thompson's Hillary-like wife, because her accent kept wavering. But having just re-watched it, I realize my initial reaction was wrong, and I'm adding "Primary Colors" to my Movies You Might Not Know list.

Thompson's actually quite strong, and the supporting cast is solid, from Adrian Lester as the young campaign aide who finds himself becoming a true believer, to Kathy Bates stealing every scene she's in as a dirty tricks fixer, to Billy Bob Thornton as a James Carville-like adviser who's seen it all. I particularly enjoyed Maura Tierney as one of Travolta's spokespeople showing up on "Larry King Live" with some cell phone audio the host wasn't expecting.

With Mike Nichols directing from a script by Elaine May, based on Joe Klein's novel, the movie is full of "hey, look, it's....!" cameos by Rob Reiner, Robert Klein, Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd, Allison Janney, Mykelti Williamson, and Tony Shalhoub.

Since the Clintons are campaigning for the White House again, "Primary Colors" is certainly timely again.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Goat


You know you're in Chicago when you have lunch at the Billy Goat Tavern. That's the place immortalized by Belushi and friends in the "cheezborger cheezborger" sketches on "Saturday Night Live." Even before that, it was a local institution -- because of its proximity to the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the other newspapers that existed in this town, The Goat became a hangout for the columnists and beat reporters whose pictures and old columns still grace the walls.

When I walked in yesterday, the counter man took one look at me and said, with that famous accent, "My friend, don't even look at the menu. You're having a triple. Triple cheezborger. You want chips?" I told him that worked for me and, just to play along, I asked for a Pepsi. The reply came back immediately, "No Pepsi, Coke! Next!"

By the way, the cheezborger was damned good.

Quick Hit

A Florida TV news blog reports that NBC is bringing Kathie Lee Gifford back to morning TV as part of the fourth hour of The Today Show. If true, it's a big mistake. Gifford became a star for only one reason -- Regis Philbin. He's the reason people watch, and while Gifford (and now Kelly Ripa) provided someone for him to banter with and play the role of second banana, none of those broadcasts would have worked without the big guy as the center of attention. On her own -- sans Philbin -- Gifford turned out treacly holiday specials and albums that appealed only to the near-dead.