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Worst Review Ever

It amazes me that I have never told this story in my column before, but according to Google, I haven't.

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1971, I was a sophomore at MIT, living in the Student House co-op in Boston's Back Bay. I read the New York Times every morning (at the time, it was considered one of the exquisite perks of life in The Hub--same-day morning daily delivery of The Times, then available only in Boston, New York and Washington. Yes, children, that was a very long time ago). I read the paper pretty much cover to cover, especially the theater reviews, as I went to New York City about every other month and loved theater. The news I read in self-defense; among my journalism-happy cohort at MIT, "Did you see the article in this morning's Times" was a frequent conversation starter.

I was also interested in the reviews because I reviewed movies for The Tech (roughly one every other week for three years). On this particular morning, Clive Barnes, the Times chief theater critic, disembowled a work opening at the McAlpin Rooftop Theater called "Drat!" It was directed by Toby "Fred" Bluth (Google him yourself--he survived the review).  I would love to reproduce the whole review, but the Times charges $4 for an archive search and asks me not to redistribute it. If you want a master class in negative reviewing, buy yourself a copy of this review. I used it as a template for my own pans for three years. I probably even directly stole the syntax of my favorite phrase:

What I disliked most about the show--apart from its book, lyrics, music, scenery, costumes, lighting, staging and acting--was its extraordinarily fetid air of innuendo.

I carried that clip around in my wallet until my senior year, when my wallet was stolen. It was emblazoned on my heart, and I was still quoting it to people in my 50s. Of course, memory plays tricks. But one of the wonderful things about the Internet is that you can, with time and money, refresh your recollection with source documents. I had the quote mostly right, and now I can share it with you. I think most reviewers know that pans, especially slashing pans, are more fun to write than positive reviews, since you can really cut loose.

As an aside, Nexus/Lexus isn't pefect. A friend of mine worked for the Times in the 90s, and I asked him once to find the review. He came up dry. I found it once before and lost it; this time I am preserving the best quote and the search details in my blog--and of course, sharing them with you and everyone who ever Googles the Simpson-inflected phrase, "Worst Review Ever."

Neal Vitale reminded me of an even more famous bad review, one his uncle was fond of: "This will never do."


4 Stars out of 5
The plot is gossamer, the dialog often silly, the action scenes over the top. No scenery went unchewed in the production of this movie. And yet I give it four stars. This has to do solely with the cast. It is such an unalloyed pleasure to see actors over the age of 30 totally dominate a film. This one features Bruce Willis,  Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Ernest Borgnine, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Helen Mirren and Richard Dreyfuss (in credit order). While Dreyfuss only has what amounts to a two-scene cameo, he plays it to the hilt. Ditto Ernest Borgnine. The RED of the title refers to "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," which is what the Bruce Willis character is considered. Willis, Freeman and Malkovich are retired CIA, Mirren MI5 and Cox KGB. Parker is the love interest. Mary Louise Parker, untouched both by callow youth and the plastic surgeon's knife. I am so amazed.  How on Earth anyone in Hollywood managed to make a film about retired spies that did not cast 20 year olds in the lead roles is beyond me. But just because I can't understand it doesn't mean I'm not grateful. This film is fun to look at, fun to watch, and silly beyond description. If you don't go, you are personally responsible for the fact that Hollywood only makes movies for 13-year-old boys.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Hereafter

0.5 stars out of 5

Wow! Who knew that Clint Eastwood - director of Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Gran Torino - had a clunker like this in him. The best I can do is describe Hereafter as a treatise on death and how people cope with it, providing the slim rationale as to why psychics and mystics gain the attention of those left behind. But the reality is that the film is pretentious, grindingly tedious, and ridiculously vacuous. Matt Damon (Invictus, The Informant!) is heroic in an impossibly underwritten and emotionally barren role, and most everyone else in the cast suffers some variant on this infliction.  Were it not for the beautiful French actress Cécile de France (Mesrine: Killer Instinct) in a highly visible role, and the radiant auburn-highlighted hair on Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas (Spider-Man 3), Hereafter would reach absolute zero.

[Note from Paul: I would give this film a 2.5; if it weren't two hours and 20 minutes, it would, in my opinion, deserve a 3. I agree with Neal about de France and Dallas, who were the two best things about the film. However, I found its meditation on the difference between a gift and a curse, and the questions it raised about the afterlife, to be more interesting than he did. The talking-to-the-dead trope lives on in movies and TV because it is extremely powerful and represents a widely held dream. Too bad most treatments of it are second-rate]


Three political briefs, Too late to get Clarence Thomas, Dan Grobstein File

Three political briefs:

Bob Nilsson asks the great question:

Would you or one of your readers know the statute of limitations on perjury before Congress, not to mention sexual harassment? Now that Anita Hill’s testimony has been belatedly corroborated by Thomas’ former girlfriend, the possibility conjures up an interesting image.

Lillian McEwen breaks her 19-year silence about Justice Clarence Thomas

Alas, and unfortunately, the answer is five years.

Dan Grobstein File

Twelve Years Later

(A reprint of my annual anniversary item, with small adjustments).

As of Oct. 16, it's been twelve  years. Twelve years! When I started this column, "W" was still the second-rate governor of Texas, and Sara Palin was busy running Wasila. And John McCain was angry. W is still second rate, Palin isn't running anything, and John McCain is still angry. I was still working for CMP, and had a weekly podcast, back before pods (which definitely cut into our audience). My heart beat by itself and I weighed 270 pounds. In short, things were different. I believe I am one of the longest continuous bloggers on the Internet.

In 1998, during the Clinton impeachment, I either had to start a column or check into a mental institution. PSACOT gave me a forum in which to express, to an audience (no matter how small) my feelings about that political circus. [As a U.S. history teacher, I am forced to note that Andrew Johnson's impeachment was a rabid partisan witch hunt, as was Clinton's. Only Nixon's was bipartisan--and only Nixon resigned.]

The column/blog has since evolved into a combination of diary for my family and me and bulletin board for my clever friends--in short, a personal column. Like, but not as good as, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Adair Lara or ongoing columnist Jon Carroll. Or, to take a national example, former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, considered the mother of the personal column concept (even though Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle actually beat her to it--but of course, if it hasn't happened in New York, it hasn't happened).

PSACOT is also a revival of sorts. Among my readers, Daniel Dern and Peter Peckarsky would remember the original P.S. A Column On Things, which ran in ERGO, MIT's objectivist newspaper from September 1970 to March 1971, and The Tech, MIT's semi-official student newspaper, from March 1971 to May 1971. Those were among my happiest days as a journalist. If I had truly understood the fulfillment a personal column gave me, perhaps I would have fought harder to keep it when Bob Fourer killed it, or I would have revived it when I became editor-in-chief two years later, or tried to practice the craft as an adult (and become the father of the personal column).

In any case, I expect to still be doing this next October; I'll meet you here.

Political Briefs

  • Little Billy Rehnquist  As you read this, Rehnquist's successors are actively preparing to continue their efforts (from 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008) to deny blacks the right to vote in the 2010 general elections. 

    A former law clerk for Rehnquist by the name of John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which has cleared the way for foreigners (such as Osama Bin Laden) and foreign corporations (such as the various corporations operated and actually owned by the government of the People's Republic of China) and a congeries of very rich anonymous people (since they are anonymous you have no way to know whether they are foreigners or Americans) to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of air time (which you technically control in the public interest convenience and necessity) to broadcast misleading and false advertisements encouraging votes for Republican candidates in the 2010 general elections. 
  • Subversion Of Economists and Economics      
  • President Obama, thank goodness, vetoed the sneaky effort, disguised as reform of interstate acceptance of  notarized documents, that would have legalized the shady practices banks are using to foreclose illegally.
  • Rove Tries To Project His Disgusting Behavior Onto Others
    Free and fair American elections are the essence of national security. Keeping the elections free of foreign money and foreign influences should be a national security priority of the first order. In setting national security policy, plans are always made to deal with the  the worst possibility. In this case, until proven convincingly otherwise (for example by an independent pre-election audited full disclosure of all financial transactions), the probability is that George W. Bush assistants Karl Rove and  Ed Gillespie, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and the money it collects from foreign affiliates), are using foreign money (and subject to foreign influence) as they spend millions trying to elect Republican candidates. In the absence of such an audited pre-election full disclosure, the only safe and prudent way to protect the national security is to elect Democrats.
    A brief ad from a group which has always had (and continues to have) the national security (and a wise and strong national defense posture) foremost in its considerations is here.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Secretariat

4 stars out of 5

Secretariat is a wonderful throwback to an earlier era of kinder, gentler film-making - retro adjectives like "heartwarming" come to mind. Disney has publicly stated a desire to revive the family film, and this is a major step in that direction - though early box office results suggest that the challenge of attracting an audience is not inconsiderable. Secretariat is a fine effort, a well-written and well-paced biopic of 1973 Triple Crown winner and his determined owner, Penny Chenery. A strong cast of mostly lessen-known talent, led by a focused and unflinching Diane Lane (Unfaithful, The Perfect Storm) as Chenery and a well-modulated John Malkovich (Burn After Reading, Changeling) as Secretariat's trainer, drives this film. One could fault Secretariat's tendency toward melodrama, but that would be nitpicking - I am happy to overlook a few shortcomings to support films of this quality.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Tamara Drewe

3 stars out of 5

While not an unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours, Tamara Drewe disappoints coming from talented director Stephen Frears, whose credits include The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters, and Dangerous Liaisons. Based on the graphic novel by British writer and cartoonist Posy Simmonds, this story is a cute, occasionally surprising, and often quite funny tale of romantic intrigue in the English countryside. But, despite the nubile charms of Gemma Arterton (Prince Of Persia, Quantum Of Solace, Pirate Radio) in the title role, all the characters are exaggerated, shallowly-sketched stereotypes, and the film tilts toward farce. The screenwriting and acting are equally to blame, and we should expect better from Mr. Frears.

NPH, Daniel Dern on Terms of Service, Dan Grobstein File

Neal Patrick Harris being funny on late night TV

Daniel Dern claims these are real terms of service:

From a real one:
# You must be 13 years or older to use this Service. If you are under 13 and running your own business, number one - you're awesome; number two, please get a parent to manage an account for you :-)
# Only human beings are allowed to use the Service. No accounts created by bots, scripts, other automated methods or alien life forms are permitted.
# Use of this service to generate or distribute unsolicited email is not only forbidden, but it would seriously tick us off. Don't even try.
# You are responsible for all Content posted and activity that occurs under your account. You can't blame the dog.
# You may not modify, adapt or hack the Service. And please don't hurt its feelings.

Dan Grobstein File

  • Japan Recycles Minerals From Used Electronics Recent problems with Chinese supplies of rare earths have sent Japanese traders and companies in search of alternative sources.
  • Historical Audio Recordings Disappearing; Copyright Partly To Blame
  • This would be a good reason why democrats are afraid of their own shadows. They hear this stuff 24/7 and think it's mainstream. It isn't. The percentage of the population that watches cable news is miniscule. It's an echo chamber and there are few liberal voices and if there is a democrat on a program there is always 2 republicans. and if a reporter is on a panel she counts as a democrat/liberal no matter what position she holds.
    If I Ran The Zoo

    via Eschaton by [email protected] (Atrios) on 10/4/10
    Every time I visit congressional offices I'm reminded that if I could make one rule which would improve our politics immensely it would be to forbid cable news from being turned on in the offices. It's everywhere, all the time.
  • The Opposite of Self-Pity: Neil Alan Smith
  • amazing how clear-headed krugman is.
    OPINION   | October 04, 2010
    Op-Ed Columnist:  Fear and Favor
    Media moguls have often promoted politicians who would serve their interests. But at Fox News, it isn't stopping there.
  • Step by step of the death of the NY/NJ rail tunnel in the rail report. Plus, a Dan-o-Rama of extra goodies!