How Cool is This?...The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

“!!!” As someone who loves language, especially the only one of the world's languages that I happen to speak, I am constantly gritting my teeth at signs that say things like "Wait Here" for Service or "Men" at Work.

Finally, there's proof that I'm not the only one who goes ballistic upon seeing quotation marks where they shouldn't be.

The brilliant Bethany Keeley has started the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks and it features photos submitted from around the globe of the gratuitous use of quotation marks where they're, um, unnecessary.

In the best (worst) examples, the quotes add an unintended snarky or ironic air to an otherwise straightforward message.

Here you'll find signs reading, for example:
  • "Tree's" (a double headbanger, containing as it does not only extraneous quotation marks but also an unneeded apostrophe which--need we keep saying this?--does not make something plural!)
  • a "3 minute" car wash (wonder how long it really takes)
  • and my personal favorite, a photo vendor whose work is "guaranteed" (In other words, don't try to get a refund.)

Read them and "weep" (or go ahead and really weep.)

How Cool is This?...Cotton Candy's Role in Science

There's such an incredible amount of dross out there that many good ideas don't reach the wide audience they deserve. Hence this occasional series, "How Cool Is This?"

Exhibit 1: Associated Press story below about an unexpectedly serious use for an unquestionably fun thing...cotton candy.

Cotton candy may help labs grow tissue

NEW YORK - Cotton candy may have found a new role: helping scientists grow replacement tissue for people.

The flossy stuff may be just right for creating networks of blood vessels within laboratory-grown bone, skin, muscle, or fat for breast reconstruction, researchers suggest. Dr. Jason Spector of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York and Leon Bellan of Cornell University present their preliminary research online this week in the journal Soft Matter.

Here's how their technique would work: First, you pour a thick liquid chemical over a wad of cotton candy. Let the liquid solidify into a chunk, and put that in warm water to dissolve the candy. That leaves tiny channels where the strands of candy used to be. So you have a chunk of material with a network of fine channels within. Next, line these channels with cells to create artificial blood vessels. And seed the solid chunk with immature cells of whatever tissue you're trying to make. The block is biodegradable, and as it disappears, it will be replaced by growing tissue.


Oscars … As they Should Be

Everyone’s handicapping the Academy Awards right now, arguing about whether Slumdog Millionaire will continue its award-winning juggernaut on Oscar night, and whether even one Academy voter will not cast a ballot to honor the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

I leave that sort of bookmaking to others, and choose to embrace the cinema’s original and still central role in our lives—that of dream factory. In my dream—where everyone who deserves to win does win—here’s who takes home the golden statuettes on February 22.

Performance by an actor in a leading role nominees
  • Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
  • Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
  • Sean Penn in Milk
  • Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Sean Penn disappeared completely and movingly into his portrayal of community/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Frank Langella made me forget he looked nothing like Richard Nixon, and actually made me feel sorry for the guy—something I’d have said was impossible. Comeback kid Mickey Rourke gets points for taking the blows life sent him and still coming back for more (in and out of the ring). And Brad Pitt looks good (and acts well) at any age. But it’s Richard Jenkins who deserves the statuette for his infinitely nuanced portrayal of an ordinary, introverted guy whose heart and life are opened by the visitors he finds in his apartment. Jenkins is one of those character actors who shine in little roles for years without anyone taking much notice. The Visitor gave him a place in the limelight, and he deserved a few more rays of glory on Oscar night.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role nominees
  • Josh Brolin in Milk
  • Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt
  • Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
  • Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road

It’s quite a feat—whether positive or negative is for you to decide—for a white actor to do blackface and earn accolades rather than charges of racism, but Robert Downey Jr.. pulled it off in Tropic Thunder. Josh Brolin was suitably honored with a nod for getting Dan White’s combination of rigidity, selfishness, bigotry, and community feeling in Milk. But nothing can beat the combination of talent + sympathy going for the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. I’m among the few who feel that the academy did right by not nominating Knight for best picture, but Ledger made the calmly psychotic Joker an incendiary persona that riveted audience attention even when the rest of the picture dragged.

Performance by an actress in a leading role nominees
  • Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
  • Angelina Jolie in Changeling
  • Melissa Leo in Frozen River
  • Meryl Streep in Doubt
  • Kate Winslet in The Reader

Anne Hathaway may very well be the greatest actress of her generation, just as Meryl Streep is in hers. And Kate Winslet is giving them both a run for their money this year with strong turns in Revolutionary Road and The Reader. But the Oscar should go to the category’s least-known nominee, Melissa Leo. Helped by a strong script and solid, cliffhanger plot, she showed us the daily struggle of a working-class mom just trying to keep food on the table and what’s left of her family together. In this Sundance hit, Leo brings honesty and tension to every movement, and each line reading rings true.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role nominees
  • Amy Adams in Doubt
  • Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Viola Davis in Doubt
  • Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler

I saw only two of these performances—Cruz’s and Henson’s—and of them, must reluctantly deposit the statue in the hands of Penélope Cruz. Reluctantly…because Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the biggest disappointment I suffered all year in the cinema; it was so bad it’s caused me swear off Woody Allen films forever. But Cruz was luminous and memorable in a way that Henson’s performance as Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother never was.

Best motion picture of the year nominees & achievement in directing nominees

This year, the nominees for best picture and best director are a matched set, which may seem obvious, but isn’t as common as you’d think. So I’m taking advantage of that to award Oscars in both categories to the same film.

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
  • Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
  • Milk (Gus Van Sant)
  • The Reader (Stephen Daldry)
  • Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

While I wish my favorite film of 2008, Frozen River, was among the nominees, there’s no “shouldn’t be here” nominee for best picture this year. Each was solidly directed, though Danny Boyle’s showmanship makes him a standout in this bunch. And each nominated film brought viewers into a world most couldn’t experience otherwise; that’s one of the late critic Gene Siskel’s criteria for a great film.

Yet as I reflect on these offerings, it’s Milk—the only one whose events some viewers might have experienced first-hand—that stays most powerfully with me. Sean Penn’s delicate yet steely performance grabs the spotlight, but it’s the underlying power of an unstoppable movement for equality that gives the film its force. And recently viewing the documentary film about the same topic (The Times of Harvey Milk) made me admire both documentary and feature filmmakers.


Best animated feature film nominees
  • Bolt
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • WALL-E—Hands-down brilliant, with its long, wordless opening sequence, profound and subversive messages to contemporary humans about trashing the planet and ourselves, and glorious and richly colored artwork. Animation: it’s not just for kids any more.

Achievement in art direction nominees
  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight—Smart money is on Benjamin Button in this category, but the latest—much darker and more brooding—incarnation of Batman was perfectly underscored by the moody, imaginative, and appropriately nihilistic art direction
  • The Duchess
  • Revolutionary Road

Achievement in cinematography nominees
  • Changeling
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire—Everything I just wrote about The Dark Knight for art direction applies here too, but Slumdog still gets the edge for its agile camerawork that takes viewers scuttling through teeming, filthy streets and swooping along the hero’s ever-hopeful trajectory.

Achievement in costume design nominees
  • Australia
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Duchess
  • Milk
  • Revolutionary Road—This is a hard category to judge, partly because it’s easy to go for the most elaborate costume designs (which would bring the title to The Duchess), and partly because I can’t imagine any true lover of beautiful clothing honoring anything set in the era of polyester doubleknit. (take that, Milk!) I’ll buck tradition and vote for Revolutionary Road’s anything but radical costumes. Leo and Kate seemed emotionally and physically imprisoned in their grey flannel suits and nip-waisted dresses (respectively), and Kathy Bates’s floral chintz frocks made her intrusive neighbor role all the more ghastly.

Achievement in film editing nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Milk—It didn’t have the flashiest editing nominated (that honor goes to Slumdog), but the editor subtly and effectively mirrored the pace of Milk’s career from no-hoper to triumphant leader to mourned martyr.
  • Slumdog Millionaire

Achievement in visual effects nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—The considerable charms of Iron Man’s hovering carapace and Batman’s Gotham notwithstanding, Button scores a slam dunk in this category. Melding Brad Pitt’s face on another’s body, and believably aging him (backwards or forwards) by decades is a triumph worth celebrating.
  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man

Achievement in makeup nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—Here, too, the nomination should be Button-ed up for Pitt, Blanchett, and company’s breathtaking older/younger transformations.
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Adapted screenplay nominees
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Doubt
  • Frost/Nixon—Every nominee here is deserving, but special credit must be given to making riveting viewing of what’s largely two people sitting in chairs talking. It worked for My Dinner with Andre, and it works in Frost/Nixon, but it takes talented scribes to make that happen.
  • The Reader
  • Slumdog Millionaire

Original screenplay nominees
  • Frozen River—My clear favorite is this low-budget independent gem of a film. Every word spoken seemed plausible, real-to-the-ear, and necessary to the plot.
  • Happy-Go-Lucky—This is the most inexplicable nomination of the year. To my ears, not one word of the dialogue rang true.
  • In Bruges
  • Milk
  • WALL-E


John Henry's Hammer (Head)

John Henry, the co-owner of the Boston Red Sox has called for a salary cap. This makes John Henry: (a) an idiot (b) a greedy S.O.B. (c) a hypocrite, (d) all of the above. Smart money’s on (d). Hey John, when did this idea occur to you, before or after you failed to lure Mark Teixeria to Boston? Oh wait a minute; you called for a cap five years ago when Alex Rodriquez went to the Yankees instead of the Red Sox, and your cohort Larry Luccino said the same thing in 2002 when the Yankees outbid the Sox for José Contreas. If I understand the logic it’s that Major League Baseball would somehow have been better off if the second richest team had signed these players instead of the richest.

Here’s the basis of the crocodile tears: the Yankees’ 2009 payroll of roughly $205 million will be $70 million higher than that of the Red Sox. But do the math. If you subtract A-Rod’s salary of $32 million and Teixeira’s $20 million, the Yankees’ payroll drops to $153 million. Now add those salaries to the team that tried to get them—the Rex Sox—and their payroll rises to $187 million. You’ll excuse me if I find Henry’s call for a salary cap less than sincere.

Three other thoughts: If having the biggest payroll guaranteed a championship, the Yankees would have raised their tenth consecutive World Series banner last fall; in fact, they’ve won just two in the span in which they’ve had the biggest payroll, the same number as Boston.

Second, let’s call this what it really is: John Henry’s desire to put more money into his own pocket. Check the revenues against payroll and insincerity shows up in spades. The Red Sox shell out about 60% of their revenue ($201 million) in salaries; the Yankees spend 74% of theirs on salaries. If John Henry spent at a comparable level, his payroll would be $154 million. So where’s the extra 14% going, John?

Finally, MLB needs a salary floor, not a cap. Can we please stop pretending that baseball owners are paupers? Back in the days when the late Carl Pohlad used to cry the blues about how the Minnesota Twins were losing money (and they weren’t), he was the 245th richest man in the world. For these guys owning an MLB franchise is the play toy equivalent of a ten-year-old with a train set. What’s criminal isn’t the Yankees spending more than $200 million, it’s the Colorado Rockies spending just 31% of their revenue on salaries, and the Florida Marlins ownership pocketing millions in luxury taxes assessed to the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Tigers, but shelling out just 15% of their revenue for talent.

How about a floor of no less than 50% of total revenue for salaries, a move that would force ten teams to raise payroll? How much better would the Marlins be with a payroll of $51.5 million instead of $15 million? Ask the Tampa Bay Rays; they went to the World Series with $43 million. Maybe that’s what really bugging John Henry. Didn’t he spend $8 million more than that on the draft rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka?

Jan & Feb 2009 Films--to see or not to see? Check the ratings

Check this space throughout each month to see how I've liked both recently released films and movies we've just seen on DVD. Each month, I'll start a new list, though Jan. and Feb are combined since we just started the blog.

Ratings go from 1/2 star (horrifyingly bad, but I stayed through the whole thing anyway for reasons I now deeply regret) to 5 stars (amazing, and sometimes approaching a masterpiece). Generally, anything I rate 2 1/2 stars or more I consider worth seeing.

Enjoy!--Phoenix Brown

New Films
  • The Reader ** (Despite strong performances, especially that of Kate Winslet, the film failed to convey the characters' motivations, something done movingly and clearly in the justly acclaimed and far superior book.)
  • Synecdoche, New York 1/2 (It has A-list actors and loads of time to make its points, but there don't seem to be any beyond the obvious "you only get one go-around in life" in this hugely self-indulgent bore by imaginative but out-of-control-here writer/director Charlie Kaufman.
  • Revolutionary Road *** The 1950s never felt quite as claustrophobic and soul-stifling as they do here. Although Kate and Leo's two children constantly seem to be in another room, everything else--from the pork-pie hats and flannel suits to the suburban ennui, rings true.
  • Frost/Nixon**** Who knew there was a riveting film in reviving the Richard Nixon-David Frost interviews? If it hadn't already been a successful stage play (with both leads wisely transplanted to the film version), I can't imagine a film company green-lighting the production, but it was a wise gamble. The two leads bob and weave like prize fighters, and Frank Langella pulled off yet another bravura performance. Making an old Nixon-despiser like me feel even momentary sympathy for the ex-president is a miracle in itself.

Previously Released Films
Just after Paul Newman passed away, we had an impromptu film retrospective of his films. Check out:
  • Sweet Bird of Youth ***
  • The Sting *****
  • Cool Hand Luke ****
  • Empire Falls ***
Also screened recently:
  • Housekeeping **** 1/2 (Highly unusual film about highly unusual characters, headed by the always phenomenal Christine Lahti.)
  • The Jerk ***1/2 (young Steve Martin at his wacky best. Beats me why this isn't as famous as the equally stupid--and hilarious--Airplane, Naked Gun, et al.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk ***** (a documentary that complements Milk and fulfills its title's promise by illuminating not only the man but the movements he championed.)
  • Jean de Florette ****1/2 and Manon de Source **** (Heartbreaking French classic about avaricious relatives and the tragic way they undermine their own fondest hopes)
  • Young at Heart ***1/2 (As apparently the only person in the country who thinks these folks are embarrassing and painful to listen to, I was won over by the stories behind the performances of these senior citizens. Best moment: oldsters punking out to The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated"
  • Mrs. Brown ***** (Subtle and moving drama about the man who brought Queen Victoria out of deep mourning and back to ruling the country. Stars Judi Dench (born to play British monarchs) and wild-man Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, in a rare, powerful, and controlled performance.)
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day *** (fun fluff for those who like Masterpiece Theatre-style costume dramas and/or Frances McDormand)
  • When Harry Met Sally ***** (still brilliant; still works!)



A Valentine’s Day cartoon from Rob Rogers says it all—President Obama down on one knee with flowers in one hand and a heart-shaped box marked “Bipartisanship” in the other. The courted, a suited GOP elephant, has arms folded and its back to Obama. A passerby utters “Give it up…. He’s just not that into you.”

How true, how true. The GOP has neither the desire nor the incentive to be bipartisan. One might think that the good of the nation would provide both, but let’s face it: if Obama rights the economy the GOP is dead in the water for years to come. Republicans’ best hope is to keep the economy spiraling downward through the 2010 Congressional elections and pray that voters will forget that they were the ones who screwed it up in the first place.

As the Judd Gregg fiasco also showed, Obama is making a rookie mistake in his bipartisan appeals. It’s time to put down the flowers and ask “What would Lyndon Baines Johnson do?” When LBJ wanted the Civil Rights Act passed, he called Congress to session during its recess and told members he’d veto every bill that came across his desk until they passed it. He knew where Congressional skeletons were buried and he dug them up and invited them to public teas.

Obama needs to play some LBJ-style hardball. It’s amazing what can be accomplished by insinuating that you’re contemplating consolidation of a few defense contracts by moving work from Georgia to Oregon, or that the government needs to upgrade facilities by closing an outmoded NORAD station in Wyoming. For the good of the nation let’s hope that President Obama stops being such a nice guy.

Running on Low

Back in 1967 the Berkeley Barb pulled one of the all-time great goofs when it spread a rumor that one could scrape the inside of banana peels, dry them, and produce a psychedelic smoke with the properties of DMT. It even gave a recipe that involved a whopping 15 pounds of bananas. Soon, gullible hippies had cleaned out the banana supply of the greater San Francisco area.

I mention this because I’ve come to believe that runners’ high is Phase II of the “Mellow Yellow” goof. I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate fraud lately as I’ve been running in circles around an indoor track. Why indoors? It’s February, I live in New England, and a person who runs outside might as well take a hammer, break his own ankle, and skip the running bit. But with the possible exceptions of ice fishing and watching NASCAR on TV, there’s nothing on the planet that’s more boring than running indoor loops (8 per mile) and even then it drops to number three solely because of the invention of the iPod. (Try slipping iPod earphones under ear muffs while ice fishing!)

But indoors/outdoors is all the same. I’ve been running for thirty years and have never once had runners’ high. Oxygen deprivation—sure! Searing pain in my joints and muscles? You betcha. Runners’ high? No way. If you believe the research, running can cause the pituitary gland and hypothalamus to release endorphins. Sure; and scientists used to believe in Piltdown Man as well. I suspect that runners’ high is a myth concocted by Nike to sell more shoes. But I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve tried running under the influence of bananas.--LV


Leeks Gone Wild

Sain 2572

If you think Americans have the market cornered on really bad ideas, consider—but by all means don’t listen to--Showstoppers. It’s a product of Celtic music’s occasional post-Riverdance descent into tasteless excess, this time featuring ten Welsh male choirs. They perform show tunes from old productions such as South Pacific and Porgy and Bess and more recent extravaganzas such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Never mind that the dignified nature, restrained arrangements, and harmonic styles of Welsh choirs are totally inappropriate for such histrionic material. Did this project begin as a Monty Python routine? The Brits invented the term “naff” to describe utterly goofy and poorly conceived projects like this one.


When Sports and Politics Should Mix

On Monday Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was supposed to play her opening round match in the Dubai Open, but she'll not be there because the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has denied her an entrance visa. The WTA should pull the plug on this tournament immediately and those women currently scheduled to play should pack their rackets and go home.

Peer was ostensibly denied entry as a political protest for Israel's incursion into Gaza. If the UAE was, in fact, making a political statement it renders shallow and preposterous the voices of several players who have said they don't wish to mix sports and politics. Sorry, but that option's off the table--the UAE has already mixed them.

Let's not deceive ourselves. This isn't a conventional political protest;it's another manifestation of the rampant Antisemtism convulsing the Arab world. There have been too many crocodile tears shed for Palestinians and not enough condemnation of the Antisemitism that fuels the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East. Imagine for a moment the hue and cry that would result if an Israeli tournament had blocked a Muslim tennis player. Sorry, but it works both ways. Antisemitism is violence in thought that leads to violence in deed.

Dubai's towering skyline is a testament to its desire to be a major player in global trade and capital markets. Entry onto the world stage must be accompanied by responsibility as well, and that includes a repudiation of the knee-jerk Antisemitism spread by hate-mongers.

Numerous players have expressed support for Ms. Peer and WTA CEO Larry Scott has promised to evaluate the future of the Dubai Open. Sorry--not good enough. A political statement needs to be made--this tournament should be over right now.