Monday, November 29, 2010

Billy Joel: Piano Man

Billy Joel grew up on Long Island New York, the son of an immigrant who was an accomplished classical music pianist. Billy had more of an interest in rock and roll, which his father did not like. Billy's brother is a classical music conductor in Europe. He dropped out of high school and had dreams of becoming a recording star like his idols, The Beatles. He played in a piano bar in Los Angeles, which led to the hit Piano Man in 1973. Billy teamed up with producer Phil Ramone and ended up having an amazing career which has spanned over 4 decades. He has had 33 top 40 hits, all which he wrote himself. He has sold over 150 million albums worldwide. The show I saw on the Biography channel mentioned how he has had many ups and downs in his personal life. He had a manager who took advantage of him financially, leaving him with no option other than to tour extensively over a 2 year period to get on better ground financially. He has had struggles with substance abuse, and has been divorced 3 times, most notably from model Christie Brinkley. Joel was a boxer as a young man and his aggression and fighting attitude can sometimes be seen in his music. He has toured with another pianist/rock and roll legend, Elton John. In 1987 Joel performed a groundbreaking concert in Russia at the height of the cold war. Billy's albums 52nd Street, Glass Houses, Storm Front and River of Dreams all hit #1 in the US. I admire Billy Joel very much for his staying power and his mark he has made on the world of popular music. My favorite songs of his include; Piano Man, Movin' Out, New York State of Mind, Big Shot, You May be Right, My Life, Pressure, and many more.

* Some information from Biography channel and

Barry Manilow: I Write the Songs

I recently watched a Biography channel profile of Barry Manilow and thought I'd write a bit about this performer. Barry never planned on being a singer. He wanted to be a piano player in the background, not the star. He accompanied Bette Midler, and made money writing commercial jingles early in his career in New York City. He would also arrange music for performers such as Midler and Dionne Warwick. Before he had hit singles he would perform the commercial jingles that he wrote just so the audience would recognize something. He met Arista records chief and music mogul Clive Davis who thought he could make Barry a star. Manilow became known for his ballads such as Can't Smile without You, I Write the Songs, Could it be Magic and Mandy. From 1974 to 1980 he had hit after hit. He tired eventually of all the touring and singing these ballads. He started performing an up tempo fun song called Copacabana, and it became a big hit. He has been praised by Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan. After 30 years of touring to bring his show to the people, Barry decided to sign a contract with a Las Vegas hotel so that the people could come to him. He has branched out by releasing albums that pay tribute to the music of the 1950, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He has also recorded big band type music, Christmas albums and a tribute to the greatest love songs of all time.

* Some information from Biography channel and

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Book Review: "We'll be here for the Rest of our Lives" by Paul Shaffer

I greatly enjoyed this book since I have been a longtime fan of musician Paul Shaffer. He has been the keyboardist and band leader for David Letterman since 1982. He and Dave did the late night show at NBC from 1982 to 1993, and have been at CBS ever since. I admire Paul's musical talents, and it is obvious he has a sense of humor and a certain Las Vegas charm to him.

The book talks about his upbringing in snowy Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It tells about how he moved to Toronto where he met up with some other talented, funny Canadians like Martin Short and Eugene Levy. Paul worked in musical theatre in Canada for awhile and eventually moved to New York City and got a gig playing keyboards for Saturday Night Live. He was noticed by David Letterman who was starting his own show and he wanted a musical director who could play well, but also have a sense of humor.

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes from Paul's life working with some of the biggest stars in show business. He drops a lot of names, but if I had his life I would too.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Falls Short of the Original

I really wanted this to be as good as the first one, which came out in 1987. Like most sequels, the original was so much better. Money Never Sleeps has Michael Douglas returning as financial giant Gordon Gekko. The film opens with his getting released from prison for insider trading. Like the first film, he takes a young broker under his wing, this time played by Shia LeBeouf. Gekko's original protegee, Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, has a cameo with a few lines. It just so happens that LeBeouf is engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter. This is ironic since she is turned off to Wall Street traders by the actions of her corrupt father. She is played by Carey Mulligan, and she had a much better script to work with last year when she starred in the Oscar nominated An Education. Josh Brolin plays a slimy adversary of Gekko's who LeBeouf ends up working for. Oliver Stone appears in a cameo in this film as well as many CNBC personalities such as Maria Bartiromo and Jim Cramer. Other stars included Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon. The script is too long, not organized well, and I found myself looking at my watch wondering when it would end. In a great film you care about the characters and a great film will leave you wanting more. The Wall Street of 1987 had that effect on me. Still all of these years later I can watch it again and again. It was so quotable, and modern day traders still remember it as the ultimate movie about high finance in New York City. So many artists have their biggest hits early in their career and they spend the rest of their careers trying to get back that magic that they once had in their work. I am beginning to feel that way about Oliver Stone. The actors and the sets and costumes can all be good, but if the script is not polished, you don't have a hit. Wall Street 2 needed a better script that could interest people as much as the first one.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thirteen Years after Wall Street comes Boiler Room

If you liked Oliver Stone's drama about high stakes stockbrokers in New York, Wall Street (1987), you need to check out Boiler Room (2000). The two are so similar that the characters in Boiler Room actually quote Wall Street word for word in one scene as they watch the film at the home of one of the brokers. They are similar, but yet different enough that I would recommend both.

Boiler Room stars Giovanni Ribisi as Seth Davis, a college dropout who runs a casino out of his home. His dad, played by Ron Rifkin, is a judge and he just wants his son to get a decent, honest job. The relationship between Seth and his dad is similar to that between Charlie Sheen and his father in Wall Street (played by Martin Sheen). Both sons yearn to please their fathers. In Wall Street, Bud Fox was taken under the wing of Gordon Gekko, and Gekko gave him the respect his father had not. The elder Sheen was concerned about the bad influence Gekko had on his son. It was the same with Boiler Room since Seth's dad was dubious about this firm where people were making obscene amounts of money.

One night a broker stops by Seth's casino to gamble and Seth is impressed with his Ferrari, and he learns he works for a firm called J.T. Marlin (the name is similar to prestigious firm J.P. Morgan). The firm has an office on Long Island, NY and Seth gets a job as a trainee broker. Others in the office are played by Vin Diesel, Nicky Katt and Jamie Kennedy. In an obvious nod to Alec Baldwin's character in David Mamet's ode to the world of salespeople, Glengarry Glen Ross, Ben Affleck plays the tough as nails head of the brokerage house who wants his employees to sell by any means necessary, if they want to keep their jobs. The secretary at the firm is played by Nia Long, and like Wall Street, there is a love triangle. In Boiler Room it is between Seth, the secretary, and one of Seth's supervisors. In Wall Street the love triangle was between Charlie Sheen, Daryl Hannah and Michael Douglas.

The longer he works there Seth begins to wonder why no one has heard of this firm, why they are on Long Island and not in Manhattan, and how they can possibly pay brokers more commissions than any other firm. Seth is making a lot of money, but still he has mixed feelings about the morality of what he is doing. "Greed is good" could be the tagline for Boiler Room just like it was with Wall Street.

***Spoilers below***

Seth is investigated by the FBI and he finds out that J.T. Marlin is nothing but a house of cards and an illegal con game, or a boiler room. In exchange for his freedom he blows the whistle and tells the FBI about the firm. He copies his files from work onto a disk he will give to federal agents. Seth leaves the office just before federal agents raid it, and he tips off Vin Diesel's character to get out as well. An alternate ending has a former client of Seth's, Harry Reynard, showing up at J.T. Marlin with a gun to get his revenge. Harry had lost his life savings through investing in the firm's shoddy investment schemes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

I recently saw this documentary about the progressive rock Canadian trio Rush. They are a unique band who has been making albums since 1974. I have followed them since the 1980s when I was introduced to them by 2 of the best musicians at my high school.

Their self titled album in 1974 had a drummer named John Rutsey, but he left the band after the first release due to health issues. A radio station in Cleveland started playing the songs from their first album and received many calls from listeners who wanted to hear more. Finding my Way and Working Man were 2 of their early hits. Rush needed a new drummer and they found Neil Peart, who was not only a phenomenal musician but a talented lyricist.

It is amazing that Rush can put out such amazing music with only 3 people. Geddy Lee is the lead singer with a very high and distinctive voice. He also plays the bass and the keyboards. Alex Lifeson is the guitar player and Neil Peart the drummer. Peart uses a complex drum set equipped with every type of percussive instrument imaginable.

In the 1970s Rush released some of their most creative albums and some were commercially successful. Their albums in this decade included Caress of Steel, Fly by Night, the live album All the World's a Stage, 2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres. Many of these included extended songs split into several chapters that were concept songs. People did not always get it, and producers began getting frustrated with the lack of airplay and they wanted more commercial music that would appeal to the masses.

The 1980s saw Rush release some of their most popular material such as the albums Permanent Waves, Signals and Moving Pictures. The 80s music had a larger emphasis on keyboards and Peart began using some electronic drums. Alex Lifeson felt that his guitar part was being usurped by Lee's keyboards. The sound of Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire sounded further away from the classic power trio sound of their earlier albums.

Before the 1996 release of Test for Echo, drummer Neil Peart took a look at his drumming style and decided to make some changes. He had recorded and produced a Buddy Rich tribute album and he re-evaluted his drumming style with teacher Freddie Gruber. He put out a DVD which showed his new drumming style where he talked about his approach to the Test for Echo songs. He is a virtuoso musician, seen as one of the best drummers ever, but yet he has humility, seeing his musical life as a work in progress. Shortly after this, Peart had two tragedies in his life when he lost his wife and daughter. The band took several years off and Peart embarked on a 55,000 mile motorcycle ride on his own to deal with his grief. He is much more private, shy and contemplative than other band members Lifeson and Lee. Peart is not comfortable dealing with the adulation of the fans.

In 2002 after a hiatus of many years Rush released Vapor Trails. In 2004 Rush put out an album of cover tunes called Feedback. The documentary pointed out that the band was influenced by groups such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and The Who. In 2007 Snakes and Arrows came out, and this decade also included a world tour where Rush documented their concert in Brazil where they packed a stadium.

I like Rush since they do music on their own terms and yet they have been very successful. They are ranked third behind the Beatles and The Rolling Stones in consecutive gold or platinum albums. They may not be the coolest guys in the world but they have stood the test of time. They are intellectual guys who are not embroiled in "bad boy" scandals like so many rockers. They have not received the credit they deserve in my opinion. They have not been inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame which seems like a crime to me. They could be called the world's biggest cult band.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Food Inc. Revisited

PBS recently aired the 2009 documentary Food Inc. I wrote about it here before, but took notes this time and wanted to write some more about it since it brings up important topics which affect us all.

The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than the previous 10,000. 47,000 products in the average supermarket give us the illusion of diversity. The food industry does not want you to know where the food comes from, otherwise you would not eat it. A small group of multinational corporations control food, from seed to supermarket. 70% of supermarket food is genetically modified.

McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, and they want a hamburger to taste the same in every one of their establishments. As far as meat producers, in 1970 the top 5 controlled 20% of the market. Today, the top 4 control 80% of the market. The big meat companies include Tyson, Smithfield, ADM and Cargill. Cows are fed corn not grass since it is cheaper and they put on weight faster. Farmers are given subsidies to grow corn, and high fructose corn syrup is included in a wide range of products since it is cheaper than sugar to use as a sweetener. Foods that contain this are highly processed. Corn is found in so many products these days, including ketchup, cheese, twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, cheese-its, salad dressing, coke, jelly, charcoal, diapers, motrin and meat. So much cheap corn being fed to animals creates low meat prices. Grass fed beef will not have as many e.coli bacteria issues as corn fed beef. Acid resistant e. coli develops from feeding cows corn. The cows are ankle deep in manure and their hides are caked with manure, which often ends up in the meat. Ammonia is being added to meat to cut down on the chances of e. coli contamination, but do we really want to be ingesting ammonia? What are the long term health consequences? In 1996 Oprah Winfrey was sued by the beef industry for making disparaging remarks about beef after the mad cow outbreak. Regulations are not enforced like they should be since often it is former beef industry people who work for the FDA and determine policy. In 1972, the FDA performed 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006 that number fell to 9,164. In the 1970s there were thousands of slaughterhouses, and today there are only 13. Illegal aliens are sometimes used to work there since they provide cheap labor. That type of work has become very dangerous.

"Cheap food" is not really cheap in terms of health consequences, effects on the environment and the workers in the food factories are often mistreated. Our country has skewed the costs toward the bad calories. The junk food is subsidized which makes it so cheap. Humans are hard wired to crave salt, fat and sugar. High fructose corn syrup and refined carbohydrates lead to spikes in insulin levels. This wears down the system by which the body processes sugar, and can lead to diabetes. Of the children born after 2000, 1 in 3 will get diabetes.

Monsanto made the chemicals DDT and agent orange, and they rule the farming industry with an iron fist. Farmers who save Monsanto seeds and re-plant them will be investigated and prosecuted. They operate like Microsoft in that they own the intellectual property and the patents. Farmers do not have the money to battle a multinational corporation like Monsanto, so they must do as they dictate. Many former Monsanto executives have gone to work for the federal government where they can make and enforce laws that benefit that company. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is a former Monsanto employee.

Growth hormones and antibiotics are put into animals, and chickens that used to be full grown after 70 days in 1950 are now full grown in 48 days. The chickens get so big so quickly that they often cannot walk since their legs cannot support their bodies. Companies like Tyson and Perdue would not be interviewed for the film. They did not want the insides of their chicken houses to be shown. They have regulations that chicken farmers must follow or their contracts will be cancelled. It costs $300,000 to build a poultry house, so farmers need to accumulate lots of debt. The average farmer only makes $18,000 per year so they become slaves to the companies that buy their goods.

The film Food Inc. showed some bleak facts about agriculture and nutrition, but also said that we have the power to change the industry. We can vote with our wallets and make the right choices by staying away from bad foods. If we do not support fast food restaurants and quit buying the processed foods and junk food it will cause change. The film makers pointed at the tobacco industry and how their power has declined due to the evidence of negative health consequences. I have to wonder, what role does what we eat play in health issues that have become epidemic in this country? Does the food we eat contribute to cancer, alzheimers, parkinsons, autism or other issues? What can we do? Grow a garden. Support your local farmers market. Buy food that is locally produced or organic if you can. Look for foods that do not contain hormones or antibiotics. Buy beef that comes from grass fed cows, not corn fed. You can change the world with each bite.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Career of Comedy Icon Woody Allen

In his 74 years, Woody Allen has had an amazing, varied career which any artist would envy. He is more than just a film director. He has written many of his best films, as well as books, (Without Feathers, Side Effects and Getting Even), plays and he has written for television dating back to the 1950s. He wrote for Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show and Candid Camera. In the 1960s he worked as a stand up comedian. In 1966, Allen made his directorial debut with What's Up Tiger Lily. Starting with 1969's Take the Money and Run, Woody started an amazing string of comedic triumphs. The period between 1969 and 1979 included his most acclaimed fims. The 1980s saw some moody, melodramatic films which pay tribute to Allen's hero, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Woody's films are not $200 million dollar blockbusters full of special effects, but he does have loyal followers, especially overseas in France and Spain. The city of Oviedo, Spain, erected a life size statue of Woody in 2002. Post-2000, he has shot many of his films in Europe, a change of pace since most of his are shot in his beloved New York. He has been nominated for Academy Awards 21 times and he has won 3. He has a large following in New York City and the surrounding areas. His films often deal with the same issues of intellectuals, psychological challenges, Jewish life, and sexuality.

Here are some of his most significant films;

1969--- Take the Money and Run--- A slapstick screwball comedy about an incompetent bank robber. I think this was one of his funniest movies.

1971--- Bananas--- A wacky comedy in which Woody plays a Castro-style revolutionary.

1972--- Play it Again Sam--- Allen was the writer and actor in this, but he did not direct it. This was shot in San Francisco, which is unusual for a Woody Allen film. Woody is a neurotic man who wants to be smooth with women like his hero, Humphrey Bogart.

1972--- Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)--- This was broken into several sections, each dealing with different sexual topics.

1973--- Sleeper--- Woody's look into the future.

1977--- Annie Hall--- Woody co-starred with Diane Keaton, and this was his most acclaimed, best known work. This is a landmark film in the genre of romantic comedies. It won 4 Oscars, including best picture, best actress, best director and best screenplay. It featured Christopher Walken, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Jeff Goldblum and Sigourney Weaver.

1978--- Interiors--- I loved this, but many did not since it was so moody and a complete departure from Annie Hall. It was Allen's homage to Ingmar Bergman.

1979--- Manhattan--- Other than Annie Hall, Manhattan is Woody's most popular film. It is a black and white love letter to New York City. It is well known for its soundtrack by George Gershwin, especially Rhapsody in Blue over the opening sequences. The irony is that this film foreshadowed a romantic relationship which would shock the world. In the movie Woody played a 42 year old comedy writer dating a 17 year old high school student. He would be criticized later for marrying his wife Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Manhattan featured Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep.

1980--- Stardust Memories--- The ironic thing about this movie is that Woody plays a film director who has people coming up to him saying they prefer his "earlier, funnier films". Along with The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen considers this one of his best films. This was also shot in black and white, reminiscent of the films of Fellini.

1983--- Zelig--- This was a mockumentary about an insecure man who is a human chameleon that morphs into whoever surrounds him in an attempt to be accepted.

1986--- Hannah and Her Sisters--- This is one of my favorites and it starred Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Weist. This film dealt with family strife and infidelity. These themes seemed to be more common for Woody's films starting in the 1980s. Grossing just over $40 million, it is one of Woody's biggest financial hits. It was praised heartily by critic Roger Ebert.

1987--- September--- This film along with 1988's Another Woman and 1992's Shadows and Fog and Husbands and Wives, was a very moody and dark film, perhaps tied to the turbulence in Allen's life. These films are polar opposites of his early screwball films like Bananas or Sleeper.

1989--- New York Stories--- This was broke up into three sections, each directed by an iconic director. The first section was directed by Martin Scorsese, the middle directed by Francis Ford Coppola and the final is directed by Woody Allen. Woody's portion deals with his relationship with his mother who wants him to meet a nice Jewish girl and settle down.

1995--- Mighty Aphrodite--- This film earned Allen plenty of attention since its star Mira Sorvino won the Oscar for best supporting actress. She also won many other awards for her role such as a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA award (British Academy of Film and Television Awards).

1996--- Everyone Says I Love You--- This was Woody's first musical and it starred Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn and Natalie Portman. Roger Ebert called it his favorite of Woody's films. It was set in New York, Paris and Venice.

1997--- Wild Man Blues--- I enjoyed this very much since it was a documentary about a side of Woody Allen we do not see. It chronicles his tour overseas playing clarinet with a jazz band. This film shows how much Allen is idolized in Europe. It is unique to see since Allen is such a private man and in this film we are able to see him unguarded, not hiding behind a character. He has played with his jazz band for over 25 years. They perform in Manhattan regularly.

2005--- Match Point--- This was a dramatic thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson. Two things that make this significant is that is was a big hit at the bos office and Woody was satified with how the picture turned out. He said Match Point "arguably may be the best film I've made." Its worldwide gross was $85 million.

2008--- Vicky Cristina Barcelona--- This was shot in Spain, marking Woody's fourth consecutive film shot outside the US. It was successful, taking in $96 million worldwide. Penelope Cruz won many awards for this, including an Oscar.

2009--- Whatever Works--- I liked this since it featured Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as a Woody Allen type of character who is a neurotic older man dating a younger woman.

I think it is amazing how Woody Allen has had such a varied, lengthy career, and he has been prolific as a writer-director for films over the past 40 years. He makes films by his own standards and does not aim for the lowest common denominator, as so may films do these days. He may not make blockbusters like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but he makes thought provoking films that are appreciated by those who like to be challenged intellectually. I think he is one of the most under appreciated artists working in the genre of film. To people who have not seen his work, I would recommend Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, New York Stories and Everyone Says I Love You.

* Some information from

Monday, March 08, 2010

2010 Academy Award Recap

Last night the 82nd Academy Awards were held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. The hosts were Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. For the first time since 1943, ten films were nominated for best picture instead of five. Casablanca won in 1943. This year's telecast featured a tribute to the late writer/director/producer John Hughes (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone). There was also a tribute to horror films with clips from The Shining, The Exorcist, Child's Play, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Shining, and more. Here are some of the big winners from the night;

Best supporting actor-Christoph Waltz for Inglorius Basterds

Best animated feature-Up

Best song-The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart

Best original screenplay-The Hurt Locker

Best supporting actress-Mo'Nique for Precious

Best actor-Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart

Best actress-Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side

Best director-Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker

Best picture-The Hurt Locker

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oliver Stone's 1987 Masterpiece, Wall Street

Later this year a sequel to Wall Street will be released. The film will be called Wall Street:Money Never Sleeps, which was a line from the first movie. It has been 23 years since the original film came out, and it is still the quintissential movie about New York stockbrokers and the world of high finance. An Oliver Stone film has never had a sequel. According to a documentary on the Blu Ray DVD version of Wall Street, stock brokers still quote lines from the film all of these years later. Traders have said that this movie is the best representation of what really goes on at the New York stock exchange. Michael Douglas says he gets people coming up to him all of the time telling him that his character influenced them to go into finance. He says that people do not seem to realize that his character of Gordon Gekko was not a good guy, but a bad person whom no one should view as a role model. Nevertheless, people seem to love the bad characters more than the good ones.

The multi-talented Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed Wall Street after writing and directing Platoon just a year earlier. He has an impressive resume, having written Scarface, Midnight Express and Conan the Barbarian. Post-Wall Street his writer/director resume grew with the films Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, and more. His father had worked as a Wall Street trader, so he wanted to make a film about what goes on in that environment.

Wall Street is the story of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young hotshot stock broker who wants to make as much money as he can, and he will do anything to get what he wants. He persistently calls Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) every day in an attempt to meet him and give him stock tips to make him money. Gekko is a giant in the finance industry. He buys companies, breaks them into pieces and sells the parts for enourmous profit. He is one of the richest people on Wall Street and Bud Fox becomes his protege. Fox realizes that to make the kind of money Gekko makes, one needs to engage in the illegal practice of insider trading. Fox's dad Carl (Martin Sheen) is an airline mechanic for Blue Star airlines and Bud gets inside information about that company that he gives to Gekko. Carl Fox wants his son to be successful, but he also wants him to stay on the right side of the law. He is concerned that Gekko has taken his son under his wing, and he does not like that his son seems to idolize Gordon more than him.

Wall Street is a morality tale. There is good money to be made as a stockbroker who follows the rules, but one who breaks the law can make endless money, but this comes with consequences. Hal Holbrook plays Lou Mannheim, Bud Fox's boss. He has a feeling that Bud is getting stock tips illegally and he has a memorable quote in the film:

"Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss."

Lou also says: "The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."

The most quoted line from the film is when Gekko says "Greed is good." This is the context of where he says that, at a stockholder's meeting.

"Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I've been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

There are so many outstanding quotes from this film. The relationship between Bud Fox and his father explodes with this exchange:

Carl Fox: He's using you, kid. He's got your prick in his back pocket, but you're too blind to see it.
Bud Fox: No. What I see is a jealous old machinist who can't stand the fact that his son has become more successful than he has!
Carl Fox: What you see is a guy who never measured a man's success by the size of his WALLET!
Bud Fox: That's because you never had the GUTS to go out into the world and stake your own claim!
[Long Pause]
Carl Fox: Boy, if that's the way you feel, I must have done a really lousy job as a father.

Gekko and Bud Fox see the world of Wall Street as not unlike a conflict on the battlefield. At one point when about to buy stock, Gekko says: "We're in the killzone." Bud Fox, quoting "The Art of War" says: "Sun-tzu: If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate." Gordon Gekko enjoys the thrill of being in a battle with someone else. There is a scene at Gordon's house where he is negotiating a stock deal with a rival. He shows off his collection of vintage pistols. Stone has drawn comparisons between the world of Wall Street, the Vietnam war battles, and the drug dealers in Miami he chronicled in the film Scarface.

I think that Wall Street is Stone's best film. Like directors such as Hitchcock and Scorsese, Stone had a cameo in his film where he played a broker on the phone during a montage of deals being made. Richard Gere and Warren Beatty almost got the role of Gekko instead of Douglas. Tom Cruise almost was given the part of Bud Fox. Stone worked with him in Born on the Fourth of July. Michael Douglas deservedly won a best actor Oscar for his pivotal role. The storyline was loosely based on Ivan Boesky and the insider trading scandals of the 1980s. Daryl Hannah played the role of Bud Fox's girlfriend and she has never seen the film. She has said that she had an "unhealthy working relationship" with Oliver Stone. I love all aspects of this film, even the soundtrack. Frank Sinatra's Fly Me to the Moon plays over the opening credits and later a song by The Talking Heads is used (This Must be the Place-Naive Melody). The film Boiler Room (2000) is a must see for fans of Wall Street. It is also about stock brokers, and the characters in the film are obsessed with Gordon Gekko and Oliver Stone's portrayal of the world of finance. Another film that Wall Street fans should check out is American Psycho (2000) since it also features the 1980s New York yuppie era. It is based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero), and it stars Christian Bale as a self obsessed, materialistic psychotic executive.

* Some information from

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Artistic Vision of Martin Scorsese

I wanted to write about this fantastic director since I admire his work so much. I will list his films which are some of my favorites, and provide a few words about each one. From 1968's Who's that Knocking at my Door, to this year's Shutter Island, Scorsese has had an amazing career. His 21 feature films have earned 64 Oscar nominations and 15 wins. He did not win a best director Oscar until 2007, for The Departed, a film about the Irish mafia. He had lost this coveted best director Oscar five times previously. But, after all, greats such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles never won best director Oscars. He has also directed several documentaries and short films, often about the classic rock artists he admires so much. He has had small roles in many of his films, just like another legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock. He is probably best known for his many films that are about the Italian mafia, but he has not limited himself to that genre. He did a period piece (The Age of Innocence) and a film about the Dalai Lama in Tibet (Kundun). Many of his films deal with emotional longing, loneliness, and some feature scenes of unflinching violence. He grew up in New York's Little Italy but lived a sheltered life due to being an asthmatic. He spent lots of time in church and going to the movies. Scorsese is known for his distinctive directing style in which the camera is often moving throughout the scene. Throughout the final three decades of the 20th century, Scorsese films often featured one of best actors of our time, Robert DeNiro. In recent years he has directed many starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He is a graduate of the legendary New York University film school, where his students included Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Here are my favorites:

Mean Streets (1973) This was a breakthrough for Scorsese as well as stars Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. It featured a gritty, violent New York setting where the mafia rules, rapid fire editing and a rock soundtrack. This film is his most autobiographical, and it is a favorite film of many real life gangsters.

Taxi Driver (1976) This is one of the greatest masterpieces of film of all time, and my favorite Scorsese work. It is not a film for everyone. It is disturbing to say the least. It follows Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), a New York cabbie who says "Loneliness has followed me all of my life. I'm God's lonely man." He is man who has been broken by his time in Vietnam, his challenges to navigate through society and his worst enemy is himself. He is a powder keg ready to explode in a flurry of violence, and he does. He is trapped in a life which is an angry nightmare from which he cannot awake. He sees the world through twisted eyes and tries to "save" a prostitute from her lifestyle which she sees as her only option. On the other hand, he seeks revenge on another woman who had rejected his advances. Travis Bickle seems to view women as either angelic or as prostitutes. Cybill Shepard's character first appears wearing white and moving in slow motion, and Travis writes in his diary "They cannot touch her." He wants her, but at the same time his self destructive feelings are more powerful, and they keep him from doing the right things to win her over. This featured Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepard, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, and Harvey Keitel. Reagan assassin John Hinckley was obsessed with this film, and he thought that killing the president would impress Jodie Foster. Overhead shots are used repeatedly in this film showing guns for sale laid out on a bed, junk food at the adult movie theatre, and an long overhead tracking shot towards the end depicting the bloody mayhem left in the wake of Travis' killing spree. Scorsese has said that Travis Bickle saw what he had to do and it was a ritualistic, religious, sacrifice for him. The ultra violent, grimy, New York of the 1970s is much different than the more sanitized New York of today. Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Hardcore, Blue Collar, Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), and the haunting melodies of composer Bernard Herrmann deserve a lot of credit for this masterwork. Herrmann also did the music for Citizen Kane (one of Scorsese's favorites) and Psycho, among other Hitchcock films. His final film to score was Taxi Driver, and he died just hours after recording it. The main title theme with its sultry saxophone fit the mood of the film perfectly. This was nominated for a total of 4 Academy Awards, including the best picture Oscar, but it lost to Rocky. It won the highly coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of Scorsese's biggest fans is my favorite film critic, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He gave a perfect 4-star review to 14 of Scorsese's films. These include; Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Casino, After Hours, The Departed, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and others. Regarding Taxi Driver he says "Taxi Driver is a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know. Taxi Driver is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down." Ebert has insights into film like no one else. He is the only film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Raging Bull (1980) This is a tale of the violent, aggressive world of professional boxing where Robert DeNiro plays Jake LaMotta. DeNiro's character has trouble separating the world in the ring, where violence is applauded, with the world outside the ring, where violence is not allowed. This film was in black and white, with use of slow motion and a moving camera. Many view this as the director's greatest work. Actor Joe Pesci played a key role, just as he would in later Scorsese works. Cathy Moriarty plays the wife of LaMotta, and she must deal with his violent outbursts. This was nominated for 8 Oscars, and it won 2.

The King of Comedy (1983) This comedic film was a change of pace for the director known largely for his dramatic films based around Italian American life in New York. DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, who is a sad character who has lost touch with reality. His dream is to host a late night talk show. Jerry Lewis plays Pupkin's idol, Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like comedian/talk show host. Carson was actually considered to play the role, as well as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. DeNiro's character lives at home with his parents and interviews cardboard cut-outs of celebrities in his basement as practice for hosting his own show one day. The story turns dark as Rupert Pupkin finds a way to make his dream come true, by any means he can. In the film Rupert says "It's better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." Scorsese has said this was an emotionally grueling film to direct. He and DeNiro did not work together again for seven years.

New York Stories (1989) This was a different approach for a film since it was broken up into 3 sections, each directed by a legendary film maker. It was not a big hit with critics or at the box office, but I enjoyed it. The first segment, titled Life Lessons was directed by Scorsese. The other 2 were directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. Life Lessons was the story of a New York painter played by Nick Nolte who takes on a protege played by Rosanna Arquette who becomes his love interest. This included use of Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone in the soundtrack.

GoodFellas (1990) This film featured Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as powerful figures in the world of the Italian-American mafia. I think that this film is on the same level as The Godfather, also directed by a legendary Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola. It has scenes of disturbing violence and a great classic rock soundtrack. Roger Ebert called it "the best mob movie ever". Four years earlier, Scorsese's film The Color of Money was released, and it starred Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in a story about pool hall husters. This was his least personal film, but its success at the box office made a film like GoodFellas possible. The studios want nothing but blockbusters. This was nominated for 6 Oscars and it won 1, for Joe Pesci.

Cape Fear (1991) This marked the director's seventh time working with Robert DeNiro, and it is a remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum. Other Scorsese films have violent scenes, but Cape Fear felt more like a horror film than his other work. Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis also star in the disturbing but brilliant work.

Casino (1995) This mobster film takes place largely in Las Vegas and has a running time of about 3 hours. It is so well written and performed, the 3 hours goes by quickly and it left me wanting even more. I have only said this about 2 other works, The Godfather, and Brian DePalma's Scarface. It features Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and the best performance of Sharon Stone's career.

The Aviator (2004) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this was a biopic about the odd but incredibly successful tycoon, Howard Hughes. It chronicles the love life, the business life and the obsessive-compulsive disorder which ruined a life which had so much potential. Like other films by this director, it shows one man's descent into madness. This was nominated for an amazing 11 Oscars, and it won 5.

Scorsese has a passion for music, and he directed directed the video Bad for Michael Jackson, the film The Last Waltz, about the musical group The Band, and Shine a Light featuring the Rolling Stones. He directed New York New York, which was a film where Robert DeNiro played a sax player, released in 1977, and it featured Liza Minelli. The original director's cut was 4 and a half hours, but it had to be trimmed significantly to play in theatres. There were challenges with this film in shooting the musical numbers, with the choreography, the lip-synching and the illusion of DeNiro playing a saxophone as well as his character. In May 2009, he confirmed he will direct a biopic about legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. In 2010 a Scorsese documentary will be released about former Beatle George Harrison. In 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Scorsese directed the singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. It made money, so this opened doors for him, and the film studios put trust in him to make more films. The TV show Alice, starring Linda Lavin, was loosely based on this film.

* Some information from,,, "Roger Ebert's Four Star Reviews 1967-2007" and "Martin Scorsese Interviews", Edited by Peter Brunette.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Elton John:40 Years of Captain Fantastic

A supremely talented musician was born in England in 1947. His name was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, but we know him as Elton John. This moniker came from combining two names of members of his band which was formed in the 1960s. Elton grew up in a family with parents who were musically inclined, but yet his father did not want him to be a musician for a living. He wanted him to have a more stable job, such as being a banker. Elton fell in love with rock and roll when his parents brought home records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets. As early as 3 years old Elton played piano and found he could play songs by ear. His mom and dad had a turbulent relationship and they divorced when he was 15. Elton never felt accepted by his father and he was closer to his mother and grandmother. As a teenager he would play piano in a local pub, and at 17 he left school to pursue music. He was part of a group called Bluesology starting in 1964, and at first he did not want to be a performer, he wanted to write music for others to perform. Bluesology would back American R&B and soul bands, so Elton developed a love for this type of music. In 1967 Elton met a lyricist named Bernie Taupin, and the two of them would team up to create some of the most successful songs in the history of music. Elton's 1969 album Empty Sky did not have success on the charts, but the following year would be the start of a string of hits that led to Elton John selling over 250 million albums, with 35 going gold, 25 platinum and seven albums in a row hitting #1.

In 1970, Elton's first U.S. concert was at the Troubador, a legendary music venue in Los Angeles. He was introduced by Neil Diamond, and Rolling Stone magazine called this one of the 20 performances that changed rock and roll. Elton received high praise from one of his idols, John Lennon, who said that Elton was the first big thing on the music scene since the Beatles had broken up. The 1970 self titled album had the first breakthrough hit, Your Song. In November of 1970 an album was recorded live at WABC-FM in New York City. This release was called 11-17-70 and it included Elton's interpretations Get Back by the Beatles, Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones, and My Baby Left Me, by Elvis. Elton did not shy away from performing cover tunes, and later in the decade he would perform The Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Pinball Wizard by The Who.

The early to mid 1970s were a time of hit after hit for Elton, with such gems as Your Song, Levon, Rocket Man, Honky Cat, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Bennie and the Jets, The Bitch is Back, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me, and many more. In 1973 Elton played on the song Whatever Gets You Through the Night by John Lennon. He had one stipulation, if the song went to #1, Lennon had to join Elton on stage in concert. Lennon said yes, thinking it would not be successful. The song went to #1 and Lennon joined Elton on stage at a concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1974. Apparently Lennon was nervous since he had not performed in a long time since the Beatles had broken up in 1970. Many performers turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the rigors of being on the road and the stress of churning out hit songs. Elton was no exception and he battled addiction through his most prolific periods of his career.

The second half of the 1970s was a time of many challenges for Elton. In 1976 at the height of his success, Elton admitted to being a bisexual. This was a big risk since it may hurt his album sales. In 1977 he was burned out and announced at a concert at Wembley Arena that that concert would be his last. He returned to performing a year later and tried writing with some other lyricists besides Bernie Taupin. In 1978 he collapsed from exhaustion. He had been pushing himself too hard and something had to give. In 1980 he performed a concert in Central Park for a crowd of 500,000 people. Later this year, Elton was crushed when he learned his friend and idol John Lennon had been killed. The song Empty Garden was written in his memory.

The 1980s were a period where Elton did not see the commercial success he had the decade before. In 1984 he married friend and sound engineer Renate Blauel, and he was in denial over his sexuality. They divorced in 1988. In 1986, Elton had nodules removed from his vocal cords after his voice gave out. Since then his voice has gone from a falsetto tenor to more of a baritone, and in concert he sounds different than on his early albums. This seems to happen to many performers as they get older. All of the touring puts a lot of stress on a voice.

Since the late 1980s Elton became involved in the fight against AIDS. He befriended a young boy named Ryan White who was HIV positive and when Elton performed at his funeral, it was a turning point for him personally. He saw video of his performance and he knew something had to be done to face his own demons. He though he looked terrible, sickly and old. He sought help for his addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. 1993 was the year that Elton's AIDS foundation was formed and it has raised millions to fight the disease. This was also the year that Elton met his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, who directed a documentary about the musician called Tantrums and Tiaras. The film was an unflinching look at the artist, including some scenes of him losing his temper. He is a perfectionist, who expects only the best from himself and others.

In 1997 he became "Sir" Elton John after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. This same year his friend Princess Diana died and he wrote an updated version of Candle in the Wind for her, which sold a record breaking 37 million copies. The song was originally about Marilyn Monroe.

Elton is secure enough with his own success that he helps other up and coming musicians to gain notoriety. He has written articles for Interview magazine about current artists he enjoys.

In recent years he has written music for Broadway shows and films. He won an Oscar for The Lion King, a Tony and a Grammy for Aida and 10 Tonys for Billy Elliott.

Billboard magazine ranked him as the most successful male artist of all time. They did a list called "The Billboard Hot 100 Top All Time Artists" and Elton is #3 overall, behind only The Beatles and Madonna.

The song Tiny Dancer found a new audience when the 2000 film Almost Famous included it in the soundtrack. The film is an autobiographical piece about Cameron Crowe, who toured with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s as a writer for Rolling Stone.

In the 21st century, Elton has toured with another pianist/music legend, Billy Joel. In 2005 he performed his Red Piano show over an extended period in Las Vegas. 2007 marked Elton's 60th birthday and his 60th performance at Madison Square Garden. In 2009, while touring an AIDS clinic in the Ukraine, Elton decided he wanted to adopt a 14 month old HIV positive baby he met there. He and his partner were turned down due to their age and marital status.

40 years after the big break at the Troubador, Elton John remains one of the most prolific artists in the history of music and his works will be appreciated for decades to come. I am impressed by his mix of sensitive orchestral ballads such as Tiny Dancer and Daniel, as well as his up tempo intense songs such as The Bitch is Back and Philadelphia Freedom. It is so difficult to make a living in music, and anyone who can do it, especially with the success and staying power of Elton John, is impressive.

*Some information from and the Biography channel's TV show about Elton John.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mad about Mad Men

One of the best shows on TV just won a Golden Globe award, to add to its many other accolades it has earned over its 3 seasons. Mad Men is a show on AMC which is about people who work in the New York City advertising industry in the 1960s. This is a drama, but it has some comedic moments, and it has been a breakthrough show for the previously unknown cast. I have not seen a show with writing this good since The Sopranos. Once you start watching, you want to see more. Seasons one and two are available from Netflix. Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, the suave ad executive with a mysterious past. His wife is played by January Jones, who is a Grace Kelly dead ringer that fights against a boring home life and a husband who is unfaithful. The Sterling Cooper ad agency is headed up by womanizer Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and the eccentric Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). Two of the most interesting ad agency employees are Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, and Joan, played by Christina Hendricks. Peggy yearns to be more than a secretary at work, and to be seen as someone who can contribute. Joan is seen as the sex symbol of the Sterling Cooper agency. The set design and costumes are pulled off flawlessly to give the show a 1960s appearance. Down to the smallest detail, you feel like you are going back in time when you watch the show. The co-stars of this show seem to be activities like smoking, drinking, and men living a hedonistic lifestyle. Watching this show makes one realize how much things have changed since the 1960s, such as the roles of women in the workplace. Also, people are smoking (a lot) in the office, which today would be forbidden.

Monday, January 11, 2010

NBC's Unprecedented Late Night Blunders

NBC moved Jay Leno from 11:35pm back to 10pm only about 6 months ago. Conan O'Brien moved from 12:35am to Leno's old slot at 11:35pm as host of The Tonight Show. Conan has been working for NBC since 1993, when David Letterman left to get his 11:35pm show at CBS. The ratings for Leno at 10pm have been really bad, and he gets beat night in and night out, especially by the CBS dramas like CSI:Miami, CSI:NY and The Mentalist. His numbers are about what they were at 11:35, but in prime time those numbers do not fly. The numbers need to be there to get decent ad rates, and to keep the affiliates happy. Now NBC wants to end this little experiment and move Leno back to 11:35pm. His show may be only 30 minutes, putting Conan on at 12:05am. If this is the case, Jimmy Fallon would move from 12:35am to 1:05am assuming Conan's show is 60 minutes. If I were in Conan's shoes I would jump ship to Fox. ABC has Nightline at 11:35pm and Jimmy Kimmel at 12:05am, so Fox is probably the best bet. Maybe NBC should drop the unfunny Leno all together. I assume they will go back to dramas from 10-11pm on NBC and the affiliates are hoping their newscasts will get better numbers once Leno vacates after the 2010 winter olympics. Conan is not hurting for money. He gets $20 million per year for the next 4 years. Still, Conan has paid his dues, he deserves to be on at 11:35pm, and this is the biggest network blunder I can recall. Sure the networks have put on many shows that have flopped, but this was a 5 night per week, 10pm-11pm experiment that failed miserably. Their justification is that a talk show is cheaper to produce than a scripted show. But, what good does that do if the ratings are poor and you are affecting your affiliates numbers for their newscasts which provide a major revenue source? The once mighty peacock network has fallen a long way from the days of must see TV.