25 August 2009

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) has died

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who championed universal health care among other causes, has died from brain cancer at the age of 77. He had been in the senate since 1962.

This summer is gonna be best remembered by a bad economy and deaths of notable people. On August 11, Edward's older sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, also died.

18 August 2009

James Poniewozik and reruns pwned PTC? (updated)

This just came up on my RSS reader where I keep track of the Parents Television Council on Google News. It's a blog entry by Time magazine critic James Poniewoznik, who penned a lengthy profile of the PTC for the magazine in 2005. Poniewoznik responds to the PTC's criticism of AMC's new drama Mad Men, a show about a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s. Apparently that's part of PTC's series "So You Think You Can Rate a TV Show?", in which its entertainment analysts challenge the networks' usage of the TV Parental Guidelines. (Have you seen how the networks, except CBS, repeatedly flash those ratings at the beginning of each show and after each commercial break? Notice how Viacom-owned networks like Comedy Central and MTV have 'em uber big at the beginning? And that Fox actually plasters an XXL sized ratings box during "Viewer Discretion Advised" cards? Creepy.)

OK, enough with the off-topic ramble, but I wonder how Mr. Poniewoznik got the PTC's review when it's not even listed anywhere? Google "mad men" within the parentstv.org website (as of right now there's only one irrelevant result. PTC complains that the episode of Mad Men, which was rated TV-14-LS (unsuitable for children under 14 because of language and sexual content) contained such content more suitable for a TV-MA (17 and older only) rating than TV-14.

Here's what PTC allegedly has to say:

AMC gave the show a TV-14 (L, S) rating, which means that the company thinks that the episode was appropriate for 14-year-old children. The basic cable episode contained a shot of a character's hand going down into the underwear of another character for sexual stimulation, a half-naked woman whose hands covered her breasts just before insinuating that she had sex with another character, and a graphic scene with a prostitute that repeats several times, “I'm gonna cut your dick off and boil it in hog fat.”

And here's Poniewoznik's rebuttal:

Now, the thing is, I actually think the PTC has several points. Yeah, I probably would not screen the show for an average 14-year-old. I can do without the inconsistent ratings systems too, and would like to see a la carte cable choices, because I think consumer choice is a good thing, especially as it applies to cable near-monopolies.

But would I show Mad Men to a mature 14-year-old? One who was, say, already reading the kind of adult literary fiction that Mad Men mirrors? Yes. And other than that, what 14-year-old is actually interested in watching moody period pieces about the social mores of affluent suburbs in the 1960s? For whom is this actually a serious concern? Let me clue you in: if your 14-year-old is surfing cable alone, trying to find something dirty to watch, he wants to see Skinemax or something, not Bert Cooper talking about the nuances of Japanese tentacle-erotica art.

Apparently PTC put out a "trial balloon" to get attention or something. I don't know, but I'll post up the PTC's primary link if they ever put one out. But according to the TV Parental Guidelines, TV-14 doesn't directly mean "appropriate for all children over 14". Technically, it means:

This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program may contain one or more of the following: intensely suggestive dialogue (D), strong coarse language (L), intense sexual situations (S), or intense violence (V).

If you've been believing PTC's constant mis-representation of the TV-14 rating, then you're wrong.

And another thing: regarding PTC's constant barrage of indecency complaints to the FCC.

If you go up to PTC's website, you'll find their current pet causes: Cable choice! Yes, because Comedy Central's Roast of Joan Rivers was oh so vulgar and tasteless despite airing only (and to the steel-skulled members of the PTC, I'll repeat only) after 10PM (well 9PM in non-Eastern/pacific time zones and even earlier by satellite, but that's why there's a V-Chip) and with a TV-MA rating (again must I emphasise that parents with children under 17 should use the V-Chip to block TV-MA shows in most cases). And then, Southern fast-food chain Hardee's has a new, tasteless, and stupid TV commercial for its "biscuit hole" product. (I live in California, where there's Carl's Jr instead of Hardee's, so I don't see the ad on my local stations.) And of course as I blogged earlier, this year's MTV Movie and [Michael Jackson-smearing] BET Awards.

Pardon me for "scooping" the "enemy" if you're a TV fan, y'know, of such shows like CSI for which PTC takes a solid disdain.

Over the past two days, shows that PTC has filed complaints against have rerun over the air during the "no-indecency" period of 6am-10pm. The first was the Family Guy episode "Family Gay", which PTC strongly condemned and filed complaints over the supposedly excessive, flamboyant (no homophobia intended) sexual content when it originally aired in March. Fox re-ran the episode last night at 9:30PM Eastern/Pacific times (8:30PM in other time zones, and if I were a PTC representative I'd use a "scare bold" as PTC sometimes uses). And guess what? PTC, with all its might urging its members and the general public to complain about the episode, said nothing at all the second time around. Hmm. Do they just not care for reruns, did they give Fox leeway for scheduling it at 9:30PM instead of the usual 9PM, or are they for any other reason oblivious? (On Sunday night, Fox showed a three-episode rerun block of Family Guy, starting at 8:30PM.)

Second, there's the episode of That '70s Show that PTC fussed about back in March 2004, "Happy Jack". The episode was named after a song by British rock band The Who from their 1971 album Who's Next and was about character Eric being caught masturbating. So it's not a surprise for PTC to be so outraged, given the topic AND the fact that it aired just a month and a half after the Super Bowl halftime show incident. Well, it aired locally on TV station KICU today at 4PM, and throughout the nation at various times that might have been before or after 10PM for all I know, through stations that syndicate That '70s Show. I DVR'ed that episode today because I wanted to start watching that show regularly; I've seen only bits and pieces of it through channel-surfing. Apparently the PTC doesn't care if this episode has been rerun many many many times after March 2004 including a few times on Fox as filler primetime programming maybe.

UPDATE (8/19): Alison J. Waldman of TV Week published a brief item on PTC's Mad Men criticism today. But still no sign of the review on PTC's own website.

UPDATE #2 (8/19): I watched the "Happy Jack" episode today. It was pretty funny, and did have some pretty risque dialogue, but it used a whole bunch of euphemistic terms rather than explicit references to masturbation. Heck, it didn't even drop the word itself! But still, this episode was fresh meat for the PTC, yet the FCC has yet to put down a decision into it, nearly 65 months after it originally aired (March 24, 2004). That's longer than the time it took for the FCC to judge the infamous buttocks scene episode of NYPD Blue indecent (59 months; aired February 25, 2003; decided January 25, 2008). Perez Hilton also posted a blog about PTC's criticism of Mad Men.

UPDATE #3 (8/20): FINALLY! PTC posts this episode as "Worst Cable Content of the Week" despite admitting it's a "fine show..for adults" (italics theirs). They deny any homophobia (as Hilton and a few other bloggers somewhere allege), but still can't construct a good response to Poniewoznik's rebuttal:

Some of the same bloggers were quick to point out that teenagers likely aren’t flocking to a moody show about middle-class ennui and the shifting social mores of the turbulent ‘60s -- after all, they say, if teens want to see something inappropriate, there is no dearth of drunken strippers on VH1 or sexually active teenagers on MTV. But such criticism is ill-considered. Those bloggers know that Mad Men is a thoughtful, introspective drama because they’ve already watched it. A parent who has never tuned into the show, and has only heard the buzz and critical praise, might allow their teenager to watch an episode based on the TV-14 rating, only to be blindsided by the sexually explicit content.
The author missed Poniewoznik's point on different maturity levels of certain teenagers. In America, there are teenagers whose parents want to keep pure and innocent until age 18, I won't deny that. Just as there are Gossip Girl type teens who are well-cultured and know the dangers of the world around them and whose parents are willing to discuss the birds n' the bees. This criticism isn't surprising given that PTC feels that there have been cases in broadcast TV also where TV-14 has been too weak.

The deaths just keep on coming this summer...

It all started with the passings of pop culture icons David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Michael Jackson this June. And over the past week, we've seen the passings of three more icons: former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (today, aged 85), conservative columnist and Valerie Plame leaker Robert Novak, and rock musician and electric guitar pioneer Les Paul (August 13, 94).

Speaking of Kim, when I was researching about Kim, I came upon this 1998 CNN article covering his presidential inauguration. That article reported that among his dignitaries were Jackson and former Philippines president Corazon Aquino, both of whom died this summer.

17 August 2009

Vacation in Canada

From Monday, Aug. 10 to yesterday I was on a bus tour in Western Canada - Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, and the areas in between. Specifically, between those major cities, I visited Glacier National Park, Lake Louise, Banff National Park, the Last Spike historical landmark in central British Columbia province, a ginseng tea showroom, a farm, and a bunch of other small towns and places. For me, the best part of the vacation was visiting the Glacier NP, since it was a break from the extremely hot weather down here in San Jose.

In the later half of my week in Canada, I took a BC Ferry from Vancouver, BC to Victoria. The ferry included a parking garage and other amenities like a gift shop. Judging by the ferry route and the fact that I could pick up some radio stations from Northwestern Washington State, I thought I could brag, in the words of Sarah Palin, that I could see the U.S. from the boat! Well, I don't really think so, because on my way back to Vancouver I saw an island with a Canadian flag.

It turns out there's a lot of Asians in Canada. My family stayed in the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Richmond, just east of the Vancouver International Airport, and there were many plazas of Chinese-owned businesses and even a Chinese shopping mall. Even in the smaller towns (like Banff) there were Chinese restaurants.

Well, it's the last week of summer before I start college. Gotta make the best of it.

03 August 2009

Movie review: "Notorious" (2009)

On Sunday night, I watched a Netflix-rented DVD of the 2009 film Notorious, which was originally released to theaters on Jan. 16 this year and on DVD on April 21. This is a biopic of the life of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher George Latore Wallace), who was murdered in March 1997 at the age of 24. To this day, his murder is still unsolved. The movie focuses mostly on Biggie's music career; the first quarter of the film centers on his childhood and high school years.

Of course, because we all know that The Notorious B.I.G. is no longer with us, the movie opens with the "ending"...with a scene where B.I.G. exits a Los Angeles party that fateful late night of March 8, 1997. Shortly after midnight, he is shot dead. Then the movie flashes back to Biggie's childhood. This effect is similar to the episode structure of the CBS/CTV police drama Flashpoint.

Biggie's son, Christopher Jordan (CJ) Wallace, plays a young Christopher Wallace before he was B.I.G. Even as a student at a Catholic middle school, the young Chris knew about the hip-hop sound. He and a friend are rapping to Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" at the schoolyard. At home, young Chris's mother Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Lansbury) introduces Chris to his father, George Latore, who had been absent from Chris's life since Chris was a toddler. Voletta and George get into an argument while Chris is upstairs in his bedroom. George storms out of the Wallaces' apartment. Volette tells Chris that his father will never come back again.

As Chris enters high school (according to Wikipedia, after graduating from middle school he attended a magnet school), he gets involved in the 1980s crack epidemic. Rapper Jamal "Gravy" Woolard plays a maturing Chris. In one scene, the high school-age Chris hides a plate of crack cocaine under his bed as he hears his mother coming. Because of the drugs and the street life in general, Chris loses his "good boy" status, as he exhibits during an algebra class one day as he insults his teacher during class. The teacher evicts Chris from the classroom, so Chris goes out to the city to socialize with his fellow gangsters the rest of the day. Chris comes home with a "corny" (in his opinion) country music record for his mother in the hopes of making her happy, but an angry Voletta raises up a letter from Chris's school stating that Chris missed 20 days in one month. Chris argues that he'd been attending school for three consecutive weeks. Then, Voletta angrily asks why she came all the way to the U.S. from Jamaica, only to have raised a bad son. Next, she alleges that Chris hid mashed potatoes under his bed, but Chris admitted that he'd been involved in the local drug trade. Chris's mother throws him out of home.

With all the freedom a bad boy could ask for, Chris gets deeper in the street culture of Brooklyn. He is shown winning a freestyle rap battle, with his playful rhymes, stable flow, and craftful grasp of language evoking cheers from the crowd. But being involved in the less desirable side of life makes him face the music. At home, Voletta is looking over paperwork when she gets a "collect call" from her son out of the county jail. Voletta sternly tells her son to take responsibility for himself. While incarcerated, Chris thinks over all the bad things he's encountered in life and converts them into poetry. He jots down rhymes and ideas in a composition book.

After getting out of jail, Voletta hugs Chris for a warm welcome home, and Chris meets his baby daughter, T'yanna (Taylor Dior), who was born by his girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell). To support his new daughter, Chris finds a way to make a living: rapping. With friends Damion "D-Roc" Butler (Dennis White) and Jason "Lil' Cease" Lloyd (Marc John Jeffries), Chris records a demo tape, "Microphone Murderer". Chris then meets producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) from Uptown Records. Combs seems hostile to Chris's lifestyle: Combs would sign Chris only if Chris gave up drug dealing. Chris disobeys; he and D-Roc go out to the street again. Chris sells a man crack vials that he hid in his mouth; however, an unmarked police vehicle blasts its sirens and takes the duo by surprise. The plainclothes police officers chase Chris and D-Roc down the street and into an alley and take them into custody. Chris tries to discard his illegal gun, but the police find it anyway. Because he wants and believes that Chris can succeed as a rapper, D-Roc takes the blame for the gun and crack. D-Roc knows well that Chris could be locked up for nearly a decade for this.

More disadvantages come for Chris's life: Uptown lays off Combs, and Chris's mother has breast cancer. Chris suffers from depression until Combs establishes his own label Bad Boy Records. Chris begins performing as "The Notorious B.I.G.". He makes his debut at the 1992 Howard University Homecoming concert. The crowd appreciates his song "Party and Bullshit", but for some reason a fight breaks out on stage. Luckily, Biggie's rhymes save the crowd from erupting into a riot. He then begins recording his debut album Ready to Die, to be released in 1994. Combs and other producers criticize him for being "too street" and assert that the record will tank if the mainstream can't handle it. This leads to Biggie recording "Juicy", which samples old-school R&B single "Juicy Fruit" by Mtume. While recording Ready to Die, Biggie meets Kimberly Jones, the rapper known as Lil' Kim and played here by former 3LW singer Naturi Naughton. He ends up having a relationship with Kim but dislikes her style of rapping. Tensions between the two rappers lead to Biggie assaulting Kim in studio.

Ready to Die becomes a bestselling album, and the movie shifts into a slideshow of various images of Biggie's success. In August 1994, Biggie marries singer Faith Evans while ignoring Jan and T'yanna in the process. Tensions arise when Jan calls Faith, who confronts Biggie in a hotel. Another woman was in the room, and the two women get in a catfight. Faith and Biggie reconcile despite the incident.

It's 1995, the year after Ready to Die was released. The tides turn against Biggie's favor, as the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry has begun. Initially, Biggie befriended West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). However, Tupac gets shot in a recording studio and blames Biggie and crew. At the Source Awards ceremony that year, Suge (pronounced "shoog") Knight, CEO of Tupac's label Death Row Records, makes a speech dising Bad Boy Records. This sentiment has spread nationwide; the movie cuts from the regular plot to showcase various news reports and "citizen on the street" interviews where average hip-hop fans takes sides and obscenely defame the East or West coasts. Back in the regular plot, Biggie takes the stage one time with the audience booing him, and some people get into fights in the stands. However, they cheer his new track, "Who Shot Ya?" (released on Biggie's 1999 posthumous Born Again and 2006 remaster of Ready to Die). Tupac responds harshly to that track with his own "Hit 'Em Up" (a B-side to the "How Do U Want It" single; the track was released to Pac's posthumous Greatest Hits CD). Then the media gets involved with this mess with a smear of its own. A friend of Big's shows Biggie a magazine cover with Tupac and Faith Evans together. In yet another allegation of infidelty (this time on Faith's part), Biggie confronts Faith, only to realize it was indeed the magazine's fault. Tupac is shot dead in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Biggie and his mother talk about it. To deal with his ongoing woman issues, Biggie and Faith visit Jan and T'yanna; during the visit, Biggie teaches T'yanna to be strong and never let a man call her a bitch.

Despite his mother's warning, Biggie goes to Los Angeles to promote his latest effort, Life After Death. After the promo party, Biggie and crew ride to the hotel. At a stoplight, Biggie's life ends when a gang member from a neighboring Chevy Impala shoots Biggie four times. The crowd of fans who came to greet Biggie scatter around the sidewalks like crazy. Biggie's crew rushes him to the hospital, but it's too late. Biggie's funeral is held, and during the funeral procession, fans mourn and celebrate his music. Life After Death was released on March 22, 1997, two weeks after Biggie's death.

Despite a budget only half of that of the Eminem biopic 8 Mile (Notorious ~ $20 million; 8 Mile ~ $41 million), Notorious still effectively narrates the short yet powerful life of The Notorious B.I.G. from childhood to rap star to death. Jamal Woodward applies his background as a mixtape rapper to portray one of the most talented MC's to have graced the music industry. The film also depicts the street culture articulately and realistically, especially in one instance where Biggie's friends encourage him to be beyond the "mixtape rapper" and the NYPD's unmarked patrol vehicle that caught Biggie and D-Roc in the act. For anyone who's dissatisified over the East Coast/West Coast beef, the film puts it out for what it really was: nothing but a media-hyped smear campaign, not really a measure of MC talent.

In this era where hip-hop has shifted from the streets to the dance floors and nightclubs, when "crunk"/"snap music" nonsense like "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" and "Stanky Legg" dominate the airwaves, cable music video networks, and YouTube, is it any wonder why this film made a mere $36 million in the U.S. beyond its January not summer release? And there were critics who derided this film as "Biggie's Wikipedia page reformatted for the big screen" and "half pop fable, half naturalistic docudrama". Overall, critical views were mixed.

Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Writers: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
Rated: R (profanity, sexual dialogue, nudity, drugs)
Run time: 2 hours, 2 mins. (theater version); 2 hours, 8 mins (director's cut, which I watched)