Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I should have known no good could come of this blog-tagging business, as I have now been tagged by Big Red Blog. The concept seems to be “8 Things You Don’t Know About Me.”

8. I have been to all of the lower 48 states except Florida. There is no good reason for this. I don’t have any sort of Florida vendetta. I would like to see the Everglades and rassle a gator. I’d like to swim with dolphins and go to Disney World and run afoul of the Miami vice. Just haven’t done it.

7. In the sixth grade spelling bee, I purposely misspelled ‘prairie’ because I badly had to urinate. If only I’d taken care of business beforehand, I really think I had a shot at winning that thing.

6. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a magician and he was at the battle of Iwo Jima. But not at the same time.

5. As a child, I wrote and drew my own comic books. I like to think my writing has improved since then, but I fear my drawing has not. One of my comic books was Bat-Pink. Bat-Pink was the Pink Panther in a Batman costume. He had adventures. I also did a comic book sequel to Jaws set in an underwater city of the future. I don’t have it anymore, but I’m fairly certain it was better than at least two of the actual Jaws sequels.

4. According to the Oracle of Bacon, I am three degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. This can be done two ways: I was in Apocalypse Bop with Jenni Pulos, who was in Hairshirt with Neve Campbell, who was in Wild Things with Kevin Bacon. Also, I was in What I Like About You with Brent Mitchell, who was in Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock, who was in Loverboy with Kevin Bacon.

3. I once walked down the Vegas strip with my pants around my ankles. But I did it for art.

2. I never had an egg cream.

1. I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Since most of those I tagged last time never responded, I’m just gonna tag ‘em again. Except substitute Last Visible Blog for Big Red Blog.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hollywood Dreams

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Perhaps you'd prefer this ending?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I have been issued a blogochallenge! Last Visible Dog proprietor John “Buttermilk” Mitchell has tagged me with this musical meme. Very well, I agree that the instructions are vague, but I will do my best. Having consulted the specified website for the year I turned 18 (1985), I can only despair. I sometimes feel I’m becoming more nostalgic for the music of my youth, but looking at that list, I can’t see how. Nevertheless, I will force myself to purge a few memories.

71. We Are The World - USA for Africa. Wow, this really says it all. Remember the day every radio station in America played this song simultaneously and we all cured world hunger together? They actually stopped class at my high school so we could sit there at our desks and listen to the loudspeakers play this song we heard 47 times a day anyway. Not that I’m complaining, really. I believe I was in Mr. Monroe’s history class. He was having none of it.

68. Can't Fight This Feeling - REO Speedwagon. I remember my friend Rodney changing the chorus to “I can’t raise this walrus anymore.” I don’t know what inspired that. I know there were more words – something about “flopping on the floor” I think – but alas, they are lost in the mists of time. The song did become slightly more bearable with his changes, which made it a tiny bit easier to resist the urge to puncture my eardrum with a sharpened pencil.

65. One Night In Bangkok - Murray Head. Okay, I admit it, I had a 12-inch single of this. And now it’s stuck in my head, which is nice, as it’s dislodged “Don’t Stop Believin’”, which has been stuck there since The Sopranos ended Sunday night. Maybe I’ll download it from iTunes.

57. (Don't You) Forget About Me - Simple Minds. I guess this should be the anthem of anyone my age, and yeah, it has a certain cheesy majesty, but honestly I just never cared for The Breakfast Club. Yes, it’s time for my generational card to be revoked.

32. Dancing In The Street - Mick Jagger & David Bowie. Okay, this one is memorable due to the elaborately choreographed handshake my friend Dan and I worked out, which incorporated elements of this video (Dan did the Bowie, I did the Jagger), dialogue from Three’s Company, and various other grunts and jigs. (Manny Ramirez has nothing on us.) I just wish a record existed of the whole thing. Or maybe I don’t.

17. I Want To Know What Love Is – Foreigner. I remember Rolling Stone declaring this one of the 50 or 100 or 500 greatest songs ever. I’m not sure which, but it doesn’t matter. That’s when I realized I didn’t need to read Rolling Stone anymore.

1. We Built This City - Jefferson Starship. Yep. These were my glory days, people. Why, I’m so glad I decided to do this.

Anyway, I guess I’m supposed to tag five other blogs now. I’ll go with The Phil Nugent Experience, From Here to Obscurity, The Ol’ Bait Shop, Skullbucket and Big Red Blog. Participate…if you dare!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Made in America

Not many of my Sopranos finale predictions came true, but one did for sure: that the final episode would piss off a whole mess of people. There was always a very good chance that the show would end on a “life goes on” note, but that seemed to be out the window after the events of last week’s “The Blue Comet.” Tony’s crew was decimated, his family squirreled away, and the man himself was left clutching an assault rifle on a bare mattress in a Mafia safe house. Surely the end was near.

“Made in America” opened with a literal visualization of the opening lines of the famous theme song. Tony woke up this morning (although the framing of the shot initially suggests he may be dead) and got himself a gun (that same rifle, a gift from Bobby Bacala in the season opener). But as he has always done, writer David Chase (also directing for the first time since the pilot) short-circuited the New York/New Jersey mob war in a few quick strokes. That was never going to be the endgame anyway. So T gets a tip from his FBI pal Agent Harris, brokers a deal with Phil Leotardo’s evil dwarf henchman (who proves to be more pragmatic than we would have guessed), and has Phil whacked at a Long Island gas station. (One last gift for the whack-happy as Phil’s head is crushed under the tire of his SUV while his grandchildren giggle in the back seat.)

It’s as if last week’s explosive episode “The Blue Comet” was a trade-off of sorts, like Chase telling a segment of the fan base, “Okay, here’s your bloodbath, but next week we’re doing things my way.” Thus in the finale, Tony’s lawyer Mink bangs on his ketchup bottle in vain; no more red stuff will come out.

Instead, a series of curtain calls, with Tony spending a little time with each of the surviving characters. Silvio remains in a coma (perhaps trapped at his own Costa Mesa sales convention); Janice is looking for her next meal ticket; Paulie reluctantly accepts a promotion, knowing it’s a high-turnover kind of job. One haunting moment: Tony and Paulie sitting alone outside Satriale’s, everyone else gone. Another: Tony’s visit with Uncle Junior, toothless, lost in dementia, in a decrepit state hospital. “You and my father, you used to run North Jersey.” “We did? That’s nice.” It’s all gone and forgotten now and it never meant much anyway.

Which, judging from these internets, is how a lot of people saw the series’ final few minutes. You can almost hear Livia’s trademark “It’s all a big nothing!” whistling through the blogosphere, with all the accusations that Chase just flipped us the bird. But for me, that last scene delivered one last time on what the show has always done best: that sense of queasy, mounting dread – impending doom wrapped around the utterly mundane. Tony enters a diner, takes a seat in a booth and fiddles with the tabletop jukebox. So often The Sopranos has selected just the right (often obscure) song to close out an episode, but now we’re in Tony’s hands. He flips past a number of selections, some of which may have been used on the show before (I noticed “This Magic Moment,” for one), then settles on the cheesiest possible power ballad, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” One by one, the family members arrive, but our attention is drawn to other corners of the diner. The man at the counter. The guy in the hat. The two black kids. Meadow is outside, having trouble parking her car. Tony order onion rings. AJ recalls Tony’s words from the first season finale – to remember the times that were good. Meadow finally parks and runs across the street, nearly getting hit by a car, just like in the third season finale. The guy at the counter heads toward Tony, then into the bathroom. Is he getting himself a gun? The over-the-top melodrama of the song only heightens the tension. The bell on the front door rings. Tony looks up. Abrupt cut to black.

So call it the lady or the tiger, or Schrodinger’s Cat (maybe that was him who kept eyeing Christopher’s picture), but while it may not be enough resolution for many, it’s not quite the life-goes-on ending either. Carlo has flipped, indictments are looming, and Tony has told us over and over he’s going to end up dead or in the can. Some speculate that Tony did die at the table, that the cut to black was his loss of consciousness as a bullet pierced his brain. I don’t really buy into that, but it’s a possibility. Maybe he got whacked. Maybe he just ate another onion ring. The point is the ongoing paranoia, the possible threat behind every door. Whether he lives one more second or forty more years, that will never go away. And we’ll never know. Bada bing.

Friday, June 08, 2007

OK, I managed to get the list down to 10, but that’s as far as I go. Taking a cue from What’s Alan Watching, I’ve listed the episodes chronologically rather than tortuously arranging them into some hierarchy of awesomeness. You may say I’m copping out, sir or madam, and you may be right, but I’ve tried moving these titles around and around and it always ends up feeling a little arbitrary. With a gun to my head (bada bing!), 99 times out of 100 I would say “Knight in White Satin Armor” is my all-time favorite. Beyond that, there are some hairs I cannot split.

I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano As far as anyone knew at the time, the final season one episode could have been the end of the series – and although I’m certainly glad it wasn’t, it would have worked. Tony learns that the forces plotting against him are his Uncle Junior and his own mother, the monstrous Livia. There are big fireworks – whackings, near-matricide – but it all ends on a perfectly-pitched grace note, with Tony toasting his family at Vesuvio while a storm rages outside.

The Knight in White Satin Armor The second season’s main threat to Tony’s power, disgruntled goon Richie Aprile (he of the “Manson lamps”), tried to recruit members of the crew for a coup against the boss. Tony got wind of the plan and put out a hit on Aprile, and for a moment we might have even felt sorry for Richie’s fiancée Janice. That is, until Janice – a Soprano through and through – terminated her engagement in the most extreme possible way. Still the series’ most successful blend of free-floating menace and pitch-black comedy, and the aftermath of Richie’s demise may be the richest ten minutes in television history: Christopher and Furio disposing of the remains at the pork store (“It’s gonna be a while before I eat at Satriale’s”), Livia laughing as Tony trips and falls down the front steps, Tony’s farewell to Janice (“We buried him on a hill, overlooking a little river, pinecones all around”), and finally T alone on the couch as Annie Lennox sings “Hey, hey, I saved the world today.”

Funhouse Not since the heyday of Twin Peaks has a series been so adept at mixing the surreal with the mundane, and the second-season closer is a prime example. Tony is bedridden with food poisoning, and we are spared no sounds of gastric distress or mad dashes to the throne. While tossing and turning, T has a series of dreams that ultimately reveal – via a talking fish – that Big Pussy is snitching to the Feds. (Creator David Chase has said that he wanted to steer clear of the usual TV procedural in having Tony come to this conclusion, and he sure did that.) Ultimately Pussy sleeps with the fishes, and the final haunting montage set to the Rolling Stones’ “Thru and Thru” details the human wreckage behind the Sopranos’ comfortable existence.

Pine Barrens The casual viewer’s favorite, “the one where Paulie and Christopher get lost in the woods.” High-concept at its best, as these suburban Joisey tough guys are forced to survive in the wild on berries and packets of ketchup. (“Mix it with the relish.”) Probably the single funniest episode, from Bacala’s Elmer Fudd get-up to the confusion caused by faulty cell phone transmissions. (“Guy killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. He was an interior decorator!” “His house looked like shit.”) I was tempted to penalize the episode because of the endlessly tiresome fan speculation about the fate of the mythical Russian, but that’s not the show’s fault.

Whoever Did This Suspecting that Ralphie is responsible for the fire that killed his beloved racehorse, Tony shows up at his house and ends up beating him to death in perhaps the most brilliantly staged fight in the show’s history. That only takes us to the halfway point of the episode, at which point Tony summons a drug-addled Christopher to help him dispose of the body and a harrowing and hilarious night odyssey begins. Tony lectures Christopher on his drug use even as they dismember Ralph, put his head in a bowling bag and use a backhoe to bury it in frozen ground. The final image of Tony swallowed by light as he emerges from the Bing is one of the show’s great fadeouts.

Whitecaps The underwhelming fourth season concluded with a bang, but it wasn’t a mob hit this time; rather, it was the marriage of Tony and Carmela that got whacked. The brutality was confined to words (aside from one poor wall punched by Tony), but these marital squabbles were more like ten-round prize fights. Edie Falco gives an Emmy, Golden Globe and Nobel Prize-worthy performance, and Gandolfini isn’t bad either. Another great fadeout: Tony’s boat just offshore, blasting live Dean Martin at neighbor-turned-nemesis Alan Sapinsly.

The Test Dream One of the series’ most divisive episodes finds Tony in retreat at New York’s Plaza Hotel. The Kubrickian hotel scenes give way to the most extended dream sequence in the show’s history, a tour-de-force phantasmagoria through every nook and cranny of the Soprano psyche. Tony takes a ride with the departed, has dinner with Annette Bening and a “Three Times a Lady”-crooning John Heard, foresees a murder and ends up in his old high school gym, where Coach Molinaro imparts the wisdom that still resonates over the final episodes: “You’re not prepared, Soprano! You’ll never shut me up!” (Great title, too. I still have the freakin’ test dream.)

Long-Term Parking Speaking of great titles, “long-term parking” rivals “sleeps with the fishes” as a term for the fate of a Mob rat. In this case, the “rat” was an innocent (or as close as The Sopranos gets) – Adriana, ensnared by the FBI, “on a last-chance power drive.” (See my High Hat eulogy for more.)

Walk Like a Man This was a toss-up; I originally had “Kennedy and Heidi” – the episode where Christopher meets his pathetic doom – slotted here. But in the end, I decided to go with the previous episode and the last great turn by Michael Imperioli. Christopher learns the hard way that the clean and sober lifestyle does not go hand in hand with Mob success. With no one else to turn to, Christopher spills his guts to former AA buddy (and Cleaver screenwriter) J.T. Dolan. “I don’t want to hear this stuff,” J.T. says. He’s right.

The Second Coming Apocalyptic imagery abounds and the center cannot hold as the series spirals down toward its conclusion. AJ’s attempt to kill himself in the Soprano family pool is as botched as anything else he’s ever done, yet Tony cradling him in his arms afterward is perhaps the show’s most emotionally overpowering moment. An insult to Meadow leads to one of the most horrific moments of violence (which is saying something). And an unseen Phil Leotardo taunting Tony from his attic is as funny as it is chilling – portending the carnage to follow.

Only one episode remains. I’m in denial.

Surf's Up

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Amazingly enough, I’m not the only one doing the Top 10 thing this week; What’s Alan Watching has already beat me to the punch and I’m sure there are more on the way. I’ve scratched out my final roster, so here are five honorable mentions to episodes that just missed the cut.

College Next to “Pine Barrens,” this is probably the episode most often cited as a favorite among cast members and fans alike – and for similar reasons. The major storyline is self-contained, memorable and almost high concept: while taking his daughter on a tour of colleges in Maine, a mob boss spots a former associate now in witness protection. Tony must balance his family obligations (keeping Meadow on schedule and out of trouble) with his Family obligations (identifying and whacking the rat). The simplicity of the episode is striking when compared to later seasons (there’s also a B-plot about Carmela’s almost-romance with Father Phil), as is the way the characters interact with at least some degree of truthfulness. Meadow and Carmela are so deep in denial now, it’s refreshing to look back and see them confront the truth about Tony head-on – if only briefly.

D-Girl Long before Cleaver, Christopher took his first shot at Hollywood glory by chumming up to Jon Favreau and bedding his development executive Amy Safir (Alicia Witt, hot and terrifying in that soulless movie-biz way). Now maybe I’ve never been gut-shot or kneecapped with a baseball bat (note: I said maybe), but I have had my screenplays dissected by Hollywood weasels using terms like “inciting incident” and “picture arcs.” That could explain why this one hits home for me; that, and Janeane Garofolo’s immortal reading of the line “I never had an egg cream.”

Amour Fou Most Sopranos seasons climax in the episode before the finale, and this penultimate third season episode is no exception. Tony realizes his goomah Gloria Trillo is just a little unstable, while Jackie Jr. crashes a mob poker game with disastrous results. Another top-notch example of Tony’s personal and professional lives snowballing simultaneously, as all the season’s threads are gathered up and tightened to maximum tension.

Join the Club and Mayham I mentioned this in last year’s recap, but it’s hard to separate these two episodes, which immediately follow Tony’s shooting in the sixth season premiere. Comatose Tony finds himself in an alternate reality or purgatory of sorts where Tony Soprano is a legit salesman and nice guy on a business trip to Costa Mesa. While Tony’s real life is in chaos – in-fighting and power struggles among his mob crew, grief and anguish among family members – his dream-self is mistaken for a lookalike named Kevin Finnerty, a turn of events that gets him in trouble with a group of monks and leads him to an otherworldly family reunion hosted by his dead cousin. It’s a “What if?” scenario turned existential nightmare. For comic relief, Christopher and Little Carmine host their initial pitch meeting for Cleaver. (“It’s about a wiseguy with a big mouth and bigger dreams.”)

And then there are these treasured scenes from episodes that don’t quite make the desert island list: Christopher’s intervention from “The Strong, Silent Type”, Carmela’s session with straight-shooting shrink Dr. Krakower (“One thing you can never say – that you haven’t been told.”) from “Second Opinion”, Livia’s wake from “Proshai, Livia”, Silvio and Christopher’s Lynchian visit with the Atwell Avenue Boys in “The Weight”, the “executive game” with Frank Sinatra, Jr. from “The Happy Wanderer”, and the William Burroughs “Seven Souls” montage that opened the sixth season.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I may have mentioned it a time or two hereabouts, but I sure do love that television programme The Sopranos, and right about now it feels like it’s ending way too quickly. (The final episode ever, “Made in America,” airs this Sunday night. There may be a small amount of media hype about this.) Having said that, it’s probably also true that the show went on too long. I’m not really talking about the endless waits between seasons – in the end, I think that worked to the series’ advantage in allowing the characters to age realistically (go back and take a look at plump little AJ Soprano in the pilot – or relatively svelte Tony, for that matter) and bonding fans closer to them through endless reruns and DVD releases plugging the gaps. Our associate John at Last Visible Blog oft extols the virtues of the British system – shorter seasons and fewer of them – and The Sopranos was something of a pioneer for that method in the U.S.

But still, with 86 episodes, you’re going to have some duds. For me, The Sopranos was at its most slack in the fourth season (lots of Carmela mooning over Furio, Bobby Bacala’s endless mourning subplot) and the second half of “season 6A” (lots of junkies nodding out, Vito’s endless adventures in Gay Hampshire). These are the episodes where David Chase and the creative team seem to be vamping, putting off significant developments just because everyone was having too much fun making the show. So herewith, I go negative and present my five least favorite episodes of The Sopranos.

5. From Where to Eternity This season two episode is a long-standing fan favorite, but for me it was the first episode where the tone felt completely off. It had a bit of a Twin Peaks season two vibe, as badly wounded Christopher explains his vision of Hell as an Irish bar and Paulie consults a psychic. It also featured an all-too-obvious therapy scene in which Tony explains that he and his crew are not bad people but solders, and one of the least compelling whackings (of Christopher’s assailant Matt Bevilaqua). Michael Imperioli’s first writing job for the show, and you can tell.

4. Luxury Lounge The sagging midpoint of the sixth season began with Christopher and Little Carmine traveling to Hollywood to try to recruit Ben Kingsley for their mob-slasher movie Cleaver. Worthwhile for the scene in which Christopher mugs Lauren Bacall for her gift basket and the shot of put-upon chef Artie consulting his old family recipe book and regaining some measure of dignity. The rest of it is all inside jokes and rehashed storylines.

3. Johnny Cakes Another one from the meandering middle of S6. See! Fat Vito the mob capo romance a small-town fry-cook! See! Tony’s thrilling negotiations to sell out to Jamba Juice! See! AJ act like a spoiled idiot! All choppily edited (AJ’s hair jumps in length for one scene that was clearly shot for an earlier episode) and lacking in tension, save for AJ’s botched ‘hit’ on Uncle Junior (which in retrospect foreshadows his later bungled suicide attempt). Filler at its fillerest.

2. Calling All Cars And speaking of filler…after a string of largely listless episodes, the tension should have been mounting in this episode from late in the fourth season. Paulie was seemingly on the verge of jumping ship to Johnny Sack’s crew, and the prospect of a mob war between New York and New Jersey loomed (not for the first or last time). Instead we spent much of this hour with sister Janice as she tries to badger Bobby Bacala out of moping about his dead wife’s ziti. The last few minutes, with Tony waking from a dream into a disorienting Miami morning, are worth keeping. The rest should be dumped with Karen’s ziti.

1. Christopher The Christopher of the title is Columbus in this case, although this is another Imperioli script that should have stayed in the drawer. It’s actually more of a term paper, with the characters debating Italian cultural heritage, media images and the sanctity of the Columbus holiday. This episode also kicks off the whole “Bobby in mourning” storyline I’ve already bitched about. Just another hour of television.

Awright, enough with the negativity. Next up will be the honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the Top 10 final cut.

Monday, June 04, 2007

It's Sopranos week here on Moonshine Mountain! The countdown to the final episode is on, so join me here as I recap the 5 worst and 10 (or 12 or 15, I haven't decided) best episodes in preparation for Sunday's big night. And maybe some other stuff, too. But nothing now. I'm busy. Go away.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Killer of Sheep