High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Post-Jub Jub Funk: Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!

When L was still living in Chicago, we'd say to one another, "You know, we should go to a taping of Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! some time," but we are nothing if not lazy and disorganized. Many times, it was a matter of me having classes, either to teach or to take, on most Thursdays. Anyway, we never made it. Fast forward a few years to find the ZK and I still failing to get to a taping.

Since the ZK became a commuter, he's become big on the podcasts. They're often so nice that he listens to them twice, once on the train and once in the car so that I can share. You might have guessed that Wait, Wait is one of the regulars, but there are several others in the rotation. Paul and Storm Talk About Some stuff for Five to Ten Minutes (On Average) is definitely right up our alley. (I mean, c'mon, not only are these the men who brought you Og's Official Theme Song and revealed what it would sound like If James Taylor Were on Fire [please note their mastery of the subjunctive there], but every podcast contains a segment called "Poochie Corner.")

Stephen Fry's podgrams show up more irregularly, of course, but when they appear, we're there. In fact, we celebrated our nation's independence this year by listening to his fascinating commentary on British broadcasting as we drove north to 'Tosa for more traditionally American festivities.

Anyway, the upshot is that we're more into podcasts than we've been in the past.

Being into podcasts more, for me, also translates into being more into NPR in general and Wait, Wait, specifically, because (a) I am not Amish, and therefore I only ever listen to the radio when I am in the car and need the traffic report, and (b) I can't listen to NPR in the car, because it makes me sick. That is a literal statement, not a metaphor. It's slightly less problematic if I'm driving, but if I'm a passenger, there is something about the dead, muffled quality of the air on NPR that brings on migraine-like symptoms with an emphasis on nausea. I could not begin to tell you why, but the podcast does not have the same effect. I think that's it for the overture to this post. Onward to the actual taping.

Thursday of this week would be the last Thursday for some time that we'd be available, as school starts for both of us next week. I decided to seize the day without being too picky about panelists and so on. I'd noted that one would be Kyrie O'Connor, but didn't notice the other two. Skipping ahead, I'll reveal the second panelist to be Tom Bodett (and I'll further admit that I was a bit disappointed, as I'd have preferred Paul Provenza, but in retrospect, I'm really glad I got to see a panel with TB, who is quite charming.) The ZK, comedian to the undead that he is, said, "You just KNOW it's going to be P.J. O'Rourke." And lo! The third panelist was shot out of the quantum cannon, and it was P.J. O'Rourke. Bleaaaaagggh.

The ZK, of course, had to work. I had to go down to the department office in the vain hope that my publishers had, you know, sent me the desk copies I've requested three times. (They haven't.) I also ran into the new adjunct, who is a FOAF, and got to shake hands over his hiring, which makes us both happy. Stranger still in the annals of "It's not a small world, but it is a small bourgeois clique," I ran into a woman who'd been on the same critique panel as I'd been back in December. We totally made eye contact in the library, then veered off, because we couldn't place one another, but she later cruised by the adjunct office and we shook hands and wished one another a good semester.

After taking care of a handful of things, I was to meet the ZK at the Argo Tea Cafe at Dearborn and Madison. As I knew he'd taken the Blue Line to Monroe, so when I passed an Argo shortly before coming up on that stop, I had A Moment. I checked the text message, though, and indeed, it said Dearborn and Madison. So that gives you an Argo at Dearborn and Monroe, an Argo at Dearborn and Madison, and then there's the Argo "Theatre District," which, let's face it, is at Dearborn and Randolph. Someone not afflicted with my midgety Neanderthal-like body proportions could surely physically touch all three without even stretching much.

Despite the locational foolishness, though, the ZK and I met up without incident and decided to ask the Jesus phone where to eat via Urban Spoon. We then ignored the JP's advice (oh, don't give me that look, surely He's used to it by now) and decided to try Elephant & Castle. This was sadly heaving with postwork hipsters. Next up was the Wabash location of Heaven on Seven, which isn't open for dinner. Naturally, we came full circle to the Così that was about 25 feet from the Argo.

Individuals wishing to find the Chase Auditorium should not look for it through the entrance that is prominently marked 10 S. Dearborn. This address, like communism, is just a red herring. The next door down is the one you want, and then you want to take the escalator down to what appears to be the world's cruelest food court: Tables, chairs, and booths as far as the eye can see, but no food-purveying establishments in sight.

We presented our e-mail confirmation to the helpful folks at the folding table and received the programs that serve as tickets. What appeared to be a an amorphous crowd in front of us turned out to be a well-organized queue maintaining its order despite the absence of (or, as it turned out, dearth of) velvet ropes. Another member of the team pointed new arrivals to the end of the line and instructed them which way to face, so that we formed an appropriately sinuous line without the benefit of props.

As promised, right about 7, House Manager Don Hall gave us the rundown on the show and after before letting us down into the bowels of the auditorium itself. As I remarked to the ZK, there is something about the auditorium that evokes the room seen in every Impending Destruction of the Earth movie ever made. You know the room: Wood paneled walls, royal blue curtains and upholstery, a curve-fronted stage flanked with flags, a podium or two, and a skirted folding table to accommodate the panel of top scientists who have been gathered to tell us exactly how fucked we all are. Oh, and of course some of the paneled walls conceal doors to allow the Young Turk of a scientist to burst in, waving a sheet of paper and announcing that he has a crazy plan for uploading a virus to the mothership using his grape iBook. Yeah, that's what the Chase Auditorium looks like.

In fact the only thing that distinguishes it from that room is the addition of a low, square table with something along these lines for creating a bit of visual excitement as the And Now Your Chicago Bulls guy introduces the panel, then Carl Kassel and Peter Sagal. (I Did Not Know that aggravating ear worm was by the Alan Parsons project. It seems so obvious in retrospect.)

Peter noted that he'd been told we, as a crowd, were a bit subdued. He attributed this to collective fear that they were going to make fun of our new President. This actually drew a rather confused hush with a few boos and tut tutting mixed in. Peter admitted that newspeople were a little on edge, because the American story has not had the decency to draw to a narratively satisfying close with the Inauguration festivities standing in for the Ewok-infested celebration on Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi, leaving a huge, troubling "What Now?" hanging out there.

Peter then went on to encourage us to be audible in conveying our reactions to the show, warning us not to succumb to our polite, NPR-listening crowd instincts to give a silent thumbs up to jokes and so on. He also asked that we give them an additional 3 or 4 minutes at the end of the show to fix errors made and issues encountered during the course of the taping.

After a bit more joking around with the panel, the taping began in earnest with Carl and Peter recording 2 brief promos for the show. after Carl's introduction to the real deal, Peter introduced the show's focus, which was unsurprisingly the inauguration, introduced the panel, and provided a teaser for the call-in guest, Cindi Leive, Editor in Chief of Glamour, by saying that she would, no doubt, tell him why he was wrong to question whether Michelle Obama's inauguration gown was made from a chenille bedspread or just looked like it.

The opening panel round was pretty inauguration focused, covering Obama's announcement that he's "a lefty. Get used it!", his Booty-bumping a 14-year-old at the Neighborhood Ball, and, of course, Roberts screwing up the oath of office and the nation's cry for a do-over. Although the general tone of the discussion of this last was "what's the big deal about a misplaced adverb," Tom pointed out that Americans are a little touchy after 8 years of having their language mangled.

The first caller, I believe, was Holly Jo from Fort Wayne, Indiana. After thoroughly sounding out the folksy cheer of her name, she shocked panelists, timekeeper, host, and audience alike by announcing that there is still manufacturing going on in the United States. Not that Holly Jo herself does any of it, but she is adjacent to it. Holly Jo was playing "Who is Carl This Time?" and I know the first answer was "President Obama." That stuck in my memory because of the obvious relish with which she said it. I also remember thinking that she must live in a cave in Fort Wayne, because one of the answers was completely obvious, but she needed a hint. Of course, it was so VERY obvious that I've forgotten it.

The next caller, whose name I've forgotten, was from South Jersey. He tried to bait Peter's inner North Jersey-ian by claiming South Jersey to be "much better," a point that Peter completely declined to argue. The Bluff the Listener game focused on the Spears family. I really wanted the story about K. Fed's line of baby wear dissolving on contact with water to be true (the story about the lost Spears doing a hip hop minstrel show in blackface at an off-site inauguration ball—which P.J. screwed up roughly 75 times—was just too ooky for my tastes), but alas, it was about a woman being forced into being a body double for Jamie Lynn at an airport, who is suing for public humiliation.

The call-in was more interesting than I'd thought it might be. We first Established that Peter is definitely not a regular reader of Glamour. (He copped to reading Cosmo, which, by his own admission, pegs him as a wannabe slut, rather than a wanna be second wife [Vogue readers, for the curious].) Peter suggested that Leive get an NPR fashion show up and running. She made polite noises about it being hard to advise him without having seen him. Peter said this was quite obvious, as she had not reacted at all to the first utterance in the history of humankind of the phrase "NPR fashion show."

At this point, P. J., began describing Tom Bodett's outfit in laborious and inaccurate detail, talking over everyone for a good 90 seconds or so, long after the rest of them were trying to move the phone call onward. When the conversation was successfully wrestled back on track, Peter asked for Leive's opinion on The Dress. She acknowledged that the reviews were mixed, but she though it was a "home run," both on its own merits and because she felt that it was a move very emblematic of the "change" theme that the First Lady had chosen a young designer. Peter asked if Lieve felt that Michelle Obama had been upstaged by Jill Biden. Leive commented only on the similarity between Biden's dress and the one worn by Miley Cyrus during her performance, which led to a joke about how OLD Jill Biden is by P. J. O'Rourke. Ha, what a fucking knee slapper.

Leive then said she hadn't been a fan of the Michelle Obama's Day-After dress, but admitted it was a little classless to criticize someone's dress for a Prayer Breakfast. At least someone is getting their memos about class. Talk then turned to Glamour's mission statement, which Leive claims to be a combination of representing a woman's total life and eschewing sulky models who appear to be angry at the readers. Although Leive said she thought that women who already took a financially reasonable approach to fashion would find themselves uplifted by Michelle Obama's lead, it was agreed by all and sundry that it would take more than one woman to render DC fashionable.

Before actually getting into the game, Peter called Leive on the putative "guy issue" of Glamour, which claims to reveal the 15 things men want in bed. Too polite to scream, "SHENANIGANS!" Peter simply said he could think of only 2 things that men want in bed, with number 2 being to have a sandwich afterward. (This drew my eyes, of course, to the ZK. I could SEE the shudder run through him at the thought of crumbs.)

Leive's "Not My Job" task involved questions about the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Despite never having heard of it, she answered correctly the questions about a fighter accidentally taking down a ref, a 200-lb karate champion beating a 600-lb sumo wrestler, and . . . the other question was again lost to time (until, of course, tomorrow morning), as was the name and location of the caller for the Listener Limerick.

The second panel quiz involved research showing that Americans are more likely to survive shipwrecks because they are rude and pushy, a characteristic, coincidentally, endorsed by P. J. O'Rourke. The round also involved two other studies, one about people feeling possessive of items that they had touched, to the point of bidding on them well above their actual value the longer they had held them, and another showing that women who have rich partners are more likely to be sexually satisfied. Tom Bodett seemed extremely surprised by this, which was amusing to the much more cynical Kyrie O'Connor. This revived a conversation begun during Cindi Leive's call-in about Glamour's study showing that men would overwhelmingly rather be short and genitally endowed than tall and less well-endowed. For the record, P. J. requires a 5-inch wallet to stand on.

Leading up to the lightning round, Kyrie was lagging behind at 2 points, whereas both P. J. and Tom had 3. Tom eventually ended up pwning the other two with 7 correct answers and 17 points. During the post-show Q&A, he claimed that this was the highest score ever achieved.

Watching the fixes was a bit trippy. Clearly Carl and Peter (mostly Peter) were being fed the lead-in material through their headphones as they re-read the necessary parts. In a number of cases, Peter would go through several retakes in rapid succession, leading the ZK to ask, "What the hell? Is this being directed by Sam Raimi?" (A reference to our fantastic experience seeing My Name is Bruce and a Q&A with The Chin himself, which I was sadly too busy to blog at the time.)

The panel's post-credit's question was to reveal the contents of the "To 44 from 43" note left for Obama by Bush. P. J. went with a pot joke. Fresh humor, direct from 9 to 5! Kyrie's simply read "Cardinals 24, Steelers 17. Next year, you pick the winner." Tom's: "Look up. They never show this part on TV. Eighty-nine of those pencils are mine!"

The questions during the Q&A were not especially earth shattering, and I have to believe they've been asked them a million times before. Probably the most interesting was about the worst guest ever. Peter said that they have been very fortunate that their bad guest karma has really been concentrated into just one guest: Gene Simmons, with whom P. J. got on swimmingly. Just sayin'. They also collectively revealed that they're fairly salivating to have GWB on the show, to the point that they're willing to give him the whole hour to hit back at them, which they'd consider only fair.

Peter also claimed responsibility for Obama's presidency. After Obama's appearance on the show in 2005, when, he claimed, Jesus could have walked in the other door, announced his second coming, and gotten universally shushed, he said: "That man's going to be President some day!" For my part, I say bless your cottons socks, Peter Sagal!

We did not take the opportunity to rush the stage afterward, as so many did, although the ZK clearly wanted to take Carl to task for pronouncing the sausage "Brat" to rhyme with "Bradtz," rather than "Braht" to rhyme with "Schatz." I also could not talk the ZK into the supercool (albeit pricey) bowling shirt, labeled "Carl." Sadness.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Pestle: A La Card #2 @ Kitsch'n + Chandni Chowk to China

Today was mash-up day for the denizens of the Painful Acres. We used our second "A La Card" card for brunch at Kitsch'n (in its somewhat paradoxical River North location). We then repaired to Piper's Alley for a matinee of Chandni Chowk to China, which completely tickled my silly comedy–dumb action movie sensors.

It appears we've only been to Kitsch'n once before, and quite a while ago. I guess that's yet another point in the plus column for the A La Card Deck, as we had a great meal.

When we went in '05, I rather scoffed at the kitschyness of the Roscoe location, both on the grounds of my own desensitization to kitsch, and (I should have added at the time) on the grounds that it's in a very wonderfully kitschy area of the city to begin with. River North is antikitschy. Observer, for example, that this location of Kitsch'n is actually in the same building as Japonais. The interior of this Kitsch'n location reflects an awareness of a need to fit in. It's more that the booths are orange vinyl, the tables are chrome and formica, and there are groovy faux-vintage light fixtures.

Granted, immediately behind our table was a genuine, avocado green refrigerator, and there were shelves of self-consciously hipster toys, but it's a far cry from the concentrated, loving homage to the 70s at Roscoe. I also thought it was a little outside the mission statement to have large, shiny flat panels on CNN (and later on the playoff game, leading me to briefly wonder why in the hell they were letting Howie Long cover the inauguration).

Positively no complaints about the meal, though, unless we're allowed to complain that the portions are too satisfying, thus preventing us from trying the large number of things we'd love to try. I was lured in, once again, by the Green Eggs & Ham, and they were even better than I'd remembered. The potatoes that come with them are positively scrumptious, and I hadn't remembered the springs of rosemary, which were wonderful. I supplemented it with a simply marvelous $2 pomegranate mimosa. The ZK had the fried chicken and waffle, as well as a side of biscuits and gravy.

Another positive of the A La Card deck is that the $10 cards are for a variety of restaurants at a variety of price points. Whereas the card for Primehouse made a pretty small contribution to the total bill (although they seemed to have given us 10% off, rather than just $10), at Kitsch'n, it's a nice chunk of a really reasonable bill (even more reasonable, as our waitress, bless her, comped our coffee simply because there was a slight delay before we got our first cup). Yum!

Onward to the film, though! Despite a great trailer Chandni Chowk to China is getting savaged, rather, in reviews. What perplexes is me about the reviews is the frequent complaint that the movie is "stupid." Well . . . yes. It's a mash-up of a slapstick comedy, a typical Bollywood musical extravaganza, and a chopsocky movie. That's, like, stupid cubed!

It's exactly as formulaic as you'd expect: A complete loser (Sidhu) in a down-and-out part of India is constantly looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, much to the chagrin of his hard-working adoptive father (Dada). Said hard-working adoptive father is always there to (literally) kick Sidhu's ass all over town.

Meanwhile in China, downtrodden villagers under the evil thumb of Hojo (yes, really, Hojo), are looking for emancipation. Through various syncretic rituals, they believe they have located the reincarnation of Liu Sheung. They send an envoy to Chandni Chowk to retrieve their liberator.

Once the villagers arrive in Chandni Chowk, they enlist the help of Chopstick, a local con man who has been happy enough in the past to take Sidhu's money in exchange for amulets and other sure things, to explain to Sidhu what they want of him. Chopstick sees his own opportunity to ride Sidhu's coattails to prosperity in China. He tells Sidhu that "Dado Hojo (Kill Hojo)" means "Very cool." Although Dada's instinct is to continue kicking Sidhu and his Ganesh Potato (seriously, he has a Ganesh Potato, which you can go ahead and add to the list of things I wish I'd made up) all over town, father and son eventually conclude that Sidhu should head off for China.

While trying to get a visa for China, Sidhu encounters (and is conned by) "Miss TSM"—the spokesmodel for the Indian equivalent of QVC. She grabs his number in line and makes a break for China ahead of our boys. Initially obsessed with her hotness, Sidhu becomes obsessed with chasing down the cheater.

At the airport in China, Sidhu runs after a woman he thinks is her, but who turns out to be a pregnant Chinese woman. OR IS SHE?!? Sidhu is convinced that the "baby" is another con, and he runs after her, yelling, "Who cooked your bun?!?" The baby is indeed revealed to be a false belly filled with diamonds, and she is revealed to be Meow Meow, Hojo's answer to GoGo. Diamonds scatter everywhere, and soon Meow Meow's mug is on WANTED posters all over China.

As the villagers celebrate the reincarnation of Liu Sheng with a visit to his monument at the Great Wall, we stop back in with Miss TSM who is picking up a variety of samples (a universal translator that looks suspiciously like a bedazzled iPod nano, and a bullet proof umbrella cum parachute) from the nerve center of QVC. Someone asks a question roughly equivalent to "how's it going?" in conversational sincerity, and she answers with a 20-minute flashback montage to the day Hojo threw her twin sister and father over the side of the Great Wall, prompting her mother's suicide. So glad you asked!

Everyone who's anyone (or putatively been anyone in a past life) then converges on top of the Great Wall so that wackiness can ensue. Miss TSM (whose name turns out to be Sahki) is there to lay her father and sister to rest. Sidhu is there to get his Liu Sheng vibe on. Meow Meow (whose real name is Suzy) is there to kill Sidhu, presumably because the silliness of Liu Sheng reincarnate is just annoying in some unspecified way, and/or because Sidhu ruined her superfly diamond mule pregnancy belly. Oh, and by the way, Sahki/Suzy's father is there, too, because he's a bridge troll crazy amnesiac who lives under the wall.

Meow Meow fails to kill Sidhu. Sahki is mistaken for Meow Meow by the police. Meow Meow is mistaken for Miss TSM by Sidhu. Sidhu accidentally puts the police correctly on Meow Meow's track, thinking that she is Miss TSM.

Everyone except Meow Meow eventually repairs to the village. Meow Meow repairs to Hojo's lair, and Hojo sends her back out again to kill Sidhu, this time with poison lipstick.

Sahki tries to hide in a troupe of Chinese dancers, but she's eventually discovered in Sidhu's bed. Chopstick and Sidhu, now thinking that she's Meow Meow, subdue her and lock her in a wardrobe, vowing to turn her in for the bounty in the morning. Meow Meow shows up for the smooch of death, and Sidhu is frustrated with her slippery ways. Chopstick, presumably getting his first look at her, becomes a fan of her slippery ways. Nonetheless, Sidhu subdues her before she can kiss Chopstick, and they lock her in the other side of the wardrobe that already contains Sahki.

Sahki awakes and recognizes her twin through a hole in the partition between them. Before she can free herself, one of Hojo's minions arrives to rescue "Meow Meow." Meow Meow frees herself and is about to off Chopstick when he yells that Sidhu is nothing and Chopstick is everything. A lightbulb goes off over Meow Meow's head, and she drags Chopstick back to Hojo.

I honestly have no memory how the Mystery of the Duelling Meow Meows is solved. At some point, Sahki just . . . isn't there anymore . . . Oh, wait! She escapes and runs ahead of Hojo's EvilMobile to announce that he's coming. And indeed, he is coming, because about 3 minutes before this, Joey has somehow already returned from India and Hojo has a surprise guest: None other than Dada!

The villagers urge Sidhu to kill Hojo. Sidhu (very slowly) clues in that "Dado Hojo" might just mean something other than "Very cool," and Dada gets his throat slit. (But it's slit by a boomeranging bowler hat, and if you have to lose your great vessels, wouldn't you want to lose them with that kind of panache?)

Not content to also kill Sidhu on site, Hojo's help goes for narrative closure by chucking him over the side of the Great Wall, where he is miraculously caught and saved by Chiang, father to Sahki and Suzy (are you still a family if 66.67% of you don't know you are for one reason or another?).

Sahki vows to retrieve her sister. Chopstick goes to work as a spy for her in Hojo's organization. Sidhu and Chiang spend some time wondering why it is that Chiang seems to speak Hindi, and then they go for tea. (Seriously, I do not know why Chinese people even BUILD tea houses any more.)

From there on out, it's pretty much uncovered identities and training montages, you know? Oh, there's an opera, a codpiece, and a funny bit with a hot pink Razr that has an old timey bell ring. But you get the idea.

As I said: Formulaic. Twins separated in infancy? Check. Giant Albino Henchman? Check. Deadly haberdashery? Check. Training montage? Check. Dead mentors and multiple calls for revenge? Check. And so on and so on and so on.

But it's big fun! The whole cast is very good, and there are many stand outs in the supporting cast. Mithun Chakraborty as Dada is the film's emotional center, and it does have one. He's quite a wonderful hero very much in the style of Ben Parker. Roger Yuan is equally watchable as the drunk under the wall and as the kick-ass Police Inspector.

In the leads, Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone could easily have been either hate worthy or negligible, but they're both as charming as they need to be without fearing to be nerdy and inept as the situation demands. (It's also worth noting that Kumar is one of those people who is utterly transformed by clothing and facial hair. I was genuinely shocked that he's fairly attractive without the stache.)

I think it also has some more depth than it's getting credit for. Without hammering any kind of Message! home, it casts unbridled self-interest in a very negative light. In the end, it comes around to Dada's moral about hard work and belief in the self, rather than hoping for divine intervention.

I will concede that it's a bit overlong, although most critics seem to imply that the fights could be trimmed or more frenetically timed to cut some temporal fat. (Totally misses the glory of the chopsocky movie, where only ass-kicking, foley work, and long-armed yogis pad the film.) Some are more generous to the musical numbers, claiming these are the only charm the film holds. Were I to tighten it up, I'd probably have tried for a slightly less complicated plot, and although I love Dada, I'd have taken my merciless blue pen to the broad physical comedy at the beginning.

But for all its length and convoluted plot, it's a fun and charming movie. It's also a damned sight better than Paul Blart Mall Fucking Cop, and shame on you America for not knowing it.

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