Shouldn't "SNL" at least start well?

This is clearly a change of "Saturday Night Live" tradition.

There was a steady pattern: A few funny sketches early and then (except for "Weekend Update" and the digital short) things go bad.

Tonight, "SNL" altered that. The opening sketch -- Obama campaigining in Nevada -- was remarkably humorless; for a comedy show, that's not a good sign. The next sketch consisted mostly of Kristen Wiig screaming and jumping around; we've been there way too often. A later sketch, set in "The View," was almost as bad.

Somehow, in the midst of this, there was a hilarious sketch, satirizing all those news reports claiming to tell us about dangerous teen trends. And "Weekend Update" was terrific, as usual.

How can one show be simultaneously this clever and this witless? I'm not sure; host Emma Stone -- who was born after "SNL" had soared, died and recovered -- did her best, often with weak material.

Incidentally, if you're reading this in the Lansing area Sunday morning, two things:

-- "Boo at the Zoo" -- noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Potter Park -- is great fun. On Saturday, I went to it with 1-year-old Ezra; he endorses it hardily.

-- And remember that Sunday is the last full day of the East Lansing Film Festival. (See a couple of the previous blogs, plus In particular, catch the free forum by filmmakers, at noon Sunday, on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center. Also, the festival's two cartoon movies at Celebration Cinema -- "The Secret of Kells" at 1 p.m., "Sita Sings the Blues" at 3:30 -- are fresh and terrific.


Film festival: Remember the forum

After opening night of the East Lansing Film Festival, I prattled on a bit. Please check out those comments (two blogs ago), including some recommendations for films to see.

I also wanted to add a note: To me, the annual highlight is the filmmakers' forum; this year, that's at noon Sunday, in the "hospitality room" on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center.

In one place (and with no admission fee), we see people who have pulled off a semi-miracle -- making full-scale movies without full-scale money. This year, they can also discuss the state incentives, which can kick back as much as 42 per cent of the budget for movies ($50,000 and over) made in Michigan.

One of this year's directors (Amy Weber) has already used that, emerging with a well-made and popular film ("Annabelle & Bear"); the others may do the same in the future. It should be an interesting session; I'll see you there and blog about it later.



A very funny night ... and more

The good news: This may be the funniest Thursday since Jerry Seinfeld abandoned us, more than a decade ago.

The also-good news: There's an excellent -- and non-funny -- CNN documentary that same night. I'll include a story about it in a moment.

And for people in the Lansing, Mich., area, the best news: The East Lansing Film Festival has started; please read my previous blog. Now about the other two:

1) Big laughs: You start by watching "The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m., CBS) and "30 Rock" (8:30, NBC). Consider that a standing order on Thursdays. Then you tape either "The Office" (9 p.m., NBC; I've seen this episode and it's a good one) or the start of "Night of Too Many Laughs" (9-11:30 p.m., Comedy Central). The latter has many of the world's best stand-up comics -- Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, John Oliver -- plus NBC's Thursday stars (Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Steve Carell) and Jon Stewart as host. It should be fun.

2) Big issue: Fortunately, "Almighty Debt" runs three days this week -- Thursday and Sunday against heavy competition, Saturday against non-existent competition. Here's the story I sent to papers:



To the Rev. DeForest Soaries, not all
answers are found in the Scriptures. Some are found in bank books,
credit reports and church parking lots.

“One Sunday morning, I came to church
later than usual,” Soaries recalled. “I noted for the first time
all the luxury cars in the parking lot.”

They are part of a crisis viewed in
“Almighty Debt,” a new CNN documentary.

This is under the “Black in America”
banner, but reporter Soledad O'Brien grants that the crisis isn't
restricted to blacks. “We all thought that the party was going to
continue forever,” she said.

People bought and borrowed; when the
boom ended, some experts say, blacks were hit hardest.

Some whites had a relative who could
help out. Some had inherited money; for black families, new to
middle-income, there were fewer safety nets.

That links to the restrictions of
generations past. A suburban home, bought generations ago, might
bring $250,000 in inherited wealth; a black person – limited in
where he could buy – might have less to pass on. “We have to
understand the effects of Jim Crow,” O'Brien said.

She brings a mixed perspective. O'Brien
grew up with a black Cuban mother, an Irish father and a Catholic
background. She marvels at the Baptist activism, including Soaries'
church in Somerset, NJ. “He had a 7,000-member congregation; he's a
businessman; he's a political person.”

The political part came easily, Soaries
said; the business part didn't.

He's 59 and wasn't quite a teen-ager
when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Soaries worked for Jesse Jackson's “Operation PUSH,” then
followed the vocation of his father (and King and Jackson), becoming
a pastor. Well-educated and worldly (he's been New Jersey's secretary
of state and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress), he
still wasn't strong in finances.

That was crucial when the new church
facility soared over budget. Board members asked him for ideas.

“My response was, 'I'm not a
fund-raiser; that's not my job,'” he said. “That didn't sit well
with them.”

He studied the problem and found money
problems everywhere; “there is a culture of debt.”

That has hit blacks who didn't come
from generations of finance, he said. “We have gone from 'We Shall
Overcome' to 'you have been pre-approved for a credit card.'"

Among black families, Soaries said, 22
percent have no bank account; another 32 percent do have an account,
but end up using payroll advances and other services that bear enormous interest rates.

The problems peaked with easy
home-financing, he said. “You saw the worst of consumer consumption
and the worst of financial greed …. It was like the sub-prime
credit cards of the '90s on steroids.”

In 2005, Soaries began preaching about
being debt-free. “He's been working on this for five years, but
only now do people really seem passionate about it,” O'Brien said.

Now the church has its own economic
development office. In the CNN special, we see it trying to help
parishioners – a man still looking for work, two years after losing
his job as vice-president of an insurance company … a teen, trying
to afford college … a couple with jobs in which the commissions
(selling cars and luxury homes) have vanished, leaving them unable to
pay the mortgage.

“I approach this as a
cultural-spiritual-emotional problem,” Soaries said. And for now,
the debt culture is smothering the spirit.

– “Almighty Debt: A Black in
America Special”

– 9 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 21), CNN; repeats that
night at midnight and 3 a.m.

– Also, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday;
both nights, repeats at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.


Film festivals: Take the bad with the good

Emerging from opening night of the East Lansing Film Festival, I was still sorting out my wildly mixed feelings toward Tilda Swinton's "I Am Love." Then someone summed things up: "This is what you expect when you go to a film festival"

It is ... which is why I love the ELFF (which just started), even when one of its movies mildly disappoints. There are plenty of places to see movies that have obvious plots and people; at a film fest, you face the happy prospect of a surprise, good or bad.

"I Am Love" clearly surprises. Its core plot would fit neatly into a 12-minute, overwrought opera. That's surrounded by almost two hours of elegant dealings between people who have much money and few emotions.

The plot crawls along, giving us plenty of time to read the English sub-titles. Then the movie ends so abruptly that the audience didn't react, still unsure that it was over.

There were great touches -- elegant settings ... Swinton's deeply nuanced performance ... a wonderful music track by John Adams, who is best known for operas; the sort-of-final scene uses all of that brilliantly. Then again, there were lots of empty moments, before the final rush.

It was an odd experience, but worth going to. If you have a film festival near you, give it a try. If you live near East Lansing, check out the festival details (; here are notes on a few things I saw in advance:

-- Animated: These two delights are being shown at Celebration Cinema. "The Secret of Kells" (1 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday), combines a magical Irish story and gorgeous artwork. "Sita Sings the Blues" (3:30 p.m. Sunday) tells a folk tale from India, using stunning artwork, wry commentary and, often, 1920s songs.

-- Homegrown features: There are four feature-length, scripted films in the Lake Michigan Film Competition, Saturday in MSU's Kedzie Hall. "Fairview St." (1 p.m.) shows off Michael McCallum's impressive talent as an actor and a film-noir director, but is hampered by having the character do some extremely unlikely things. "Bilal's Stand" (3:30) has uneven acting, but tells an involving story that's basically from real life. "Annabelle & Bear" (6:30) is sometimes a delight, thanks to the perfect casting of massive Curt Mastoff and 3-year-old Olivia Walby. "The Dream Play" (9:30) is gorgeously filmed and acted, while trying to make some difficult shifts in time and reality.

-- Another scripted film: "The Happy Poet" is an ultra-dry story about a rarely happy poet who starts a vegetarian food stand. It's interesting in its own slow, droll way. (9:30 p.m. Friday, Snyder-Phillips Hall, then 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27, Celebation).

-- An interesting night: Both Saturday shows at Snyder-Phillips are worth catching. "Tibet in Song" (6:30 p.m.) is a documentary that mixes politics and gorgeous settings, while focusing on traditional music. The eight films in "Short Films II" (9:30 p.m.) include two from cartoon master Bill Plympton -- one of them the superb "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" -- and the offbeat "Black Ops Arabesque." The latter -- from former East Lansing High quarterback Nathaniel Eyde -- has five fun minutes of danger and dance. This package repeats Tuesday (Oct. 26) at Celebration.

-- A specialized documentary. Before going to "Kitchen Conversations," make sure you really (I mean REALLY) like cooking and cooks. 



This week's two best lines

My two favorite lines in TV shows this week are both said by the same person. Well, sort of.

One is from Sheldon Cooper, the best character on the best comedy ("Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m. Thursdays, CBS) on TV. The other is by Sherlock Holmes, who is starting a series of three modern-day mystery movies ("Masterpiece Mystery," 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS).

Still, these characters are almost identical -- tall, thin geniuses who observe and understand everything ... except the normal, social functioning of average humans. The lines:

-- "Big Bang" (via the CBS promo): Leonard has the audacity to ask if Sheldon has actually expressed his feelings for Amy Farrah Fowler. Sheldon's response: "No! I'm a physicist, not a hippie."

-- "Sherlock Holmes" (via an advance screener of the terrific opening movie): Someone calls Sherlock a psychopath. His response: "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research."