Friday, December 22, 2006

Make Your Own Holiday Movie

Having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit? Was the one two punch of Deck the Halls and Santa Clause 3 somehow not enough to warm your chestnuts this year? Is the Hallmark Channel’s “One Thousand Nights of Christmas” not enough to lift you from your Holiday Ennui? Well never fear. Through extensive work in the test kitchens, I have come up with a fool proof recipe to create your very own Christmas Movie!

Measure out the following:

1)A family member, often though not necessarily the father
a.Is unable to find child’s most desired toy
b.Is caught in Christmas Parade traffic jam, causing them to miss the last flight home to Chicago
c.Still replete with mourning over loss of spouse in tragic Christmas tree cutting incident
d.Is fired by cruel Dickensian Boss
e.Some combination of a-d

2) Due to the events of step 1, said family member
a. Refuses to celebrate Christmas
b. Determines to spend Christmas in Boca Raton, even though everyone knows you can’t have Christmas without snow.
c. Curses the heavens screaming “I wish I’d never been born”
d. Goes on a drinking binge
e. Some combination of a-d

3) Meanwhile another member of the family
a. Is determined to win the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest
b. Is responsible for directing the community Christmas pageant
c. Is starring in community Christmas pageant
d. Is struggling with Santa Claus “belief issues”
e. Some combination of a-d

4) To make matters worse, the family’s neighbor
a. Has won neighborhood Christmas decorating contest five years in a row
b. Is cruel Dickensian landlord determined to evict family, even if it is Christmas
c. Is determined own child should star in community Christmas pageant
d. Is nosy, mean spirited Child Protective Services agent
e. Some combination of a-d

5) However, the neighbor on the other side of the street
a. Is a kindly old man with an odd resemblance to Santa Claus
b. Is a kindly school teacher who happens to be quite attractive and harboring longstanding if hidden affection for family member in Steps 1 & 2.
c. Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill and/or an angel.
d. Has secret hidden talent which, if discovered in time, will make this year’s pageant the best ever
e. Some combination of a-d.

Fold ingredients in steps 1 – 5 well. Then add the following:

Must haves:
A blizzard.
A pond with a precariously thin layer of ice.
A large amount of snow slides off a roof and onto someone’s (often the villain) head
Christmas lights cause a town wide power outage.
An out of control sled. A busy highway.
Meaning of Christmas found!

Optional (garnish liberally to taste):
Cross country journey utilizing various forms of uncomfortable transportation
Emergency baby delivery in back seat of car.
Pets. Christmas Trees. Electricity. Wackiness Ensues.
Someone races to only store in town only to discover it’s closed, alas. But wait? Is that someone in the back willing to open the door?
A not so subtle plot adaptation of A Christmas Carol
A not so subtle plot adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life
Estranged family and friends coincidentally meet in front of giant decorated tree in town square just in time for the holiday sing along with notable country western star.
Cruel Dickensian boss/landlord/CPS agent caught stealing candy from babies.
Hey, that’s not a goat! It’s a reindeer!
Confidence discovered. Pageant is saved!
Shout out to the Hanukkah fans.
Sick child saved by the power of love.
You really are Santa Claus!

Bake lightly. It should still be gooey in the middle! Serve with generous amounts of spiked eggnog. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest DVD arrrghives

Whether or not you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest really depends on what exactly you demand from a pirate movie. Given the spotty success record Hollywood has had with pirate films in the recent past, and the mediocre reviews Pirates II received when it was initially released in theaters, it seems that many American film reviewers have very particular demands from a film about rogues upon the sea. I was inspired to peruse pirate movie reviews of yore and came up with an interesting representation:

Pirates (1986 Dir: Roman Polanski)

The movie bogs down in a hopeless quagmire of too much talk, too many characters and ineptly staged confrontations in which everyone stands around wondering what to do next. – ROGER EBERT

Hook (1991 Dir: Steven Spielberg)

Poignancy. Lessons to be learned. Speeches to be made. Lost marbles to be rediscovered. Tears to be shed. The conclusion of "Hook" would be embarrassingly excessive even for a movie in which something of substance had gone before. - ROGER EBERT

"Hook" is overwhelmed by a screenplay heavy with complicated exposition. - VINCENT CANBY

Cutthroat Island (1995 DIR: Renny Harlin)

It doesn't transcend its genre, and it's not surprising or astonishing. I saw it because that was my job and, having seen it, I grant its skill…But unless you're really into pirate movies, it's not a necessary film. – ROGER EBERT

The most punishing aspect of ``Cutthroat Island'' is that it just wears down the viewer with a helter-skelter, needlessly overblown quality. No wonder those old pirates didn't survive -- they were too tired from so much hyperactivity. - PETER STACK

Pirates of the Caribbean-Dead Man’s Chest
(2006 DIR: Gore Verbinski)

Too long, unnecessarily complicated and often silly – JACK MATTHEWS

There's nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement. STEPHANIE ZACHEREK

Is that now perfectly clear? A pirate movie needs to be fast moving and exciting, without tedious and complicated exposition, although it should transcend its genre and refrain from tedious nonstop excitement and needless overblown hyperactivity. Clearly, it should surprise and astonish but avoid silliness, because piracy is a damn serious business, and honestly none of it really matters unless you’re really into pirate movies.

With these clearly delineated standards to follow it's amazing Disney green lighted (green lit?) the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Obviously the film criticism community hadn’t reviewed these standards when they were reviewing the first one, since it received near universal acclaim. I believe a good deal of that approbation came out of the surprise factor. Before it was released, Pirates had that kind of worried buzz that surrounded Titanic before it swamped us all. It was an expensive special effects laden action movie starring Johnny Depp who had spent most of his career demolishing his non-indie film cred. Clearly studio heads were nervous about his performance and there were lots of worried articles about arguments over Depp’s dental work to make his teeth look pirate-y, a clear sign of a studio desperate to diminish expectations. The movie was based on a Disneyland ride for chrissake.

In fact it was part of a master plan by Disney to launch film series based on three of their amusement park rides. The other two were The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. Unless you have kids (and even if you do) you have no reason to remember either of these films. Haunted Mansion was one of those Eddie Murphy vehicles the reviews of which mostly centered on the theme “remember when Eddie Murphy was funny?” The Country Bears, based on Disney’s animatronic banjo playing bears stage show, got such universally wretched reviews that I actually seriously considered not buying it for the Library system, unprecedented for a Disney film.

The result was that most reviewers were completely stunned to find the first Pirates to be utterly entertaining. Johnny Depp was epic as Jack Sparrow, a booze soaked scallywag with his brains scrambled from too much rum, sun and the lash (as opposed to the classic British Naval recruitment promise of “rum, buggery and the lash”, this being Disney and all). Was there a plot? Can you remember it? Come on. Be honest. No, you can’t. You remember being entertained. You remember something about a pearl (but only because it was in the the title), or a boat, or a chest of gold, and half dead ghosts, and Keira Knightly’s bosom and Orlando Bloom’s swashbuckle, a talking parrot and a cheeky monkey.

(Ooh! Sudden inspiration for updating the Scientology wedding vows..."girls need tender swashbuckle, a talking parrot, perhaps a cheeky monkey." Oh yeah. Sign me up!)

But I digress. Pirates of the Caribbean II has all of these things. It has a boat, a chest, a bosom, lots of swashbuckle, a talking parrot, a cheeky monkey and an intrepid dog. It also has a compass, a key, cannibals, a voodoo queen and the evil kraken. It has even more awesomely evil bad guys than the first one. In human form the British Navy is replaced by The British East India Company, which hasn’t had a good starring evil role in simply centuries and more’s the pity. Forget Enron and Halliburton. The British East India Company invented uber-national corporate malfeasance. In supernatural form it’s Davy Jones and his minions who are a special effects masterpiece: living, walking, talking growing coral reefs in human form. Utterly gross, scary and fun.

Orlando Bloom. What a name. Now that the days of sexy bad boy poets have gone, what else could the poor boy do but become an actor? Orlando does a masterful job at whatever it is he’s supposed to do. Keira Knightly wields her sexy so fiercely I worried someone might lose an eye, although clearly the teenage boys in the audience did not mind. Spoiler alert! There’s a cliffhanger ending, which means you’re going to have to come back next year to discover how it all turns out. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s not with them all dead by suicide pact at the bottom of the sea. After all, this is Disney and Disney knows that the ride is crap unless you exit panting to stand in line to ride it again.

Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest is now available on DVD

Thursday, November 16, 2006

From the vault

Professionally I’m a film and music librarian, but generally I write about films or television or pop culture in general. Music reviews are not usually my thing. Truth is, I have a problem with music reviews in general. I read them in my professional life to get a handle on what is coming round the bend, but I rarely rely on them as guides to what I’m going to personally like. I think that writing about music is like writing about sex. Very few people do it well. Even when someone does it well enough that it’s interesting to read, they are writing about what turns them on. It’s only luck if it happens to be something that blows your skirt up too.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Nick Hornby’s collection of essays called Songbook. Songbook collects Hornby’s writings and musings about music, some of which have been published before. Hornby, of course, is no stranger to writing about music, at least in a fictional forum. His work High Fidelity is a paean to music, relationships and the mix tape. Even his more recent About a Boy uses music as a major supporting character.

One of things I like about Songbook is that Hornby writes about music as a regular Joe who loves music. He has as much use for music critics as I do, which is to say not much. He appreciates that the value one gets from a song is entirely individual. Maybe it reminds you of a great moment in time, or a bad one, or maybe it helps you forget. Maybe it inspires you. Maybe it just makes you happy. Good, bad or indifferent is, ultimately, entirely within the ear of the beholder.

People get quite passionate about music. Certainly I do. When you L-O-V-E something it’s impossible to believe that love should not be shared by everyone. I once curtailed a potentially promising friendship because this person complained about a Tori Amos concert, which they had used FREE tickets to go see. They clearly had not been impressed, complaining that she swore too much, and then compared her, negatively and dismissively, to Madonna. I mean…..ARRRUUGGGHHH! I can’t even articulate how…I mean…ARRRRUGGGHHHH!

Conversely when you HATE something, it is impossible to imagine there are people who could get great joy from it. My music ‘hates’ tend to come from any musical category for which the word “smooth” can be a descriptor. Genres that involve lanky haired men playing instrumental solo concerts in the Parthenon also disturb me as do teenage opera singers and albums involving a numerical group of tenors greater than one. (Seriously, I just had to purchase The Ten Tenors for the library. Ten Tenors! I mean, why? Why is this necessary?) And yet, there are people who I love and admire who find this music pleasing, even inspirational.

Hornby tries to downplay the role of memory in his discussions of music, wanting to focus instead on “what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs.” I appreciate his point, and even agree with it on some level. Great music transcends memories. But the impact of memory on music appreciation can’t be dismissed, although perhaps more for songs I don’t like than those I do.

I really dislike the song Free Bird by Lynyrd Sknyrd. I like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Gimme Three StepsSweet Home Alabama…these are kick ass tunes. But Free Bird, along with Zep's Stairway to Heaven, were the bane of my adolescent wallflower existence. If you too were a wallflower during the late 70s and 80s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Do you know how many trips to the bathroom and refreshment table can be made during a thirteen minute song? Not nearly enough. We may never know how many young teens got hooked on smokes just to give themselves something to sneak out back and do while all the cool kids slumped against each other moving in molasses slow circles to this music.

Lord knows I can’t change how I feel about that song. And yet, maybe for you Free Bird inspired you to tell your parents to hell with med school, you were going to be an artist. Or to marry your first wife/husband, or leave them, or both. I get it. I’m not going to tell you that you have poor taste in music because I was a teenage spaz. Music is personal. It taps the deep well, not the surface.

Hornby gets this stuff. These silly but really not so very silly responses that music can evoke. His book takes the form of 31 songs. Not 31 of the best songs of all time, or ever written, or that you should know or else you’re a twat. Just 31 songs that Hornby loves and would like to tell you why. Hornby knows that nothing can annihilate music appreciation faster than a music snob. When you love it so much, it can be hard not to go there, but as Hornby says firmly: “…if there’s a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it. You’re either for music or against it, and being for it means embracing anyone who is good.”

Inspired by Hornby, I’ve found myself compiling my own list of songs I love. These are the songs that always stop me when I’m scrolling through the radio channels. They’ve stuck with me over time, most of them, and are all too precious to be featured on a mix tape.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the songs that help make my world go around.  As Hornby says: "All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don't like them as much as I do"

Dixie Chicken – Little Feat
Who among us has not longed to be another’s Dixie Chicken and/or Tennessee Lamb at one time or another? This song is great musically, with the rag piano lilting away in the background; it begs a person to two-step their way to Dixieland. The lyrics are of the “met a mysterious hot sexy woman” variety. However unlike Gimme Two Steps or Last Night or much of the Rolling Stone oeuvre, the end result of Dixie Chicken is not a beating, a robbery, or a euphemism for heroin addiction. Instead the narrator gets to make friends with a bar full of fellow travelers with a common interest. It’s like a very special musical episode of Cheers.

Life’s Been Good to Me – Joe Walsh
Once upon a time, some time before heroin became the chic rocker drug of choice I believe, there was a sense that becoming a world famous rock star could actually be entertaining. Gen X rockers like Kurt Cobain, Billy “McWhiney” Corgin and Pearl Jam worked hard to set us straight on that score. Being a world famous rock star is Hard Work. People just, like, totally misundestimate you all the time, and they force you to take drugs you don’t want to, and they act like they know you just cuz they like your songs and the record companies pay you, like, billions of dollars except they put all sorts of catches on it, like they want you to actually produce records, and stuff. It’s hard man. It’s a hard knock life.

But fortunately, we have this record from the past. This stone tablet if you will, reminding us of a happier time. A coke fueled time, when being a rock star meant, well, it meant you had a Mazarati that went 185, and a limo to drive you around after you lost your license, and you got to go to parties, sometimes until four, and you had accountants who paid for it all. Dang, it almost sounds like fun. Someone should tell Eddie Vedder.

One Tree Hill – U2
I’m a big U2 fan. I’m stupidly fanatic about them, actually. I bought the U2 IPod. I paid full price at Christmas time for it. I could have waited 2 months and gotten one of the new fancy IPODs that show movies for about half what I paid for the U2 one, but I didn’t. I got their entire music catalog too, of course, which made the mix function on my IPOD decidedly unbalanced for a while.

With this sort of goofy devotion, you might expect that I’d have difficulty picking a favorite U2 song. I’ve got fifteen hours of their music to choose from, including B-sides and outtakes. But I do in fact have a favorite U2 song which stands, in my heart, head and shoulders above the rest. One Tree Hill is, in one song, everything I love about U2. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it’s describing. I don’t know if music can be considered onomatopoetic, but if it can One Tree Hill is. The song runs like a river runs to the sea.

The key to this song is The Edge and his guitar. Forgive me for waxing stupid, but the melodies and harmonies that Edge produces are the sort one usually equates with pianos, orchestras or thousand voice choirs, not electric guitars. Bono is unmistakably a rock star, and he does what the face of a super group should, but The Edge is the heart of U2, and of this song.

Sun Is Shining – Bob Marley
I had a difficult relationship with Bob Marley for a long while. Some of it can be traced to attending college in the early 90s when every frat house had his music blasting from boom boxes in their windows and Marley seemed to become the patron saint of poseurs. Most of my Marley aversion, however, can be specifically traced to a Thanksgiving trip I took with my family when I was a Junior in college.

The trip was a Disneyworld/Bahaman Cruise extravaganza. I was a very young 21 year old stuck on a boat with my parents, my younger siblings, lots of senior citizens, honeymooning couples and other young families. The weather was bad so swimming and tanning were out. I was old enough to drink, but not old enough to drink in front of my parents with any kind of elan. I was too cool to enjoy bowling or bingo. I was soooo bored.

The boat had closed circuit radio stations which, apparently, no one had preprogrammed before this trip as every single one played Bob Marley’s Legend on a continuous loop for three days. Not only was this the only music option available within one’s cabin, it was the only music which played in all the common areas over the loudspeakers in a continuous loop for three days. By the end of the trip, I wanted to wall the three little birds into a coal mine. I no longer cared about the plight of the Buffalo soldier, and I wanted the sheriff to shoot back. Cry woman! Cry!

It took a long time for my Marley aversion to wear off. I was, admittedly, first drawn to the dance remix of Sun is Shining, but it captured my imagination enough that I sought out the original. As my brother, who was similarly scarred by our three day music torture cruise, told me with wonder in regards to Sun is Shining, “There’s more to Marley than just Legend!”

Tougher than the Rest – Bruce Springsteen
The Tunnel of Love album came out my freshman year in college, and it was in constant rotation that year. There’s a lot on that album for a young romantic head in the clouds sort of girl to glean to like All That Heaven Will Allow and Tunnel of Love.  In library land, we often discuss the fact that children will “read over” what they don’t understand. They don’t spend a lot of time mulling something that’s confusing, they just skip to the next part. Although I listened to that album repeatedly that year, I “listened over” quite a lot of it.

Tougher than the Rest was not my favorite song when I first fell for the album. The line “Round here baby you get what you can get” sounded too much like settling to my young ears. A few miles down the road now, I hear the voice of a man who knows what it means to let something good slip from your fingers, because you were too busy counting on the tide to wash in something better.

Linus & Lucy – Vince Guaraldi
Childhood. Spinning around til you get dizzy. Laughing til you’re fit to bust. Years later, pull out the album and play it as background noise at a cocktail party. People smile. You pretend like you’re appreciating the smooth jazz styling of Vince Guaraldi, but really, inside, you are doing the Snoopy dance.

I Feel Love – Donna Summer
I believe that rock music, despite it’s moniker as “popular” is inherently elitist. The people who appreciate a particular artist or kind of music are, to their way of thinking, inherently better than those who don’t. The people that perform the music are, obviously, inherently better than those who listen to it. This dynamic is understood and accepted by the audience and the performers.

Then disco came along and fucked with the paradigm. Lots of people hated disco, some violently, and I think it can all be traced back to disco fucking with the paradigm. For, if a disco song is played in an empty room with no one to shake their booty to it, does it make a sound? Disco demands audience participation. Disco is the great democratizer and voting is done with your feet, baby. A loner standing frozen at the edge of the crowd at a rock concert is “cool”. At a disco, they’re a “creep”.

I Feel Love is as good an example as any for a great disco rump shaker. It is the blessing and the curse of disco that the songs are more or less interchangeable with one another. I could have picked Love to Love You or MacArthur Park or Lady Marmalade or Funkytown to fill the same void, but I choose thee, I Feel Love, to provide the strobe lit disco ball ending to my list.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Hex on You

I confess I was excited the first time I saw ads for BBC America’s HEX. Truth is I’m in perpetual mourning for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and may be ‘til the day I die, or Josh Whedon finally directs Wonder Woman. I confess I had some small hope that this trendy demony looking show might be a temporary balm.

It started off semi promising. Cassie is a pretty blonde teenager struggling to fit in at an exclusive boarding school of the sort that only seems to exist in Great Britain. It’s set on impossibly lovely and remote grounds. The school resembles an ancient castle, of course. The students appear to be able to leave the grounds with impunity in order to visit the local uber-hip pub and the urbane headmaster dismisses them with bon mots like: “Be free and try not to multiply”.

Cassie’s roommate is Thelma who is, of course, a Lesbian who dresses in some BBC wardrobe mistress’s idea of “lesbian goth chick” chic. Thelma loves Cassie. Cassie loves boys and yearns to be popular. There’s the cool in-crowd headed by a cruel bitch named (I’m not making this up) Roxanne. Through a series of wacky misadventures Cassie discovers that she is descended from a long line of witches and is being stalked by a sexy fallen angel named Azazeal. Azazeal wants Cassie to have his baby who will, as is so often the case in these instances, unleash unpleasantness on earth.

Azazeal has been wandering the earth trying, unsuccessfully, to impregnate many generations of blonde waifs since being drummed out of heaven some thousand years ago, apparently for his penchant for trying to knock up blonde waifs. (Note to fundamentalists: Even God wants his angels practicing "safe sex"!) Azazeal is tall dark and handsome, with dreamy eyes and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One would think he’d not have much problem pulling tail. However, his means of seduction involve driving Cassie’s mother insane, revealing himself in monstrous demonic form, possessing a boy Cassie is dating, stealing her unborn baby and murdering her roommate.

Maybe next time he could try buying a girl a drink. Seriously, it’s worked for millions.

So far, a pale imitation of Buffy, yet somehow even with magic and complicated mythology and stone gargoyles turning into real ones Hex is in fact excruciatingly dull. Part of the problem is Cassie. She drifts around trying to get boys to like her when she ought to be, I dunno, figuring out how to stop Armageddon. She discovers magic powers but never seems to use them when they might be useful. When given explicitly clear guidelines for her safety, such as “He can’t harm you if you wear this pendant” and “Whatever you do, don’t leave the safety of the pentagram”, she’s the sort of girl who’ll promptly lose the pendant and run out of the pentagram to chase after a loud crashing noise in the dark while yelling “Hello?” While plenty of 98 minute horror films are based on this particular type of lass, an 8 week TV series is an entirely different matter. One begins to root for Azazeal to just sacrifice her already, and on to the next generation please.

Any entertainment to be had comes from Thelma who, after being offed by Az, returns as a ghost. A goth chic Lesbian ghost. The thing I really love about the BBC is that much of their television seems so quaint. Sitcoms often star characters in the most ridiculous guises with no attempt to hide bad wigs or fake padding. The network motto ought to be “Hey gang, lets put on a show!” Thelma is eventually joined in her struggle by a demon hunter who dresses like Barbarella on her way to a Prince concert. No one in the school seems the least perturbed by this new 30-ish student wearing a purple lace trimmed black leather cat suit and duster jacket. British boarding school is so awesome!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Worst Opening Line

It's amazing how small the world is becoming. A friend of a friend sends you an email to which you respond on a lark, and suddenly you've won 2nd prize in the Shuswap Association of Writer's Worst Opening Line competition. The wha???? You might well ask. The Shuswap Writer's Association is dedicated to enriching the cultural life of the interior BC (or British Columbia for those not in the know). They sponsor the Shuswap Lake Writer's Festival and, my personal fave, the Winter Reading Series in Salmon Arm, BC. It's my favorite because it's in a place called Salmon Arm.

First prize winner of the worst opening line contest wins free trip to the Shuswap Lake Writer's Festival. There's a bad joke here about 2nd prize winning 2 free trips to Shuswap Lake (or a trip to Salmon Arm perhaps?), but alas, as 2nd prize winner I win only a book and the thanks of a grateful nation. I did warn them when I entered that I was not Canadian, but apparently that was not a requsite. The contest rules asked for a wretched opening line for a novel which included the words: salmon, longjohns and shovel.

Without further ado, my entry:

"I know you just got home from the salmon packing factory, Zebediah," remarked Pearline, "but what are you doing outside in your long-johns with Marcel's shovel, and where is Marcel?"

If you'd like to read more, including the sentence that was wretched enough to beat this entry, go to the Shuswap association website.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nostaligia Trip

Main Entry: nos•tal•gia
Pronunciation: nä-'stal-j&, n&- also no-, nO-; n&-'stäl-
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, from Greek nostos return home + New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches
1 : the state of being homesick : HOMESICKNESS
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia
- nos•tal•gic /-jik/ adjective or noun
- nos•tal•gi•cal•ly /-ji-k(&-)lE/ adverb
- nos•tal•gist /-jist/ noun
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary



Currently I find myself in wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition, namely October 2, 2006. That was the day I published In Defense of the Best Show on Television, about my favorite show Battlestar Galactica.

Four episodes in to season 3 I find myself shrieking to the writer’s of Battlestar Galactica like George Jetson trapped upon the perpetual sidewalk from Hell to please, for the love of the Lords of Kobol, would you stop this crazy thing? It’s still my favorite show, and I believe the bones of the best show on television are still there, but, keee-rike guys. Every hour of the show this season has managed to end like a bad magic trick. The magician grabs the table cloth, yanks, and all the dishes go flying everywhere. You think, Holy Zues, how will they fix that unholy mess, and then the next hour begins at a brand new table, dishes and candelabras magically restored to wholeness.

Don’t worry. I’ll be using lots of wretched metaphors in this article today. One thing I’m perpetually reminded of watching BG this season is what I like to call Aaron Sorkin Syndrome, or ASS. This is the practice of casually discarding seemingly vital plot or character points in the service of the next seemingly vital plot or character point. The country is thrown into turmoil and Bartlett hands the reigns of the government over to Walter Sobchak because Zoe Bartlett has been kidnapped by unidentified but probably shifty and foreign A-Rab terrorists? Oops, here she is in this abandoned trailer park off the Leesville Highway. A-rab terrorists or sorority hazing gone awry? Will we ever learn? Why NO, because it’s on to the next season.

The BG writers have been showing us an awful lot of ASS this season, so much that I barely know where to begin. If the Cylon skin jobs are trying to create a utopian human-ville, why don’t they plant some flowers, give them all stackable washer/dryer units, or, you know, something? Conversely, if they’re not trying to create hu-topia, why don’t they just kill them all? Yeah, I get that they’re arguing amongst themselves, but there’s a really quick solution to the argument. An anti-human skin job can just nuke the lot of them…end argument.

200 people dragged off to be executed Russian pogrom style…here comes an army of tin cans over the horizon, an army which can apparently be easily taken out by two sharpshooters on a ridge? If the detainees have that kind of firepower at their disposal, why don’t they use it? Tin cans drag Laura Roslin off, but then apparently don’t notice that she’s come back into the city. That’s Kara’s baby? How old is she? Three? Is that right? Adama’s going to create a distraction while the people are evacuated to the same spaceship impound lot…that’s not going to be a traffic jam…and where the hell are the tin cans with guns trying to stop them? Gaius is trying to stop Xena from setting off a nuke. Why? All the people are gone. What does it matter if she nukes the place? I’m just so FRAKKING CONFUSED.

They managed to answer one of these puzzlements on Friday’s episode, the question about Kara’s child, and quite cleverly too. But this is the problem with ASS. You don’t know which puzzling things to invest yourself in answering, and which are going to be magically erased by next episode. Admittedly, they gave us one hell of a season ender last year, and they certainly cannot be accused of giving us a boring season this year.  The action is gripping.  The acting is fine.  The drama is delightfully melo.  (Kara eats steak covered in the blood of the skin job she just murdered...SNAP I love this show.  Ty poisons his treasonous tramp of a wife...SNAP again I say...with tears and everthing...DAMN you guys are good.) 

I’m just asking, please guys, now that everyone is back on their ships could we please have a little more of those tight wonderful suspenseful storylines of yore, and a little less ASS?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Queen

In every story with a beautiful princess there is almost always an evil queen of some sort or another, poisoning apples, filling shoes with hot coals, imprisoning innocent maids in towers, and generally making it difficult for any good princess to realize her full potential. What occurred to me as I watched The Queen is that in the heart of every queen is a princess defending her castle. Wicked is in the eye of the beholder.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Peter Morgan, The Queen takes a peek into the life of Queen Elizabeth II during an abnormally interesting week in August 1997, the week that her former daughter-in-law Diana was killed in a car accident. Adding a fascinating counterweight to the story is the character of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) who had literally just been elected the new Prime Minister in a sweeping victory for the Labor party, signaling the death knell of Thatcher-ite Britain.

The monarchical crisis triggered by Diana’s death was not necessarily obvious to those of us who observed the tragedy from a distance. But, as The Queen neatly shows, there was great outrage among British citizens at the House of Windsor’s refusal to comment or make any public display regarding Diana’s death. The fascinating thing about the story related in The Queen is that with which Elizabeth and the royals struggle - the difference between public duty and private life - is the very thing that brought them such problems with Diana in the first place.

The silence from the royal family in the wake of Diana’s death, the royal dignified distance from something for which there was no ‘official’ royal obligation, seemed to a mourning public an echo of the cruel treatment which drove Diana out of the family to begin with. As The Queen makes clear, it was not cruelty as much as a complete failure of royal standards and protocol in dealing with an unprecedented tragedy.

Tony Blair and his staff serve as the audience’s eyes and ears, watching dumbfounded as the royals make one stumble after another. The Queen insists there will be no public funeral. She is squeamish when Charles suggests he take the royal jet to Paris to retrieve Diana’s body. This is just the sort of waste the public is always bashing them for, she quails. After a bitterly acrimonious divorce, the queen observes matter-of-factly that Diana is no longer a part of the royal family. Officially, her death is not a state matter. Interestingly, since her death, the official position has changed to state that, as the mother of the future King of England, Diana always will be a member of the royal family. Unfortunately they hadn’t revised that section of the rule book upon her death.

Slowly the pressure of Tony Blair, and of the public response, forces Queen Elizabeth’s hand. Helen Mirren is amazing as Queen Elizabeth. You can see clearly on her face what the loss of every battle costs her. Acquiescing to a public funeral, to flying the royal standard at half mast, these are more than just niceties she’s agreeing to. You can see her agony at, in her mind, dismantling thousands of years of British tradition.

So much of the story is conveyed by Mirren’s facial expressions. The Queen is not one for superfluous chatter, but on her face we see everything. We see the grim determination to weather yet one more crisis triggered by this woman. We see the worried grandmother desperately trying to shelter her grandchildren from grief. We see the bafflement at the public’s outsized response. We see the guilt of a woman who allowed this hurricane of a woman into her family in the first place.

One of the charming things about Lady Diana Spencer, when she was plucked from noble obscurity, was that she too seemed to be overwhelmed by this fairy tale. She obviously believed it. She believed that she had found her Prince Charming. A shy, lonely child of divorced parents was suddenly a princess.

Of course, she had found nothing, but rather had been found. She had been vetted, selected, and placed in the path of Prince Charles. In this quiet young schoolteacher, the powers that be believed they’d found the perfect bride to bear Charles his heir and a spare. She obviously doted on children, and was photogenic enough that she could be trotted out for ribbon cuttings a few times a year. What nobody warned her was that Charles was never actually her prince. He was Britain’s prince. While she would certainly belong to them, he would never actually belong to her.

What they didn’t count on was that Diana would become the very antithesis of what it means to be a royal. She became a celebrity. And whether she courted it at the beginning or was overwhelmed by it, she became a master at wielding it when she discovered the royal bait and switch. At one point Prince Charles, played with just the right combination of dignity, intelligence, and spinelessness by Alex Jennings, says about his parents, “Now they can see what it’s like. They never understood there’s a difference between the private Diana we know and the public Diana the world loves.”

To most Americans the concept of the British stiff upper lip is the plot of a Monty Python skit. It’s one of those things about Brits, like their penchant for boiling vegetables, which is good for a few laughs. What The Queen makes clear is that to the royal family, “quiet British dignity” is the very core of their identity. The British monarchy survived for thousands of years when others fell. They achieved this not by being photographed on gilded yachts or building Versailles-like palaces, but by establishing themselves a useful role in government and public life. For hundreds of years this stiff upper lip served them well. It was, as the Queen says “what the rest of the world admires us for”.

The movie shows, and it is often argued, that it was Elizabeth’s experiences in World War II which inform her staid, no nonsense, emotionless mien. But I wonder if perhaps more significant, at least in terms of understanding the royal response to Diana, was good old Uncle Edward, aka King Edward VIII. Edward, whose reign lasted less than a year, abdicated the throne in order to marry his true love, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

From an outsider’s point of view, this was perhaps a terribly romantic story. From the point of view of a young girl, however, it was a mortifying family crisis. Her uncle chose to abdicate the job for which he had been prepared and schooled all his life in order to be with a woman who could not be less suitable. Without concern for his country, limping towards another war with Germany, he skipped off to the continent to summer in Biarritz with Nazi bankers. Without concern for his family, he passed the burden of kingship onto his younger brother, and then Edward and Wallis tormented the family for years over issues having to do with titles and royal allowances.

When the situation with Diana came to a full boil, Elizabeth must have been reminded of the pain and mortification caused by Edward so many years ago, as well as the criticisms her father endured over being too kind and generous (and therefore wasteful) in a settlement for Edward. Royalty is a job and a duty which is done for love of country, not love of wealth and trappings. Royal families who spend the country’s coffers on supporting a retinue of distaff family and consorts do not remain royal very long.

The Queen is a fascinating picture, even if you have no interest in the British monarchy or glamorous deceased princesses. The addition of the Tony Blair plot establishes that this is, in fact, a political picture above all else. Britain constantly struggles with the question of the relevancy of the royal family. What is the point of a monarchy in a democratic republic? The Queen shows a woman determined to remain relevant, someone who takes her role as advisor to the Prime Minister seriously, even when no one else does.

Get Pantsed

If you happen to be in the New York area this November, let me encourage you to check out Donkey Corleone playing four shows at the People's Improv Theater. Donkey Corleone's humor is like being pantsed by your mother...if being pantsed by your mother was an entertaining way to spend an evening, and not sick and least not totally sick and wrong.

Need more convincing? Check out some of DC's very funny stuff at YouTube.

It'll be a cheap, fun evening with NO JAPANESE MIMES, I promise.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

In defense of the best show on television

Television has thrown up many unlikely series in recent years which have gone on to become ratings bonanzas. 10 million people regularly tune in to watch the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey mob family. 14.8 million tune in to watch an overworked government agent try to save to world in 24 hours. 9.7 million people watch the Byzantine tale of plane crash survivors on a mysterious island. 13 million watch impeccably dressed detectives who never heard of fluorescent lighting poke at human remains. 15 million tune in regularly to watch the antics of a lottery winning hick who found Buddha.

Truth is, you probably already watch plenty of shows that, if someone had explained the plot to you years ago, you would have rolled your eyes and said not in a million years. So the question is, if you were willing to give Tony Soprano and his therapist a chance, or Jack Bauer, or the Lostaways or Earl, why wouldn’t you take a chance on the best series on television, Battlestar Galactica?

Oops, I’ve lost you. I see your eyes glazing over. You don’t “do” science fiction. You prefer a little realism in your TV, thank you very much. You have vague memories of a cheesy 70s show rip off of Star Wars with that name. Maybe you enjoyed it back then, because you were 7. Or maybe you missed it because you weren’t into sci-fi then, and you’re certainly not now. Now you’re thinking something clever like, “Sheesh, what’ll they bring back next: My Mother, The Car? Those Hollywood idiots can’t do anything original, can they?”

I can't deny it. Science fiction has a rap. It’s followers are nerdy fanboys hypothesizing that maybe, really, we’re all just a dream in some android’s head. It’s Captain Kirk with a strategically ripped shirt battling a man in a gorilla suit with a lizard mask. It’s people getting themselves into impossible situations and then saving themselves with futuristic gadgets. They’re Westerns with laser guns.

Star Trek, Star Wars and, yes, the 1970s version of Battlestar Galactica, all fit into this goofy Buck Rogers interpretation of scifi. And, don’t get me wrong, full confession time, I’ve been known to enjoy those shows. But the reality is that true science fiction, hard science fiction, the science fiction of Heinlein, Dick and Clark, was never meant to be Westerns in space. According to someone who cared enough to write a thesis on it, “the purpose of science fiction is to introduce scientific or technological novelties in order to create narratives that enable us to perceive everyday reality at a reflective distance.” It even has a name: cognitive estrangement.

Forget about Star Wars or Men in Black for a minute, and think about the works of Phillip K. Dick. His best known works inspired three movies of note: Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. All three give us a future planet Earth in which there have been plenty of scientific advancements, but no implication that these advancements have improved human lives. In Blade Runner, humans have created a servant race of androids (or perhaps they’re closer to clones) who have the gall to demand human rights. Both Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly give us futures where as yet discovered drugs have had catastrophic effects. The scientific novelties (clones, psychotropic drugs) create situations that allow us to see the constant effects of moral dilemmas that never leave us.

Which brings me to Battlestar Galactica. Like the best hard science fiction, like the best entertainment of any kind, Galactica presents an unfamiliar environment, adds human beings, with human frailties, obsessions and addictions, adds stress and shakes liberally.
Let us start with the facts. There are space ships and robots with their humanoid clones called Cylons and there’s no point whitewashing their existence. There’s no point pretending this all takes place in The Oval Office.

The old and the new versions of Battlestar Galactica share one thing besides a name: the premise of a small group of survivors on the run after a planetary disaster. Beyond that, the new show is startlingly original, not just from its namesake but from anything else on TV. Even a show like The West Wing, which tripped over itself to remain timely and relevant, never approached modern moral issues with such steely eyed purpose. Galactica doesn’t just approach them, it gets down in the pit and wrestles them, never with a clear victor.

Human planets have been engulfed in a nuclear holocaust perpetuated by Cylons, a servant class of androids who got tired of being treated like slaves (sound familiar?). They left, formed their own society, figured out how to create human clones and, most importantly, found God. When I say “God”, I don’t mean some wacky evil scientist hiding behind a screen a la “The Wizard of Oz”. I mean God. Everything the Cylons and their human clones do, they do it for the grace and glory of the one true savior, so they believe. God told them humanity was a plague, so they blew it up.

50,000 humans survive on the run, and as they run, they struggle with more than just robots. A pro-choice leader outlaws abortion because, well, there are only 50,000 people left in the universe. The same leader, an intelligent, moral, reasonable woman, attempts bald faced election rigging because she fears her opponent’s total unsuitability more than she believes in the democratic process. Democracy is all well and good, but the fate of the human race is at stake, and her opponent is an opportunistic, insane, compromised fop. In the end, she caves, he wins, and democracy loses anyway.

A military leader enforces civilian conscription while looting and leaving other civilians behind to their death. What’s a little human collateral when the universe is at stake? Another military leader wrestles with the temptation of a military coup to end the meddling civilian government who just doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation. Two soldiers are court marshaled for trying to stop other soldiers from raping and torturing a captured clone.

People live in daily fear of terrorist acts, perpetuated by God loving robots and the people who love them. The Cylons themselves wrestle with moral dilemmas. Is their mission to introduce the remains of humanity to God’s vengeance, or to His love? Terrorism, torture, abortion, genetic engineering, science, faith, zealotry, separation of church and state, separation of military and state, political opportunism, vote fraud, media neutrality and racism; none of these topics are too prickly for the writers to tackle, and all of us get to feel the thorns. Yes, this is science fiction, and yes it’s entertaining, but there’s nothing escapist about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the makers of this show gave themselves an uphill battle by adapting a cheesy 70s sci fi show in the first place. Why would you give anything called Battlestar Galactica credit for being anything more than lasers in space? It’s on the SciFi channel which does, in fact, have a raft of lasers in space TV shows including Doctor Who and at least two variations of a show with Stargate in the title. Every weekend SciFi shows movies with titles like DragonWizard and Kraken: Tenticles of the Deep. Why would anyone take a show in this company seriously?

The only argument I can offer in its defense is the show itself. There are times when a television program rises above the confines of its setting. It becomes more than a show about a rundown Boston hospital, or a family run funeral parlor, or a sleepy Alaska town, or a mob family or even a ragtag group of survivors in, yes, spaceships. It is entertaining, but it is also something special. We are more interesting people, at least for the hour we watch the show.

After all, watching The Sopranos didn’t turn you into a paisan. I promise an episode of Galactica will not turn you into a Star Trek conventioneer. You might even enjoy yourself and, I promise, I wont tell a soul.

Monday, September 25, 2006

50s Flashback

I found myself sucked into a nostalgic vortex this afternoon when Turner Classic Movies showed The Tender Trap. Not, as you might assume, a 1950s nostalgia trip, but a 1980s one. I was transported back to one summer, round about 1982 I think, when my family relocated to northern Virginia and my step-dad’s company put us up in one of those apartment hotels until we found a house.

The place had a pool and a soda machine down the hall, but what it mostly had was cable. Up til then my childhood had been mostly cable deprived. I had not one but two sets of parents who were all about strict rationing of TV time. Summers were not about sitting inside all afternoon watching the boob tube. We generally found ourselves kicked out of the house around 9 and encouraged to not come home until dinner or dark or someone invited us over to spend the night.

It was the South. 98 degrees in the shade, full of mosquitoes and ticks; cricks full of frogs, minnows and the eternal threat of water moccasins; banks of poison ivy and oak. However in my parents view, none of those things were even remotely as dangerous as the threat of vegging out in front of the television.

That summer was different though. My mom & step-dad were busy working new jobs and trying to find a house. The hotel was located at a busy intersection surrounded by office towers. Even if they shooed us outside, there was no place for us to go.

So I got to watch cable. Lots and lots of cable. Two movies were in heavy rotation on HBO that summer: Bachelor Party and The Tender Trap. I conservatively estimate that I saw each one at least 36 times that summer. My only other really dramatic moment I remember from that summer was attempting my first bikini wax. I learned the hard way why one should apply those wax strips one at a time. The excruciating pain I experienced after ripping off the first one was only magnified by the knowledge that I then had to rip off the other. I’ve never waxed since.

The Tender Trap stars Frank Sinatra as a swinging bachelor with an endless train of beautiful women courting him, feeding him, cleaning up after him and lighting his cigarettes. Enter stage left Debbie Reynolds as the young ingénue who is on a strict schedule to find herself a husband so that she can retire (at the age of 22) to Scarsdale to raise the three children also on her schedule.

Providing able backup are David Wayne as Frankie’s happily married best pal visiting from Indiana and Celeste Holm as Frank’s long suffering number one girlfriend who, after indulging his Casanova ways, now finds herself staring down the 1950s version of middle aged (she’s 33). You might remember David Wayne as the nebbish-y accountant who wins Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Celeste Holm you should remember from everywhere. Any time there’s a sassy spunky gal pal in a 1950s movie destined not to get the guy, you will find Celeste.

I loved The Tender Trap when I was 13. It was the first time I actually got what the fuss over that Frank Sinatra dude was. I admit I was enchanted by the story of the wily skirt hound won over by the serious good girl who lays down the law. I loved the clothes, and the vision of single adulthood as being one evening of dinner, drinks and dancing after another. Heavy sigh.

I confess, the movie looks a little different from the other side of 30. I’m now older than Celeste Holm’s character who, despite being impeccably beautiful, is clearly being sold as past her expiration date. Debbie Reynolds’s character quickly wears thin with her Bataan death march to the alter. I've taken that whole "let's reform a bad boy" trip for real now with less entertaining results. Somewhere along the way I grew up into Celeste instead of Debbie and am grateful for it. But still, there are the clothes, and the style, and the dinner, drinks and dancing, all of which make me feel like I was born too late.

And, of course, there’s Frank. Those laughing eyes…I’m sighing sighs…then snap.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why wait for the movie...

I went to two films this weekend, both dramas, which meant that I got to see the first wave of “For Your Consideration” Oscar contending previews. They look like an ominous bunch this year, nary a lighthearted one to be seen, although plenty of gripping ones.

In the way of Hollywood, we have some odd zeitgeist happening, or zeitgeists as the case may be, with several films mirroring each other in their peculiar topics. We have multiple entries in 50s Noir, African Turmoil, and Turn of the Century Magicians. We also have Good Cop/Bad Cop and Future and Historic Dystopian Societies.

Watch them all carefully, though. It’s easy money that these will be the films on Oscar’s list next winter.

First up, with rumbling soundtrack, is The Last King of Scotland. We see a fresh-faced young man spinning a globe and saying, “Wherever my finger lands, that’s where I’ll go.” A finger lands on Uganda and there was a palpable sinking feeling in the audience.

A man behind me made a noise like he’d been gut punched and the young person (not a child, but 20’s maybe) said “What?”

The man said, “Idi Amin.”

His neighbor asked, “Who?”

“Don’t you remember Idi Amin?”


The man just exhaled again.

“Watch,” he said.

The story is about the young man, a Scot, who cheerfully went off to Uganda to practice medicine, and was taken under Amin’s wing. The young man’s face looks familiar, but you probably won’t remember the last time you saw him. He was walking on his hind hooves as one Mr. Tumnus in the Narnia movie. His name is James McAvoy.

The preview gives us the gist of a naïve Westerner who is charged up, like the rest of Uganda in early days, at Amin’s verve, promises, and willingness to flip the metaphorical bird to the West.

Forest Whitaker, a criminally underrated actor, is totally riveting as Amin. He clearly understands that the way men become great tyrants usually begins with an overwhelming amount of charm. The death squads come later.

It was hard to watch, honestly. I was a child, born in ’69, when it all went down and yet there is a feeling of embarrassment and rage watching it. You realize all of this took place before CNN and 24 hour insta-news. Maybe it was easier to hide 300,000 dead people back then. We live in CNN land now and it did not help the Rwandans or the citizens of Darfur. The preview, really, is challenging us to witness the start of something we still have not finished.

The other Africa-themed preview is for Catch a Fire, set in South Africa in the 80s. The trailer actually makes a feint to the cheery early on. We see the fresh face of Derek Luke, teaching children to play soccer with the happy licks of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Love” wafting in the air. I confess, shamefully, I thought we were in for some underdog Olympic soccer team type action until the nuclear power plant in the background blew up.

The mere presence of the nuclear power plant should have been the tip off. How many happy stories begin with a nuclear power plant on the horizon? In fact, I will now throw down the gauntlet and dare the filmmakers out there to give us a comedy with a nuclear power plant on the horizon. Step back, Matt Groening. Homer Simpson doesn’t count. If I have missed this comedy already in existence, please let me know.

The film is about terrorism in 80’s apartheid South Africa and the trailer tag line is: “In a country ruled by fear, all it takes is one spark for an innocent man to catch fire.” This sums up the gripping preview, which also gives us Tim Robbins as an evil suit. I love it when Tim Robbins plays bad. It’s like being mugged by a priest. You look at that sweet face and can’t believe he could do this, except that he is, apparently with glee.

Catch a Fire is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has given us some action potboilers like Clear and Present Danger, but also some pretty compelling social/political thrillers, like Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

The last time we saw Clive Owen on a commuter train, he was checking out Jennifer Aniston’s gams. This time, in the trailer for Children of Men, we get to see him on a subway checking out the decline and fall of civilization.

The film is based on a book by P.D. James, who I confess is not my favorite British author. Usually James writes about depressed Brits killing each other, but in this story she gives us a depressed society killing itself. In the not so very distant future, women have stopped being able to have children.

It’s actually my favorite P.D. James book. I liked it, maybe because its premise promised an end to the possibility of future P.D. James books. (No depressed Brits. No depressed Brits killing each other. Work with me here.)

Clive Owen looks haggard, yet still hot, which he simply is, haggard or no. Julianne Moore plays his sexy mysterious past-come-back to talk him into saving the world. Best of all, we get Michael Cane as an aging hippie, which promises to be awesome/hysterical (New Word Alert- awesome-terical!), even if this is a serious picture.

Children of Men
is directed by Alfanso Cuaron. This means we get to see the most entertaining version of ‘from the director of…’ in the whole lot of trailers, since Cuaron is the man who directed Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I imagine meetings of movie trailer editors trying to decide which film best represents what to expect from Children of Men, and then going home to cry.

The two films I went to see this weekend were The Illusionist and Hollywoodland, which I promise to dissect elsewhere. It was interesting to see the aforementioned zeitgeist pairing trailer for each one, namely The Prestige and The Black Dahlia.

I’ll be honest. Before seeing The Illusionist, I had my doubts about the feasibility of two successful films based on apparently the same topic: turn of the century magicians. After seeing The Illusionist and also the preview for The Prestige, I’m relieved to say they appear to be different, but both highly entertaining animals.

I can’t start here on The Illusionist or I wont be able to stop, but The Prestige features Hugh Jackman and (heavy sigh) Christian Bale as competing magicians with Scarlett Johanssan as the girl in the box. If at least one of those three actors do not turn you on, maybe it’s time to check your meds. There’s also Michael Caine, but not, unfortunately, as an awesome-terical hippie, so I will have to reserve judgment.

Hollywood has been trying to make a film about The Black Dahlia murder case for a very long time. The Dahlia was also known as Elizabeth Short, an unsuccessful actress who, in 1947, unfortunately became famous for being murdered in bloody, grisly fashion. The movie is based on the James Ellroy novelization of the crime.

It’s perhaps not a happy observation that society has finally reached a point where we can stomach and perhaps be entertained by the story of a brutal crime which was simply too much for anyone to tolerate or comprehend when it happened. The movie looks like a good solid noir that could give LA Confidential a run for its money.

In every group of previews, there are always one or two big dogs, of which The Departed is one. Martin Scorcese weaves a tangled web of police corruption starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Marky-Mark Wahlburg, and The Jack. It looks awesome. I’m not man enough to try to reduce it for you beyond good cop/bad cop/good criminal/bad criminal and Jack Nicholson. What more could you possibly want?

But we started this journey taking bets for Oscar nominees. After the trailers rolled there was one clear leader. All The King’s Men stars Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, and Anthony Hopkins. It was directed by Steven Zaillian, who wrote Scorcese’s last picture, Gangs of New York, as well as adapted Schindler’s List.

This group has, count them, 18 Oscar nominations and two wins amongst them. Throw in things like composer and cinematographer and you’re looking at 25 and four. None of that would matter if the movie looked like a dud, but the trailer sure doesn’t.

By the time Sean Penn was through his 60 seconds of pontificatin’, gyratin’, politicizin’ and whole hog scene devourin’ as the depression era politico for the common man, the audience was practically on its feet. I wanted to laugh, cry, applaud, and formant proletarian revolution. Not bad for a trailer.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

DVD Not To Miss - Brick

She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.The Big Sleep

Do you trust me now?
Less now than when I didn’t trust you before.
— Brick

Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, and released on DVD in August, is a great noir mystery, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett or James Ellroy. Like any Bogart film or Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, it has sharp, witty dialogue which is less realistic than it is how we all desperately wish we could communicate.

It is set in Southern California which, for all its natural and artificial beauty, has another side — a yellowing grass, dying palm tree, mall parking lot suburban wasteland which can appear very much like hell without any imagination whatsoever. It has a beautiful blonde in distress, a loner who wants to save her, authority figures who want him to rat or be sold down the river, a complicated web of bad drugs and betrayal, a drug kingpin who may or may not be real, and a sultry brunette who is definitely femme, possibly fatale as well.

Every great mystery has its conceit. In The Maltese Falcon it was to believe a nebulous black statue was worth dying for. Chinatown depends upon accepting that, in Southern California anyway, water is something worth killing for. Brick requests that you accept that high school is one of the most dangerous places on earth, and late adolescence the most dangerous time.

Our hero, Brendan, receives an hysterical, almost unintelligible phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily. Two days later she is dead. He starts asking questions. “Who’s she been eating lunch with?” he asks a friend. “I couldn’t say,” is the reply. “Lunch is many things. Lunch is complicated.” Brendan could call the cops, but knowing who done it isn’t enough. He needs to know why, maybe break a few heads, make somebody pay for what he couldn’t prevent.

The problem with most movies set in high school, even clever ones, is that the stakes are so very low. Will he/she go with me to the prom? Will I pass the essential exam? Will the big game be won? Will my parents let me down in some critical way and yet will I grow enough to forgive their humanity? Even edgy or macabre tales like Heathers or Mean Girls, which show just how evil teens can be to each other, are presented as comedies, with a knowing wink to the audience.

We laugh and shake our heads. Aren’t we so much older and wiser now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that our relief comes from a much more primal place. Like war veterans, we are just desperately glad to be out of there with all our limbs intact. Under no circumstances, even knowing now what we didn’t know then, could we be induced to go back. Repression and careful whitewash of memory seems the only way we could be induced to send our own children through the gauntlet.

Adults may stumble in and out of the periphery, but teenagers inhabit a world unto themselves. Caste is determined by where and with whom one eats lunch. Friendships are malleable, practical coalitions designed to help navigate rocky shoals. Love is a heavy weight. As currency it doesn’t buy much. It certainly isn’t enough to save friends from destroying themselves.

The grace of Brick is that it acknowledges just how very high the stakes are for those who wander the linoleum halls. High school is not where one spends the last golden days of childhood, but the place where one gets jumped into the gang of adulthood. If Lord of the Flies is not assigned reading, it should at least be issued as a survival guide. Brick knows that some kids get lost. They don’t successfully navigate anything. They make serious mistakes, make wrong choices, that will determine a downward trajectory for their lives.

If I’ve made it sound all dark and dismal, rest assured that, like the best film noir, there is plenty of humor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I confess is my new baby crush (sorry Jake Gyllenhaall) portrays Brendan, the stoic, wisecracking kid whose brain never stops working the angles, who is always hiding a surprise up his sleeve, even as he wears his heart upon it. Emilie de Raven, known to some of us as Claire from Lost, takes a welcome respite from the land of whine and mangos, to give us Emily, the ethereal beauty Brendan cannot let go. Emily left Brendan because she couldn’t stand his solitary life, but her attempts to transform into a social butterfly prove deadly. Like the best gumshoes, Brendan is motivated not only, or even mainly, by love, but by guilt.

Brick isn’t perfect. It appears that the characters attend a high school completely bereft of a student body, beyond themselves. A few of the characters push the lid over the top, and a few are confusingly extraneous. But in its entirety, the movie is entertaining as hell, and I still find myself musing over what became of the characters after the title credits roll. It’s a great accomplishment for a young director with a young cast.

Teen movies often have an unspoken underlying premise in which high school is seen as less serious than the adult world. But when your head is encased in that microcosm it's the most serious time of your life. – Rian Johnson

--This article has been modified since it was originally published on my sister site, Popular Librarian in June of 2006.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


I got my Macy’s catalog in the mail today, and out of it fell the usual collection of unwanted perfume samples, including one for Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Sean Jean’s cologne, Unforgivable. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I am reminded of Sean Jean’s Unforgivable, all I can think of is The Princess Bride…”You keep saying that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So without further ado, I bring you the (one hopes never to be repeated) Vizzini Inconceivable Awards for cologne names that have now become possible, thanks to the Diddy-meister’s Unforgivable.

Bitch Slap
Chickenshit Rat Bastard
Congressional Pardon
Flop Sweat
Grassy Knoll
It Wasn’t Me
Moon Over My Hammy
Napalm Morning
Ol’ Gym Bag
Panty Raid
Pull My Finger
Wild Dingo
Wretched Excess

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Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ballad of Will Ferrell

Gene Siskal often said that the two most subjective genres in film are comedy and porn. No amount of good reviews, Oscar buzz or repeated Skinamax showings can make you laugh at something you don’t find funny, or turn you on with something that…doesn’t turn you on. Even if I don’t enjoy a drama, I can appreciate objectively why it might be a great film, but no amount of arguing on earth will ever get me to laugh at Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the most depressing films I have ever seen.

There’s a certain kind of comedy that I really don’t like. Since I was a child I have been seriously bothered by what I call the comedy of humiliation and injury. I could not bear to watch The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals could make me cry, and to this day I cannot sit through an episode of I Love Lucy without getting a stomach ache. Write me all the complaints you like about how these are the most genius shows of all time. I cannot watch them.

By the same token, I have a problem with “Candid Camera” type humor: placing people in untenable positions and laughing at the result. Call me a wet blanket, but I can’t laugh at people’s humiliation, whether they are tricked into it or place themselves in the path of it. The suspense of waiting for a character to fall into a vat of chocolate and get coated with chopped nuts causes me more anxiety than waiting for Jason to jump out from the closet with a chainsaw. Even now I have moments watching beloved, and fine, sitcoms like Frasier, in which I find it necessary to channel surf away for a minute and not return until Frasier is through making his unwelcome pass towards the barista, or any other form of figuratively slipping on the banana peel.

Since I have a problem with this particular kind of comedy, it goes without saying that I have challenges with particular comedians who excel at this sort of thing. I am so disturbed by Jerry Lewis, I am afraid to visit France. Jim Carrey is the other obvious example. I have enjoyed some of Carrey’s more serious performances, and even some of his (few) more restrained comedies, like Bruce Almighty. But mostly, Jim Carrey makes me nervous.

I will never forget the first time I saw Jim Carrey. It was on the Wayans brother’s hit “In Living Color.” Obviously we are indebted to the Wayans for giving us the most famous Fly Girl, an adorable young thing named Jennifer Lopez, but they also gave us Fire Marshall Bill. In the Fire Marshal Bill skits, Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshal Bill would visit schools to offer kids safety lessons and, in the process, invariably set himself on fire or chop off a limb. (“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you accidentally fill the fish tank with gasoline.”) The first time I saw this skit, I was literally frozen in place, jaw hanging open. What I saw was a man possessed, a man in pain, a man in desperate need of psychological help, and I don’t mean Fire Marshall Bill. It was obvious to me that Jim Carrey was a genius, but equally obvious he was a man for whom the edge simply didn’t exist. It didn’t surprise me when Carrey became famous, but just watching the ads for movies like The Mask or Ace Ventura gave me the heebie jeebies.

All this is an extremely long and roundabout way of introducing today’s topic, which is The Mystery of Will Farrell. The mystery is not that Farrell has become famous, or that he is beloved by the world. The mystery is that Farrell is beloved by me. I think he is the funniest man alive. He makes me laugh. The ads for his movies make me laugh. The crappiest of his films make me laugh. Farrell, by every definition, is a master of the comedy of humiliation and injury, and he makes me laugh until I cry.

The quickest way to kill comedy is to over analyze it, but on the other hand, over analyzing things is pretty much why I’m here. It’s hardly a innovative realization that many of the most successful comedians are angry people. Through much comedy there runs a distinct vein of cruelty. This is something that both Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey have in common. Behind the eyes of Buddy Love or Stanley Ipkiss is a often a desperate rage, or a desolate sadness. Yeah, laugh at me you assholes. Aren’t I just so goddamn funny? You rarely get the sense that Lewis or Carey love the characters they play. They may love playing them, but if they happened to pass their alter egos on the street, they’d avert their eyes. They certainly wouldn’t have them over for dinner.

I think what makes Will Farrell such an enjoyable comedian is that instead of rage, beneath the surface of his over-the-top characters, which he throws himself into with reckless abandon, is actually a gentle soul. Ok, that’s sappy sounding I realize. But you never get the sense that the energy behind his characters is cruel. Silly, self important, clueless or insensitive perhaps, but not cruel. Beneath Ron Burgundy’s swaggering exterior is a sensitive jazz flute player. Old School’s Frank is a loon, but one gets the sense that even while streaking across town wearing nothing but his knee socks and Nikes, he’d stop to rescue a kitten from a tree or help an incredibly frightened old lady across the street.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a fine addition to the Will Farrell cannon. Ricky Bobby, forever scarred by his abandonment by his ne’r-do-well dad Reese (semi-pro race car driver and amateur tattoo artist), is a puffed rooster who lives by the motto “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Bobby’s life goes tits up when his swaggering ways runs him afoul of his NASCR team owner, and a dramatic wreck steals his mojo.

After a good start, the movie actually stumbles a bit in the first quarter. The jokes start to seem not just predictable but forced, the energy is off, and honestly I began to worry that the movie would disappoint. Salvation arrives from an unexpected source, the character of Jean Girard, the French Fermoola Ungh (that’s Formula One for them that don’t know French) driver, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G. I wont say that Cohen saves the movie, which would imply that only his scenes were funny. Instead his character seems to charge the picture, righting the energy so that we’re back to non stop gut busting laughter again.

Jean Girard turns the NASCAR scene on its ear, with his impeccable Italian suits and his mid-race macchiato. Elephant in the room: Jean Girard is gay. Let’s discuss. It’s easy to see where the idea of a gay NASCAR driver could go. Lame jokes about the fag mobile and a pit crew in hot pants and bondage gear. But the movie manages to avoid this. Girard isn’t wink wink, nudge nudge, pardon my feather boa gay. He’s “Allow me to introduce my husband Gregory” gay. Obviously they get some comic mileage from red neck horror at the homosexuals. But they get a lot more humor from pointing out the inherent contradiction of really really really straight men whose idea of a macho fun time is getting piss drunk and smacking each other on the ass.

Recently I had an interesting experience where, in a public setting in a group full of strangers, one of the people made a shockingly rude and bigoted comment about ‘faggots’. Most of the people in the room were stunned into silence, but the person who verbally smacked him down was a little old lady hooked to an oxygen tank. I was awed by this sassy grandma, and also inspired. Not so many years ago, no one would have said anything, and a few people might have laughed. Instead this bigoted butt munch got told off by a granny, and when you’ve got the grannies on your side, you’re on the way to victory. When an openly gay character in a movie celebrating NASCAR is not publicly humiliated but gets to wander off into the sunset hand in hand with his husband, we have reached a sea change.

Not all of the jokes work. There’s a weird bit about Halliburton reps sponsoring a racing team, which might have had some amusing political irony had, for example, the car been a Hummer and the pit crew National Guardsmen. An Enron car with a pit crew in prison garb, that would have been funny too. However, it appears that the actual managers of Halliburton were given walk on roles playing themselves, and I don’t think any of us are ready to find harmless fun in the idea of those guys in the sky box throwing OUR TAX DOLLARS around. Note to Halliburton PR firm: until those guys are in jail, we’re not laughing.

Ultimately however the film is great fun. The film also answers one of the great mysteries of all time: why George Bush suddenly took it upon himself to read Camus’ The Stranger. I will not spoil the joke for those who have not yet seen it, and if you missed it I guess you’ll have to go see the film again. I will say that in a brief moment, my world was righted again. Our President reading works of French existentialists only makes sense if he were inspired by a film about NASCAR racing. I’m only waiting for the quote where he announces he was disappointed there wasn’t more about cars in it.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Its Often Funny in Philadelphia

The story behind the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has already become legend in struggling actor/comedian/writer circles. A group of friends frustrated with the lack of opportunities for struggling actor/comic/writers spend the change in their pockets to film a pilot, send it into FX, win a contest and voila, are given a series. We saw something similar with the Project Greenlight series but what makes Sunny special is that we actually get to enjoy the finished project, as opposed to week after week of watching socially challenged film geeks hire their grandfathers as stunt doubles and fall further and further behind schedule.

The premise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is three late 20-something guys, Charlie, Mac and Dennis, who run a bar in Philadelphia with the help of Dennis’s sister Dee. Early reviews of the show compared it to Seinfeld, and tossed about phrases like “edgy”, “politically incorrect” and “totally unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV before”. These terms have all managed to become clichés, thanks I would argue, to Seinfeld, and the generation of snarky Yuppie comedies it inspired. What makes Sunny worth watching is that it’s actually funny. Really funny. Laugh until you can’t breathe, “I cannot believe I’m watching this happen” television.

Not only did these buddies manage to sell a TV pilot for which they are the main producers, writers and stars, but they even managed to add Danny DiVito to the cast. DiVito hit sitcom gold with Taxi twenty some odd years ago and has had no reason to return to television since. The lure of Sunny proved too strong to resist. DiVito plays the role of Dennis and Dee’s ne’er do well pop Frank who moves back to Philly to help them run the bar, a role he tears into like a rottweiler with a bloody steak.

One of the things I really enjoy about Sunny is the full minute of parental advisory warnings FX shows before each episode. First, an FCC add about the joys of using the V-chip to control children’s viewing habits, then a black screen with MA-VL and a lengthy definition of what that means, complete with voiceover. Unlike the joking tone that accompanies the warnings for shows like South Park or Jackass, these are straight up THIS PROGRAM IS NOT INTENDED FOR CHILDREN type warnings. I’ve always felt that FX is Fox’s attempt at correcting the karmic imbalance from Fox News. The message is clear: beware ye all who enter here. Should you become offended, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well fine, you say. In a world where “edgy” is used to describe a program like Desperate Housewives, what is it that you’re telling me? A quick visit to some episode titles for It’s Always Sunny might be helpful. “Charlie gets Molested,” “Charlie has Cancer”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”, “Underage Drinking”, “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom” and “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” are a pretty representative sample.

The first episode I happened to catch was “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare”. When it was finished, I nearly wept with joy. I wanted to gift wrap it and send it via strip-o-gram to the Parent’s Television Council, in hopes that they might spontaneously combust, or just surrender all their TV sets and move their families to Alberta. I can explain to you what happened in the episode, but no part of my explanation will capture the genius and lunacy of the show.

Angry at the way Frank is running the bar, Dennis and Dee quit at which point they discover the joys of unemployment payments. Each decides they are going to use the unemployment to fund the pursuit of their respective career goals, vet and actress. Meanwhile at the bar, Mac and Charlie are tired of doing double duty covering Dennis and Dee’s old jobs, so they convince Frank to apply for a “welfare to work” program that would allow them to hire cheap government subsidized labor, who they have the unfortunate habit of referring to as “slaves”. When Dennis and Dee find their unemployment running out they panic for a way to continue on welfare and, after some wacky misadventures, find themselves addicted to crack. (I swear to you it’s funny) Meanwhile Mac and Charlie head down to the welfare office and ask the officer if there’s some kind of book they can look through to pick the slaves, um, laborers, that they want to come work for them. (I swear to you it’s funny, too).

In “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, Mac begins hanging out with anti-abortion protestors when he realizes that it’s a great environment to pick up women. He hooks up with a pro-lifer who rewards his passion for the cause with passion in the back seat of her car. The girl is, according to Mac, a total freak in the sack and the best sex he’s ever had. Before you roll your eyes, allow me to refer you to recent studies from Yale and Columbia universities which suggest that teens who take ‘abstinence only’ pledges are more likely to engage in both oral and anal sex.

This is the genius of It’s Always Sunny. Crack is not funny. Welfare is not funny. Abortion is not funny. But Charlie, Frank, Dennis, Dee and Mac ARE funny. They’re clueless, self absorbed and compulsively watch-able. What you realize watching this show is that while crack, welfare and abortion aren’t funny, America’s clueless, self absorbed attitudes about these things are in fact, hysterical.

The phrase “politically incorrect” is virtually meaningless in this day and age. When I attended college it was a loose collection of symptoms which led us to label the most benign issues controversial for fear of offending anyone and everyone from the Vegan Libertarian Front to the Campus Crusade for Christ. Lately it has come to define everything from what people used to call plain old straight talk to simply mean-spirited behavior. The best comedy which often earns the title “politically incorrect” is that which hits the Left and the Right equally hard. It shows that as long as we take them seriously, it’s the wing nuts from both sides that ruin life for the rest of us. The only solution for the rest of us is to join the circus and laugh them offstage.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is finishing up its accelerated summer season this week. I’m tickled to see that guest starring in the final episode is Stephan Collins, none other than the Reverend Cameron from 7th Heaven. My theory about FX being Fox’s karma bitch apparently holds for actors on the Fox network as well. Welcome, Reverend Cameron! It’s never too late to join the circus.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Moving In

Welcome to the next generation of the Popular Librarian blog, PopLib 2.0, if you will. It was hard for me to let go of name checking the library profession in my title, but certain people suggested that a different moniker might have wider appeal. Since popular culture is the reason for this blogs' being, appealing to the masses is kind of appealing.

I went through a long list of possible names. For a while CultureHo! and PopPolka were running neck and neck. PopWhisperer and Culturista also made appearances, as did CultureNun, for no good reason except that it made me laugh, and it seemed like the one name that might actually have less sex appeal than PopularLibrarian.

When Populucious came to me, however, it was a TKO. It captures the essence of what I want to do, which is to glory in the wonders, and wade in the muck of those things that make life so entertaining, with occasional side trips to seriousville.

For a while, I'll be posting to both Popular Librarian and Populucious, and maybe someday I can talk my brother into designing a real old fashioned website for me. Until then, welcome to Populucious!

Summer Doldrums

I confess I was excited the first time I saw ads for BBC America’s HEX. Truth is I’m in perpetual mourning for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and may be ‘til the day I die, or Josh Whedon finally directs Wonder Woman. I confess I had some small hope that this trendy demony looking show might be a temporary balm.

It started off semi promising. Cassie is a pretty blonde teenager struggling to fit in at an exclusive boarding school of the sort that only seems to exist in Great Britain. It’s set on impossibly lovely and remote grounds, the school resembles an ancient castle, the students appear to be able to leave the grounds with impunity in order to visit the local uber-hip pub and the urbane headmaster dismisses them with bon mots like: “Be free and try not to multiply”.

Cassie’s roommate is Thelma who is, of course, a Lesbian who dresses in some BBC wardrobe mistress’s idea of “goth chick” chic. Thelma loves Cassie. Cassie loves boys and yearns to be popular. There’s the cool in-crowd headed by a cruel bitch named (I’m not making this up) Roxanne. Through a series of wacky misadventures Cassie discovers that she is descended from a long line of witches and is being stalked by a sexy fallen angel named Azazeal. Azazeal wants Cassie to have his baby who will, as is so often the case in these instances, unleash unpleasantness on earth.

Azazeal has been wandering the earth trying, unsuccessfully, to impregnate many generations of blonde waifs since being drummed out of heaven some thousand years ago, apparently for his penchant for trying to knock up blonde waifs. (Note to fundamentalists: Even God wants his angels practicing "safe sex"!) Azazeal is tall dark and handsome, with dreamy eyes and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One would think he’d not have much problem pulling tail. However, his means of seduction involve driving Cassie’s mother insane, revealing himself in monstrous demonic form, possessing a boy Cassie’s dating, stealing her unborn baby and murdering her roommate. Maybe next time he could try buying a girl a drink. Seriously, it’s worked for millions.

So far, a pale imitation of Buffy, yet somehow even with magic and complicated mythology and stone gargoyles turning into real ones Hex is in fact excruciatingly dull. Part of the problem is Cassie. She drifts around trying to get boys to like her when she ought to be, I dunno, figuring out how to stop Armageddon. She discovers magic powers but never seems to use them when they might be useful. When given explicitly clear guidelines for her safety, such as “He can’t harm you if you wear this pendant” and “Whatever you do, don’t leave the safety of the pentagram”, she’s the sort of girl who’ll promptly lose the pendant and run out of the pentagram to chase after a loud crashing noise in the dark yelling “Hello?” While plenty of 98 minute horror films are based on this particular type of lass, an 8 week TV series is an entirely different matter. One begins to root for Azazeal to just sacrifice her already, and on to the next generation please.

Any entertainment to be had comes from Thelma who, after being offed by Az, returns as a ghost. A goth chic Lesbian ghost. The thing I really love about the BBC is that much of their television seems so quaint. Sitcoms regularly star characters in the most ridiculous guises with no attempt to hide bad wigs or fake padding. The network motto ought to be “Hey gang, lets put on a show!” Thelma is eventually joined in her struggle by a demon hunter who dresses like Barbarella on her way to a Prince concert. No one in the school seems the least perturbed by this new 30-ish student wearing a purple lace trimmed black leather cat suit and duster jacket. British boarding school is so awesome!