Friday, September 30, 2005

TV: Class Dismissed

Can’t anybody be low-rent on television any more?

The question is prompted by last night’s premiere of the ABC revival of THE NIGHT STALKER. The sometimes cheesy original series and the pair of genuinely scary TV movies it was based on have always been favorites of mine, and introduced me to the work of Richard Matheson.

The new version of STALKER, overseen by X-FILES producer Frank Spotnitz, is smartly made, with a visual style that draws on Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. Do I miss the dry wit and seersucker elegance of Darren McGavin? Naturally. But I’m no purist. Stuart Townsend is a fine actor who brings an edge to his portrayal of reporter Carl Kolchak. And Spotnitz has updated the show in other inventive ways.

Except for one, which isn’t his fault because it’s endemic to modern TV. The new Kolchak has too much money.

In the old show, Carl was a stringer for a bottom-of-the-barrel news service. Which made sense: a guy with a regular byline isn’t going to chase after the supernatural every week. McGavin’s Kolchak, with his cheap suit and his straw hat, was past caring about his reputation. All he wanted was the story.

In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina coverage, some on the right claimed that it was un-American to talk about class, that doing so was denying that the country was the land of opportunity. Firstly, bullshit. Secondly, like it or not, money or the lack thereof is going to have an impact on your decision making. That impact should factor into storytelling. Even on TV.

A reporter who’s never going to make the front page again will chase down stories no one else cares about. Just as a broken-down P.I. living in a trailer will take a different approach to the cases he investigates.

But the networks, in their compassion, don’t want to expose us to characters who might be seen as ‘losers.’ After all, it could affect us as consumers. So the new Kolchak isn’t just younger, he’s also a success, living in a gorgeous house that I’ve seen in at least two movies instead of a pressboard hovel in the Valley. His obsession with the paranormal still has to be explained – he can’t just find it interesting – so now he’s saddled with a tragic backstory involving his wife’s murder.

There are exceptions to this class-unconsciousness. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is about wealthy people being thrown off the gravy train, and much of the fun in the late, lamented (at least by me) EYES came from Tim Daly’s reveling in being rich. I’m convinced MY NAME IS EARL has scored in its initial outings because the character and setting are atypical for TV.

One other note on STALKER: I thought digitally adding footage of McGavin from the old show was ... kinda creepy. And not in a good way.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Book: Different Kinds of Dead and Other Tales, by Ed Gorman (2005)

Campfire stories.

I consider that phrase high praise, even though growing up in New York I never encountered campfire #1. There may have been a few in Florida, where I went to high school, but I was too busy huddling close to the air conditioner to go look for them.

One thing I did discover in Florida was Stephen King’s book NIGHT SHIFT. I remember copies being passed from one kid to another like samizdat. At first, I resisted; my snob impulses kicked in early. But eventually I succumbed, and as is so often the case the one who holds out longest falls the hardest. I still have my copy from those days. I don’t know which is scarier, the cover image of a bandaged hand studded with unblinking eyes or the list price of $3.95.

I read every story in the book, not just the one about the killer washing machine but the heartbreaking “The Woman in the Room.” Each tale featuring lean prose and a feel for character and place that made the scary ones even more terrifying.

Reading Ed Gorman’s latest short fiction collection was like revisiting those days of squeezing in one last shocker before study hall ended.

Ed’s a King fan, too, and dedicates my favorite story in the book to him. “The Brasher Girl” would not have been at all out of place in NIGHT SHIFT. Other influences turn up; “A Girl Like You” carries the melancholy sting of Ray Bradbury, and the elegant title tale reads like Henry James on the prairie.

Above all, the stories are pure Gorman. Ed has few peers when it comes to depicting small town Midwest life and working-class disappointment, and he has a direct way of dealing with matters of the heart. Plenty of writers can combine those elements, but only Ed would ad alien abduction to the mix as he does in “The Long Sunset,” and to powerful effect.

Halloween’s coming up. Do yourself a favor and spend part of your allowance on this book. I gotta go to gym class.

Miscellaneous: Link

Speaking of samizdat, unpublished articles never die. They just get circulated via email. From Arts & Letters Daily.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Movie: Blood On The Moon (1948)

I should have included westerns on the list of genres that the late Robert Wise knew his way around. He plays to his strengths in this one, blending a film noir plot with the moody visuals of a Val Lewton movie. (Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca shares Wise’s pedigree, having shot CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST.)

With noir stalwarts like Robert Mitchum and Charles McGraw in the cast, it’s a good thing Walter Brennan is also on hand. Robert Preston plays an outright bastard. I’ve seen THE MUSIC MAN so many times that his performance here comes as the best kind of shock.

The Downside of Empathy

I’ve admitted to being hooked on Kathy Griffin’s reality series, which details the superhuman effort required to stay even marginally famous. My favorite aspect of the show was Kathy’s relationship with her non-showbiz husband. It was snarky but always supportive.

When I read via Defamer that they’re getting divorced, I felt genuinely bad. Then I felt genuinely foolish. I don’t even know these people.

The Upside of Illness

Thanks to a cold, I’ve spent the last few days staring at the TV. Which allowed me to catch a rerun of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY featuring Jerry Orbach as an intergalactic record producer (think a less evil Simon Cowell) who stirs up youth violence via subliminal messages. He carries out his scheme with the aid of Richard (NIGHT COURT) Moll and Judy Landers, one of the lovely Landers sisters.

Or at least I think I saw it. I may be much sicker than I think.

Bidi-bidi-bidi. Thanks, Buck.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Movie: The Big Gundown (1967)

As part of its tribute to Italian westerns, IFC aired this Sergio Sollima film regarded as one of the finest non-Sergio Leone examples of the form. I’m not about to disagree. It’s a terrific, tough-minded movie with Lee Van Cleef as a quasi-lawman who agrees to track an accused rapist and murderer into Mexico in order to jumpstart his Senate campaign.

IFC’s SPAGHETTI WEST documentary cites GUNDOWN as one of the political films that changed the genre. Van Cleef is essentially a tool for moneyed interests while his quarry Cuchillo, played by Tomas Milian in several movies, is a savvy peasant.

Maybe I’m getting more conservative in my dotage – or maybe it’s because Van Cleef was ridiculously magnetic onscreen – but I couldn’t root against the man. I figure if Dennis Hopper, the man behind EASY RIDER, can go Republican and vote for George W. Bush twice, then I can pull for Van Cleef to get the job done.

R.I.P. Don Adams

The actor passed away on Sunday at the age of 82. Like any kid with a warped sense of humor and a taste for James Bond, I devoured GET SMART. Here’s hoping the forthcoming DVD release of the series brings its pleasures to a new audience.

Let’s not overlook the actor’s contributions to animation. That’s right, Chumley, I’m talking Tennessee Tuxedo. INSPECTOR GADGET was my kid brother’s after-school cartoon of choice, and Adams’ pinpoint timing made the show fun for older siblings.

My fondest memory of the actor is the syndicated audience participation series DON ADAMS’ SCREEN TEST. Each week wannabe actors would recreate famous movie scenes with the help of celebrity guest stars like Milton Berle and Mel Brooks. It was a silly, cheesy TV show, and I loved every minute of it.

Miscellaneous: Links

The Los Angeles Times recounts how politics have affected what sounds like a fascinating project from Albert Brooks.

Josh Friedman weighs in on the psychological factors that determine the makeup of a screenwriter:

In short, writers whose parents ignored them so they became class clowns like to pitch first and write second. On the other hand, writers whose parents ignored them so they became awkward little geeks who stayed in their room and read Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators like to write first and pitch never.

Writers who were both class clowns and awkward little geeks like to create blogs.

In the words of Troy McClure: My God, it’s like you’ve known me all my life!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Movie: Lord of War (2005)

I shouldn’t be surprised that LORD OF WAR hasn’t set the box office on fire. Nobody ever got rich doing black comedy. I’m a little disappointed that the critical community isn’t behind it. You’d think a movie that was both wildly entertaining and deeply subversive would get a little love.

Andrew Niccol’s film is alive in every frame, viscerally and intellectually. It burns with righteous anger. And it’s eager to play with both form and content.

It’s structured along the well-worn lines of the modern criminal epic. Count down the elements along with me:

- The insinuating voiceover that promises to pull no punches

- The jukebox soundtrack

- The close friend/family member whose psychological problems threaten the organization’s stability (think Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS)

- The blankly perfect object of desire that will never fill the void, a la Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1983 version of SCARFACE

- The steady isolation of the main character, leading to a tragic comeuppance

And ... scene.

Niccol puts all these tropes in place only to turn each one on its head. He does this by having Nicolas Cage play an international arms dealer instead of a drug kingpin or mobster. Cage’s “crime” is in some cases legal and at other times tacitly approved by the world’s governments – but is always far more lethal than any caper the Corleones could cook up.

The knock on movies of this stripe is that they romanticize deviant behavior. It’s hard to buy the notion that crime doesn’t pay while watching charismatic hoodlums take whatever they want out of life. Niccol dynamites that conceit here. Cage isn’t some street-smart Machiavelli whacking his enemies on-screen while pushing horse to schoolkids off-camera. He’s just a salesman, a literal merchant of death – and yet thanks to Niccol’s kinetic storytelling, his life is exciting, compelling, even desirable.

For once, the voiceover doesn’t lie. Cage is never presented as heroic, or even anti-heroic. He’s a guy doing the one thing he’s good at, which happens to be sowing destruction wherever he goes, even in his own life. Forget THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; if you want to meet the devil onscreen, look no further.

Every year, there’s at least one movie I spark to that no one else seems to care about. Remember, I’m the guy who called David Mamet’s SPARTAN the top film of 2004, and paramedics had to help me out of the theater when VANILLA SKY ended. So take it with a grain of salt when I say that LORD OF WAR is one of the best American films of the year.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Miscellaneous: Links

As everybody seems to be in a Bob Dylan frame of mind, I'll just say that you don't need this particular weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

So not only have I watched part of the first fall show to be canceled (well, it's obviously more than most of you did), I've also read Oprah's latest book club pick already. Finger on the pulse, baby. Finger on the pulse.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

DVD: Cypher (2002)

1997’s CUBE is the working definition of a solid B-movie. The SF thriller about six people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic prison suffers from an obscure ending, but director Vincenzo Natali socks over the action with style. I eagerly awaited his next movie.

And waited. And waited.

Not that Natali wasn’t keeping busy. He got to work on this follow-up in short order, only to see it become caught in the logjam of Miramax releases as the company started its post-Weinstein transformation. A handful of those titles, like PROOF and AN UNFINISHED LIFE, will see the inside of theaters. Others are now surfacing on home video in bare-bones editions. Which is too bad, because CYPHER deserves better.

It’s a sly Philip K. Dick pastiche set in a near-future when everything looks vaguely ... Canadian. The ever-reliable Jeremy Northam plays a Silicon Valley milquetoast who feeds his yen for adventure by signing on as an industrial spy. His target: a software giant with a vast campus in the suburbs east of Seattle. I am sure it is in no way intended to resemble an actual company in this neck of the woods, one for which I have the utmost respect and that I do not fear in any way.

Northam soon discovers that the boring presentations he’s attending in global hot spots like Buffalo and Omaha are not what they appear to be, and that the truth may have something to do with mystery woman Lucy Liu. He lays on the Julius Kelp mannerisms a little thick at first, but it pays off.

Brian King’s script isn’t based on any PKD story, but the author’s influence is obvious. His great themes are now encoded in Hollywood’s DNA, and turn up in movies from THE TRUMAN SHOW to THE MATRIX. CYPHER’s low budget actually works in the movie’s favor. Most adaptations of Dick’s material, including the ones I like, ultimately become man-on-the-run thrillers. Financial constraints force CYPHER to keep the focus on ideas, as Northam’s character comes to question both his identity and his reality. Anyone familiar with Dick’s writing will spot the plot twists coming, but Natali’s smart, low-key approach is effective, and the closing scene packs a satisfying emotional punch.

The ‘No, Really?’ Item of the Day

According to Which John Cusack Are You?, I’m David Shayne from BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. I could have told you that without taking the test.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Movie: The Transporter 2 (2005)

Luc Besson has cranking out action movies down to a science: combine French style, American production values and the Hong Kong approach to fight scenes. This latest entry is pure, dizzy fun. It moves fast; at eighty minutes, it doesn’t have an ounce of extra fat – or a brain – to slow it down.

Besson’s action fare also has a willingness to embrace over-the-top emotion. One of the biggest surprises of 2005 is UNLEASHED, aka DANNY THE DOG, with Jet Li playing a man raised by crime boss Bob Hoskins (still my choice for villain of the year) as a pit bull. Li acts up a storm in this movie, and the ending is genuinely powerful.

Besson also borrows from the Roger Corman playbook by incorporating a soupçon (he’s French, see) of political content. A hit at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, BANLIEUE 13 is a gloss on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK that manages to comment on the ghettoizing of immigrants across Europe while staging fight scenes that use the urban sport of parkour.

Many of these films are written by Besson’s frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen. 20 years ago, Kamen wrote THE KARATE KID. Now he’s at the center of one of the world’s most prolific film factories. I’d love to know how he and Besson got together and work together.

In the first TRANSPORTER, a woman prepares breakfast for star Jason Statham. Included on the menu are madeleines, the cookie that sparked Marcel Proust’s reverie.

Rosemarie, a huge Luc Besson fan, commented on the scene afterward. “You can’t just make madeleines. You need a special pan. I don’t believe an ex-Special Forces soldier in a technosuave house would have one.”

This passes for weighty conversation around Chez K.

But Besson must have heard her complaint, because in the sequel, when grizzled French cop François Berléand (the best thing about T1, shoehorned into T2) is shown cooking in Statham’s house, we clearly see that the Transporter does indeed possess his very own madeleine pan.

Which is proof that it’s always about the writing.

TV: Spaghetti West

I had a beautifully wrought post about this IFC documentary ready to go. But Ed Gorman says all that I wanted to say, only better. Every Saturday night in September, IFC is airing key films from the genre. This week: THE BIG GUNDOWN and THE GREAT SILENCE.

Post-Operation Travolta: Peter Weller

Guess the actor doesn’t need my help. According to Entertainment Weekly, he earned a master’s degree in Renaissance art history last year. Now he’s teaching at Syracuse University, appearing in documentaries on the History Channel, and about to start work on his doctorate at the age of 58, all while keeping up his acting and directing careers.

It’s official. I used to want to be Buckaroo Banzai. Now I want to be Peter Weller when I grow up.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Miscellaneous: Quotes of Note

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK – I know there’s supposed to be a period at the end of the title, but dammit, it just looks wrong – has already taken home best actor and best screenplay honors from the Venice Film Festival. In the October 2005 issue of Premiere magazine, director/co-writer George Clooney describes the rehearsal process:

“(The cast) would come in and type out the news of the day on a typewriter. And (David Strathairn) would sit there and read it; just every morning, he would come in and read some of the news. We were watching, going, this is today’s news read by Edward R. Murrow. Oh my God. How different it sounds.”

I can only hope that Clooney rolled film while this was happening, and that some of this footage will be included on the DVD.

In the New York Times Book Review, Joe Queenan offers a surprisingly positive review of FAN-TAN, the film treatment-turned-novel by Marlon Brando and director Donald Cammell:

“... it sounds like the boys had a heap of fun cranking out this page turner while throwing back a few hundred martinis. There’s a lot to be said for this approach; if you can’t write a great novel, at least write a peculiar one and have a few laughs along the way.”

I particularly liked Queenan’s take on contemporary fiction:

“FAN-TAN is the kind of high-seas extravaganza nobody writes anymore because everybody’s too busy churning out books about land-based serial killers, perhaps concealing the Spear of Longinus beneath the Shroud of Turin in the glove compartment of a Dodge Neon that once belonged to Mary Magdalene’s luckless descendant, Rhiannon Schwartz.”

He also compares the book to the Kevin Spacey movie BEYOND THE SEA, so I pretty much have to read it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

R.I.P. Robert Wise

The Oscar-winning director passed away at age 91. And another link to the era of classical studio filmmaking has been severed.

Wise began in the cutting room working alongside Orson Welles, and directed his first features for Val Lewton’s legendary B-movie unit. That training, which emphasized technique in service of narrative, would serve him well in one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood history.

Consider the range of genres he tackled: noir (BORN TO KILL, THE SET-UP, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW), science fiction (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), horror (THE HAUNTING, proving he retained all that Lewton taught him). He also excelled at straightforward drama; I only recently discovered EXECUTIVE SUITE, still extraordinarily potent after 50 years.

And then, of course, there are the musicals that won him his Academy Awards, WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

That last film also opened him up for a great deal of scorn from the critical community. Perhaps they never forgave him for his role in recutting Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Or maybe they simply undervalued a director who made his gifts work for the movie instead of the other way around, who felt his first duty was to storytelling. We won’t see his like again.

Junk Mail Title of the Day

Enjoy Employee Discount + idolatry. I guess Lee Iacocca really is back at Chrysler.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Movies: 2046 (2004, U.S. 2005), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002, U.S. 2005)

These movies are linked for one reason: I saw them on the same day. Being a film buff is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, to catch what’s interesting, you’ve got to double up, to adopt a festival mindset on what is otherwise an ordinary Saturday.

Sometimes, this approach pays off in spades.

I’d heard the stories about 2046, the latest from Wong Kar-Wai. The protracted production, the missed festival screenings, the wedge it drove into the relationship between the director and his greatest collaborator, the cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Whatever went on, it was worth it. 2046 stuns. It’s a singular, transporting experience.

I could say it’s a quasi-sequel to 2000’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, but what would be the point? There’s a plot of sorts, but why go into it? Like all of Wong’s movies, it’s about desire, pain, and the moments when they overlap, whether they occur in late 1960s Hong Kong or the distant future.

It’s also about immersing yourself in an atmosphere, a feeling. To accuse Wong of favoring style over substance, as some critics have, misses the point. At his best, he’s a master of style as substance. He can express longing through the drape of a woman’s dress, convey a desperate romantic ache through the play of colors on screen. He sublimates emotions until the most intense of them – heartsickness, obsession – can be studied up close, like a cool, smooth pebble to be slipped into the pocket of a perfectly cut pair of slacks.

On top of that, you’ve got the actors. Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Faye Wong and Maggie Cheung, plus Tony Leung for the ladies. A more attractive cast you will never find.

Chan-wook Park’s film OLDBOY did more than make an impression on me. It may have left a mark. (It’s available on DVD now. Go get it!) I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see his 2002 effort SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE at the Northwest Film Forum.

A thriller about a botched kidnapping, VENGEANCE isn’t as baroquely structured as OLDBOY. And while the director’s flair for startling images and plot twists is in evidence, he doesn’t employ them to the same devastating effect. But VENGEANCE is still a grueling, intense movie in which every shock is tied to genuine emotion. There are two characters who could be Mr. Vengeance in this movie, and you feel sympathy for both of them.

Plus, there were walkouts. Walkouts are always a good sign.

I spent Saturday morning working on a screenplay, then Rosemarie and I went out for a late lunch. After seeing these two extraordinary movies we met friends for sweet potato hush puppies and bourbon. As I turned in that night I realized that, for one day at least, I was living the life I had fantasized about when I was a teenager, stuck in a small Florida town.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Grab Bag: Dignity, Always Dignity

The other night I happened to flick from Bronson Pinchot on VH-1’s THE SURREAL LIFE to Bronson Pinchot on LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT.

In the former, he’s acting as referee between two of the most deluded figures on the pop cultural landscape, Omarosa (formerly of THE APPRENTICE and the hyphenated surname) and Janice Dickinson, who will be the first to identify herself as a supermodel. On the latter, he’s matching wits with Vincent D’Onofrio as a sleazy dentist suspected of murdering his wife.

The problem is I’ve seen more than a few minutes of Pinchot’s stint on THE SURREAL LIFE, in which he reveals himself to be, ahem, an oddball with a penchant for sexually inappropriate behavior. Knowledge that robbed his legitimate acting of some of its power. Which is unfortunate, because it’s obvious in his scenes with D’Onofrio that he can still bring the heat.

I can understand an actor’s impulse to stay in the limelight in the hope that it will lead to more work. For all I know, his SURREAL LIFE casting led to the L&O gig. But you don’t want that exposure to diminish your ability to do your job.

Contrast this with the example of Steve Guttenberg. (I’ve waited years to write that sentence.)

One of the most satisfying magazine articles I’ve read recently was this Entertainment Weekly piece on the POLICE ACADEMY series. It wants to poke snarky fun at the movies, but is thwarted at every turn by Guttenberg’s polite refusal to play along. The ending even has the snap of poetic justice.

Like all careers, Guttenberg’s has had ups and downs. Most actors’ lows, however, are not immortalized in song on THE SIMPSONS. (Curse you, Stonecutters!) But throughout, Guttenberg kept his focus on the work. He gave a solid performance in Jodie Foster’s HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, and wrote and directed a low-budget adaptation of the play P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD.

This season, he joins the cast of the way-cool UPN series VERONICA MARS. Due in no small part to the fact that he’s held on to his credibility.

But nothing excuses the Goot’s appearance as a motorcycle-riding tough guy in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl.” Some things are simply beyond the pale.

Today’s TV Ad I Hate

The Verizon Wireless spot (which I can’t find online) in which the guy can’t work on his laptop in the coffee shop because of other people’s annoying behavior. Like ... sitting next to him. And drinking coffee. I think we’re supposed to feel his pain. I keep watching it in the hope there’s an alternate version in which he gets horribly scalded.

How Do You Feel About Cleveland?

I tried watching some of the John Roberts confirmation hearings on CNN’s The Situation Room today, but the show’s set made it impossible. Multiple screens on camera at once, all offering different angles of the same event. It was like watching a bad episode of 24. From one of the later seasons, when Jack Bauer finally goes to the bathroom.

Of course, maybe the real problem is that I miss Wolf Blitzer’s lead-in to his old show: Stand by for Hard News!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Book: Blonde Lightning, by Terrill Lee Lankford (2005)

In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that Terrill Lee Lankford is a friend of this website. Further, his previous novel EARTHQUAKE WEATHER was one of my favorites of 2004, a scorching, pitiless cry from the black heart of Hollywood that read like a cross between Jim Thompson and Nathanael West.

In BLONDE LIGHTNING, he picks up the story without losing a beat. EARTHQUAKE was set in the wake of the Northridge temblor of 1994. BLONDE unfolds amidst the L.A. tectonic shift known as the O.J. Simpson trial.

Ex-creative executive Mark Hayes is running out of money and is down to his last friend in Hollywood, faded writer/director Clyde McCoy. The two team up to make a low-budget thriller, the kind of movie where the most you can hope for is that it turns out better than it needs to be.

Mark’s duties as “associate producer” are vaguely defined. Mostly, he’s charged with keeping Clyde sober and his enemies away from the set. But trouble has a habit of following these two around, and their situation quickly goes from bad to worse.

In Mark, Lankford has created a slippery, borderline amoral protagonist who’s likable in spite of himself. He has just enough self-awareness to know how much of his soul he has left to lose. BLONDE is structured along more conventional lines than EARTHQUAKE, but brings these characters full circle in a richly satisfying way.

An earlier Lankford novel, the excellent SHOOTERS, features my all-time favorite blurb. From James Ellroy, it reads in part:

“This is a blood thriller that will vibrate your vindaloo!”

I’m still not sure what a “blood thriller” is. And if my vindaloo ever vibrated, I’d seek medical attention immediately.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

TV: Navel-Gazing

Now that the cable networks’ coverage of Katrina is back in sensationalized, personality-driven mode – and plagued by the excesses itemized by Slate’s Jack Shafer here and here – I am once again someone who doesn’t watch TV news. I get by just fine without it. If there’s an emergency, I’m sure one of those nice people in the torch-wielding mob will fill me in on the details.

So I’m back to my usual TV diet: shows about show business.

HBO’s ENTOURAGE has been dismissed as shallow. Salon’s Heather Havrilevsky even said that the Katrina coverage pointed out how useless the series is. All I know is that a program where the biggest problem was whether a movie star would be able to commit to James Cameron’s AQUAMAN after Mandy Moore broke his heart came as sweet relief.

ENTOURAGE’s accuracy has never been in doubt. It’s also one of the best depictions of male friendship on TV. And Jeremy Piven continues to dazzle as superagent Ari Gold, particularly now that he’s no longer on top of his game.

I stuck out THE COMEBACK for Lisa Kudrow’s performance and the show’s hypnotic level of insider’s self-loathing. The later episodes tapped into some truly dark emotions and complex relationships, but the finale struck me as obvious.

It’s interesting to note that THE COMEBACK’s reality show within the show bears a striking similarity to Kathy Griffin’s MY LIFE ON THE D-LIST. Sitcom actress struggling to stay in the spotlight, wryly supportive civilian husband, gay best friend, fabulous house ... it’s all there.

My favorite thing about the slight but amusing HOPELESS PICTURES, IFC’s animated series starring several members of the Christopher Guest Repertory Company, is that each episode is only twenty minutes long. It’s like something on the old Dumont Network.

The best program about this business of show – and right now, the best thing on TV – is set in the theater. And in Canada. SLINGS & ARROWS, on the Sundance Channel, is about backstage shenanigans at a Shakespeare festival. The cast is stellar: DUE SOUTH’s Paul Gross, a young Rachel McAdams, Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney (also one of the writers). So is the breadth of its subject matter. It’s about art, commerce, drama, comedy, love, madness and ghosts. The series is available via On Demand, and Sundance will run a season one marathon on September 17.

SLINGS has me in the mood for the Bard lately. I finally got around to watching A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which has been parked on the DVR for weeks. Rosemarie insists she recorded it because she’s a student of Shakespeare, not because it stars Christian Bale and THE WIRE’s Dominic West. I have every reason to accept this as the truth.

It’s a fun adaptation with a buoyant spirit and at least one instance of magic. Sam Rockwell, as an actor in a play that has gone off the rails, somehow goes from buffoonery to breaking your heart in a single take. The mystery of how he did it is why acting continues to fascinate me.

Miscellaneous: Links

I’ve put bullets in plenty of unproduced screenplays. I didn’t know you could get paid for it.

Here’s how writing for reality TV works. Personally, I’d rather sell Lady Kenmores at Sears.

This article on the zombification of grasshoppers freaked me out, and proves that if intelligent design is true, the intelligent designer has a warped sense of humor.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Music: Dive! Dive!

To mark Labor Day, I want to talk a little about work. Or what passes for it around Chez K, at any rate.

I don’t always listen to music while I’m writing, but at times it’s essential. Like when I need to drown out the sounds of the neighborhood, especially when the school down the street is in session. Those double Dutch tournaments can be brutal.

Occasionally, the accompaniment is related to what I’m working on. A few years ago I was hired to write an original screenplay based on the true story of a local criminal. The first thing I wanted to know was what kind of music he listened to. You know, to “get into the character.” Seemed like a writerly thing to do.

‘70s stuff, I was told. Southern rock. Specifically, the Marshall Tucker Band.

Well, that wouldn’t do.

It didn’t fit my conception of the man. There was a definite counterculture vibe to his life, including a pronounced tendency toward mythopoetic horseshit. Answer: the Moody Blues.

While writing the script, I listened to their album A Question of Balance. Over and over. It completely obliterated whatever affection Rosemarie had toward Justin Hayward and his rendition of 'Forever Autumn' on the WAR OF THE WORLDS concept album. I finished the final draft and haven’t played the record since. Although some of the more pretentious lines still come to me unbidden. “He took to himself an orange ...

For inspiration, nothing beats movie soundtracks. Big music that encourages visual thinking. From Harlan Ellison, I cribbed the notion of listening to the great Ennio Morricone while writing. Danny Elfman also serves quite nicely.

Submarine movies often feature memorable music. I leave on the beginning of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and the end of CRIMSON TIDE whenever I come across them on cable so I can admire the work of composers Basil Poledouris and Hans Zimmer, respectively. Male choral singing gets me every time.

Rosemarie, of course, noticed this habit. To mark some recent success, she bought me the soundtracks as a gift. Then she went one better and threw in THE BEST OF THE RED ARMY CHOIR.

It’s great, stirring stuff that’s powering me through a new project. Plus there’s the perverse satisfaction of writing what could be a big Hollywood blockbuster – the very essence of American capitalism – to the strains of ‘Slavery and Suffering’ and ‘The Red Army Is The Strongest.’

Friday, September 02, 2005

Miscellaneous: Local Color

Here’s an inspired idea: Seattle’s Big Picture has arranged benefit screenings of THE BIG EASY, with all proceeds going to Hurricane Katrina victims. I’d love to see similar shows in other cities.

Emerald City readers still have time to take in the Isamu Noguchi sculptures on display at the Seattle Art Museum. As striking as the pieces are, they’re matched by the evocative settings created by artist and theater director Robert Wilson. The exhibit closes on Monday.

Movie: Cry Danger (1951)

“Occasionally, I always drink too much.”

There’s nothing like a meaty revenge drama. Unless it’s a meaty revenge drama that veers off in unexpected directions.

Dick Powell gets sprung from jail when a missing witness comes forward to back up his claim that he didn’t commit a robbery. Powell sets out to nail the guilty parties and comfort his still-incarcerated friend’s wife (my latest retro crush Rhonda Fleming).

But the plot goes screwy in the first five minutes, when we learn that the injured war hero providing Powell’s alibi has never clapped eyes on the man before. He’s a one-legged Marine stewing in whiskey and proto-hipster cynicism who realized that he fit the description of Powell’s savior. Now he’s going along with the gag in the hopes that Powell actually did pull the job and will feel like sharing the wealth.

Character actor Richard Erdman plays the role with a sleepy little boy delivery that is riveting. It helps that he’s been given some corkers like the line up top courtesy of veteran screenwriter William Bowers. The result is a sharply-etched portrait of a disaffected veteran, dropped right in the middle of a dandy crime story.

Miscellaneous: Link

On the day that A SOUND OF THUNDER skulks into theaters (yeah, I didn’t know, either), Slate tries to reclaim Ray Bradbury as a pulp god.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Miscellaneous: Miscellany

I’m going to open this post by linking to the FEMA-approved list of Hurricane Katrina-related charities. There are many things I could say about Katrina and its aftermath. Instead, I’ll point you toward the charities list again and stick to what I do best: the frivolous.

Like mocking vanity publishers. Several of these companies buy space in the New York Times Book Review, which is the only publicity their titles get. I seek out these ads because the copy is always a treat. It seems to be written by artificial intelligence software that has studied English as a second language.

Consider this gem-like prose from last Sunday’s ad:

Fasten your seat belt for a truly unique experience. A one-chapter diatribe, XYZ is an alluring and startling look at one man’s adventures in living. Biting and emotional, acidic and humorous, it is a lively biography interlaced with moments of unsettling despondency.”

I do love a good one-chapter diatribe. And unsettling despondency is my favorite kind. Consider my seat belt fastened.

In other news, as an alumnus of Boston University’s College of Communication, all I can say is this: if you don’t put Howard Stern on the wall of fame, you can’t put me up there, either. It’s that simple.