Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dumas

When I worked at Waldenbooks in 1994, there were some people who felt the need to order these cheapass library edition books. You know how they advertise those things in mailings, the World Classics Library or whatever it's called. They're gilt-edged and bound in leather, but the actual printing (in my opinion) leaves much to be desired. But that's not the point. They're supposed to look old, because they're made for dumb people who like to appear well read without actually having to do any of the reading that might entail. They want people to walk into their homes and into their studies or what have you and see some kind of pretentious bust of someone or other, their really nice letter opener and desk pens, and a library full of the world classics. And that, apparently, is a substitute for being a lettered, or at least a well read, person.

At Waldenbooks, we ordered these books for a man who is pretty typical of the people who buy these things. The best way I can describe him is this: like Wilson from Home Improvement, only more condescending and less fake philosophical bullshit. He wanted all of these books, and he always came in with a list and checked things off until he got them all. This guy was a full time project. He wasn't my full time project, but I still hated it when he'd come in.

The day I knew he wasn't interested in actually reading any of this stuff was the day I heard him refer to Henry David Thor-oo. He pronounced Thoreau as THOR-oo. Okay, I thought. Simple mistake, no prob. And then he started saying something about how he need "the Dumas." But he didn't say Du-MAH. He said... DOOM-iss. And, sadly, I've never been able to forget that.

And now, thanks to that phony bastard who is probably dead now, I can't ever look at the name without thinking, for a second, of Alexandre DOOM-iss.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

SHOPGIRL (2005)
I've heard a lot of people say that it's somehow egotistical of Steve Martin to actually be in the movie when it's based on his novella. I don't understand how that works, when people write themselves screenplays all the time. And if I had to put up with a year of idiots talking about how cute it was that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could write themselves a crappy movie, then you can cut Steve Martin, an actual talented writer, some slack. No, where the film missteps is in using narration and letting Martin do it. Seriously, narration is almost always a bad idea (I can only think of a handful of films where it works), and what comes across as interesting and moving on the page is completely different on film. The tone here becomes arch, precious, pretentious, and other sorts of adjectives for slow and frustrating. The casting generally works. Claire Danes can be such a wonderful actress when she's given something to do (certainly not the case with Terminator 3), and she finds the right tone here. Steve Martin, of course, is very good. Even Jason Schwartzmann, an actor I despise (why does he get all of his mannerisms from Tom Cruise) is used to advantage in the role he has. But the movie is so faithful to the book that it feels like a long journey to get nowhere interesting (by contrast, I liked the book very much, and you could finish it in the same 108 minutes the movie eats up). It's unfair to judge an adaptation based on its adherence to another medium--a film has to stand alone for what it is. And where this film stands is... well, there's no real point to it. Nice try. ** stars.

JOHN & YOKO'S YEAR OF PEACE (2000)
A CBC documentary about John and Yoko's 1969; bed-in, billboards, Canada, and the disintegration of the Toronto Peace Festival. I admire John and Yoko so very much, and it was interesting to see them from a Canadian viewpoint, where the admiration was so different and so much less reverant (or exploitative). *** stars.

Hex

So, that's another night of television I've got plugged in. Which is good, because I'm making my third attempt to pass Math this summer, so I'm going to need the relaxation time.

Last night I caught the premiere of Hex on BBC America. Well, actually, I caught it On Demand, so it was much less annoying to watch (seriously, have you ever watched BBC America? The commercials on that channel make me want to leap up and start biting people in the windpipe). It aired last year in Great Britain (I read all about it in SFX Magazine), and I'm glad they ended up bringing it over. I've been hoping for an interesting supernatural drama to enjoy, because we don't seem to be able to make them very well in America. Seriously, Charmed? Gag.

Hex is about a girl named Cassie who attends a boarding school. Her roommate, Thelma, is a definitely uncloseted lesbian who is in love with her. Cassie just wants to be pretty and popular, but she's an outcast. After she finds some kind of relic, she starts being able to do magic and starts having visions. Of course, as it always is with shows like this, the visions are of a tall, sexy stranger. He's apparently Azazeal, a fallen angel who led the Biblical Nephilim. And they, according to the mythology of the show, taught women the arts of witchcraft. And as the first episode continues, it appears that Cassie is here to either help raise him back to power, or to destroy him. Or both.

I know, it sounds exactly like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? It's a superficially similar premise, but it takes its premise seriously and tries to build the drama out of that. It does have some silly quirks--the show is exceedingly obsessed with sex--but, unlike anything by Joss Whedon, it's not constantly stopping the action to roll its eyes and remind you how clever it supposedly is. The characters are convincing. Even most of the sympathetic characters are pricks. Colin Salmon, an underrated actor (you may nearly somewhat kinda remember him as the Black Government Guy in the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies), plays a teacher who knows about the supernatural (a lot more than he's letting on, I imagine). But he's kind of a dick about it. Maybe it's a British thing. There's also a sexy role for Zoe Tapper, whom I adored in Stage Beauty. As Azazeal, Michael Fassbender is serviceable; not bad but, so far, not good. It's only one episode in, though.

But it's the two leads that stand out for me. Christina Cole, who is a beautiful and likeable young actress (she played Amanda Bynes's rival in What a Girl Wants, a movie I've seen far more times than any man my age should have), plays Cassie with a gravity that makes the character serious. She's not light and fluffy, not even when she's trading flirts or insults with her gay roommate. She's not silly and arch; there's no winking at the camera to say it's all a joke. And Jemima Rooper, who plays Thelma, is wonderful fun. There's a twist at the end of the first episode that is one of the best things I've ever seen on a show like this. I hope the rest of the series is this good.

After years of Charmed and Buffy being so goddamned bad, and Angel coming so close before Joss Whedon took the reins and killed it dead, it's nice having a supernatural show that I can actually enjoy. It's so rare that they're ever good.

This really locks up a major portion of the week for me. Monday: Hell's Kitchen. Wednesday: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Thursday: Hex. Friday: reruns of What I Like About You (farewell, sweet Amanda, but your show sure did suck) and Reba (or as it's known in my house, the JoAnna Garcia Show). If someone would just put something on Tuesdays...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Stephen King Pisses Me Off Yet Again

Stephen King's monthly column in Entertainment Weekly, punningly titled "The Pop of King," has achieved the most painful status for me: something I depise and yet need to read every month, if only to bitch about how much I hate it. So, let's go.

For a change, King takes a break from doing the filler columns ("here's a list of what movies I think will make a ton of money at the box office this year, even though it has absolutely no bearing on a movie's quality") and the constant bitching about his work and how it's received by both the audience ("why didn't you watch The Kingdom, fuckers, it was brilliant!") and the critics ("well, maybe my pulp Western was supposed to be sucky, it's an homage!"), to actually talk about pop culture and how it relates to actual life (which is, you know supposed to be the point of his column. And this month, he focused on the current controversy over the film United 93. Oh, did I say current? Well, that should give you an idea of how on the stick he tends to be. But hey, it's okay to put the United 93 controversy on hold, especially if the important work of predicting Superman Returns will be a blockbuster gets in the way, right?

Anyway, rather than saying anything interesting, King has taken up his tired old "I'm Just One of the Common Amurrican Folks" stance. And his big take on the controversy is this: the critics. Yes, he thinks the biggest issue coming from the entire furor over United 93 (the mere preview of which had one patron rush out of a New York theater while sobbing) is that the critics treated it too delicately. That they all tried to warn the American public that this would be a disturbing, hard movie to watch. Which is, after all, part of a critic's job. If King were an actual critic, and not just a commentator, he might know that. Hell, I'm just a commentator, and a half-assed one at that, and even I know that. But King, always ready to take offense on behalf of his chosen people (basically the poor rednecks who actually still read his books), thinks that "those reviews infantilize the American public." He has the same touchiness most adults get when warned that something might not be good for them; he gets offended at being treated that way.

Fine, but is that really the best point you can come up with? He almost manages to say something interesting about how hypocritical we are when it comes to film violence. I would say there's a much larger point to make about how hypocritical we are when it comes to sex in the movies; violence is generally okay with the MPAA, but sex is taboo because... what, people loving each other is less natural than people putting each other onto drill presses and gouging their eyes out? King sets up a good point when he says the following: "When I hear critics warning audiences that United 93 might upset them--the same year that Eli Roth's ferocious and bloody Hostel topped the box office--I can only shake my head in amazement." But he doesn't follow through on it. Instead, he criticizes the media and the administration for trying to shield us from the realities of war, from the current conflict, from the truth. And this is especially where he loses me. He seems to take United 93 as a document of truth, an attempt to memorialize a sober event.

But here's a couple of things he could have pointed out instead. First off, that it's disingenuous of a man who made his fortune writing overblown (and generally extremely violent) pulp horror novels to decry the purposeless violence of a movie like Hostel. King, George Romero, Dario Argento and Wes Craven did more than anyone else to inspire and influence the current generation of torture-film auteurs. Second, United 93 is a movie, made by people with biases of their own and feelings of their own. Like all of history, we are not privy to the actual happening; we are only privy to how the happening is interpreted by history writers, by filmmakers, by people who tell the story of how they saw it. A film, even a documentary, is not any reflection on reality, but reality interpreted. So, he can get as indignant about the nobility of United 93 as he wants. It's still just a movie.

In fact, he completely contradicts his whole point by making what he seems to think is an original observation: "But remember that the bottom line of Hollywood is the buck." It's another important point that he drops the ball on. He goes on to claim that America is "a society that doesn't subsidize its film industry" (although you could make the point that America dictates what it wants to see by voting with their admission price, which is yet another point that isn't made often enough). But then he contradicts himself by admonishing critics (and, by extension, viewers) for assuming 9/11 is too scary to be dealt with, and for retreating towards "fake blood and rubber monsters" instead. Once again, for a guy who just wrote an entire novel about the labored metaphor of cell phones literally destroying civilization, it's an incredibly pathetic argument.

The simple fact is this: United 93 is a movie. It is not reality. It is not fact. It is an impression/interpretation/version of something that actually happened. And for many people, it will be too soon. Especially, say, people with loved ones aboard United 93. We all remember September 11, 2001, vividly. I watched it happen on live television. I remember that morning, when the news broke that United 93 had crashed, and when another plane hit the Pentagon. I experienced a brief moment of panic, waiting desperately to be told whether or not America was being invaded by a foreign army, or if this was a well-timed act of terrorism. Representation of 9/11 still forces emotions out of me. The opening of Fahrenheit 9/11 is an example. Sitting in a darkened theater, hearing the sounds of panic and destruction against a black screen, I was forced to tears. Not a wet-eyed moment of mourning, but actual, deep, powerful weeping. So objective as I am, I think that, yes, United 93 is too soon for me.

But more than that, what really bothers me about the film is that it looks like nothing more than an opportunity. Universal Pictures shrewdly saw an enraged nationalism they could exploit, and they exploited it. They didn't make this film because they cared so much about what happened on board Flight 93, or wanted to make Americans understand what happened. They made it for the same reason any studio makes any film: because they thought people would pay money to see it. And I don't like the idea of 9/11 as a marketing tool. I don't like the mythologizing of something so recent that isn't really fully understood yet. I think it's slimy and cheap, and I don't need some hack author to tell me the critics are wrong to think some people might be too sensitive to take it.

King shoots himself in the foot by saying in the column that Oliver Stone had his head up ass when making JFK. So, one man's take on 9/11 is incredibly important, but when one man's take on the Kennedy assassination doesn't jibe with your own, it isn't? When you're talking about double-standards, Steve, it's best not to reveal your own. Though it does make my point for me about the disposable pointlessness of his column.

(More Stephen King rants are here and here.)

Return to Hell's Kitchen

I love Hell's Kitchen. Despite what Becca believes, I really get into cooking shows if they're done just right. I hate Food Network, but that's more because of the charisma-free "personalities" they put on that "network" (to paraphrase an old joke: what do you call Rachel Ray, Emeril, Molto Mario, and any American Iron Chef chained to the bottom of the sea? A good start). True story: when I was a kid (and up until I was 20, actually), The Frugal Gourmet could shut me up faster than anything else. I always fell right into his rhythm, and hearing him talk and watching him cook had the same effect on me as rocking and humming do to a baby. See, it all depends on the person who is doing the cooking.

If you have the right chef with something dynamic about him/her, I find cooking to be artful and compelling, and I love to watch it. I like Gordon Ramsay. I always prefer tough people with actual opinions and standards to people who just can't bring themselves to actually hate something (and, conversely, they also seem unable to free themselves enough to actually love something). He's the perfect guy to host this show. The whole point of Hell's Kitchen, of course, is that the winner of the competition will become an executive chef at their own restaurant, and Ramsay has made it his mission to know every aspect of the restaurant business. Watch his show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, the new season of which is currently airing Wednesdays on BBC America: he's tough, but he's smart. He genuinely wants people to succeed, and he wants people to have good value as well as good food.

Which is part of what makes his persona on Hell's Kitchen such a head trip. When it comes to dealing with American wannabes, he's a tyrant. He yells and screams in the kitchen, he's overly critical and hard as nails. Which is really what he should be. Being Americans, everyone comes into the competition with a disgusting amount of bravado and overconfidence. Thanks to America's "individual wants over the needs of all others" way of life, everyone just knows they're the best they are at what they do, and there's absolutely no need to improve on their half-assed culinary education. Man, I would yell at these assholes, too. I might even hit them a little.

The new series of Hell's Kitchen premiered last night with two episodes. Holy shit, did they ramp up the intensity on this one. Five minutes in, and my blood was racing. The whole thing is fast editing: cut, cut, cut, Ramsay screaming insults, cut, cut, chopping steak, someone drops something, Ramsay screams and throws something, cut, cut. All to that intense non-musical sound that always accompanies these things. I thought I was going to have a heart attack from all of that effective manipulation. I have high blood pressure, I can't take that kinda thing. I was exhausted at the end of the two hours. This show is compelling for the adrenaline rush alone! I'm hooked on this show. Which is funny, because it's the kind of show that only lives in its own ephemera: once it's gone, who cares? But while it's going, look out.

But, once again, the competitors seem to have been chosen because they were easy to hate, not because they were interesting or had potential. That's the problem with these things; they're programmed for their polarizing qualities, not to be dramatically interesting. There's almost no one to like. Rather than put on an obvious person to root for, everyone is a loudmouthed prick whom you'd rather see take a mallet to the temple than win an executive chef position. And they've already dropped three people in the first two shows: one person from the men's team, one person from the women's team, and another guy who just couldn't take the stress (he had some kind of panic attack that took him out of the competition and into the hospital).

And still, after dropping from 12 people to 9, there is only one person who hasn't irritated me yet. One girl, Heather, who genuinely wants to learn and who takes the criticism as part of the process. Her head is screwed on right. Unfortunately, on the second episode, she burned her hand pretty bad and had to go to the hospital; even as she was waiting for the paramedics, she was delegating and telling people what to do, which is impressive. She should be running a tank division, not a kitchen. Imagine that, an American who can actually lead!

I guess I also like Tom, the fat, sweaty guy. Oh, man, does he sweat. Becca can't even look at the guy because of all the sweat. But of all the men, he was the only one who could figure out how to cut usable steaks (and he'd never done it before). He seems like a nice guy, and he seems to really be trying. He just needs to try harder.

By far the easiest person on the show to hate is Keith. Great, just what I wanted to see on TV, another one of those white guys who uses words like "slammin'" as an adjective and thinks he's the coolest, toughest, slickest, most unflappable man alive.


Ugh, I even hate to look at him. Like Becca says, he's like an Ali G character without the humor. The problem with him is, when he looks in the mirror he sees this:

Or even this:
Instead of cold, cold reality:
The other "reality" show motif I'm sick of has been displayed twice, once in each episode: the betrayal. At the end of each episode, when the leader of the "winning" team has to pick two candidates to send home, they've each specifically picked the person whom they had reassured was not going to get picked. Gotta love America, huh? No one knows how to work as a team, they just know how to bitch about what they're entitled to and screw other people over to succeed. Well, it's not really success if you don't work for it, so I guess they know how to screw people over to take what they want. But hey, if they played fair, I'm sure no one would watch. They wouldn't be able to relate.

Anyway, I've got another show to watch right now, which is nice. Summer programming is actually filling the week out much more than the "regular" season did. Maybe it's the lack of desperate sitcoms. I just hope they keep Heather around until the end.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lucky Louie

I like the sitcom format, I grew up on it, but with a very few exceptions, I think sitcoms have sucked mountains of ass since the early nineties. But I'm always hopeful, I always want to like them, I always hope it will be something different or at least bearable. So I watched Lucky Louie last night on HBO and I actually really, really enjoyed.

Now, before I go any further, I have to state that I am not a fan of Louis C.K. It's not because I think he sucks, it's just that I don't really know who he is. I used to love, love, love stand-up comedy, but at some point I just stopped paying attention to it. So many of the comics who rose up in the nineties just blew, so I stopped walking over to that section of the store. So I had heard of Louis C.K., but I didn't know anything about his act or what any of his schtick was. I mention it here because a lot of the bloggers I've seen who like the guy were worried that the show would suck. Their biggest complaint was that he seemed to be using a lot of his stand-up material in his act (he's not the first stand-up comic to do so on his sitcom; in fact, he's not even the 23rd). But since I've never heard his stand-up, it didn't color any of my experience watching the show.

Overall, I liked Lucky Louie. I expected it to be a slapped-together, hastily done, rather clumsy sitcom about a working class family who hate how poor they are. And that's exactly what it was. Except, unlike most of those shows, it was actually very funny. I mean, nothing was original. Even the plot was a sitcom cliche--Louie's wife wants to get pregnant, but he wonders if he can afford another kid because they're so poor. But what made the show feel fresh and different was the incredibly dirty language. Not that swearing on its own is funny. But the swearing and the frank subject matter (Louie's wife catches him masturbating to a picture of Jessica Simpson in the closet) somehow made the show a little more realistic than most shows about poor families. Take Roseanne as an example. Roseanne was constantly caught up in the supposed nobility of raising a family in adverse conditions, and it led that show down a horrific path of soap opera and whiny episodes about how children don't appreciate what their parents do for them. On Lucky Louie, the realistic (but funny) language made the characters' lives seem so painfully ordinary, so not-full-of-bullshit. Hopefully there's not an episode about the nobility of raising children in poverty coming around the corner.

The best part of the show for me is Pamela Adlon as his wife Kim. I love women like that on sitcoms, and I thought she was especially good. She's made quite a career in voice work (most notably, she's the voice of Bobby Hill), but I remember her all the way back from one season of The Facts of Life and E/R. Remember that crappy show E/R, with Elliott Gould and Mary McDonnell? Man...

Don't get me wrong, Lucky Louie still needs work. The plots need to be either more loose or more structured, I can't figure out which. If they subverted sitcom expectations a little more, played with the format, or held back less. Right now, it's just a cute, funny show. What it needs to be is clever (and though I like the swearing, it's not clever on its own). It needs to be tighter, too. But so far I like it. It gives me hope that there will actually be good comedy on HBO, even with Curb Your Enthusiasm coming to a probably close and Mr. Show with Bob and David gone. I don't really think of Entourage as a comedy (though I love that show), and I didn't find Sex and the City remotely funny. Just tighten up the screws a little.

HBO has chosen to follow Lucky Louie with Dane Cook's Tourgasm, a "reality" show (and why, God, does every numbnuts who picks up a camcorder think he has enough cinema verite in him to treat drunk monkeys on a bus making dick jokes like its "capturing life"?). The show has finally convinced me that I hate Dane Cook. I didn't even know who he was until a few weeks ago or so, but since then I've heard enough of him to make one thing clear: he's not funny. He's of the Ben Stiller type; he's not really funny, but he's aggressive and has a lot of energy, and it convinces drunks and children that what he's saying is hilarious. But, you know, meh. He's nothing I haven't seen or heard before from much better comics. Becca described him to me yesterday as "David Cross for stupid people." I think that's actually giving Cook to much credit. I think of him more as the "Larry the Cable Guy for frat idiots." Either way, he sucks.