Monday, January 30, 2006

Oprah giveth, and Oprah taketh away

It's been talked about too much already, but I wanted to weigh in anyway. And then I'm done.

Last Thursday, Oprah dragged James Frey onto her set and had him answer to the charges that he lied his way through his memoir A Million Little Pieces. He caved and admitted an authorial flourish here and there and there and over there too. She had defended him before, and now she's embarrassed. Her response...? To have all witness her wrath: Tear open a new asshole for Frey in front of millions of Americans and in front of a rather revenge-as-applause-happy audience.

My position on Frey's embellishing of the truth and then selling it as memoir is maybe a little fluid. I would argue that no memoir is an absolute truthful representation of events; how can one remember entire pages of dialogue word for word from their childhood? You can bet that memoirists and nonfiction writers up the ante to add energy and forward momentum (to make things more dramatic, to make things more comedic) to their stories. It's natural, and it's an elemental part of storytelling. Frey did stretch the truth too far in his book, and I think people are coming down on him harder than he deserves. This doesn't exactly excuse him from fabricating events and then backing them up, lying that they were true after the scrutiny came down. Aside from this, does it matter that he lied, in terms of the entertainment value of literature? Oprah chose his book because of the power of the writing (though I'm sure she chose it too in part believing it to be nonfiction), and nobody is arguing that his writing is awful. People are just getting hung up on the facts. Too bad the backlash turn out isn't as strong in the case of presidential administrations fabricating events. Frey got targeted because he was unfortunate to have the bright light of fame shined on him, and that light found a few skeletons in the editor's closet. The word 'unfortunate' might have a mixed meaning though: his career in publishing is likely over, but his financial security is not. At the time of this writing, A Million Little Pieces sits pretty as the #5 bestseller on

So, was it appropriate for Oprah to haul him in and rake him over the coals as a testament to her almighty power? She even had the man thanking her when it was all over. I think maybe she could've have issued a statement of her disappointment and regret instead, because the whole public-bludgeoning thing might have been a bit impulsive. She did it to protect her name, which I respect, and then so stamped out the fire that got started.... and kept stamping until she made sure it was out. At least there is life for the guy, even after Oprah's seal of approval has been stripped from every last copy of Pieces in print. Soon all this will be banished to the vaults for use only by end-of-the-decade television specials.

she can film it has already put it nicely, and there was a minor noise-contigency in reply to that post. I agree that why not simply mention that fictional elements had been added to the book (à la Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)? Although unlikely that we'll see Pieces scuttled over to the fiction bookshelves, fledgling memoirists will likely take this as a cue to be a little more specific when advertising their books to publishers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

60 Minute Heart-to-Hearts with Rachael Ray

It may not exactly be hot-off-the-press news, but Rachael Ray has been granted a daytime talk show.

Rachael Ray is the guru cook on Food Network's 30 Minute Meals, a program enjoyed by me and apparently many many others. I have watched the show since its inception way back in the Spring of 2002 (I've been a loyal Food Network viewer since they were a shoddy pay-just-a-little-bit-extra cable channel in the mid-1990's, back when they had switchboard-edited video shows, including the enjoyable and no-frills-titled The Dessert Show with Debbie "Mrs." Fields). I remember thinking, "Who is this crazy woman and her haphazard cooking? I want to watch Cooking Live!" Since that time, Rachael Ray has ascended to infallible Food Network royalty.... and rightly so. You can't deny her energy (just try Googling "rachael ray" with "bubbly"), and the woman certainly can cook. She's fun to watch and doesn't steer you wrong at the dinner table.

Suddenly everybody loves Rachael Ray. You can barely enter a Borders without seeing her brightly colored cookbooks pouring off the shelves. Now, she gets a talk show, backed by Oprah no less (in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, they referred to Rachael Ray as an F.O.O., meaning "friend of Oprah".... gross). I'll be the first to argue that the world has too many talk shows (and no, we still don't need The Tony Danza Show). It seems only Oprah and perhaps Regis Philbin have managed to crack the talk show circuit to unending success.... not even Rosie O'Donnell could escape being irritating. I'm not convinced that everything Rachael Ray touches will turn to gold.... give this woman a break. Doesn't she want to enjoy time off?

I'm curious what a Rachael Ray talk show will offer the world. Retreads of past talk shows would be embarrassing. She shouldn't be cooking; that would be shameless. I don't imagine her offering oodles of cash to those who track down child sex abusers, nor do I see the Rachael Ray bookclub trying to make itself sound original (sorry The Today Show, your attempt after Oprah looked just exactly like an attempt after Oprah). Rachael Ray is too happy onscreen (and on-cookbook) to tackle anything serious, so it looks like we're headed straight for vacuous celebrity brown-nosing.

So the question: isn't this Rachael Ray overload? Sure, she's great, I certainly love her, but I don't want to see her everywhere. The Food Network initiated going Rachael-Ray-bananas.... what started as cute-girl-cook 30 Minute Meals ballooned into $40 a Day (which was actually quite enjoyable), and then Inside Dish with Rachael Ray (stab #1 at celebrity brown-nosing) and now Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels (which looks like a high-gloss update of $40). The Food Network has unloaded quite a lot of money to ship this chick around the world to eat and then tell us about it (how does one get that job, exactly?). So now she's fostered into the wilds of syndicated daytime television (still reeking with small claims white trash Wapner-aftertaste), likely with the Food Network production stamp all over everything. Sometimes the patented Rachael Ray "bubbly" energy can be a bit much to take in, and it's not too farfetched to imagine the occasional episode of 30 Minute Meals as cocaine-fueled, so what is this woman going to do with a daily talk show? Aside from her thousands of other ventures? Rachael Ray is cute and likeable.... and I don't want to see her crash and burn.

oh, also: once upon a time, in the infancy of 30 Minute Meals and of the hushed secret of her hotness, Rachael Ray (pre-international stardom) posed for a softcore photo spread for the folks at FHM. After scouring the internet for the shot of her clad in a lacy bra and licking chocolate sauce off a wooden spoon, it appears that all traces of the full picture have been conspicuously removed (the first sign of her high-powered entourage?). I was able to snag the rest though, including the soapsud moneyshot on her face after trying to wash a colander while sitting on the counter.

UPDATE (02/07/2006): Because I want to please all two of you that might scroll down this far, some extra prodding around online found the aforementioned chocolate sauce picture. If the others were simply harmless, this one shows the true sinister humor of the FHM editors and why exactly they were hired for that job. If Rachael Ray is trying to target a wholesome family-values-obsessed right-wing core of the country for talk show success, maybe it makes sense why this picture was not so easy to find.

Monday, January 23, 2006

keeping a Red Eye peeled

You know what? Red Eye (2005) is an awesome movie. For all the great movies there have been this last year, I haven't been as entertained by one as I have by this.

This isn't a movie review.... it's more of a movie appreciation entry. This movie isn't trying to be high film and it's not trying to pierce the awards circuit. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and executes it perfectly. It's a thriller (not a gory slasher movie), and there's some action movie elements in there, but it's all satisfying, all rewarding. I think the film's advertising and trailer sort of misled potential viewers (no, Cillian Murphy's eye does not turn red, he's just a normal guy), but don't be dissuaded! Clocking in at a lean 85 minutes or so, there's not a scene or line of dialogue wasted. Everything falls perfectly into place.

What this movie has going for it is a sense of grounding. For all the outlandishness and high-detail sidestepping involved in abetting the bad-guy's-evil-plan, it never goes over the top. I mean that: it never goes over the top. If this movie had fallen into the hands of different filmmakers, this could have easily turned into a cheeseball. Instead, it's a kind of unanticipated character study of Rachel McAdams' terrorized passenger. She's quick on her feet even before she's being threatened, and her resourcefulness and in-the-know charisma is believable and endearing. If you've done your reading you know that most of the film takes place on the airline, but even the on-the-ground finale is great fun.

The director, Wes Craven, is the "master of the suspense". He really is. The edge-of-your-seat scene entries are some of his best stuff. It's all timed with the musical score, of course, building up to the "stinger" (that's the term used for the jolt when killer comes around the corner, for example). I don't know how he does it, but it works everytime, be it in a thriller like Red Eye or in other incarnations of his horror films. Somehow when I see the same techniques employed in other non-Craven films, they come off as a bit transparent. For Red Eye though, his horror/thriller tropes are gleeful and fun to watch. I proudly hold a torch for all three of the Scream films, all directed by Craven and all highly entertaining slasher films, if not for their turning-the-genre-on-its-head power than for shear enjoyment. Also, let's not forget that this guy, tip-toeing out of horror country, directed the warming Meryl Streep up-fest Music of the Heart (1999).

Thinking about this movie made me ponder what ingredients actually make a good movie. The stuffy awards fare at the end of the year is too shamelessly predictable nowadays; that's not to say that there aren't good films, though. If Red Eye falls into the middlebrow blockbuster set, what makes this a great film and disappointing drek like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) the slime at the bottom of the barrel? What makes a good movie, anyway? Red Eye was one of my favorites of 2005, and Closer was one of my favorites of 2004, but the two are not exactly on par with each other.

I definitely have a soft-spot for the few "middlebrow blockbuster" movies that play with a different rulebook. They may be predictable of the genre one way or another (citing previous loves like Entrapment (1999) and Double Jeopardy (1999)), but somehow remain truthful to themselves. What does this mean, exactly? Well, Smith seems kind of sloppy, relying full-throttle on the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie sex sale, (the movie, which takes place in Connecticut/neo-New York City, has a car chase scene where a "Los Angeles City Limit" sign alongside the freeway is all-too visible). A movie like Red Eye or Double Jeopardy (no matter how outlandish) kind of sticks to the truth.... there are no superhuman feats or trashi-comic subplots. You kind of believe that these people would react this way as if they were actually in this situation. Ultimately, that's pretty much how the acting goes in all those films raking in the awards attention, right?

And now, an afternote: Rachel McAdams appears to have made a clean ascension into film acting, gaining consistently meaty roles for having not been visible two years ago. She's intensely likeable (and knock-out beautiful), and I like what I've seen her in. It's with a movie like Red Eye that an actor can build credibility; a lesser actor would have soured the performance to campy, pitiful screaming and all.

Friday, January 20, 2006

a portrait of Henry James as one of those British writers

I'm no expert on nineteenth century English literature, but I do know that it isn't exactly my favorite stuff to read. I was reminded of this while reading Henry James' novella The Aspern Papers, and let's say I had the opposite reaction of "I couldn't put it down!" I'm not sure if you can classify Henry James as an American writer or a British writer; he was born in the United States, but spent much of his life finding himself (or something) in Europe and settling in England. His writing sounds awfully British.

I always get Henry James' work confused with that of D.H. Lawrence, who in turn I sometimes confuse with James Joyce, who sometimes makes me think of Henry James. It's all one wicked confusing trifecta of classic literature. Funny I get them all confused, considering I haven't read much of their collective works, and considering that their writings aren't all that similar in terms of style. James Joyce (Irish guy, by the way) probably wins the contest for whose work stood the test of time best; Ulysses consistently tops the greatest-greats of English language literature, though I'm still waiting for that perfect moment when I know the time is right to read it. D. H. Lawrence (definitely British) seemed most happy with wicked romance; with titles like Women in Love and Sons and Lovers, how can one resist? Especially when the titles are much more literal than one would think at first. Thanks to D. H. Lawrence we have Lady Chatterley's Lover, and to Henry James we have The Portrait of a Lady, and to James Joyce we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These guys' have had some of their books banned for the usual non-reasons (Lady Chatterley's Lover.... too indecent! Ulysses.... obscene! Portrait of a Lady.... that hussy!), but sauciness in literature then involves some rather close reading now to really see the connection. James' writing peak came in the 1880's whereas Lawrence and Joyce hit it in the 1910's and 1920's.... they were all alive and writing at the same point at some time, though. I'm wondering if these guys checked with each other before naming their books, or if anyone else for that matter is slightly confused with all that similarity. As is a favorite saying of one of my former writing workshops, Maybe it's just me.

In every edition I've ever seen (which totals probably only 3), The Aspern Papers is always paired with James' more famous novella The Turn of the Screw. I'm not sure why they're packaged together, mostly because they're not exactly similar; Aspern is kind of a dull comedy and Screw is a creepy ghost story. My first exposure to The Turn of the Screw came as The Innocents (1961), its film adaptation, and is perhaps one of the best gothic horror movies ever made. Filmed in beautiful black and white, co-adapted for the screen by Truman Capote (?!), and starring Deborah Kerr as a governess about to go off her rocker, this film redefines creepy in all the best ways. The usual ghost story stock is there: sounds in the attic, apparitions appearing in windows (and across the pond too, scary sublime), and won't-you-people-please-believe-me pleas from the sometimes-cuckoo governess. Let's just say the movie plays with other layers of creepy, so that by the end you get one of the most unsettling onscreen kisses in film history. It's probably not too much of a stretch to say that The Others (2001), starring Nicole Kidman on the pinnacle of stardom, is wholly inspired by this film.... I don't know how many movies you can have about a pre-World War II British governess and two lonesome and odd children that won't harken directly back to the source here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

at least it's not called "Watching Geena" or "Judging Geena" or "Geena's Reasons Why Not"

Geena Davis picked herself up a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Drama this year (just Monday, in fact) for "Commander in Chief", and I'm happy to see her career gain this momentum. Yes, the Golden Globes are a hack awards ceremony, but you can't deny that with each passing year it seems to gain more clout and thereby cannot be ignored as a major awards precursor (for many years now, even).

"Commander in Chief" is a pretty good show, certainly watchable, albeit on the popcorn-viewing level. It's got a strong cast: Geena Davis (who's reliably good, even in delicious trash like The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)) and Donald Sutherland (with slime-dial turned up to High) are the real acting chops behind the show and are a pleasure to watch each episode. I've heard that some people call the show "The West Wing"-for-Dummies, which is not altogether untrue, but that doesn't change the fact that it has kept my interest for eleven episodes so far. The show's whole gimmick, of course, is about how Geena Davis' character is the first woman to become president, after thrust into ascension of the role from vice president when the previous president croaks. The show has done a good job of balancing a few episodic-type crisis-of-the-week storylines while generating an evolving story of the greater challenges of being the first woman to have the title, affecting both her work and her family. Also, in a nice demonstration of tricky recurring-role casting, Polly Bergen takes the role of Geena Davis' mother: Polly Bergen (to my knowledge) was the first woman to be portrayed as the President of the United States on film or television in the flick Kisses for My President (1964).

So, despite all the good press and ratings and respectability piling up for the show, I fear that "Commander in Chief" might be in trouble. The show was created and originally helmed by Rod Lurie (whose short-lived 2003-2004 TV show "Line of Fire" was a glimmer of creative hope lost in a sea of indistiguishable programming). "Commander in Chief" is much lighter than "Line of Fire", both in subject matter and how it looks on the screen; it's missing much of the grit and spark that the FBI-verus-the-mob story picked up, but does carry a nice signature of Lurie's style (jump cuts and subtitles here and there were a refreshing change to that aforementioned episodic crisis-of-the-week pattern "Commander" has slipped into). Both shows are/were gutsy enough to try something different in terms of storytelling.... and it'd be nice for "Line of Fire" to scrounge its way to DVD in the near future.

But suddenly, after seven episodes, Lurie disappeared off "Commander"'s creative radar. I know little of the details except for the rumor that episodes were being shot without finished scripts. Some articles here and there said that Lurie was putting too much on his plate, so ABC pulled him to lighten the load and brought on Steven Bochco (of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" fame) to take the reigns. And boy did he: gone was Lurie's jump cut style, gone was the old opening credits in favor of newer and pompous-soundtracked opening credits (complete with his name added right up front), and here came a whole new creative team. The show isn't dramatically different from the way it started, but it did seem rather conspicuous that suddenly actors who were set up as recurring characters were being written off the show left and right (Leslie Hope, I'm so sorry). That said, there has been a change, and in no matter what small way, I feel it's been a change for the worse.

I'm not convinced that Bochco was the right guy to step in, because it's becoming clear that he's not interested in following Lurie's vision all that much (given how the show started, both in terms of style and story). Lurie is still credited as an executive producer, and they can't ever take away his "created by" credit, but the show is fully in Bochco-land now. It's no surprise that ABC tapped him, being that they were in bed for so long (NYPD Blue was on cruel life support for probably five seasons longer than it needed to be). Now with the mid-season addition of "NYPD Blue" alum and apparent Bochco-buddy Zach Morris (nee Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to the cast, it's evident that this show might follow a similar course to the monotone of "Blue"'s last days.

Now for a bit about the episode titles:
While Lurie was in charge, every episode title seemed to be harkening to the "first" of Geena Davis' character's administration. How about "First Choice" and "First Strike" and "First... Do No Harm" and "First Scandal"? Blehk. What happens at the end of the season when they're all out of first happenings, and then titles start reaching for "First Cat Fight" or "First Bad Hair Day", or an episode concerning Canadian Native Americans called "First Nations"? (probably too advanced for the general American public to catch on to that one). Sorry Mr. Lurie, this titling gimmick sucks.
Bochco came on board and decided to oust the "first" titles, in favor of something much more kitschy. "The Mom Who Came to Dinner", "Sub Enchanted Evening", and "No Nukes is Good Nukes"?!?!?! Mr. Bochco, your titling gimmick sucks more.