Monday, December 24, 2007

twas the night before christmas

When I think of what I most love aesthetically about Christmas, I always come back to the paintings of Scott Gustafson in an edition of Clement C. Moore's poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (the more popularized name, but the original is titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas"), my favorite of which is below:

And now I posit a Christmas conundrum. Sugarplums: tasty holiday treat, or magical dancing Victorian gremlins?

Merry Christmas!

(I swear I'm not just posting pictures for blog filler. In the case of this post, I really do love this painting.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

a brief window into the extremes of my sense of humor

Provided to be my whirling phoenix, who really knows me all too well:

I Think I Just Went Too Far

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thanksgiving, with all the fixings of a short film

"White meat. Dark meat. All will be carved."

....brought to you by
seul-le-cinema's & culture snob's
Short Film Week 2007 blog-a-thon

Back in April of this year came the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino schlock film spectacular Grindhouse, a double whammy homage to the dead art of low-budget camp cinema. Rodriguez first gave the zombie gore-fest Planet Terror (my favorite part: zombies that explode on impact when hit by a truck), followed by Tarantino's talkier revenge flick Death Proof (my favorite part: Rosario Dawson's cowboy boots). But in between, the two directors had to ice the cake with the true grindhouse cinema experience: trailers for more schlock. What's interesting is that these trailers are all spoof.... they're not referring to actual forthcoming films, but instead each are made as a kind of movie within a movie.

So.... some see the much-enjoyed Grindhouse trailers as a bit of easter-egg fun. But, after seeing them a handful of times, I think Rodriguez and Tarantino aspire them to be (and in some cases, have each achieve being) their own short films.

Hence, my favorite: Thanksgiving. If every other holiday gets their own direct-to-VHS campy horror movie, guest director Eli Roth bestows upon us a slasher film for Turkey Day, with everything we could ever hope for in just under two and a half minutes.

What makes Thanksgiving particularly special, though, is its attention to detail of what it parodies. It's no surprise that the best spoofs are those that worship the ground that the originals walk on, and Roth (I imagine) is no stranger to the dusty video-rental shelf of horror schlock. His previous films fall into the unfortunate genre of belligerent torture porn (a sub-sect of horror that does not interest me in the least bit, for it sacrifices story for the most intricate and brutal death one can imagine, ad nauseum), such as Hostel and Cabin Fever. But for Roth to want to bring movies like these to light, he must have been reared on the never-heard-of-'em low budget horror movies that sneak their way onto late-night cable. So, needless to say, a movie such as what the trailer for Thanksgiving purports to be is reaching only to be trash, with a high teenage body count and a lot of fake blood.... hence why this trailer (read: short film) is so hilarious.

Because of this self-awareness, because of this wink to the they're-not-joking-around trailers for movies of grindhouse cinema, because of the loving over-the-top detail, a trailer like Thanksgiving, to me, seems more like a short film. I don't necessarily have an argument for what makes a short film and what makes a campy experiment, but Thanksgiving seems to tell its whole story to us, using the unique lens of format like a movie trailer: Random serial killer slasher stalks Plymouth, Massachusetts and kills members of the Thanksgiving parade, kills lots of high school students wearing letterman jackets, and kills a neighborly grandmother after she's done fixing the Thanksgiving meal. How is this any different, might you ask, than your average uninspired slasher film? Exactly.... except to wink at it and make it absolutely ludicrous is what elevates the material.... this slasher movie (short film) is inspired.

And that's where Roth gets to have his fun.... the schlock horror standards are in place (masked slasher, high school students, gratuitous boob shots, lots of oral sex), so why not throw in a hilarious trying-to-be-deep-voiced narrator? ("This Thanksgiving, there will be no leftovers.") A turkey that oozes blood? Lots of split-second decapitations? A shirtless cheerleader who lands the splits on a trampoline.... with a knife sticking up out of it? Or, my favorite, what to do with the neighborly grandmother after she's been roasted?

I don't have some grand conclusion here about the bending-of-rules of short filmmaking.... I suppose that when I learned about the opportunity to write about my reaction to short films in general, thanks to Ed of Only the Cinema, the trailers from Grindhouse are what sprung to mind first. I'm not terribly knowledgeable about the world of short films and wish that I had a chance to see them more often, because they're as much a mode of storytelling as a novel or a short story or a play or a movie.

Besides, it should be noted, the very first of Grindhouse's (hilarious) trailers, Machete ("They just fucked with the wrong Mexican"), is actually going to be made into a film, directed by Robert Rodriguez. How's that for short film inspiration? Fancy that.

Friday, November 30, 2007

flaw flaunt

It seems common sense to me that a protagonist (main character, etc, call it what you will) should have inner complications, a sort of personal struggle with what he/she considers right versus wrong in the face of what the world considers right versus wrong. I've been learning about this since the first writing workshop I set foot into, and it seems I still loll back into the same old non-complicating ways. Put into practice in my own fiction, I find making my main characters multi-faceted in this regard to be more difficult than I would imagine it to be.... I wouldn't say that they're not flawed, but they tend to be "normal" or single-minded in a world of more colorful characters. I think I'm afraid of making my main characters ugly, or at least giving them the ability to do ugly things. This is something I need to get over. Complicated and flawed central protagonists are more interesting than one-note benevolent do-gooders.

Leading to another bullet of storytelling maxim: main characters should incite action, not let action happen to them. Too often I have things happen to the main character instead of the main character making things happen. Like I said before, it's a cop out, and it's easy, and I think that's why I keep stumbling over it. Oh, but I'm not the only one.

Instead of listing all the wonderful examples of flawed/warped/ugly central protagonists (you won't have to look hard, they're often times the very element that makes a story/novel/movie as good as it is), I thought I'd bring to light two examples that present the opposite.

1. Dave Eggers' novel What is the What, finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, is the story of a Sudanese refugee recounting his horrific nomad childhood as he lives and schools in the United States as an adult. I'm almost finished with the book, and as is the case with all of Eggers' writing, it's quite enjoyable. I don't think it's his most accessible read, but I find myself wrapped in the story and gaining a history lesson and awareness of political oppression in eastern Africa. The problem? The main character, Valentino Achak Deng (told from the first person, based on true accounts of the actual person mixed with tales of other Sudanese refugees), seems to be utterly flawless. As we read, we're viewing the world through the lens of his awareness of the absolute chaos reigning over southern Sudan and the devastating plight of refugees across eastern Africa. At every point, Valentino is the subject of events that are always happening upon his people.... and this is not a bad thing if it is the inciting incident of the novel, but instead the entire novel is fraught with his passive participation. Not many people can seem worse than the faceless horde of mass murderers that the Sudanese government is made out to be, but Valentino is positively angelic. We trace his adolescence and his naiveté with little regard to any *personality* on his part. He's always a witness, doe-eyed and a passive participant of it all. We're given the impression that he becomes an active speaker and demonstrator once he arrives in the United States, but not given much proof that he has a personality to be such a person. Even in the present plane of the novel in "today's" United States, Valentino is *still* the victim of events; he is robbed and beaten in his own house and is neglected by the staff at a hospital.

2. Maybe you've noticed ABC's recent attempt at resurrecting the nighttime soap with freshman show "Dirty Sexy Money". The basic premise is that a filthy rich New York socialite family can't put on their underwear without the help of a family lawyer, and they hire a family friend to do so in the wake of said lawyer's death. The main character here, played by "Six Feet Under" alum (not to mention from "Cybill" too, a favorite of mine from eleven or twelve years ago) Peter Krause, struggles against the over-the-top decadence of this family and mops up their messes at every turn. I don't need to go into detail about each of the family members' dysfunctions (though Donald Sutherland is perfectly cast as the pristine patriarch), except for the fact that the writers of the show have decided to make Krause's character absolutely perfect. This guy can do no wrong. He even donates the money he earns to build parks for disadvantaged city children! He is every step the moral center, has his head screwed on straighter than anyone else in this world, has an infinite amount of patience, and in his spare time is trying on his Nancy Drew shoes to find out if his father was murdered (the show's attempt at a serial storyline). It doesn't matter what mess what family member has gotten themselves into, Krause's character is always there to hold their hand and guide them to the light, grudgingly or not. What gets me the most? He knows *from the very pilot episode* that this family will be his undoing (and likely the completely unsurprising catalyst for his divorce.... stay tuned for Season 2, I guess) and that they're troublesome ways are more trouble than they're worth; i.e. he never incites action, but instead the family incites action on him. But he plugs along, with more ethics than a sunny early 1960s sitcom.

Bottom line: What is the What and "Dirty Sexy Money" aren't bad, but they'd be miles and miles more interesting if their main characters carried more weight instead of the story doing it for them in the background. For my money, What is the What is more worthwhile and "Dirty Sexy Money" needs some massive retooling in order to be more inherently interesting. I do find it curious, though, that these two are so popular in the face of such a fundamental storytelling flaw.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

food network bobble-heads induce nightmares

Every year the Food Network sends up the holiday season with "Season's Eatings" (ah, the punnery) and usually one-hour specials abound. This year, their marketing campaign features these frightening spectres:

I'm wondering who exactly on the Food Network totem pole finds these things appealing to the eye? Deciding that their home-grown celebrities (they prefer the term "All-Stars" for above-mentioned one-hour specials) were undeniably the recognizable pull to viewers' sensibilities, they decided that low-budget CGI bobble-heads of their All-Stars were the best way to ring in the holiday ratings. Missing from this line up as pictured above is Food Network darling Rachael Ray, but believe me, she has a wide-smiled bobble-head of her own too.

These things terrify me. More terrifying: the word "holidazzle", tacked to their billboards of these demon-creatures. "Holidazzle" is perhaps newly my least favorite advertising-spawned word.

Even scarier are the animated commercials on the Food Network, each character voiced by its actual human counterpart, using coined phrases by the human counterparts as they hawk non-denominational holiday dishes. Even more visible is the terrible production quality of these bobble-heads, with choppy animation and unnatural joint movements. Exactly who was behind designing these unholy beasts? Giada "knocked-up" DeLaurentiis should be offended by the harmonica-shaped smile they bestowed her CGI doppelganger. Paula Deen comes somewhat closer to reality where Alton Brown (I suppose that's him) is unrecognizable. Both Bobby Flay (yuck) and Guy Fieri (from a growing and disturbingly long line of "Next Food Network Star"s) look demonic, and Fieri more so like a stegosaur. I bet you Guy is stoked that he's been promoted up the "All-Star" ladder enough to earn himself his own hideous bobble-head.

Dear Food Network, what the f*ck were you thinking?

creepy factor: HIGH

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the greatest thanksgiving scene ever committed to film

Here's to hoping that the powers that be at youtube don't strike this from the web. This movie is comedic brilliance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

padma cameth

So, last night myself and a gaggle of friends (well, three of us in total) went to see Padma Lakshmi come to read from her new cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet at the Strand (as previously ogled about). Having only hastily flipped through the cookbook, I thought it was a bunch of international-flair recipes and not enough photos of Padma. But not the case! There are beautiful full color pictures of Padma cooking and eating! And she writes personal essays about her love of food! So I bought the book, and had her sign it for good measure.

Just a quick few starf*cker notes:

Ladies and gentlemen, if you thought Padma was beautiful on television, it doesn't even compare to how striking she is in person.

She was very warm and personable, and I guess I never quite noticed what a commanding voice she has.... perfect for radio. Padma may have a future career on "60 Minutes"....? Who knows. She was kind and patient with the audience and their questions (luckily no whackjobs took center stage to ask something uncomfortable); it should be noted, however, that the cross-section of the attendees at the reading bore a wide margin (including the frumpy 60-something guy next to me who was hunched over and picking his nose). The personal essays she read from her cookbook were very colorfully drawn.... she definitely got me wanting to have some of her food (Mexican macaroni and cheese?! Yes, thank you.). I, too, share Padma's love of American bacon. I think she used sentimentality just the right way when evoking food-related stories from her childhood (including a nice little tale of a peanut vendor on the beach in Madras when she was a girl), and was able to speckle her stories with humor simply by using a different tone of voice when reading them. I'm curious: did a certain ex-husband of hers help her a bit with tidying up the narrative?

She did mention during the little Q&A that men have come up to her on the street and want her to tell them "Please pack your knives and go." Admittedly kinky, I feel that I may have been one of the men in this "Top Chef"-viewing set until she mentioned how creepy it is. So, the question remains: did I score bonus points for mentioning to her at the book-signing table that I specifically resisted wanting her to tell me to please pack my knives and go?

To support her in the audience were Top Chef superstar judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. Gail looks a bit different in person (perhaps much more subdued because she wasn't talking.... but wasn't she once a model?) and Tom Colicchio was hiding underneath a baseball cap and high-collared jacket. Sorry to break it you, Tom, but I don't think you're exactly going to get hounded on the street.

And, in a do-or-die moment after she signed my book, I asked for a picture, artfully rendered here (the damn flash wasn't on, so it's a bit blurry). How could I not get my picture with Padma? That would be insanity.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

recalibrating the oscar buzz radar

I don't really have a strong position, per se, on "oscar buzz", except that I find it ridiculous when it seems unwarranted. I'm even guilty of getting wrapped up in it from time to time (well, maybe a little more than that), especially when I feel passionately about a specific performance or director or writer.... but "buzz" is something that is generated before a movie is even released, a term anointed on films that are conceived with the awards it intends to win before it is even made. Last year, Christopher Guest's movie For Your Consideration was a great little romp that skewered the concept of oscar buzz by letting it hit a fever pitch on the set of a movie currently in production (just watch it for Jane Lynch, a comedic genius, who in this movie steals every frame of film she's in).... this is a great example of what gets to me the most about "oscar buzz".

But then there are movies that seem to have buzz and then lose it very quickly, especially once the movie hits the big screen. I remember a couple of years ago, film blog websites had Diane Keaton as an undeniable lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the holiday dramedy The Family Stone (which I haven't seen, but have been told it's quite enjoyable).... but then the movie came out and her name dropped from lists with such a lack of fanfare that perhaps those people generating oscar buzz were afraid to admit they were wrong.

This year I am troubled by the lugubrious amount of oscar buzz attributed to the yet-to-be-released oscar-bait Atonement.... the novel, written by Ian McEwan, arguably Great Britain's most prolific living writer, was just okay (in my opinion) and it seems only inevitable that it would make the leap to film. The trailers and ads make it seem like Keira Knightley is the star (which is not the case, unless the screenplay has taken a good amount of liberty with her character from the novel), and already film blogs are signing her up for an oscar nomination. But wait.... not just her, but three other actresses who play the novel's/film's main character (three actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, for the three stages of the character's life), each of whom are also being sprinkled with oscar fairy dust. I see these rumors everywhere.... film bloggers and other generators of oscar buzz seem pretty sure that this film will clean up in the acting nomination department.

Isn't that pushing it, though? Throwing so much weight behind acting nominations for just one movie.... that hasn't even been released yet? Atonement, judging by its trailer, is one of those movies made to win awards, and it disheartens me with all the hype it's generating. It probably doesn't help that the novel itself didn't blow me away, so I don't have particularly high hopes for the movie. It's not unheard of for a single movie to jeopardize all the acting oscar nominations (Network, a great film, won three acting oscars of five (!) across the four categories in 1977), but in every instance I do think it's awfully narrow-minded and not exactly inclusive of other great performances in countless other films released in a year. But, I'm not dumb enough to really think that the oscars are the be-all end-all of truly great filmmaking each year.... it all comes down to marketing every year and what studio has enough clout to get the Academy buzzing about, unfortunately enough.

So, why does this pique my interest today? I just saw Margot at the Wedding, written and directed by Noam Baumbach (whose previous film was The Squid and the Whale), and I thought it was a fantastic film. Lately I've noticed I'm starting to quite favor realist dramas about rotten people, and this movie doesn't disappoint. It's a dark movie that hits a chord about family interplay that a lot of movies try but many don't quite succeed, especially when making loved ones seem as terrible as they sometimes can actually be. Where did this film's oscar buzz go? The Squid and the Whale was an underdog favorite two years ago (and was even oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay), but this new effort seemed to make a blip awhile back and now has been virtually swallowed whole. In an age where it seems original screenplays are a dying art (take a look at the movies and you'll find everything is based on something else), Margot at the Wedding is a beautiful work of storytelling.

Part of me thinks that oscar buzz was squashed for Margot by the fact that Nicole Kidman is in the film. I don't know when people decided that she wasn't great anymore.... she was riding high just a few years ago. But after her oscar win for Best Actress in The Hours (an indelible performance that was actually a supporting role), it seems that she's not worthy of oscar attention. Why the hell not? She's great in this movie, playing a character so loathsome of herself but inarticulate of it and ultimately terrible to those she loves most.... and she wholeheartedly deserves a nomination for this work. Kidman's been dabbling in glitzier Hollywood movies as of late, so to turn in such a mannered performance in a quiet independent film is a breath of fresh air. There something about the information she transmits in her facial expressions that says it all, and makes her (likely) one of the greatest actresses of her generation.... She and Jennifer Jason Leigh (a great surprise and a warm performance here) both deserve some oscar attention for this movie, but I'm afraid they won't get it because of whatever kind of unjustly-appointed celebrity overkill Kidman brings with her. It's too bad. But I'm crossing my fingers for her, and silently hoping Atonement turns out to be an overwrought piece of crap.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

heaven and hell and where the angels have gone in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

....brought to you by
strange culture's
Film + Faith blog-a-thon

Meet Laura Palmer. Beloved high school sweetheart in a sleepy Pacific Northwest hamlet. Homecoming queen. Meals-on-Wheels volunteer. Tutor in English. Loyal diary-keeper. Coke addict, part-time hooker at a Canadian brothel, dating two guys, having sex with quite a few others, and being stalked and raped by an evil spirit named Bob. And she's gonna get killed. But this is information we already know, thanks to the television show "Twin Peaks"; a show whose premise surrounded the mystery of Laura's death and airs the dirty laundry of everyone else in her tiny hometown. The image of her dead body, wrapped in plastic, was just the beginning of the show. After the show ran its (prematurely canceled) two season run in 1990, its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), illuminates all the dark corners of Laura's pre-mortem life and serves in a few sneaky scenes as a time-warped sequel to the television program.

After the resolution of the central mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" came to light in the TV series, the show meandered and then regained its footing with a larger goal: tackling the meaning of heaven and hell. This is only intuited in the television series whereas the movie deals with it a bit more substantially.... Laura, who's life looked candy-coated on the outside but seethed with poison on the inside, is caught in a kind of purgatory after her death (revealed to us as "the waiting room" in the series' finale episode), and ultimately there is struggle (and some dimension-bending) to make sure she gets to heaven. Sound too kitschy? This movie is perhaps one of Lynch's darkest films; shot with an intensity of color from burning red (where Laura's seedy life is exposed) to cool and vanquished blues (the extinguisher of the fire, a symbol of hope and an acknowledgment of loss), much is paid attention to the photography of these scenes so that it directly complements the moods of the darkness from which the film is written. What makes this film particularly dark is that its subject matter is rooted in the real (whereas fare like Eraserhead and Lost Highway are not) and with that he's able to connect it to the surreal. Laura's life of drugs and illicit sex (and yes, incest) are all things that are happening somewhere out there in the world right now, and when it seems all hope is lost for Laura (to the point where she must accept her death head-on, the alternative being subsumed by the dark heart of Bob) does this mean she will be left in hell?

The movie picks up at a time when things for Laura aren't looking so great, and she knows it. Sheryl Lee has quite an uphill battle in playing Laura Palmer in life, and all the anguish and hopelessness shows, and this performance anchors the darkness of the movie; we see how she is lost, we feel how she is lost, and we know walking into the film that she's not going to make it out. Laura can feel the end coming but can't articulate it; her life is caught in a feedback loop of misery. When girl-talk with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, played with a noticeably different tambour than how Lara Flynn Boyle did in the series) prompts Laura to reveal how she would imagine falling in space, and answers with complete certainty: "Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, and then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away." This girl is like the un-saved; not even the angels can help her now, and she knows this. When the end is near, the signals are all there.... even the painting above her desk of a friendly angel tending to three young children shifts and changes: the angel disappears before her eyes.

Now, reminding myself that this isn't a movie review, I won't go into lugubrious plot specifics. Suffice it to say, the television series left us with an understanding that Laura was trapped in purgatory (the Red Room, the "waiting room" between the White Lodge and the Black Lodge.... I'll let you connect the dots which symbolizes heaven and which symbolizes hell). Fire Walk With Me shows us how she got there in the first place. The night Laura is murdered, she is with her bad-girl friend Ronette Pulaski; both are kidnapped and tied up and (presumably) raped and when it seems that they're both on death's door, Ronette starts to pray. A scene like this is particularly hard to watch because of the humility and futility behind it.... Ronette appeals to God ("Father") to let her die peacefully (she even goes so far to admit in rock-bottom embarrassment "I'm so dirty"), and Laura watches as Ronette (in essence) is saved: an angel appears to her.
Privy to the TV series, we know full well that Ronette survives the evening. On the contrary, Laura does not pray for help.... she has accepted her fate and is willing to die to end the pain of her life. Bob wants, literally, to be Laura, and Laura chooses death over a life as a vessel for the devil.

I know you're probably thinking that angels-as-saviors isn't the most original theme for a movie, but this is only part of the whole package and ultimately what I was inspired to write about when I first learned of RC-of-stange-culture's "Film + Faith" blog-a-thon. I wish I could articulate the care with which this religious symbology is inserted into the film.... this isn't a "message" movie, and it certainly isn't trying to make some kind of Christian religious statement; it treats angels (don't worry, they don't speak or anything) much as only a conduit to safety. I've always been intrigued in the line drawn in the sand between heaven and hell, and how Lynch chooses to represent this in the Red Room, a place where the denizens of heaven commune with those from hell. Lynch even displays these angels as stereotypes: pale-skinned, beautiful, and peaceful, these women wear white robes and white wings.... he's playing off this stereotype to accent the pitch-black core of the movie's themes. In the television series he hints at this too; supernatural beings who provide a kind of protection are pale and light-colored (like the giant, seen in the Red Room at last in the series' finale, and the white horse that appears to Laura's mother when Bob goes after her daughter).

This is a movie close to me because the whole "Twin Peaks" world is close to me, and it's a movie that will knock the breath out of you with how heavy a story it tells. Where the television show merely revealed this darkness, the film plays it out brushstroke by brushstroke. It offers closure on Laura's life, gives us a glimpse of what life might have been like after "Twin Peaks" with characters we're more familiar with (Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is absolutely necessary to this film, but only inasmuch about what becomes of him at the TV series' end), and reminds us about the town of Twin Peaks in all the ways the movie takes pains to contrast against it.

Because Laura is so aware and conscious of her own demise (and its ultimate necessity), it's only fitting that Lynch rewards her (and rewards the entire "Twin Peaks" saga, in a satisfying and devastating way) as ending the film with her bittersweet ascent to the White Lodge, to heaven. Laura admits to falling into a world where the angels have all gone away, and he shows us this as the angel disappears from the painting in her bedroom.... and at last, through her tumultuous travel, Laura receives her own angel. Why? Because a death unenlightened is not worth suffering.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

padma cometh

Despite my borderline-illness of always leaving the Strand Bookstore with two books in hand to buy, I do like to loiter about when I get a chance.... once a week, usually. And yesterday, at the table of cookbooks, proudly displaying Padma's new tome of recipes, a placard happily announced the Padma Lakshmi Event on Monday, November 19th. Padma Lakshmi Event?! She's coming to New York to hawk her cookbook. I'm still curious how involved she was in the actual generation of these recipes. Maybe she'll actually demonstrate to us what exactly is so Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet. In which case I'll be in the front row.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

day 4: four days with three scary movies each

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

To be fair, I went into The Blair Witch Project making fun of it. I remember seeing it in the theatre and sort of being bored.... there was a lot of marketing hype around it (this being the first film to utilize the internet as a means of major underground marketing) and it felt silly and self-indulgent to me. In retrospect, I think this is part of the movie's genius. The concept is that we're seeing found footage from three amateur filmmakers who set out to learn about the "Blair Witch", a local scary story, in the woods of rural Maryland. The whole time already knowing that the movie wasn't exactly real found footage, I wanted to be jaded about it and started looking for flaws. But isn't this the point? We're watching the unedited clips from amateur documentarians who, in a way, are making fun of themselves as they go about interviewing town residents and set off into the woods themselves to find the Blair Witch. It is, of course, once they get in the woods that things starts getting spooky.... they get lost or seem to travel in circles. They hear screaming in the night. Their tent gets rustled around in the dark. They find creepy handcrafted symbols hanging in the trees. I guess this all seemed silly to me too.... until they get to the Blair Witch's house, a crumbling old piece of construction with children's handprints peppered across the walls. The last ten minutes or so of this movie are truly terrifying, and I mean that in every sense of the word. The brilliance of how this movie is filmed, as seen from the claustrophobic view of the handheld video camera, is in part what makes it so scary. We are denied seeing what's just outside the realm of the camera, even though we're following the characters as they film.... it's a first-person viewing experience and thereby we are locked into seeing only what the camera wishes to see. The movie's got balls and it sticks to its premise.... it ramps up at the end to a high-pitch freakout and then cuts to black; nothing more, no explanation. Because, you see, it's only found footage, and we can't fill in the blanks of that which hasn't been filmed.

Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates didn't really stand out much as an actress before this film (in this same year she had a two-line part as a court reporter in the wonderful Dick Tracy), and I'm curious to see what she would've been like as a younger actress, because she is truly one of the greatest of our time. The Oscars and their nominations are often not kind to movies outside the drama category, and Misery, for which Bates won a fully-deserved Best Actress oscar, was a surprise to turn up in one of the Big 5 categories because it's an out-and-out thriller. Bates, as psycho fangirl Annie Wilkes, really is that good. Haven't seen the film? I dare you to tell me that she doesn't freak you the hell out. This movie takes fan-based obsession to the next level; based on Stephen Kings' novel (of which movie adaptations of his work are really hit or miss), James Caan plays a writer who's trying to escape the rut of a continuing series of his books. Just so happens after he wrecks his car and goes missing, one of his biggest fans saves him and nurses him back to health.... and then traps him in her home so that she can "tend" to him and dictate how she'd like his next book to go. Kathy Bates really invests in the part, you can see that, and her psychotic calm gets under your skin quite quickly. Some of the most tense scenes in the movie are where Caan's character makes attempts at escape.... but he fails to notice that his wheelchair bumped around some very meticulously arranged figurines in the living room, and Annie connects the dots on his escapade out of his room and goes ape-shit on him. I still can't watch the scene where she manages to keep him wheelchair-bound for quite awhile longer by taking a sledgehammer to his ankles (to the tune of Beethoven piano music).... I mean it, I curl into a ball and cover my face.... I can't watch that shit, it scares the crap out of me. In any case, when the AFI did their "100 Years, 100 Heroes & Villains" TV special, they interviewed Kathy Bates about playing Annie Wilkes (#17 on the villains list).... and she refused to say anything negative about the character. This, I think, is a great testament to Bates' acting prowess; she had to justify and fully believe in what Annie was doing in order to pull off the role.... and she's got her very own Oscar to polish for it.

The Descent (2006)

I saw this movie for the first time in January of this year and it blew me away, in the best possible way; I've found that my favorite movies of all time are the ones that take me completely by surprise, and The Descent is so one of my favorite movies of all time. This is the horror movie that people who appreciate film have been waiting for. It's too bad, though, that in the United States (the film is British, with a British director and mostly British actors) it was marketed similarly to a lot of the throw-away torture-porn horror movie junk of recent years and likely didn't register on the radar of many movie-goers. But this is not that kind of movie.... this is a horror movie with a sense of purpose and art, with an eye for characterization and storytelling, and is beautifully directed by Neil Marshall, who is able to pay homage all throughout to (likely) some of his favorite classic horror films. (It's hard, really, to try and list them all, but among some of my favorites are undeniable winks to Deliverance, The Blair Witch Project, Night of the Living Dead, and Carrie.) Marshall proves himself to have a skillful eye; where most of the movie takes place in tight and closed spaces, he films the outside world with such space that it really dovetails into a beautiful contrast when you recognize it. It would be negligent of me not to note that I probably also like this film because it has hot chicks that kick ass.... what can I say, I'm a fan of that in movies too. Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Mendoza (a pair of strikingly beautiful women, if I do say so myself) give some visceral and fearless performances here, and once they pick up their ice axes to start fighting, I dare you not to feel a tingle of giddy glee. The basic premise here: five daredevil women go cave diving somewhere in the mountains of rural North Carolina, and they stumble across things in the dark that they weren't planning on stumbling across. In so, the film treads through a bit of sci-fi territory.... the villains here aren't psychotic killers or zombies, but rather vicious humanoid monsters who've adapted to living in the dark. The first shot where you see one of these monsters (they're filmed so well that they're terrifying to look at whenever they're on screen) is the one that lingers longest with me, a kind of "wait, is that a man down there?" shot from far away that immediately puts you on edge. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that it eases you into the horror; there's plenty of blood and guts, but you wouldn't think so as the film opens or at least during the first forty-five minutes (the way the opening sequence ends, though, definitely grabs you for the ride). Another is the concept of "the descent", not just a literal reading of the ladies' trip down into the caves, but even on a more metaphorical level as in descending to a more primal state of being.... by having to fight these hungry beasts, MacDonald's and Mendoza's characters become primordial animal killers to protect themselves and their compadres. Apparently the ending was edited for the American theatrical release (which I didn't see), but I know that it's a somewhat "happier" ending than that on the DVD (and original British) release.... the original ending I prefer far and away much more; it adds a kind of bleakness that I think is necessary to the film, and it also visually ties the bow on a recurring motif of flashback to MacDonald's character's daughter. This bleakness, after all, is what sticks with you days and weeks after you've watched the film. So, in closing, I still scream out loud in parts when watching this, even when I know what's coming. One thing is for sure, this movie will turn you against ever wanting to go cave exploring.

Now go watch some scary movies.... Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

day 3: four days with three scary movies each

The Innocents (1961)

My very second blog post ever references this (somewhat forgotten) scary movie gem.... and I probably said it best over there. Deborah Kerr (who just recently passed away and whose film archives are likely being combed to compile a fifteen second "In Memoriam" clip for countless awards shows this coming year) plays a British governess who comes to care for two pretty disturbed little tykes. This is a perfectly freaky ghost story (all the bump-in-the-night creeps are there), filmed in crisp black and white, that has some horrifying reveals in the bright light.... sometimes what we can see clearly can be a lot more terrifying than what is shrouded in shadow (David Lynch uses this technique to shows us some of the scariest stuff he's got in his films). My favorite is when Kerr glances up across the lake to see the distant (and all-too-real) apparition of a woman staring at her (watch it here!). Ultimately these kids are a possessed little lot, and toward the end we get some rather squirm-in-your-seat screentime logged of a ten year old boy making out with his thirty-something babysitter. If you haven't seen this film, go rent it now in time for Halloween and watch it with lights off.

The Ring (2002)

Naomi Watts stars in (what I believe is) the first of the Americanized Japanese-horror-film remakes (see also: The Grudge and Dark Water).... and in this case I think the first is probably the best. Gore Verbinski (better known for directing the Bruckheimer-a-thon Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) proves himself to be a director with a good eye for mood.... the shots in this film are rich in color, setting, and atmosphere, and he paces the film just right to keep us unsettled the whole way throughout. Even the final sequence of the film worked on me.... usually it's clear that once you think the killer is dead the killer actually isn't quite dead, but I was successfully duped this time around. Despite the presence of the tired expressionless-little-kid stereotype, the film succeeds in taking us around to another creepy little kid who likes to kill people via VHS. Of course, once you watch this tape-from-hell you've got a ticking clock of seven days to live, thanks to the angsty revenge of a little girl who haunts from the bottom of a covered-up wishing well. The surrealist/uncanny reanimated movements of the girl-from-beyond-the-grave/beyond-the-white-noise (filmed at the end, especially, in plain sight) are freaky as hell.... I think that might stand the scary movie test of time alone. Some of my favorite bits have to do with Verbinski's sly fitting-in of "ring" imagery throughout.... sudden flash cuts of "the ring", and (my favorite) the stain left behind from a coffee mug. No joke.

Psycho (1960)

Probably not a shock to find this movie on the list, as it is likely considered the greatest horror/thriller movie of cinema history. I had heard about it a lot before I had seen it, and when I finally did see it I wasn't disappointed.... terrified in parts, actually. The writer in me is fascinated by this film because of the uncharted territory it breaks on a storytelling level.... never before have we seen our protagonist killed after the first act. Quite a brilliant little trick on Hitchcock's part to recruit a screen star like Janet Leigh to dupe us into thinking this movie was going to be about her.... the entire first act is fraught with her backstory and a bit of intrigue about what she's going to do with her life, which comes to a quick close once she meets her maker in the shower. So who do we identify with now? We're stuck with Norman Bates, someone we hadn't exactly planned on following along as our anchor. I don't know of many rule-bending examples of three act screenplay structure that have blown apart the box like this one.... I do have to say though, as a cute wink to Psycho as the granddaddy of modern horror movies, Scream (see yesterday's post) plays a similar trick by opening the movie with blond-and-sunny-smiled Drew Barrymore only to have her strung up by her intestines ten minutes in. Psycho definitely has its freak-out moments.... not only the shower scene (watch it and notice that we don't really see Marion Crane getting stabbed, but instead her visceral reaction to the stabbing.... coupled of course with the frightening strings on the soundtrack), but also the reveal about where Norman Bates' mother actually is. My favorite (and most terrifying) part: when Inspector Arbogast decides to enter the Bates homestead to ask "Mother" some questions and gets sliced down the face and tumbles down the stairs. What makes this particular scene so unsettling is the camera angle at which Hitchcock decides to shoot it at: directly above. Something about this unnatural angle immediately puts you on the edge, and the speed with which Mother comes tearing out of her bedroom with her knife raised freaks me the hell out every time.

....and tomorrow, the final three.... including two of my favorite scary movies of all time.

Monday, October 29, 2007

day 2: four days with three scary movies each

Scream (1996)

Scream may have done a lot of things -- resurrected the slasher film, Wes Craven's directing career, and Drew Barrymore's acting career -- but it also signaled a kind of hallmark for the horror genre: a horror movie that makes fun of itself while still being a horror movie. This meta play would have seemed too elevated for the genre at one time, but it works here to great effect. Not only does it use tired slasher film tropes (while gleefully acknowledging them) but it also uses a not-so-scary Halloween costume as the killer's disguise. (This is perhaps the greatest sleight of hand to the movie trilogy's creepiness.... the fact that this costume can be found everywhere and is so diluted among the droves of Halloween costumes makes the fact that there could be a real killer among them a terrorizing aspect that satisfies.) Scream also welcomed the entrance of the cell phone as a plot device.... no movie before managed to hinge so much on the use of telephone, and from the very first scene the phone is perhaps the greatest weapon. The fact that the mobility of the cell phone adds to the killer's menace is, my guess, a subconscious stroke of genius. Scream (and its two sequels, Scream 3 being perhaps my favorite of the lot) earns itself a spot in film history with its bending of rules.... and is still a joy to watch (with the lights off) eleven years after the fact and after countless other horror movies tried aping what Scream already apes best.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

I'm not so much a fan of zombie movies (maybe they disturb me too much, maybe I find zombies to be sort of boring villains on the whole).... but I think First Contact is the first (quality) film to take zombies into space, and so the Borg just might be the best of the zombies. Sure, I'm a Trekkie (yes, I've been to a Star Trek convention, more than one even), but First Contact succeeds on its own; it carries its own weight, transcends the dorky stigma, and is probably the most accessible of all of the Star Trek films. The fact that this film relies on a backstory shown first during the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" television series and makes the leap to film to be the most successful of the Star Trek movies goes to show that the franchise (at the time) was at its zenith. The Borg got a feature-film makeover here, going from the pale-skinned junkyard-part extras on TV to the KY-glossed bug-eyed half-mechanized extras for the big screen (Oscar-nominated for best makeup.... but lost to The Nutty Professor.... why?!). The makeup effects are so convincing and terrifying that I still don't like to watch this movie in the dark. The Borg even get a queen for their hive, played deliciously menacing (and sexy? who would've thought?) by South African actress Alice Krige. There are a lot of things right with this movie (the charismatic acting chemistry between Patrick Stewart and Alfre Woodard, for instance, is magical), but I think the greatest achievement is to show us that Star Trek can tackle horror, and does so by presenting a terrifying and hopeless end to each of us and our culture in the form of bionic zombies. Social statement? Maybe. Quality filmmaking? Absolutely.

Hannibal (2001)

This is a movie I will defend to the end, and I think gets a bad rap simply because it isn't The Silence of the Lambs. Serving as its sequel, though, I think everyone wants it to be the same psychological thriller.... but the story of Hannibal isn't, and its probably hard to accept that it doesn't fall into the same genre as its predecessor. Hard too to see Julianne Moore (stunning here) filling the shoes of a noticeably absent Jodie Foster, who turned down continuing the role of FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling because she found the film too lurid. My argument here is that this wouldn't be the same movie if it wasn't so lurid.... that's part of the fun. This is, ultimately, a horror movie... a horror love story even. Directed by Ridley Scott (beautifully) and written by David Mamet (!), we pick up ten years later with a more hardened Starling and a more playful Hannibal Lecter, with more tricks up his sleeve now that he's assimilated himself back into the world. Ladies and Gentlemen, Anthony Hopkins is my favorite actor. Some people complain that he overstays his welcome as Lecter in this film, and I say every frame he's on screen is a pleasure (with thanks, of course, to some crackling pitch-perfect lines by Mamet). There's so much bizarre humor in his performance that it makes Lecter's horrific murders that much more disturbing. The creepy factor in this movie comes, ultimately, to some unflinching gross-out scenes.... and some fearlessly despicable characters played by Gary Oldman, the counterpoint villain hidden under some nasty facial-scar makeup (who meets his end with his face in the jaws of a hungry boar), and tough-guy Ray Liotta, who logs a memorable performance as a sleazy government cronie who has probably the most disturbing last meal to be shown on film (after he asks what's for dinner, Lecter says, "You should never ask... It spoils the surprise"). A lesser director could have made this film fall flat on its face, but Scott has you buying it line for line.... and I'm in for each course of the meal.

....more scary movies tomorrow....

Sunday, October 28, 2007

day 1: four days with three scary movies each

Certainly lists of the "top" movies of whatever genre are already everywhere and already somewhat exhaustive that any such list I would make would only serve my purposes to be applicable to my own likes and desires.

So.... I present you with a countdown of sorts to Halloween with twelve movies (three movies each for the four days leading up to All Hallow's Eve) of twelve movies (in no particular order) that spook the crap out of me. And, more importantly, particular elements of these films that do the trick. These are not all the movies I've seen that do so, of course, but they are all well-liked by me, and on the whole are pretty undebatably terrifying in parts. Besides, I think it's about time I pay my respects to the cinema of the scary.... it's an art form that I think that has been degraded too much by dimensionless and storyless torture-porn in the tradition of the endless Saw movie franchise and other horror schlock of the desensitized era.

....*drum roll*....

Lost Highway (1997)

I suppose it's no secret I'm a little bit of a fan of David Lynch. That said, I bet you were thinking that Eraserhead is the more appropriate of the Lynch canon to be considered a "horror" movie on the whole. To be honest, all of Lynch's films have elements that creep me the hell out (yes, the G-rated Walt-Disney-presents The Straight Story counts). But the creepiest on the whole for me is easily Lost Highway, perhaps one of the richest-filmed but most unevenly plotted of Lynch's movies. The movie suffers on the whole from really not knowing what story it's trying to tell, but there's lots of meaty Lynch-isms everywhere and can be at times quite intriguing. The majority of the creep factor comes from the performance of now-acquitted once-accused murderer Robert Blake who plays, for all intents and purposes, the Devil. Blake's sheer calm creates such an indelible menace that's hard to deny.... the scene, in fact, where Robert Loggia's mob boss character passes the phone to Blake, who has been standing just off screen for minutes without us being aware still gives me the shivers. The 2005 French film Cache is in many ways an ugly rip-off of this film (the inital premise, folks, is identical), but likely succeeds in logical ways that this does not. Unfortunately, thanks to Blake's recent trial-debacle, Lost Highway may not see the light of legitimate DVD release for some time. Because, after all, Blake does play the Devil. But he does it so well.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Barbara Stanwyck, perhaps the screen siren of film noir, stars in a tweaked variation on a haunted house movie in Sorry, Wrong Number, a movie that slowly and painlessly digs its talons into you until you try to pull away. She also picked up her fourth (and last) Oscar nomination for the role. Bottom line: rich/bored/lonely woman picks up the phone to make a call one night and, thanks to a crossed line, overhears a plot to murder. (If this were to be remade, it wouldn't be so much a crossed line as a garbled reception error on a cell phone.) The genius of the movie comes as Stanwyck starts to get more harried as time passes, letting her mind take her in all kinds of directions about how to stop this plan.... her calls to the police and the phone company make her seem like she's raving mad. The greatest revelation though...? Wouldn't you know it, the victim in question of the overheard murder plan happens to be herself. Looking for a good suspense movie in a world that is quickly ignoring the genre? Fire up your netflix for this.

The Birds (1963)

I saw this movie at a young age and it did a good amount of damage. Who would think birds to be a device for one of the greatest horror movies of all time? The movie, Alfred Hitchcock's first to hit the screen after his magnum opus Psycho, is pretty widely known, and that's likely thanks to the fact that it gets under our skin so easily. Basic premise: birds of all kinds (birds of a feather? heh.... eh) swoop down in droves to terrorize a Northern California coastal hamlet. People are pecked to death. People have eyes gouged out by beaks. That's terrifying enough for me still, no less at the tender age of eight or however old I was when I first saw it. Perhaps the most unsettling point of the movie is that the droves of bird attacks aren't explained.... Tippi Hedren, plucky and young and ultra-mod and as damsel-y as they come, decides to buy two love birds on a whim to deliver to some guy she falls for on the spot in a pet shop (as Hitchcock nonchalantly strolls by on screen with two schnauzers). Perhaps she's the cause of the bird attack? Is it the love birds? Who knows. I'm still spooked the hell out to see a bird perched on a jungle gym.

....and three more tomorrow....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I Can Be America

It's true that it disgusts me, just a little bit, that I am now one of the myriad bloggers who feels he needs to get in his say about Stephen Colbert's run for president. But that doesn't bother me, per se, more than the fact that the man (or his publishers) don't have a grasp of grammar.

Colbert just released a (political essay collection? comedy rant?) book called I Am America (And So Can You!). This title alone, plastered about the New York City subway system in advertisements for the book, irritates the writer in me. The writer in me, folks, is at my core. There's a plain-as-day verb disagreement in the context that makes the title grossly grammatically incorrect:

I Am America (And So Can You!)

"So Can You" implies that the "I" can do something.... but the "I" isn't doing anything; the "I" simply "is" (as in "am"), so "you" needs to be modified by the verb "to be".... Or, in the other case, the "I" isn't purporting to be able to do anything (there's no "I Can").

I Am America (And So You Can Be Too!)
I Can Be America (And So Can You!)

Or, more to the point, "can" can only be modified by a verb in the infinitive form. You can't "am" anything.

Maybe I'm being too nitpicky, but the fact remains. Is this part of the joke? I certainly hope not, because if it is, I'm afraid a good majority of the American public isn't going to get it. Colbert should stick to his political skewering and truthiness and all that and perhaps stay away from making overly subtle grammar jokes that make him (or more like his character) sound foolish.

So, what does that say about Colbert's "character"? He announced on his Comedy Central program on Tuesday that he's running for President of the United States in 2008, on both Republican and Democratic platforms. But his "character" is a foaming-at-the-mouth Republican, whereas the man himself is a Democrat. Who is he running as? His chances of winning aren't even worth pretending about, but at the same time I have to scratch my head and wonder if the guy is running purely as a stunt or if he actually wants to make a difference for the country. There's a whole lot of conflict in there about his "character" being the one who's running, not the actor. Stephen Colbert the actor bases his comedy around how ludicrous Stephen Colbert the character actually is. So, what's the gain in this stunt? When the character and the actor aren't congruent, what's the statement he's trying to make? Somehow this seems like it has the potential to backfire, but only if his campaign gains a whole lot of sudden popularity.

Ultimately I have less of an opinion on the matter than I am confused by it. But it's on my mind.

I brought this up to a friend of mine last night, and he countered with the statement that all the candidates running for president are "characters" and not actually running wholly as themselves.... they all have to compromise their true positions to pander to public opinion and their political party (be it reasonable or not; in my humble opinion, the whole political party is system is so so broken) to ensure that they win the election. That's a disturbing reality, isn't it? But in the end, it's really quite true.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

movie advertising not targeted toward me

Study, if you will, the following teaser poster for the forthcoming Saw: Ad Nauseum....

I guess the Saw movie franchise is among the more successful recent examples of high-gloss torture porn (see also: "24"). It's not my kind of horror movie though.... I'm not terribly interested in movies whose sole function is to display unthinkable deaths with a showcase of creative makeup, special effects, and/or camera wizardry. Nor do I particularly seek out movies about serial killers with disposable amounts of time and income to create overly elaborate ruses in which they are able to creatively murder people by the tens and twenties. I do think that the horror genre is absolutely necessary for film, but I prefer horror movies that are more than simply one-dimensional. I don't mind a good dose of gore.... but how about making the movie worth watching, too? The Descent, my favorite movie of 2006, was marketed to be trashy shlock like Saw, but was in fact a masterwork of filmmaking and transcended the horror genre to remind me (and the rest of us) that these kind of movies can actually have depth while simultaneously scaring the crap out of you.

So, back to the poster. Is this supposed to be scary? Is this supposed to hail the arrival of a terrifying new horror movie about to hit the big screen? Let's see....

Swine with bad wig wearing a red burka and fetishist leather stiletto boots is chained to a motorized wheelchair fitted with cranks.

Is this supposed to fill me (i.e. the average movie-goer passing the theatre) with dread? How exactly does this poster even get a fan of Saw excited to the see the movie? Maybe I'm missing something, having never seen any of the movies. Is there some kind of terrifying pig-in-fetishwear twist I missed out on? Perhaps.

In the end, I see this poster and all I can think is, "what the fuck?"

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

the egg timer runs out on Top Chef

Tonight is the season finale of "Top Chef: Miami", the show's third (glitizer, higher-production value) season. The show, which whittled its way through 15 "chefs" (Season 2 had a high number of do-it-yourself line cooks, the final four of which weren't any older than 26) has now made its way down to three for the final showdown in Aspen, Colorado.

Why, oh why did I get hooked on this show? I remember hearing write procrastinator's fair warnings in the past when I was still binging on the Food Network (a network whose very soul has hardened into a dry kibble of sensational trash). My introduction to the show came last winter when I was on a JetBlue flight from the Bay Area back to NYC, a red-eye flight no less, and instead of sleeping I caught Bravo's full-scale "Top Chef" second season marathon into the wee hours of morning. From that point forward I was able to watch the last four episodes as they aired each week, and waited with bated breath until it begun anew this summer.

And then the third season came. And I realized that perhaps the biggest draw (oddly) to the show are its judges.

Padma, of course, is the crowning reason why anyone should flip the remote to Bravo in the first place. She was a new addition to the second season, serving as host.... apparently Season 1's host, who I don't know because I haven't had the liberty to see Season 1, was either not smart enough or not food-related enough or not camera-friendly enough (or most likely not sexy in a I-want-to-watch-you-suck-whipped-cream-off-a-strawberry way enough). Padma (recent divorcee of fatwa-ee/knigthed/Booker-Prize-of-Booker-Prize Award winning author Salman Rushdie) has all the right moves, a delicious ease before the camera, and is certainly easy on the eyes. Probably helps that she's a model. She has a cute sense of playfulness (re: the episode where she has the chefs make her breakfast, and wakes them up by practically jumping on their beds) and a sense of humor (re: joking that the massive scar on her arm was inflicted whilst tiger hunting in Bengal) and a soft side (re: episodes closer to the end where you can tell she has a hard time, wincing even, when telling a chef to "pack [their] knives and go"). And hey, she looks pretty damn good. She has a perfectly-tuned radio voice (next career move: Padma as network television news anchor?), fits into remarkably tight pink jeans, and has a beautiful smile. Ah, the Padma worship.

But what about her food cred, you say? Why choose her to host "Top Chef"? She happens to be the author of two cookbooks (including the just-released-yesterday Tangy, Tart, Hot, and Sweet.... a title of which I'm sure the irony is not lost). Not sure if she actually does much cooking, but she used her clout to ink a book deal.... so good for her, I guess.

Tom Colicchio (also interestingly suave and sexy) is executive chef of umpteen glamorous restaurants in New York (and Las Vegas, and coming soon a stake in trade at Foxwood's forthcoming MGM Grand in Middle of Nowhere, Connecticut).... including one depot of his Craft kingdom on the ground floor of the very building I work in. Have yet to try the food.... guess I'm waiting for that next promotion.

Gail Simmons (sometimes there, sometimes not), irresistibly Canadian and the snarkiest of the good-ol'-standby regulars, is something of a down-market Padma. She's an editor at Food & Wine magazine, one of "Top Chef"'s benefactors, and she always shows up at the judges' table looking beautifully dressed up.... but you just can't shake the feeling that she's like the dowdy cousin who always looked up to the statuesque and nearly sexually-active older cousin, and thereby happily parrotted everything she said and tagged along mercilessly during family get-togethers.

Other judges that come and go include Anthony Bourdain, who in my opinion tries too hard to be shocking or sardonic or look-at-me-I'm-an-asshole! or clever with his tongue (I'm talking about what he says here, people), some dude from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" who's contract with Bravo apparently hadn't run out, and a motley crew of world-famous chefs (one per episode, please) who are all now independently wealthy and have indecipherable accents. I suppose their lives now consist of pool-side afternoons in the Dordogne and waiting for Bravo's phone call.

So, after tonight we'll have a winner.... with the conclusion of tonight's "live" finale. Why make it live? Seems like two steps too much fanfare.

Coming up to the finishing line:

Casey, who at first seemed like a bitch for criticizing poor Clay, he of Southern accent and broken home, for not knowing what an amuse bouche was, is packing heat. She seemed unremarkable at first but has begun wiping the walls with the elimination challenges towards the end. And you know what? She just seems generally likeable, one who would step for you because you've earmed her respect. And she's a great chef, too.

Dale, another quite likeable and quick-witted contestant, is slightly jittery but knows his food. He busted out on the restaurant wars where he worked the front room of a makeshift diner-from-the-ground-up-in-24-hours like he's been master of restaurant hosting for years. He claims breakfast is his specialty too, which is a refreshing change when cooking shows just show you how to make dinner and dessert. I rather like his soliloquy commentary because he's not afraid to call out douchebaggery on....

Hung, who has been my least favorite chef since Episode 1. I suppose it should come as no shock that Hung is friends with Season 2 runner-up and fellow douchebag Marcel (as revealed in the top-four-of Season 1 versus top-four-of Season 2 special aired this summer). This kid gets every chance he can to gloat about his skills, and when a judge isn't digging it, Hung simply just can't accept it, and instead has to whine about how they just don't "get it". That, and when a judge likes his work, he gets all goopy and blushy and too eager to please. I just want him to shut the hell up. It's some consolation, I guess, that the other contestants clearly don't like him.

Tonight's reveal will likely be good television because "Top Chef" knows how to milk the tension, especially for its viewers that have held on for this long. Who knew we'd get so excited about someone winning a chance to become a media whore for Gladware kitchen products? What do I care that this person gets to fulfill their culinary dreams? Simply folks, I'm in it to see Hung's face get rubbed into the Colorado dirt. Comeuppance is nigh, douchebag.

Monday, October 01, 2007

who you calling lame-o?

shecanfilmit, the friend I do believe that got me started blogging in the first place, passed along a meme (these dreaded, dreaded memes!) that gives me a chance to prove just how cool I think I am. Here goes:

TO DO: List 5 things that certain people (who are not deserving of being your friend anyway) may consider to be “totally lame,” but you, despite the possible stigma, are totally proud of. Own it. Tag 5 others:

1. I don't consider New York City pizza to be the best in the world. That honor falls to Blondie's Pizza in Berkeley, California. (Also: I don't fold the slice in half length-wise to eat it. If I wanted pizza that way, I'd just order a calzone.)

2. I like Star Trek. I'll even go out on a limb and say that "Deep Space Nine" is my favorite series (and Avery Brooks as The Sisko rocks my socks off). Sure, lots of people dis Star Trek.... but why? It's my theory that everyone actually likes it or would like it if they gave it a chance, whether they're afraid to admit it or not.

3. A good vodka & tonic is perhaps my favorite cocktail drink. I've been told it's an old lady drink. I think not! But if that's the case, I guess old ladies have good taste in booze.

4. I love to watch "60 Minutes". Always insightful and on-target reporting, always with a slightly (and unabashedly) liberal spark for good measure. I guess I'm just in touch with my inner 65 year old. I also have a crush on Lesley Stahl.

5. Taco Bell is my fast food downfall. Mind you, I'm not a big fast food eater, I try to avoid it actually, but Taco Bell is one of those places I walk into and everything on the menu looks good. The very mention of Taco Bell makes my mouth water. Rumor has it their "beef" is mostly beef-flavored soy product. I still love it.... ALL of it.

Feel free to tag amongst yourselves.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Brothers and Sisters and mothers and illegitimate daughters and sexually-ambiguous uncles

Sally Field, who acted her ass off during last year's inaugural season of "Brothers & Sisters", rightfully picked up an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role as a plate-spinning new widow with a whole lot of free time and a son who's been pulled for a tour of duty to the war in Iraq. (Her anti-war acceptance speech at the Emmys, interestingly, was censored thanks to the three-second live feed delay on Fox, because she said "goddamned", a word Fox must find so offensive that the fact that it was said during a speech critical of this country's current state of war must have been like killing two birds with one stone, certainly a coincidence.... right? right?) If there's any reason to watch this show, it's because of her.

So why do I keep crawling back? Sally Field alone, despite her furious acting chops, isn't enough of a pull. Tonight is the premiere of the second season, and I'm strangely looking forward to it. "Brothers & Sisters"'s biggest downfall is a storyline that can't get enough of itself. It's trying to pack as many complicated dramatic tropes (shying away from the trashier soap opera standbys such as good/evil identical twins and amnesia) as it can into just one little season, and (much more frustratingly) it seems not to have much of an idea of its direction, having abandoned its original trajectory and settled into a plot arc not congruent with how the show was originally established.

The second season has quite an uphill climb in the drama department.... aside from the not-as-dramatic-as-they-want-it-to-be second tour of duty for Nora's (played by Field) youngest son, we've got a marriage in shambles, a competing family business with the dead-patriarch's long-term mistress, and a peppy illegitimate daughter (Rebecca, played by some-WB-show alumnus Emily VanCamp) between said dead-patriarch and mistress (whose character would've been much better off saved for a more opportune first appearance later down the line) who might be on the verge of causing some trouble. (Major gripe: this character came swooping in too quickly and was integrated too easily, and therefore has lost a lot of the inherent complication she should have offered and instead seems to be accepted as "one of the gang" despite the fact her whereabouts where concealed for preesumably 20 years.)

The only way I can describe this show is through its characters and how they're used, so here goes:

In a trend that I can only surmise is borne of unfortunate "Grey's Anatomy" afterbirth, the show seems borderline sex-crazed. This troupe of siblings seems to be rather active in the bedroom. Two of the five (Rachel Griffiths as Sarah, Balthazar Getty as Tommy) are married to spouses who have first-billing screen credit but are conspicuously absent at family gatherings. They've also got kids (three and a once-seen-now-forgotten step-child among them total) and relatively healthy sex lives (one couple likes to film themselves going at it, the other couple has gratuitous on-screen sex in the shower). The other three complain when they're single, but don't seem to stay single for very long....

Calista Flockheart's Kitty entered the show with a fiancé, kicked him to the curb in favor of her newly minted talk show co-host, and seems to forget about them both once Rob Lowe struts onto the screen in an extended "special guest star" role as a California (Republican! ha!) senator with eyes on the White House.... and picks him up as her second fiancé in a year.

Matthew Rhys' Kevin, the token gay brother, also seems to have a token harem. How many boyfriends, exactly, can this guy fall in love with? The writing seems to want to treat Kevin's romantic relationships as something much more serious than they are.... we see him meet and discard at least three different guys (with one or two one-night stands along the way) throughout the first season, but it seems either he or a dumped-boyfriend-in-question leaves with a broken heart.... just in one year here, people.

Dave Annable's Justin, the Iraq-bound Narcotics-Anonymous-dwelling razor-deficient little brother, also picks up a handful of girlfriends, finally settling on one who apparently went to high school with him once upon a time, has a unsettlingly boyish name (Tyler?! Who names their little baby girl Tyler?), and is awfully forgiving of his relapses into needle drugs.

Ron Rifkin plays Nora's brother Saul, and he seems to act the role as if he's forgotten he's no longer playing über-villain Sloane on "Alias". His role has been non-descript and ultimately forgettable, but at the season finale the writers decided to not-so-subtly hint that he might have had a romantic dalliance turned unrequited and bitter with some college best friend of his, who *gulp* is a guy. Is this supposed to be shocking? It might have been, had I cared about the character at all or if the writers hadn't gleefully spent all their capital on homosexual relationships with Kevin.

And last but not least comes "Thirtysomething" alumnus Patricia Wettig as Holly, always a welcome appearance in television roles (including a brief recurring spot on "Alias" but not sharing screentime with Rifkin, and a more compelling and fire-starting recurring role in the first season of the terrible "Prison Break" whose somewhat pivotal character's disappearance was unexplained after she picked up top-billing on "Brothers & Sisters"). She plays the previously-mentioned long-term mistress of Nora's dead husband; her character's very agency is built on creating tension. She was an actress with otherwise little employable skills until an unexpected endowment from dead-patriarch's pre-mortem money laundering suddenly made her a business mogul, a role she too easily fit into for a supposed out-of-work actress.

So I know this whole post has taken a bit of a negative gloss, but only because I'm mystified as to why I'm really hanging onto the show. The long-term arc of the show is sloppy and the tone is infected with the "am I a drama? am I a goofy comedy?" seesaw disease prevalent in other overrated ABC semi-soaps like "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy". The show gets flack from its detractors for being overly political, which is quite true (I think) but doesn't seem to bother me so much.... the politics of the show and its continual stabs at "right here, right now" issues seem ultimately the point of the show. This is a political family drama dressed as a soap opera, not a soap opera dressed in fancy politics.

Let's circle back to Sally Field, though.... there's something so honest and raw about the way she portrays this mother character of hers, that I can't help but think she's the anchor of it all. I buy everything she puts out, even when she too gets in her bedroom time with the family contractor. She's likely the reason why this show isn't actually all that bad.... a lesser actress probably wouldn't be able to hold it together (in fact, Betty Buckley, maybe not a lesser actress, originally had the role in the unaired pilot but was mysteriously jettisoned in favor of Field, who was likely tired of collecting her paychecks for post-menopause osteoporosis medication commercials). That said, I'm afraid the show might be relying too heavily on Sally Field to hold it together.... without her, the whole thing would just fall apart.

I wish for this season that the show decides to settle on a continuous story that flows between episodes instead of a "family dramatic moment of the week" cycle with some connective tissue between episodes here and there. How about less sex and more conniving, too? We'll see how it goes.... do you think this show will settle down and get comfortable, or will they up the antics? Only time will tell, and usually my patience thins before time around gets to telling.

UPDATE (10/01/2007): Turns out I made it about 20 minutes into the show before I felt more compelled to turn it off and head to bed where I could begin reading William Gay's new novel Twilight. Probably not a good sign.