Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lincoln Center Festival: Eraritjaritjaka

I've traveled far afield from the august Termite Art estate, all the way up to 60th street and that glistening monstrosity that is the Time Warner Center. They have a theater in there you know, and I went to see a show (twice).

Part of the summer festival, Eraritjaritjaka (a reference to an Australian Aboriginal phrase meaning "driven by the desire for something lost"), is a mixed media performance piece that I, gullible jerk that I am, adored. It mixes up the following: the French actor Andre Wilms, the Dutch string quartet the Mondriaan Quartet, and live video by Belgian filmmaker Bruno Deville. All conceived and directed by German Heiner Goebbels. As with most things I enjoy, it's a simple concept: Wilms reads a variety of aphorisms by Bulgarian/Jewish/British author Elias Canetti (in French, with English supertitles), ranging over themes of power, love, cooking, language, solitude...and more!

It starts off on a bare stage, the Mondriaan Quartet playing Shostakovich while seated in four chairs. Then the floor opens up to reveal a giant white square which Wilms enters, beginning with a comparison between humanity and bowling pins, and spinning gracefully around as he is led by a rectangular beam of light, him at the axis. It's grim humor about man's isolation - which he follows up by plucking a tiny house and placing in the middle of the square. He lays his head upon its roof and envisions life if it ran in reverse - we gain wisdom as we get younger, and something about a tiny pope.

Then he stands, and what looks like a robotic vacuum cleaner rolls on stage of its own volition, and Wilms starts talking about animals - if they don't have fear because they lack language - whereupon he taunts it by appending a string tied to its antennae. His words lend the robot an air of consciousness - it's movements seeming hesitant next to the old man. Then, he rips off the velcro antennae - and a life-size facade of the small house is unfurled in the background. Showmanship!

Next - in a supreme bit of acting - Wilms compares orchestra conductors to dictators, their absolute control not over the orchestra - whose voices they can snuff in an instant - but also over the audience - who kowtow to their entrance and are only allowed to speak with applause at the end. It's a funny little bit - with Wilms screeching how the audience doesn't react when musicians are onstage but hush immediately when the conductor steps up. His voice modulated on a dime.

But even before all that - as he rearranged the stage, moving the Quartet's seats around for the next scene - he spoke about how even the instrument's names are musical - and went through a list of them, finding ridiculous ways to pronounce flute, trumpet, trombone, and my favorite, tuba, in which he emphasized the first syllable to such an extent the second just disappeared.

Tired and cranky, he put on a battered hat and walked into the audience and out the door - and the cameraman followed him (it was projected on the house facade) as he walked to the elevator, and hailed a cab outside. The crowd and I laughed - but he kept on going, to buying a bottle of water at a deli - and then to an apartment building where he picked up that day's paper. It was live.

Then, a series of peaks: Goebbels scored Ravel's String Quartet with Wilms making an omelette. He chopped onions while the Mondriaans were plucking - and then he even wiped a tear away from his eye, a little comic gesture much appreciated for its obviousness. As he's doing laundry in an upstairs room, the camera zooms in on the TV. An interview with Franz Ferdinand - an interviewer asks them what son of theirs they love the most. They stutter and fail to answer coherently. Wilms offers up a stunningly deadpan look at the camera - the place exploded with laughter. The second night I saw it they used a piece on CNN from a butler school. His reaction shot not quite as priceless. The camera movement throughout was phenomnal - it scooted into a refrigerator, snuck behind a wicker chair, framed Wilms' face in a plant - all during a live feed.

"Assurances in love are a guarantee of their opposite" "She married him so they'd be together always, he married her to forget her". Paraphrased, of course, but Canetti/Wilms is a cantankerous old bastard - so when he starts hearing a female voice that he can't locate- his isolation is hammered home, even though he is hilarious.

Then, revelation: the curtain raises on a window of the house inside of the theater - and Wilms is inside - all of the action in the apartment was occurring in the theater - there was an invisible cut once he exited the theater (where a prerecorded taxi ride was shown), and another when he entered the apartment (back to live video). Tricky punks. And quite ingenious. He ends outlining his ideal world, where those who stutter must walk with a limp, the dead rise into clouds and inseminate live women with precipitation and where people only live on the borders of countries. Place goes dark, I clap.

Friday, July 28, 2006

I Was A Male War Bride (1949)

What a pleasure to find an old Hollywood movie whose primary conflict is the battle of its two leads to get laid. I don't mean it in the lovey-dovey romantic ideal sort of way, I mean I Was A War Bride is about the impossible logistics of two people knocking boots in the middle of an armed conflict. In 1949 this was certainly a cheeky topic. In 2006, it's downright scandalous.

Frenchman Henri (Cary Grant) and American Catherine (Ann Sheridan) work together on a mission, fall in love, and get married. But on their wedding night, just before magic time, Catherine is ordered to return to the United States. Not only do they lose their wedding night, they end up shacking up at a friend's where Henri has to sleep in the bathtub ("What an awful place for a faucet!" "Where?" "My back!"). Even worse, with Henri yet to get an American passport, there seems no way the two lovebirds can remain together. Ah but an obscure congressional law allows travel permits for war brides. "It says spouses, it doesn't mention sex," says the officer advising Henri and Catherine. "I'm convinced the American army doesn't believe in it!" replies Henri.

War Bride is basically a 105 minute emasculation session for poor Cary Grant, and, sincerely, there's no one I'd rather see in the role. The entire movie builds to the moment when Henri will have to stop saying he's a bride and start dressing like one, and it's still an enormous laugh when we see Grant in a horse hair wig and stockings.

The movie makes fun of sexism without ever becoming sexist itself. For 1949, it's practically progressive, since the scenes before the couple's marriage show Henri, rather than Catherine, to be the incompetent. She's the one who can drive a motorcycle, and it's she who finds their mission target, a black market dealer named (interestingly enough) Schindler. Grant's character even addresses the topic during an endless night spent searching for a place to sleep. He comes upon yet another women-only dormitory, and the guard outside apologetically denies him entry. "Have you ever noticed that women always get a place to sleep? I wonder why that is," Henri asks. The guard replies, "Well I suppose it's because they're the weaker sex." "I don't believe it. They're stronger," Henri says, "and do you know why? Because they get enough sleep, that's why."

I Was A Male War Bride is one of dozens of romantic comedies predicated on the tension that arises when the two leads can't figure out how to get together. These days, the devices employed to keep cinematic lovers apart are so forced they frustrate audiences instead of delighting them. War Bride is from different stock: Henri and Catherine's struggles are never less than completely organic and their heroic clinch in the film's final shot produces a sensation in the viewer that can only be described as orgasmic.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

When You Get Caught Between Optimus Prime and San Diego Comic-Con

Where have I been for the last couple of days? Why living it up with the glamorous and the geeky at San Diego Comic-Con of course! Best thing I saw all weekend:

Click over to read my full report on

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Miami Vice (2006)

Let's note that the screening I went to of Michael Mann's Miami Vice was marred by terrible audio that rendered about a half-hour unintelligible. A good excuse to see it again, but the following are provisional thoughts at best.

Narratively it is a bit of a mess, and the pacing is unforgivably slack, but as a visual document (of Miami, Haiti, Columbia) and a study in motion it is often exhilirating. First of all, the boats. Sonny (Colin Farrell), working undercover, requests some "Go Fast" boats (seriously) from Columbian drug-lord middle man Yero (John Ortiz) in order to transport some coke (they all say "transpo", in the impenetrable and fascinating cops'n'robber speak utilized in the film). They do as advertised, and cinematographer Dion Beebe (who also lensed the superior Collateral) swoops down to capture the boat in action in ravishing shots on the water, switching between video and film as grains in the image surge and dissipate. The sense of speed is palpable - and can there be any greater film fantasy than to be speeding to Havana with Gong Li for mojitos?

Gong Li is speeding with Farrell, and they dance at a Cuban jazz club at the peak of their romance - the rest devolves into the obsessed professionals not being able to focus on a relationship thing that Mann did much better in Heat. I think Mann should just give up on creating female characters, or at least just hire females to roles he wrote for males - because now they just take up time in grueling subplots of male rescue fantasies.

Next. Miami Vice has the greatest plane flying through the sky shots I've ever seen. Not plane over landscape, but against the blue sky - it's the clearest, cleanest shots I've witnessed. Pretty.

Nobody records gun shots like Mann - each type of weapon resounds differently with rattling loudness - his gunfight scenes are overwhelmingly chaotic soundscapes with brief instances of violence. He usually keeps his glorifying instinct in check, but as this is some sort of blockbuster, he gave in with some absurd gunplay towards the end. I forgive you Mike.

Great beards and performances by the villains, especially by Luis Tosar as Montoya, the head honcho. Deep-voiced and deliberately spoken, with impossibly perfect posture even when sitting in bed, he's a startingly original creation.

The relationship between Farrell and Foxx is nonexistent, except for an excellent fist bump, but the surprise here is how good Farell is and what a nonentity Foxx is. Partly a matter of script and editing, as Farrell logs more screen time - but he actually carves out a personality for himself, with a wounded loping walk and a believably gruff voice, his anti-social loner stereotype gains some unexpected color.

But let's see it again. At least for the boats and the planes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Night Falls on Termite Art

As a film writer, there are people you like and people who interest you. I like Jimmy Stewart; I'm interested by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When someone you like makes a movie, you want to see it; when someone who interests you makes a movie, you have to see it. And right now, there is no person in Hollywood more interesting than M. Night Shyamalan.

Again, I do not like him; to my mind, he's made about 1.75 good movies: the effectively chilling Sixth Sense, the half of Unbreakable where things happened beyond people moping in dingy Philadelphia basements, and the first twenty minutes of Signs. I have read a few defenses of Shyamalan's The Village that argue it is a movie of ideas but no amount of ideas can disguise a plot that is, at best, the most boring one I have ever encountered at 1:00 AM on Encore (And I have seen 3000 Miles to Graceland at 1:00 AM on Encore).

You can deny his ability to make a movie that is more entertaining than it is pretentious, but you can't deny that the guy is fascinating. From the peculiar name (Not simply "Night" but "M. Night" as if he is some sort of well-traveled French royal), to his penchant for wearing button down shirts that expose his manly chest hair, as he did earlier tonight in an awkward yet mesmerizing appearance on The Daily Show, Shyamalan lives the life of a man who truly believes he is the star of his movies.

Shyamalan films are so achingly serious — and moreover so serious about their own seriousness — that his appearance on a program like The Daily Show made for particularly delirious television. Jon Stewart tosses him goofball questions with tongue buried deeply in cheek (sample: "You seem so haunted by dreams!") and Night nods and Mmmhmms as if he's on Inside the Actors Studio. Dude isn't in on the joke. Dude truly believes he is haunted by dreams (even if, as he explains, he doesn't have dreams because his brain gets such a workout writing all day long).

My interest in Shyamalan is only enhanced by the appearance of a book about his struggle to get his latest picture, Lady in the Water (which opens Friday), financed and produced. The book is called, in all seriousness, The Man Who Heard Voices and it suggests, in all seriousness, that Shyamalan is some sort of earthbound god of entertainment and, perhaps, all human kind. Granted, I haven't read the book; merely the excerpt in the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly where Night finds the Lady screenplay rejected by his former employers at Disney for the very reasons every critic who has seen the movie has criticized him for, as well as the delightful review of the book by The New York Times' Janet Maslin. The quotations are incredible. Author Michael Bamberger is just as awed by Shyamalan's chest hair as I am: "Night's shirt was half open — Tom Jones in his prime," he writes according to Maslin. And he seems to find no fault in a man sending his personal assistant on a cross-country journey on the weekend so that the screenplay can be read in secret (the assistant must not go to the bathroom on the flight, for fear of anyone getting their hands on the script).

That Shyamalan would authorize and participate in such an endeavor as this book speaks volumes to his character, or at least the public representation of his character. Here is a man who has completely, utterly, and without a single hint of irony, bought into his own hype. If he didn't think of himself as "The Next Spielberg" before Newsweek proclaimed him so, he certainly does now. Or better yet, how about Spielberg: The Old Shyamalan. Even Spielberg doesn't take possessive above-the-title credit (as in "M. Night Shyamalan's Signs"), and Spielberg's never cast himself in any of his movies (even though he is amazing in The Blues Brothers).

And so I will see Lady in the Water. I don't want to. But I will. Possibly at 1:00 AM on Encore.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Have A Chew On Me: Other Men's Women (1931)

The things you find on TCM at 8 in the morning. Today it was a William Wellman pre-code wonder called Other Men's Women (1931), starring Grant Withers, Regis Toomey, Mary Astor, James Cagney (!), and Joan Blondell (!!). Withers is a drunken cad of a fellow and Toomey is his sober wedded pal. Great scene! Withers runs into a cafe, slaps the waitress on the ass, and orders up breakfast. He keeps counting the train cars as they go by, for no apparent reason. He needles the waitress at her interest in him. And before he takes a bite, he flips her a coin and starts running after the train as it passes, because, as we soon discover, he works on it as an engineer! And of course he was counting the cars to determine when to start chasing. Ah, a perfectly contructed scene. He also short-changes the waitress, and after she complains, throws her a pack of gum and says "Have a chew on me." This is his catch phrase - and seems to foreshadow those Mentos commercials that follow 60 years later.

Did I mention that Joan Blondell was in it? Anyway, she's a quick-mouthed waitress working in a cafe, and an ungentlemenly rogue asks her to go out for a night on the town. She responds with, "I'm an A.P.O". When asked what that means she replies, insouciantly, "Ain't Puttin' Out." I love Joan Blondell.

There are also scenes where a man pokes holes in the soil to place seeds in with his peg leg, and a number of delectable tracking shots that were completely unexpected considering how early in the sound period this was. It also explodes into a full-blown melodrama because of a meek little kiss, and peaks with a blinded Toomey driving a train over a flooded bridge to his inevitable doom. Quality miniature work there.

Oh, and I'm completely in love with Joan Blondell.


After the Gold Rush: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

On a sandy beach in the Caribbean, surrounded by the clearest water you've ever seen in your life, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest crystalizes, albeit briefly, into the movie it should be. There on the beach, four characters struggle for possession of a key and a treasure chest, the contents of which are far too stupid to discuss in a paragraph that's about why Pirates 2 works. Three of the four characters draw swords, and begin an elaborately choreographed fight and chase, leading them to an old mill, with a wheel that they all feel inclined to climb and which, buckling under the weight, breaks from its supports and begins to roll down, while the three men continue to parry and thrust with great aplumb. What grand stupidity! This, I thought to myself, is the kind of moment that God, Thomas Edison, and several French people invented cinema for.

A shame, then, that so much of what surrounds that nearly perfect sequence is so gosh-darn awful; as a devout fan of The Curse of the Black Pearl, it pains me to say it. The first film was a life vest of a movie, providing buoyancy in a sea of blockbuster boredom. Dead Man's Chest is a pair of cement shoes.

Everything from the first movie works again, but the problem is how little DMC truly resembles TCoTBP. The first picture was a comedy with scary elements; it was Ghostbusters on the high seas. The second picture is a horror-revenge hybrid with barely any swashbuckling whatsoever (the sequence I singled out is the one true exception). The cast from the first picture — Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, , and, of course, Johnny Depp — are all still wonderful, but the new plot, and the new villains that force it upon them, do not rise to their standard of acting excellence. In particular, Dead Man's Chest gives up a lot of ground by fielding Bill Nighy as its heavy instead of the Geoffrey Rush, though Nighy is done no favors by his ridiculous squid face makeup.

I suppose director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio felt obligated to provide a similar but different spin on the threat from the Black Pearl. That movie had ghost pirates, this one has monster pirates. But the ghost pirates were given an acceptable reason for existing; Dead Man's Chest offers no such explanation for sailors who look like hammer head sharks and hermit crabs. We are told that they are indebted to serve Davy Jones (that's Nighy), as enslaved members of his crew. As their servitude continues they are stripped of their humanity and, when their sentence is up they simply become part of Jones' ship. Ok, but why do they look like discarded characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time?

The movie operates in a strange little paradox. Special effects should be just that. They should be visual moments so astounding we delight in our disbelief. The ghost pirates from Black Pearl are a perfect example; so is Superman saving a falling airplane, so is Mickey Rourke looking like he just stepped off the page of a Frank Miller comic. Davy Jones and the rest of his crew aren't special. There is nothing inherently interesting about them and, frankly, they're a little repulsive. Instead of being unable to keep my eyes off them, I found myself averting my gaze when they appeared on screen too long. And how the hell am I supposed to concentrate on the dialogue in a scene (between characters with thick British accents) when one of them has a starfish growing out of his face?!?

We never learn the circumstances that made Davy Jones into a squid man or where he acquired his powers or his ship or his gigantic Kraken creature which can bother our heroes whenever the screenplay begins to drag. We never learn when or where or why or how Captain Jack Sparrow made his Faustian bargain with Jones. We never learn why Davy Jones put the object in the chest that he put in the chest, nor do we learn why this object is so desired by everyone in the film.

The lack of information in the film is indicative of its aggressive-but-airheaded approach. There are lots of action sequences and battles at sea, but the dialogue has to be shouted in brief bursts over explosions. Dead Man's Chest is long, but so was Black Pearl. But the original film built slowly and carefully; it opened with an atmospheric dream sequence, introduced its characters. Dead Man's Chest begins as if a scene is missing, with the characters running about and screaming at one another. Where the first film invited us along for an adventure on the high seas, the new Pirates is like a relative's slide show; they look like they're having fun in the pictures, but we're sure not.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Termite Television: Lucky Louie

Lucky Louie is unique. It is a sitcom about a lower middle class family that actually live and dress like they have money problems (along with Everybody Hates Chris). There's also a lot of male nudity. The brainchild of stand-up comic Louie C.K., it wrings humor out of muggings, frigidity, race, and heart-attacks. Filmed in front of a live studio audience on video, with extremely shallow staging (reminiscent of early sitcoms like The Honeymooners), the show is refreshingly intimate. There are no stylistic flourishes, appropriate for a show that's trying to approximate how a bummed out working class guy lives. As for plot, here's C.K. from an interview on

"Well, it's real simple. It's about a guy in a dead-end job who has a wife and a kid. He works in a muffler shop, but he's not even a mechanic. If you work at Dunkin' Donuts, you can just go over to Midas and retrain for two days, and you now are a muffler guy. So that's what this guy is. He's working in the service industry, and his wife is a nurse, so she's got an actual profession, an actual skill. And since her job has benefits and real pay, she's the one that works full-time. It happens in a lot of families. The guy's job has to be part-time, 'cause if he did it full-time it would only cost too much to put the kid in day care. So we're just in a common situation. His wife can be a pain in the ass, he's a douchebag in her eyes. And it gets to feel numb after a while. His friends are stupid, but he can't go out looking for a great best friend, like in other sitcoms where the friend is just right there for the guy. I don't know, I never had a friend like that. So it's just regular folks."

So, no bullshit, and the laughs are always barbed. In the last episode Louie's wife Kim (Pamela Adlon) tries to get him to go on a diet after his friend Mike (Michael Hagerty) has a mild heart attack (she challenges him to catch her, he gets exhausted running around the table). He tries for a few days, then starts sneaking food on the side, ending up on the toilet eating chocolate cake. In the end, she gives up. It's funny because Louie is sympathetic, with his permanent hangdog pout wanting to slam down the final bite of the Big Mac. We want him to be happy, but shit, he's killing himself. And that's how it ends. No resolution, nobody's learned anything, and Louie will remain out of shape. Truly a feel-bad comedy - but it's all done with a light touch - no lessons are being imparted. It's just how this guy is. No judgments, but often hilarious.

The actors are key for this to come off at all, and they're aces all around. Hagerty's been around forever in commercials and everything else on TV, and he's been honing this deadpan fat slob for years. It's lived in. Jim Norton's the other friend, Rich, who deals dope to teenagers on the side. Norton's another stand-up guy, a regular on the sorely missed Tough Crowd, and whose splenetic vulgarities gain more impact in a minor role. They sneak up on you. Adlon (who's voiced a string of animated series), and who's way too attractive for poor Louie, supplies the show with a mischievous energy and a facility for the sly putdown.

I don't expect it to last long - the spare style, banal subject matter, and off-hand vulgarity (it's never what I'd call obscene) are way out of step with what sells, especially on HBO. Shit, it follows up the rich-hued complexity of Deadwood and just looks out of place. I'm scared for it.


Termite Television: DVR

This was a good week to write about television, since I just got cable in my home for the first time in four years. Ah the nourishing bounty of several hundred channels of entertainment: I've already been struck with a deepening appreciation for Countdown with Keith Olbermann, found nightly bliss amongst the fraternity on Baseball Tonight, and even enjoyed some childhood nostalgia with old episodes of The A-Team. There's seems to be a lot more weird crap on the dial than I remembered: I've spent significant time watching old episodes of the Mr. T cartoon, wrestling matches from pre-history between Hulk Hogan and Big Bad Boss Man on MSG, and game shows from the Nickelodeon of my youth I'd forgotten existed (how that dude from Nickelodeon GUTS ever made it all the way to Yes Dear is a question that will be debated for eons).

But nothing has been more important than my discovery of perhaps the greatest invention in human history: DVR. For a measily nine bucks a month, I can pause, rewind, fast forward, and record any program my twisted heart desires. It's sort of like becoming a mad god of television. Like a Viking, I control all I survey. None are safe from my hand. I SAY THEE NAY COMMERCIALS!

Watching shows you missed because you were watching something else (or something really lame like going outside or speaking to other human beings) is fine and dandy. But the real pleasure is scouring the channels for movies, saving them, and sitting down to watch them later. You wouldn't believe the caliber of movies that play at 5:00 AM. Frank Tashlin's frothy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? doesn't come out on DVD until August; I caught it this week after an early morning airing on the suprisingly excellent Fox Movie Channel. And Fritz Lang's obscure Pacific Theater picture American Guerilla in the Philippines has never been released on any home format, but I caught it thanks to my DVR (so this is how Tom Gunning feels!). Other highlights from my first days of DVRevelations: Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Howard Hawks' Monkey Business, and Otto Preminger's River of No Return.

Tonight I can choose from Police Beat (I missed it's brief run in theaters), Rosetta (After the astonishing L'Enfant, I'm sorely in need of an education in the Dardennes Brothers), Welles' Othello or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (how have I gone my entire life without watching it?!?). Renting half of those movies would have cost me the nine bucks I'm spending on the DVR widget for the entire month.

Truly this is why God gave man eyeballs.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Termite Television: Parental Control

Every detail is attended to, so every episode is the same. A template has been pounded out in what I'm sure were endless test screenings with the hormonal horde. There is something lulling about the sameness, it comforts and soothes my tempestuous soul. The world outside may scoff at my aspirations at love and career, but Parental Control is there as an anchor: parents will always despise their spawn's beloved, and the beloved will spit in their drink. Or some variation thereof.

For those unaware, PC is a dating show, with one glorious difference: parents select two dates for their child - and then watch said dates on video with their child's spouse, whom they treat with regal disdain. The child must pick her favorite at the end. Bon mots fly with calming regularity - tones never rise too high, and no line is spoken with conviction. All are acting out the roles proscribed for them - but nothing is ever at stake. Everyone is uncomfortable, fake smiles combat with put-on disdain - and it all comes off like a coming of age ritual that everyone wants to end as soon as possible.

This is what must happen: parents interview prospective dates, asking about career, attitude, passions, and then one wild card question. Something about dance moves, sexual proclivities, special talents, etc., that cause these charming contestants to engage in physically embarrassing activities. Climbing on the table is a popular option. These climbers are never selected but are forever treasured. The parents squirm, smirk, say a sarcastic "oh really" to wacky answers, and generally convey a disturbing amount of reserve. Then they flip through a photo book, point to a page, and pick a mate. These sublime faces are kept from us with a merciless cut to commercial.

On to the couch they sit, this makeshift family of young lovers and finger waggers. It is the peak of the whole flawless operation. The lazy punk, that video-game playing, trucker-hat wearing layabout sits next to his golden haired, spindle waisted lady. The parents inevitably ask if he is nervous - and irregardless of his response, dastardly say he should be. Zing! But the worry is there on his face and on his creased brow. I hate him and yet I sympathize with him. The green eyed monster devours us all at times. Doorbell rings, the lady rises to open the door...the door opens a crack and....will the face be pockmarked, chubby, chiseled? I don't know. Commercial.

Door opens, hand shakes. The stud is muscular, an Abercrombie or weightlifter type usually. Sometimes the boyfriend refuses to shake the interlopers hand, I cringe and anticipate the veiled homophobic slurs to come. There they are! He looks like a girl, he says. And yet, I can't disagree. The boyfriend and I have connected once again. The two blind dates scamper off, the boyfriend stews in boiling juices, the parents giving him screwfaces the entire time. Theme dates ensue. Dance lessons elicit "He's just trying to grab her ass" (a popular refrain, and undoubtedly true). Or it's tennis where grabass is defended by Pops as "at least he's teaching her something." Small talk on dates is all veiled references to the current beau's shortcomings: "so you like to work out", "you have a job", "you shower regularly". Many shots of parents nodding. Then the bombshell of some nasty thing the lover did to the parents, like the aforementioned spit in cup, or it's laxatives in coffee or some such iteration of the ol' switcheroo. The kids are fond of the ol' switcheroo. Date over, come home, lady lists reasons she likes guy. Another important detail - the section of the couple going on the date always remains optimistic and never criticizes her dates - always takes her parents side on every issue until the final decision. Pump up suspense and all. Commercial.

Another date. Repeat previous scene. Commercial.

At this point the fun is over for me, as everyone has risen from the couch - that cauldron of teenage insecurity and parental arrogance. But anyway, the lady chooses - and inevitably they stay with their man. The status quo reigns supreme, the earth remains on its axis, and I anxiously await the next thrilling installment. It's probably on right now and that warms my inner organs.

Also, the review on IMDB is excellent and much shorter than mine:

"I'm only 16 but I usually don't watch MTV. But this time is different. Parents who are unsatisfied with their daughters boyfriend so they're going to pick two guys out of many hopefuls, they each take her on a date and the she has to decided to stay with her old boyfriend or go with one of the new guys. Their decisions are very mixed. Some stay and some go. The girls boyfriend is always a conceited jerk who treats her like complete poopy. (cant say the s word on this site, besides poopy sounds funny) I got a question. Why are all of MTV's shows done in California? They should do some in Florida or a cool place to be, There's more to life then California MTV!!!!! The girl is usually a dumb blonde who had a guy a beautiful blonde would never date. A lot of these girls are dating loser guys like me. The show is a bit unrealistic but still fun to watch. They should come to Connecticut in the summertime, it's really nice here, but ONLY in the summertime."


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Termite Television: 5 Months of Idol Chatter. Speechless? Hardly.

My love for American Idol began late. It was Season 2. That was the year when I began watching regularly. It was the late episodes, and the defeat of Clay Aiken by Rubin Studdard on Finale night that the tears started to well up. Rubin was the favorite that year, all the celebs were rooting for him. The audience resounded with a deep hollering "Ruuuuuuubin" when he'd appear. Quentin Tarantino was in the audience, I remember, punching the air and whoopin it up when Rubin waddled to the mike. Clay was just gay. Or latently so. But I liked him. He was the kind of guy I would have fallen for in middle school. Real sweet, but with a trendy edge. A momma's boy for sure. He wasn't threatening, and in retrospect, maybe that's what lost him the title. I watched the Season 2 Finale at my parents' home in Colorado while I drank from my green bottle of Heineken. It wasn't the right setting, my 80-something grandmother and fifty-something mother sat in the chairs opposite me, while Dad was enclaved in the upstairs room away from the "noise" and "garbage" Guy Smiley-Seacrest introduced. The tenor wasn't right that night. I watched with guarded emotion, insecure with my display of affection for Clay, Ryan Seacrest, and the sheer spectacle of the roaring audience. For chrissake I was sitting with my granny.

Down south in Tennessee was Camille Knox, my friend and fellow American Idol lover. Our conversations on the show mostly happened via email, thus making it too difficult to refer to American Idol as "American Idol," and we scripted our own shorthand: "AmIdol." Camille was in a different time zone, central time. I was in Mountain. This posed problems because she saw the show and final outcome while I was waiting with baited breath in the middle of the Rockies, pissed on beer, on the verge of tears and an emotional break-down while she held the secret that was to define the mood for the rest of the calendar year post-Season 2. As you can see, between the time zone discrepancies and my elderly audience in the living room, things were awry. I knew then I needed to watch with a Soul Sister, a person who understood the sheer hilarity and devastation of Simon Cowell's one word performance summaries: "Horrible." I needed to be among one who could get rabidly mad at judge Randy Jackson's pretentious paroxysm named "pitchy" when the contestants would conclude their performances. I needed someone to understand the gravity of Paula Abdul's cakey makeup and gaudy beaded necklaces that weighed more than she. I needed someone to understand the horror of her cakey makeup. For the love of god, her makeup.

At the start of Season 3 we had our calendars marked. Camille and I were roommates, finally together on opening night with heaping handfuls of chocolate in our mouths. Auditions! The center of gravity of AmIdol. This is what the show is about, seeing the vast crowds of contestants who think they have talent, seeing them line up for hours on end, hungry and tired and talentless, only to be, with all inevitability, capital D-denied access to the Hollywood rounds. But a lucky few make it. They burst from the judges' console with a yellow paper in hand, tumbling over Ryan and their loved ones while they scream into the camera. They've made it! They've made it. Oh, but the season is long...

Hollywood is another beast, my friends. Contestants swagger onto the stage confident and boastful and Simon is not amused. Once the Hollywood rounds are screened you have a good idea who's going to make the final cut. It's not just the actual talent of the finalists, but also the hammer-over-the-head backstories of the kids they find pre-air date to profile. Fast-forward to Season 5. Kelly Pickler the famous blonde southerner who as it turns out never heard of Calamari. "Pick Pickler!" She was cute and the producers knew it. Her dad is also a dead-beat, so that helps pull the heartstrings. We want the poor twangy girl without a father figure to triumph, and so, hello Top 12. And yet! Hollywood auditions endure. How about the evil Brittenum brothers, Terrell and Derell? I hate them. Hate is a strong word? Let me clarify: I hate them. The twins are, however, in all their despicability, a prime example of why auditions, Hollywood or preliminary, maintain the form and integrity of AmIdol. Those boys lost out. They were unsavory and cocky, but...they could sing. This is the conundrum: Can a character so loathsome possibly make it on to the Top 24? The Top 12? Could they take the whole show? Surely not, surely not. But you never know. It's the element of surprise, the time shared with each contestant regardless if you prefer their voice to Bo Bice's or Fantasia Barrino's that keeps the show nuanced. It's the long audition season that lets you live and breathe with these personalities, and justifies your own final pick for the Top 3.

The season does wear on. Scheduling conflicts arise. Three straight week-nights of AmIdol means good-bye social life and hello Diet Coke and Ford commercials. Unless of course your social life is AmIdol. Then, in that case, Hello social life! I admit, the middle of the season can be hard to sit through, especially if it is anything like this past season, Season 5, where there was no contestant to clearly love or hate. Kevin Covais, the pre-pubescent from Long Island was the worst, but he was gone and off the radar too quick to keep us infuriated enough to find the knit-beanie-wearing L.A. resident Ace Young exciting. The Great Mandisa was gone in a snap. Taylor was always one of my favorites, but his presence wanned as weeks passed. No one stood out. At least not yet.

In Season 3 we knew Fantasia was Top 3 material. In Season 4 we saw Bo Bice soar to the top, beating the ever-stagy and self-important Constantine. There were always clear heroes and villains. In early seasons when this was the case it was easier to tune in to make sure gag-inducing Anthony Federov was denied further hip gyrating privileges on national TV, and see through that Carrie Underwood and Bo prevailed.

When Season 4 began Camille and I were still roommates so of course we had Idol night blocked off in our planners together. Yes, it was the momentum and antagonism of contestants like Vonzell and Scott Savol that brought us diligently back to the couch Tuesday nights, but it was more than our personal hatred for these sorry singers that delighted us to watch. It was the fact that we could both check out of the mundane daily routine for one, two, sometimes three hours, and get excited about the details of someone else's problems. The ever-present problem for contestants was whether or not they'd make it on to the next week. Was this their last night? The problems posed for the judges, or at least Paula, was whether or not their physical appearance would be scrutinized that evening. Looking at some of Paula's outfits was like staring at a copy of Us Weekly where we (GASP) at celeb fashion offenders. Paula's apparent drunkeness that was at its height in Season 4 made her clothing escapades all the more exciting.

This year was an underwhelming season. Camille was in L.A., I in New York City. We couldn't be physically together on the couch, but we were one in spirit. Before the Finale Camille advised, "Here's one way to look at tonight: only two more episodes to go, then our long, national nightmare will be over and we can start living for next January again." We would be true to our roots, nevertheless, and find the Idol Spirit. As the Season 5 Finale approached our enthusiasm built. There really was a spark in the air, you could feel the energy. Grown men and children alike united to indulge in the glitter of the last night. By Wednesday, May 24th, the mood had changed. I wrote her my observations: "The Idol Fever is building, Camille. The hour is almost here . . . [a] girl I always have tension with [at work] even talked me up and smiled and waved and wished me happy watching as she left---this does not happen, Camille. Do you see what this show does! America! In solidarity!"

We had done it. We had triumphed. Taylor Hicks won (Soul Patrol!), the Top 12 gang came back for stunning group sings, Mary J. Blige showed up, Live performed with Chris Daughtry, David Hasselhoff teared-up in the crowd. Then, just when we thought it was over: Prince. Season 5 with all of its lulls had redeemed itself. It took Camille and I a few days to decompress and return to the regular pace of life, to realize that it was seven months until Idol shows its face on TV again. AmIdol was the buzz for the first 5 months of the year, and though we're in the off-season there is plenty to remember and a lot to look forward to. I'll sleep soundly knowing that on this hot summer night, someone, somewhere is auditioning for next January's show. AmIdol is alive.


Termite Television: The Wire

It's sort of perfect that The Wire is about selling and taking drugs: it is, without question, the most addictive television show in history. While watching season two on DVD I became so transfixed that I spent all night watching the last six episodes; the sun was up before I finally went to sleep. I was under no deadline to return the discs, I just couldn't justify sleeping in that situation. People refer to great books as page turners. There is, to my knowledge, no similar term for television shows, so I'm inventing one: The Wire is a stone-cold disc turner. It is also the best cop show ever made; it's damn near the best show period ever made. Please note that I've just finished watching all thirteen hours of the series' third season in something like three days, so using the phrase "damn near" in a sentence seems perfectly reasonable.

Trying to explain the show's greatness is impossible because when you tell people that you love a show as underwatched as The Wire you always get the same question: "What's it about?" and what makes The Wire special has nothing to do with what it's about, which is what every cop show in the history of television is about. The Wire simply does it better and more complexly, than anybody else.

By complexly, I don't mean abstract concepts like a preponderance of metaphors or overarching themes that guide the drama more than simple genre formulations, although The Wire has both of those things. I mean it more concretely — this show has more characters and more plotlines than any other I have ever seen. Here's a partial list of stories from season three (which begins, rather ominously, with the demolition of a seedy city landmark): a high-ranking policeman legalizes narcotics in his district; a councilman considers running for mayor; a drug dealer returns from jail to find the balance of power upset by the man running his crew in his stead; a cop realizing a man he sent to prison is dead and possibly murdered (this man was a crucial figure in season one, and was indeed murdered in a shocking scene during season two); a young dealer beefing with an established crew; an old gangster paroled from prison struggling to say on the straight and narrow; the mayor forcing the cops to lower their crime statistics in the middle of a gang war. That's a lot already, plenty for any other show to tackle, but that doesn't even begin to take into account the stories of the cops and criminals personal lives: the lieutenant separated from his wife who falls for his co-worker; the lesbian detective whose marriage suffers when her partner decides to get a child; the dealer who is hiding a secret about a murder he ordered.

I mentioned the murder from season two that impacts season three. That happens a lot in The Wire. It's not a show you can watch with one eye while you check your email or do the dishes. It demands attention. Each season is its own complete story with its own theme (the first batch focused on bureaucracy, season two labor issues, and season three social reform) but each new set builds upon the mythology that preceded. The primary police characters work for a special unit of the Baltimore police department specializing in wire tapping (hence the series' title), but the members of the crew constantly change: two officers, Herc and Carver, haven't worked directly with the unit since the first season, but they remain on the show as they work tangentially related cases. Somehow, creator David Simon (who wrote the book that inspired the show Homicide) balances the existing characters with the new ones he continually introduces. The fact that a lot of them end up dead probably helps a little.

A lot of series that tell stories over the course of a season get boring in the middle: even a show as good as Alias is only really worth watching for the season premiere and finale and a couple of episodes during sweeps. Somehow, The Wire tops itself week after week, which means every new episode of The Wire is the best I've ever seen. I can't wait to see what happens next, and I can never predict it either. As I finished writing this, a beloved character performed a mistake costly enough to remove him from the unit and another sacrificed his integrity for his loyalty. A few episodes ago, I was far too delighted when one character finished a beer can, crushed it, and tossed it onto a roof. This sounds inconsequential, except several episodes earlier, another cop had done the exact same thing, and the latter was the former's mentor. One seemingly innocuous gesture said more about their relationship than any flashback or dialogue could.

Besides Simon, the other show's other crucial voice is George Pelecanos, my favorite crime novelist, and a producer and writer on The Wire. The third season character least important to the story (but, ironically, most important thematically) is Cutty, a former gang banger released from prison trying to find his place in the world. This is very clearly a Pelecanosian creation, not far removed from the hero of his last novel, Drama City. Additional episodes in the third season were written by Richard Price and Dennis Lehane.

When season four appears, I will be ready, salivating like a Pavlovian dog that's just heard a bell. Like Smuckers, with The Wire, you know it's good.

Season four of The Wire premieres later this year on HBO.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Termite Television: Hell's Kitchen

If there is a Rosetta Stone to my taste, Hell's Kitchen might be it. I've often joked to friends that if I could create a show, it would look a lot like Hell's Kitchen and, really, no other show I know epitomizes the so-bad-it's-good aesthetic that I relish in crummy old science-fiction pictures and things starring crazy dudes playing football in tuxedos. Melodramatic, shrill, and calculated for maximum drama, Hell's Kitchen is either the smartest dumb show or the dumbest smart show ever made. I can't decide; I change my mind three or four times per episode.

Hell's Kitchen — or just "The Kitchen" for people in the know, as in "Did you guys catch "The Kitchen" last night? — is a reality show in the mold of The Apprentice: an eccentric success teaches his trade to a group of eager young whipper snappers with a fabulous reward awaiting the winner. In this case the trade is cooking (obviously) and the eccentric success is British chef Gordon Ramsay; the reward a million dollar restaurant in a new Las Vegas resort. Ramsay has written books like "Passion for Flavour" and "Passion for Seafood" but his greatest passion is for publicly humiliating people; he is, possibly, the world's worst boss (Meryl Streep's in "The Devil Wears Prada" seems downright compassionate in comparison). Ramsay's breakthrough show in England, where the chef would help revitalize restaurants in need of his aid, was called "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares." The American version removes most of the benevolence and imagines what Ramsay's own nightmares might be like.

Generally, these types of reality shows select contestants who are at least mildly qualified for the position at the end; though some might be abrasive, or obnoxious, or egotistical, you can at least rationalize why even the worst contestant managed to make their way on the show. Not so on Hell's Kitchen, where the participants appear selected not for their culinary ability or their passion for fine cuisine but rather for their inherent ability to annoy the shit out of Ramsay. For instance, this year's cast included Larry the fishmonger, who was forced out of the competition due to a physical breakdown caused by stress (inexplicably, his panic attack came not after one of Ramsay's verbal beatdowns, but after an evening hottubbing with the lovely ladies of "The Kitchen"), and a young man named Giacomo, who was allegedly a pizza maker, but ultimately found his way out of Hell's Kitchen when it was revealed that he did not even know how to turn on an oven (an oven being a rather crucial element of the pizza making, as well as most cooking enterprises).

Generally, these type of shows operate under a rigorously observed set of rules; Hell's Kitchen is completely subjective. At any point Ramsay can do whatever he wants and he very often does, like an angry deity smiting subjects who have failed to please him. During elimination, Ramsay will often request the least sucky contestant to offer up two teammates to go on the chopping block (this has to be the least rewarding reward in reality show history, since the person who doesn't get eliminated now wants to stab you in the back, which is dangerous on a show with this many meat cleavers lying about) but if the contestant he really wants to kick off isn't among the two, he will simply add him to the bunch and then eliminate him. Each episode is structured around a climactic meal service (which almost always ends in screaming and failure) and a challenge around the :30 mark, which is, without fail, judged however Ramsay sees fit. A recent episode required the players to cut steaks to the proper size and weight for serving. Ramsay judged, not with a mold or a scale, but with his eye and his hands, dismissing the steaks he didn't like with lines like, "I wouldn't serve that to a dog!"

You might wonder why I watch a show in which the contestants are clearly unqualified and the rules are constantly in flux. This is because Hell's Kitchen is not about the reward, in the way that The Apprentice is about getting rich working for Donald Trump. Hell's Kitchen is about watching stupid people get yelled at by the man with the shortest fuse in the history of civilzation. Though I would rather get deported than appear on the show myself, something about Ramsay belittling their poor lost souls gives me an admittedly sadistic pleasure. "GET BACK ON YOUR STATION, YOU DONKEY!" is something I expect to hear most episodes. "MOVE YOUR ASS FAT BOY!" is music to my ears. The creators do a brilliant job of letting us see these mistakes coming, of capturing that deer-in-the-headlights look when a contestant realizes they've screwed up and they are due for a tongue lashing (such as when one overweight contestant perspired so profusely in the kitchen that he began to sweat into the food...yummy). And think about it: even if you win Hell's Kitchen, what are you really winning? The chance to work 40 hours a week for Gordon Ramsay? To get belittled and insulted and made to feel like a maggot every day of your adult life, without the benefit of being on television while it's happening? Wow, what a fabulous prize. I think I'll take what's behind the curtain Monty.

A delightfully grumpy host coupled with some delightfully inept contestants would be enough to make a good show, but the show's heart stopping editing (cutting to commercials mid-word when it suits the drama!) and hilariously clumsy rituals (is it really necessary to impale the exiled chef's jacket on a meat hook AND incinerate their picture? Wouldn't one suffice to indicate their dismissal?) take it over the top. Hell's Kitchen is low-brow entertainment of the very highest order. Ramsay's cuisine shall always reign supreme (you donkey).

Hell's Kitchen airs Mondays at 9 PM on FOX.


Termite Art Presents: TERMITE TELEVISION!

It enlightens us. It infuriates us. It entertains us. For your reading pleasure, a very special theme week at Termite Art, one that will surely go down in history as a special theme week of a blog that 30 people read on a daily basis. The men and women of Termite Art share their personal boob tube highlights. This is Termite Television.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Coming to Termite Art on Monday: A THEMED WEEK!

Mr T.: Cheer up son!

Skippy: Mr. T!


Skippy: Why are you touching me? I thought the restraining order —

Mr. T: Listen fool! Starting on Monday, Termite Art is gonna be themed ALL WEEK. A whole week of freaky deaky posts! I pity the fool who don't come EVERY DAY and read the posts!

Skippy: Are you going to let go now?

Mr. T: That depends; you got any jewelry I can wear?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Will Rogers is a Nice Guy

It was hot in Minneapolis. So there was walking and sweating. I entered a video store where a guy told me to check my bag. He was a nice sort, with a mohawk budding on his head, and was on his way out for a smoke. So I obliged him. I peeked at the sale rack, bulging with cheap actioners, when by chance I espied a rare title. Judge Priest sat there humbly, waiting for my stout embrace. A 1934 Will Rogers film directed by John Ford, I've heard it praised by smart folks like Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum. So at the right price of $5.99 I parted with my cash.

A public domain copy, I was hoping it would be viewable, and after a brief audio scare, it was. And what pleasures it contained! Will Rogers is the aforementioned Judge, a folksy type more attuned to the spirit of the law than the letter, as he says. The main action surrounds his nephew's pursuit of a local girl with a questionable heritage, the pompous state senator's bid to unseat Judge Priest in the next election, and the nephew's first case as a lawyer. One can't describe the warmth generated by Ford and these nice people. Peaks include Rogers harmonizing with Hattie McDaniel as he writes a letter that will free the defendant, Rogers interrupting his nephew's date with a stuck up rich girl - and well, there's one more. Watching his nephew walking with his love, Judge Priest looks away, only to see himself and his deceased wife walking along that same path, in a ghostly superimposition. Then he walks over to the mantle, lights a candle which coats the room in a mournful glow. Above the mantle, a photo of his wife and children. He chats with them, not as in prayer, but as if they were there with him. It's overwhelmingly emotional because of how casual it is. This is how he has dealt with his grief over many years - this is no big reveal, only a generous peek.

In a related story, I also watched Steamboat 'Round The Bend (1935) from the new Fox DVD set. Less community feeling than the Judge, but it makes up for it with a limber narrative that has jokes constantly floating on the edges. Rogers here plays a roadside huckster, selling a Pocahontas potion to a welcoming public. His nephew arrives home with his lady, whom he spirited away from her violent swampland family. He also killed a guy. The nephew turns himself in - and in order to prove the murder was in self defense, Rogers has to win a Steamboat race on the way to finding the sole witness - the one who calls himself "New Moses", a bellowing, bearded false prophet, and by far the funniest character in the film (the actor, Benton Churchill, spewed more hot air as the Senator in Judge Priest). Rogers picks up Stepin Fetchit (a severely underrated comic performer) along the way - and the pace never lags. There's also room for one extraodinary shot, where the nephew and his lady are married in prison, with a crowd of inmates and guards surrounding them. They slowly dissipate as the camera moves in to the the clutching couple - holding on for dear life.

The Man of Steel, The Woman of Stale: Superman Returns

Move over Lex Luthor, Superman has a new arch-nemesis, and it's Lois Lane or, more specifically, Kate Bosworth.

Bosworth, a graduate of the Scarlett Johansson School of Hot Women Who Don't Act Too Good, is not convincing in any of Lois Lane's roles in Superman Returns. She's not convincing as a hard-nosed reporter. She's not a convincing as a nurturing mother. She's not convincing as a woman torn between her current lover and an old one whose returned from a long absence. In a scene between Lois and Clark, Bosworth stumbles and drops her purse, and can't even do that with much assertiveness. Even her hair, long and curly and a blandly brunette instead of the actress' natural blonde, gives a poor performance.

A casual observer (or a sexist) might think this unimportant; after all, it's a Superman movie and Bosworth isn't Superman (and, credit where credit's due, this movie's Superman, Brandon Routh, is pretty solid). But Superman Returns' primary conflict is as much about the love between Superman and Lois as the hatred between Superman and Lex. And every time the story turned to romance, I was faced with an unanswerable question: "Why would Superman, who could have any woman in the world, choose Lois?" Superman Returns offers no compelling reason.

(I should mention that when I raised this same question to a friend of mine, his honest response was, "Dude, Lois is hot. She looks like Kate Bosworth." "True," I replied, "But that's all she's got going for her. Is Superman really that shallow?" "I guess so," was the reply.)

Lois is crucial because of the way director Bryan Singer (along with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) treat Superman. Most reviews I've read discussed the way Singer plays him as all "super" and little "man" as a deity who walks (or, more accurately, floats) among us. But everyone I've read or heard has missed the way Singer, with two X-Men films under his belt, has made Superman, a DC property, into a hero with all the problems of a classic Marvel character. In the comics, Superman and Lois are married, but even before they were, Superman wasn't a barrier to Clark's sex life, at least not to the melodramatic degree that Singer takes it to. In classic Superman comics, the Superman/Clark/Lois love triangle is played for laughs. In classic Marvel comics, particularly Amazing Spider-Man (and to a lesser degree, books like The Incredible Hulk and others) Peter Parker's costumed identity, his obligation to protect others, is what keeps him separated from whatever girl he's chasing at the moment. Being Spider-Man should be fun, but it invariably ruins Peter's life.

That is exactly how Singer treats Superman: beneath the deification, and alienation (a word, by the way, that is prominently displayed on Ma Kent's Scrabble board in the very first scene) is Stan Lee's most enduring concept, with great power comes great responsibility. Kate Bosworth had the latter and couldn't bring the former.

Additional Superman Returns notes:

-The sea plane lobby got to Bryan Singer. Have you ever in your life seen a sea plane get so much screentime in a big Hollywood movie?

-Everyone says Routh looks exactly like Christopher Reeve. I don't see it: Reeve had a masculinity that Routh does not. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; Routh has a certain mannequin perfection which suits Singer's take on the character: there needs to be something artificial and even otherworldly to Superman, and Routh provides it.

-Routh does, however, sounds exactly like Reeve. If you closed your eyes, you might have trouble guessing which was which.

-I'm fairly certain that Kal Penn does not say a single line of dialogue as Luthor's henchman Stanford. Why even hire a recognizable actor if you're not going to allow him to open his mouth?

-Though I expected Marlon Brando's appearances in the film to feel like the lowest form of graverobbing, his contribution really works. Even if his speeches to his son occasionally sound like additional outtakes from Apocalypse Now ("I swallowed a bug Kal-El. You must never let the humans forget that they, too, do not want to swallow bugs. They need only the light to guide their way...I think I swallowed another one.")

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


With the impending release of Miami Vice, which I'm quickly getting moist about (it's all DV Collateral like and Colin Farrell's hair sluices water like a duck), I thought it might be an apt time to discuss something close to my heart, namely, Manns. I like men, sure, with their strange odors and fantastic ability to chant in unison, but Manns add something extra, usually a breathless chase sequence, a liquid camera movement, or a bracing bit of unexpected violence that exposes the fragility behind our Mannliness. The Manns I'll be dealing with are Michael, Anthony, and Delbert, but there are so many more out there yet to be discovered (Hummie Mann, for example, wrote the score to Robin Hood: Men In Tights).

This Mann has a receding hairline, sure, but isn't his stare disarming - is there not a shadow of a grin on those lips, communicating his superiority to all other Manns? Since he is Anthony, king of Manns, he can do whatever he damn well pleases. I'll be forever grateful to those uppity Lincoln Center folks for their retrospective of the king's work two years ago- this treasure was Manna from heaven. I became a Manniac, if you will. Most are aware of his superb series of Westerns with Jimmy Stewart, composed of death dealing landscapes, imploding psyches and the bravura meltdowns of Stewart (my personal favorite at the moment is The Man From Laramie, which is in ravishing CinemaScope, and that has dastardly Anthony Kennedy, the most underrated character actor ever). What truly knocked my tights off though was Men In War, an unremittingly bleak Korean War drama with the always resigned Robert Ryan and an obsessive Aldo Ray, desperately trying to keep his catatonic colonel alive in the midst of enemy territory. Death seeps in everywhere. Why isn't there a decent release of this anywhere. My impressions are fading. Anyway, it's Manntastic!

And then there's Delbert. A lesser Mann but still a Mann. A TV Mann at heart, he birthed the phenomenon known as Marty, directing the TV and film versions and bringing himself home an Oscar. One tremendous scene in the TV version, where Borgnine is dancing with dour Nancy Marchand at a nightclub, their duo in the eye of the hurricane, for once they venture outward the maw of insecurity awaits. But D-Mann is here for another reason. My father called me a few weeks ago to let me know he had watched something called Mr. Buddwing on AMC. He said it involved James Garner waking up as an amnesiac in Washington Square Park and wandering around the area trying to piece things together. He also said Angela Lansbury plays a floozy. His enthusiasm was palpable, the film airs on TCM on August 1, and it truly sounds Mannly. He also directed a few Doris Day vehicles, like Lover Come Back and That Touch of Mink. Not Mannly, but Doris Day was cute, so we'll forgive him.

And there's of course our beloved Michael. Thief is a modest sized gem about an obsessed professional (and a psychotic James Caan), Heat a gargantuan sized police procedural about obsessesd professionals, and Collateral a small-scale thriller about obsessed professionals and the city of L.A. They're focused even when the plot is sprawling, and the sense of place is never left behind (which is why I'm fascinated to see how Miami turns out). The Insider is gorgeous and contains Russell Crowe's finest performance, while Ali... I don't remember much about Ali except I thought it was underrated at the time. Also Will Smith nailed the role. He's one of the few auteurs we've got left in Hollywood - so let's enjoy him shall we?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Room Of Our Own

You can't look anywhere in Los Angeles without seeing a billboard. And, this being Los Angeles, most of them are about movies. There's so many in fact that they begin to achieve a sort of visual white noise. You stop noticing they are there at all.

One stands above the rest because it is for a movie you've never heard of and because, more importantly, it looks like this:

When the billboard caught my eye on a recent trip to L.A. I chuckled and pointed it out to my L.A. producer and he gave me the details as best he knew it: this film was made by the guy whose disturbing, possibly inebriated image was staring at me from Highland Avenue, he wrote, directed and starred in it, and for years he's been hosting midnight screenings of the film which was reportedly so bad it was good.

The plot thickened after I heard the writer/producer/director/star Tommy Wiseau and some of his adoring-slash-mocking fans on NPR. Wiseau claimed he knew all along he was making a strange movie that made no sense. He claimed it was all intentional, that the bizarre elements the audience loved, the terrible green screen effects, the dinner theater acting, were all part of a master filmmaking plan. At that point I was certain of two facts: that Tommy Wiseau was full of shit and that I needed to see the movie as soon as humanly possible. On my latest trip to the Southern California I got my chance. And I am happy to report that The Room is one of the most delightfully bad movies I have ever seen.

Wisea plays Jimmy, who lives with his fiance Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Before we know anything more than that the two are already engaged in a sub-Red Shoe Diaries sex scene, in which Wiseau appears to be making love to Danielle's navel, and several shots with water in front of the lens, as if the camera is assuming the perspective of a toilet.

After that lifeless sex scene (which ends when Wiseau gets out of bed and walks out of the room, giving us all an unwanted and far too lengthy look at his naked rear) the film settles into a rhythm: sex scenes (including one that appears to be nothing more than outtakes and reused shots from the first sex scene!) followed by scenes where Lisa's gold digger of a mother (Carolyn Minnott) arrives and argues with her daughter about marrying Johnny. Lisa says she doesn't love Johnny (though most of the time, she acts like she does), Mommy says who cares about that! He'll provide for her, and Lord knows she can't take care of herself. Lisa has other things on the mind. She's cheating on Johnny with — gasp! — his best friend! After an eternity, Johnny discovers their deception and begins recording their conversations with...his answering machine?

Wiseau is a triple threat of badness: bad actor, bad writer, and bad director (very bad according to his interview in The Room DVD special features; he claims she shot the film in both 35mm and HD because he was "misinformed" — whoopsie!). Though Variety claims Wiseau is from New Orleans he speaks English like a foreigner (think Borat by way of Steven Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy), and his screenplay is full of misinterpreted English slang; in one scene, when he returns home to find Lisa has already ordered their dinner of pizza (half canadian bacon, yum!) he replies, "Lisa, you think about everything!" That's think of everything Tommy.

Subplots and characters are added and then discarded with reckless abandon. The best is an altercation between a drug dealer and Tommy's college student neighbor — it involves guns and debts and screaming and fighting, and once it's over it's never mentioned again. Some elements completely defy explanation all together: in one scene all the male characters put on tuxes, presumably for Tommy's marriage to Lisa. But the marriage never happens; the men go into an alley and play football in their tuxedos instead. And the title? Wiseau claims it does not refer to the cheaply adorned set that serves as the location for most of the film's inaction. "It's not a room, it's the room!" he confusing adds. "Sometimes you feel happy, sometimes you feel sad, but it's a place you go" At that point I was laughing too hard to hear the rest.

You've heard of so-bad-it's-good. The Room is so-terrible-it's-great. It is a cinematic treasure that needs to be seen by everyone who has at least one working eyeball. What better way to celebrate American independence this July 4th than by watching a truly independent filmmaker screw up his movie in every imaginable way?

(The Room billboard image is stolen from this website, where you can get more Room information, should you want it)