Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Inanities' Year in Review: 2006

One hour and fifty-two minutes 'till 2007.

I've had my ass handed to me a few dozen times playing "Gears of War" with adolescents of varying vocal pitch on my XBox 360, and I figured instead of having my tiny head blown off with a Grub-wielded shotgun one more time, I'd write a lil' somethin' somethin' on the ole Inanities. (Not that this is interesting, but I did write about 3/4 of a blog post night before last, but Firefox died on me and it went away. Yes, a true loss for American letters.)

2006, huh? What a year. I had my car stolen, recovered, and finally repaired, I received an unhappy phone call from a certain actor featured in a certain 10-minute video project, an unhappy email from a certain production design teacher, an unhappy comment from a certain "power lit blogger" (all as a result of keeping this blog which I didn't know would be so exciting) ,hung out with Shawn and Gretch (and her friend Melissa) up in Asheville where I saw the Biltmore Estate (AKA the Mason Verger Estate), and late in the year, got back into storyboarding. My wife did her summer internship, finished the first year of business school and started the second, my in-laws got two Schnauzer puppies named Sam and Frodo, which they love, and my folks moved out of L'Ville and into their country house, which they love. My sister started her education as a hair stylist, and my brother got the big promotion he wanted. It's been an eventful year, and a pretty good one, all considered.

My favorite movie of 2006 was Scorsese's "The Departed". My inclination is to say that 2006 was a bad year for movies, but out of the 50 or so movies I saw in the theater this year, I did see three absolutely fantastic movies, "The Departed", "The Prestige", and "V for Vendetta". I don't think many years pass that see three movies released in theaters I'd term instant classics, but 2006 was one of them. Ninety-five, the year of "Pulp Fiction" and "Shawshank Redemption", seems to come closest in my mind to producing a comparable raft of great films. But maybe my disappointment this year stems from the stuff I saw that was bad -- there wasn't a lot of middle ground this year. It seems like the movies of 2006 were either brilliant or mediocre or all-out god awful, soulless trash. Not a lot in the way of just "good" movies. I think this may have to do with the decreased output of the major studios and the added pressure on these films to succeed which pushes studio execs to make them as appealing as possible to the lowest common denominator. Movie-wise, I've got my fingers crossed for a better 2007, but I've got no good reason to be optimistic.

The book I enjoyed most that I read this year was Christopher Priest's "The Prestige" (incidentally, the filmed adaptation was my second favorite movie of the year). The best book I read last year (and this is different from 'enjoyed most'), was Nabokov's "Lolita". A Russian by birth, English was his second language and he still wrote it better than almost anyone else before or since. Also, I read aloud the Humbert Humbert parts in the voice of James Mason, thus tripling my enjoyment of the book.

Best TV Show of 2006: "The Wire". Favorite news event of 2006: Democratic takeover of Congress. Saddest Departure from TV Job Due to Illness: Roger Ebert. I hope he comes back soon. Well, there's 63 minutes until the new year and I don't want to spend them learning how to write a coherent sentence, so I'll leave it at that.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2007.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas Loot, "Gears of War", and The Execution of Saddam Hussein

Hello, all. Hope everyone had some good holidays.

As for me, Christmas was great this year. In the days before Christmas, my wife had Best Buy install a CD player into my Crown Vic without my knowing (my being generally oblivious helps), my in-laws gave me an XBox360 among other things (like a pocketknife, a bag of peanut M&Ms, and a little book called "365 Thing Every Man Should Know", which I can't help but think was intended as a comment of some sort), and my folks, privy to the impending gifting of the XBox360, bought me a game, "Superman Returns", an additional wireless controller, and a wireless internet thingie so I can do the XBox Live thing. A nice haul for my 30th Christmas.

Peggy also started a free trial membership to a video-game rental service called So on Christmas morn I had not only the so-far disappointing "Superman Returns" to play, but also "Gears of War", "Call of Duty 3", and a swat/X-Files hybrid game called "F.E.A.R.". The clear winner out of this grouping is, hands down, "Gears of War".

My brother came over last night and we played a campaign of "Gears" in cooperative mode till the wee hours and I'd have to say that "Gears" is the most-clever, most intelligently-designed video game I've played since "Halo". There isn't anything lazy about this game. A lot of games, of which "F.E.A.R." is an excellent example, are content to set up an overarching storyline and then lead the player through level after level which all look numbingly alike, killing gun-wielding baddies who all wear the same uniform. In "Gears", the designers designed the game as though terrified of ever letting the player get bored. Each level is thoroughly unique, ranging from shelled cities to decaying mansions to a vast complex of mines. Even within each level, each section is wholly its own bit of geography; every inch of the landscape looks as though it was designed and built by a studio art department, and with the same attention to detail. Storywise, there's very little in the way of exposition, which gives the game a you-are-there feel. Though there is a lot of grabbing cover and popping up to exchange fire with enemies, the designers break it up by introducing new weapons (like the Hammer of Dawn, which directs a satellite-originating laser onto your unsuspecting foes), and punctuating the action with exciting side missions. Anyway, it's a great game, and I'm about ready to play me some in the next little while.

It's been a newsy last week of 2006. James Brown and Gerald Ford passed over the past few days. If famous deaths comes in threes, as they say, then Saddam Hussein may well be the third. NBC is reporting today that Saddam Hussein may well be remanded over to Iraqi authorities in the very near term, and he will be hanged shortly thereafter, perhaps as early as tomorrow, but definitely before Sunday. I'm anti-death penalty, even in cases like this where we know the bastard's guilty, and I think it's wrong to kill Hussein. I think banning state-sanctioned murder, as most of the first-world industrialized nations have done, is a hallmark of a civilized society. Iraq is anything but, but in a place like Iraq where so many have died, and often senselessly and at random, I think commuting Hussein's death sentence would make an important and persuasive statement that the Iraqi leaders were substantially different from the insurgents who are currently fomenting chaos in that country by killing those in opposition to them. Commuting Hussein's death sentence would send a message to the non-violent Iraqis who are either fleeing the country or cowering in their homes, that killing is not the answer to any problem, especially not to those entrusted with helping Iraq back to its feet. I'm not naive enough to think that any statement the so-weak-as-to-be-useless Iraqi government might make would have much of an impact on what's happening there (which seems intractable and unfixable), but hanging Hussein seems to be the least thoughtful option.

Anyway. It's time to administer the death penalty to swirling masses of pixels on my TV screen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"The Proposition", "Strangers With Candy", "Talladega Nights, Uncut", and "The Oh in Ohio"

A couple of movie reviews. Since I've been castigated in the past for too much vitriol in my reviews, I'm going to do them the same way we used to do when discussing student work back in our film-school screenwriting classes: talk about what you like first, then talk about what you didn't like. So here we go.

1.) "The Proposition". I wanted to see this back when it was in theaters but for whatever reason, decided to wait for DVD. Well, that time is now. I watched this last night and I have mixed feelings about it. Set in the Austrailian outback circa the turn of the 20th century, the film stars Guy "Ed Exley" Pearce as Charlie Burns, a former member of the Burns Gang, a group he abandoned when its leader, his brother, went from run-of-the-mill violent to out-and-out sadistic. The film opens with Charlie and his little brother, Mike Burns, taking cover in a whorehouse being shot to bits by gunmen outside. The leader of the gunmen is Captain Stanley (played by Ray Winstone), an English policeman transplanted to the deserts of Austrailia with orders to "civilize" the land. He sits the manacled brothers at a table and gives Charlie the proposition: in order to save his little brother from a Christmas Day hanging, Charlie has to find and kill his older brother, Arthur. He has nine days to do it.

The good: This film, written by singer/songwriter/composer Nick Cave (with whom my only prior acquaintance had been a cool song on the "Scream" soundtrack, "Red Right Hand"), is ponderous and dark. I enjoyed that quality about it. The director, John Hillcoat, allowed time for scenes of bad men contemplating sunsets and saying ponderous things about them. I saw shades of Terrence Malick (and by extension DDG) in this, but I also saw quite a bit of Cormac McCarthy, specifically his novel, "Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West". In that novel, McCarthy describes a band of killers engaging in a kind of genocide as they murder whole settlements of native peoples. These scenes of horror are punctuated with scenes around the campfire depicting the uniquely psychotic leader of the crew, Judge Holden, having Socratic dialogues with his awed and blood-stained compatriots. There is a bit of "the Judge" in Charlie Burns's older brother, Arthur, who quotes high-falutin' poetry and seems possessed of a senstive soul even though he's buried it long since under the weight of his crimes, and I liked that Cave and Hillcoat made the effort here. All the performances were good and it kept me engaged throughout, if not exactly entertained. I liked that the man they set up as the ruthless baddie, Captain Stanley, is humanized more and more as the movie progresses until, by the end, you're actually rooting for him to survive. Points to the filmmakers for doing the unexpected.

The bad: I guess if I'm having trouble filling in this part, then maybe I ought to leave it blank, but the truth is the film was just missing something. The ending left me underwhelmed. I don't know if the feeling came from an overall lack of storytelling structure, or if it was because the film's payoff didn't feel well-earned, or if Guy Pearce's character was a little too opaque to really invest in, but the whole film was slightly off the mark. Noble effort, though.

The ugly: Guy Pearce. Just a weird-looking dude.

2.) "Strangers With Candy". Also rented this one on DVD. "Strangers" has some funny moments but doesn't offer big laughs with any consistency. The film follows Jerri Blank (played with a complete lack of vanity by Amy Sedaris) as she's released from prison and returns home to discover her real mom's dead, her father (Dan Hedaya) has remarried and is now in a coma. Her father's slightly wacky doctor (played by Ian Holm in a real casting forehead-slapper) suggests that Jerri's years of depraved living may have caused her father's coma, and that returning to high-school and doing something positive, like "making the honor roll" for example, may bring him out of it. The film's plot, which seems perfectly derived from the sitcoms and after-school specials the orginal Comedy Central show sent up, centers on Jerri's efforts to win the State Science Fair and thus bring her father out of his coma. Comedy ensues.

The good: I love Amy Sedaris's go-for-broke portrayal of Jerri Blank. Anyone this dedicated to getting a laugh deserves respect. Ordinarily, Sedaris is a cute, slightly middle-aged blonde woman who does excellent undersung work playing harried city girls in films like "Elf" and on a bunch of episodes of "Sex and the City". (I'm interested to see her in the upcoming DGG movie "Snow Angels".) But in "Strangers With Candy", she pads her unfashionable tights and turquoise shirts to make Blank even more ungainly, and then contorts her face so that she takes on the persona of someone who expects the worst, gets it, but still seems stupidly optimistic that her luck will change. It's a hideous expression, but it's funny, and she's funny. Like Will Farrell or Jim Carrey (circa the early nineties), Sedaris uses her everywoman body in unflattering ways to get a laugh, which makes her fairly unique among female comedians. The dance of seduction she uses to get with the captain of the "Varsity Squat-Thrust Team", for example, is goddamn hilarious. Usually, when the script calls for Sedaris to do some physical comedy, the movie works. Colbert's funny, and there's a lot of amusing cameos, so you know, that's fun.

The bad: Eh. Comedy's subjective. I may laugh nearly to the point of death watching scenes in "Talladega Nights", while others will merely yawn. I guess my main problem was that the ratio of joke misfires to joke hits was way too high. Overall, not classic comedy, but still miles funnier than, say, "Date Movie" or "Scary Movie 5" or whatever they're on now. Even funnier than "For Your Consideration".

The ugly: Principal Blackman in a Speedo.

Anyway, speaking of "Talledega Nights", I saw it again this weekend, this time on DVD. Verdict: the scenes in that movie that are funny, still kill me. The cougar scene especially. I cried again. The lulls, however, are somewhat more noticeable the second and third go-round. What I noticed more this time than when I saw it in the theater is that "Talladega Nights" is a flat out well-put together movie. Well-written and well-directed which is unusual for a lot of comedies that put their trust in the jokes rather than in telling a complete and satisfying story. One strange thing though: for the first time in my experience, a so-called "Uncut" DVD version of a film actually cut a scene that was in the theatrical release. In the theatrical "Talladega", when Ricky Bobby gets the old pit crew team back together for the big race, Ricky finds Michael Clarke Duncan running a car wash. In the DVD version of "Talladega", however, that scene is plum gone. The point, you ask? Screw you, I don't have one. I just thought it was weird. And also they shouldn't cut stuff that was in the movie when it was in theaters. Putting something out on DVD shouldn't be an opportunity to recut your movie.

Also saw "The Oh in Ohio". It's okay, I guess, but kind of depressing. Its plot approximates that of '05 Vaughniston movie, "The Break Up", but it's less concerned with the couple-ness of the couple (played in "Ohio" by Parker Posie and Paul Rudd), and more concerned with their respective searches for sexual fulfillment after they've separated. The movie doesn't really have positive things to say about staying in marriages that aren't explosive sexually. In essence, "The Oh in Ohio" seems to say that the grass really is greener on the other side, all you have to do is jump ship to find it; this is a sentiment that generally runs counter to the conventional wisdom on the subject. Anyway, downer ending, and a generally downer movie.

Those are the reviews. Enjoy your Tuesday evenings.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

At Long Last: Something I Really Like. My Latest Effort to Spread the Joy of HBO's "The Wire"

Just finished watching the fourth season of "The Wire" today. Most television shows get worse with age. Even "The Sopranos" managed just the three (maybe four) good seasons. "The Wire", however, gets better each time at bat. I've now seen three of the four seasons in their entirety and I can't say I remember another show that was as involving, as entertaining, or as relevant as this show has so consistently been. David Simon, the show's creator, has said he only ever wanted to film five seasons of "The Wire", and now that HBO's just greenlit that final season, not only do we have one last 13-hour batch of "Wire" goodness coming our way, but we'll have a complete and thoughtfully-considered long-form story in the can, just as its creator intended. A rare thing, if not unheard of, in the annals of television. Good news for me. Good news for you.

The first and excellent season was about the formation of a Special Crimes Unit in the Baltimore PD tasked with taking down local druglord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), which they did by tapping his and his minions' cell phones. I haven't seen the second season (though the first disk is sitting in its mailing sleeve on my TV this second), but I do know it's an in-depth look at life on the docks of Baltimore. The third season concerns the rise and fall of Barksdale's right-hand man Stringer Bell (played by the charismatic Idris Elba) as he attempts to reform the drug trade by aping the corporate top-down model; in addition, "Bunny" Colvin, a respected police-captain, attempts to lower the crime rate by legalizing drugs in Baltimore.

The fourth season, which just ended, focuses on four middle-school boys as they try and make it through the broken bureacracy of the city's school system that cannot teach them anything that has currency on the streets, a family structure broken down to nothing by the scourge of crack, and a vampiric drug trade that feeds on young black males for its very existence; their struggle's set against a backdrop of renewed civic hope as the newly-elected mayor and Great White Hope, Tom Carcetti, promises to fix some of the city's most glaring problems, but as David Simon said in a recent Slate interview, much of what the show's about is how people with good intentions try to reform systems that will not bear reform. People who come in to try and change things end up either fired or dead, depending on which system their working within. The way the show depicts the city's various problems, which seem so ingrained and intractable as to be a force of nature, the idea of "fixing" the problem, which a few characters seem compelled to do, seems almost delusional. The amoral, purely political animals, the folks without a scruple in their head who care nothing for their city and only for themselves, however, end up doing very well in the universe of "The Wire".

This point actually brings me to the central contradiction of the show's purpose. Simon intends for the show to shed light on what is an important national problem: dire poverty in American cities, especially among black Americans. He wants viewers to get as mad as he is about the current state of his native Baltimore, and by doing so change minds in the country; get the national will on his side. But because the tone of the show is so bleak, the cumulative effect of all that abjectness creates a feeling of helplessness in the viewer. Yes, it's bad, and Simon wants me to get angry about it, but my first impulse is to throw my hands in the air and say, "You're right! It's hopeless." And then, right after, "What can we do about it?" Through his characters, Simon does offer solutions: Police Captain Colvin's attempt to legalize drugs, the pilot program to socialize disruptive, "at-risk" kids, the reformed gangster's neighborhood boxing gym, are all examples. But, as Simon said, "the system does not bear reform". So which is it? Are the poor, minority-areas of our cities a depressing and inherently solutionless problem, or is it a problem that can be fixed if only our politicians (backed by a newly patient and civic-minded constituency) had the political will to fix them? The show does not make this clear.

Anyway. I'll say again what I said back in my February post about this show: it is truly a novel made for television, in the very best way possible. The show pays off at the end of 13 episodes in the same way a novel pays off in its closing pages; each season and, so far, the entire series has an identifiable arc, and, unlike some other shows I could mention, the writers know where they're going with the story: they know how it ends. "The Wire" is immersive, it's absorbing, and more than just getting the sense you've learned something about Baltimore (which you will), you get the sense you've learned something important about the way the world operates. Yeah, that's pretty grandiose for an hour-long drama on HBO, but the show's pretty persuasive like that. In addition to being entertained, you can't help but feel like you're doing your civic duty by watching the show.

Now, if my prior support for films like "The Relic" or my recent criticism of films like "Cars" and "For Your Consideration" have you doubting my critical opinion, you ought to read Jacob Weisberg's Slate article about why "The Wire" "is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America". He says what I'm trying (and failing) to say far more eloquently. Or read Stephen King's rave about the show. Yes, the fourth season about which they speak is now aired and gone, (until it emerges once again in the form of an $80 DVD box set), but the first, second, and third seasons are available for rent or purchase on DVD. My advice to you, oh loyal readers, is next time you're at Blockbuster, (or updating your Netflix que), pick up the first disk of season one. You will not be sad you did.

Finally, I was sad to hear that Peter Boyle died today. He was 71. His portrayal of "the Monster" in "Young Frankenstein" was genius -- his scene with Gene Wilder doing their demented rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz", is the kind of funny that's timeless, and my guess is it will be remembered (and laughed at) forever. Not a bad way to leave one's mark on the world. He was also great in "Everybody Loves Raymond", and I thought he did some good work as the heavy in the sci-fi "High Noon" remake, "Outland". Anyway, just wanted to say something to mark his passing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Here's One for the "Worst Of the Year" Lists. Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" is Considered Herein

I saw "For Your Consideration" over the weekend. Sadly, not at all good. Terrible, in fact. I've enjoyed the Christopher Guest-directed movies less and less since "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show". Though "A Mighty Wind" wasn't at all directed at my demographic -- folk music was well before my time -- I didn't think it was particularly funny either. In that film, Guest seemed content to nudge a laugh out of a scene if he could replace it with a bit of sentiment instead. In my mind it flat out didn't work. "For Your Consideration", Guest and Co.'s latest, works even less well.

Unlike Guest's other films, "For Your Consideration" eschews the "mockumentary" format he made famous with "Spinal Tap" and "Guffman", and goes for a more traditional storytelling approach. This works just fine: I found that I didn't really miss the self-aware glances to the camera or the outside-of-the-action interviews. Changing format is not this movie's problem. The movie's set in Hollywood, and concerns the cast and crew of an absolutely awful awful movie called "Home for Purim" that, inexplicably, starts to get a little Oscar buzz for three of its four lead actors. "Purim", the film inside the film, is set just as World War II is ending, and tells the story of how a traditional midwestern Jewish family comes to grips with their servicewoman-daughter's homosexuality when she comes homes from the war. This would be a send up of what sort of film exactly? Guest has the chance here to skewer any number of contemporary film genres or Hollywood trends that are positively crying out for a completely mean-spirited parodic treatment, but instead he decides to leave them all alone and mine what little humor's still left in Yiddish words comically injected into conversation. Not too much, we find. The scenes Guest includes of "Home for Purim" (which is eventually changed to "Thanksgiving" by the studio to make the film more palatable for Gentile moviegoers) are execrable. Badly-written, badly-acted, with a premise that would thwart even the most talented screenwriter's earnest efforts. Ostensibly, Guest intends for these terrible scenes to be unintentionally funny, and thus revealing that much of the "Oscar buzz" phenomenon has very little to do with the quality of the films and a lot to do with irrational exuberance on the part of the media, but the unintentional badness that has been for so long a staple of the Guest oeuvre, just dies here. Watching a lot of people working on an awful film is depressing enough, but that the film within the film has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever makes those scenes doubly punishing. At least in "Guffman", which was about the staging of an awful small-town play, the play itself was so earnestly put-on, and enjoyably campy, that we didn't mind watching it even if it was essentially just a bad play. The same device fails miserably here.


So Guests satirizes the entertainment media, and then satirizes the credulous actors who believe the hype. There are three "Purim"/"Thanksgiving" actors who've got Oscar buzz: 1.) Catherine O'Hara's character, the kindly and pitiable Marilyn Hack, who disfigures herself with Botox and collagen injections to make herself look more like an A-list Hollywood actress, 2.) Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer), a struggling actor best known for his hot dog commercials, who starts dressing in sportcoats over t-shirts and making appearances on TRL (which, incidentally, provides the film's least funny and most embarrassing moment -- Harry Shearer dancing. Wow. I seriously had to look away. More awkward even than David Brent or Elaine Benis's tragic dance performances, except this one, I suspect, was probably pretty real.), and 3.) Callie Webb (Parker Posie), who upon news of her upcoming Oscar nominatuion, promptly dumps her boyfriend who no longer "understands" her. The big Oscar nom morning arrives: none of the three actors get one. Here's the film's big punchline.

The last few minutes consist of Fred Willard (who approximates an entertainment "reporter" in the Pat O'Brien mold), accosting the three actors, "Cheaters"-style, cruelly asking them questions designed to make them relive their failure to make the cut. There isn't a damn thing funny about it, and I doubt even that Guest wants the audience to laugh during this section. Guest's rage comes to the fore in this section most clearly; this angry, humorless denouement suggests a personal stake of some kind, as if someone close to him had endured something similar and he wants the world to share his anger at the vacuousness and maliciousness of the whole stupid process. The film ends with an incoherent O'Hara shuffling down her driveway to throw out what's left of some food she's been binging on since 5 that morning, disheveled and all over the place emotionally, hardly able to converse with Willard's character she's so distraught. Even Willard's character doesn't seem to find any amusement in her downfall. He steps out of frame and the film ends. Funny, huh?

Anyway, this thing was a real disappointment. I hope Guests raises his game for the next one, or, even better, gives it up for a few years, and takes a few acting gigs for a while. Anyone remember the Six-Fingered Man from "The Princess Bride"? Or the cold pathologist in "A Few Good Men"? He's a pretty good character actor in his own right; I'd like to see the guy do some more movies instead of grinding out another uninspired improv comedy every couple years.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Richard Ford Goes to the Margaret Mitchell House and Surveys the "Lay of the Land", and Also: An Email From Film-School Past

A couple interesting things. First off, Richard Ford.

Author of "The Sportswriter", the Pulitzer prize-winning"Independence Day", and most recently, "The Lay of the Land" (which was one of the New York Times' 10 best books of 2006), Richard Ford's considered one of the pre-eminent American novelists working today. He came down to the Margaret Mitchell House here in Atlanta and gave a great reading.

The wife and I drove into downtown Atlanta on a cold Monday night and parked right across from the Center for Southern Literature, which is where the MM House holds the readings. We walked up Peachtree Street a short ways to The Vortex, (which is easily the best burger chain in the city), had dinner, and then walked back to the event and found our seats. The interior space of the Center for Southern Literature is a split-level: the higher level is an L-shaped room where the business of the Center is done. This is where you buy memberships or the visiting authors' books, and it's also where you usually go to get those books signed after the reading and Q&A is finished. A short set of stairs descend from this level to the lower level, where the chairs are set up around a podium which has a plexiglass lectern set up on it from which the writer may address the crowd. We were sitting in our seats on the lower level when I looked up to the higher level and spotted Richard Ford.

In one of the photographs the New York Times took of Ford when they were writing about his new book, Ford looks gaunt, unwell, and a little frightening. In person, however, he looked much less like a horror show and more like a hale and friendly middle-aged novelist, complete with the tweed sportcoat and dark gray hair going a little long in the back. Because I kept glancing up to see what he was up to, I noticed that Ford didn't move from that one spot from the moment I first saw him to when the MC started her Ford introduction, which was about 20 minutes. From my low-angle vantage, I could see him receive his fans with warm smiles and gracious conversation. This wasn't exactly what I'd expected. A man that would shoot a novel written by a woman who'd given him a bad review, and someone who expactorated in the face of novelist Colson Whitehead because Colson reviewed one of Ford's books negatively, would certainly be a surly guy and brusque with questioners, or, at best, a quiet and standoffish guy who was just fulfilling an obligation to his publisher. But as it turned out he was neither of these guys, which surprised me. (I still plan to never write a bad review of one of his books however).

Anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom one last time before the proceedings began, and when I returned Ford was sitting behind my wife, chatting quietly with another guy in a tweed sportcoat. The Director of the Center for Southern Literature was introducing Ford and, when she got to the part about Ford's signing books afterwards, she said that he would only be able to sign one backlist title per person. But as to copies of his new book, "The Lay of the Land", he would sign -- and then behind me, I heard Ford say quietly and in jest, "As many as you can fucking carry." To me, this was hilarious.

He went up onto the podium and talked for a bit. He said he was glad to know there was an actual city in Atlanta, and not just an airport as he'd once thought, he related the story of his mom pointing out Eudora Welty to him at a lunch counter in Mississippi when he was 8 years old, and then he spoke a little about the various places he's lived, including New Orleans. Most of the writers that do readings like this aren't brilliant public speakers. Their business is writing and the talent of writing has very little to do with a talent for public speaking. But Ford's gifted in both aspects. He has a trick he does every now and again, of beginning a line in a conversational and offhand tone, and then, when he comes to the point he's been building to, he lowers his voice and changes his tone to that of a sage dispensing hard-earned wisdom. It was an effective device, and it helped that when he lowered his voice like that, what he had to say was actually wise, or at least seemed so. Contrasted with other writers who speak in what can only be described as a droning monotone, Ford came off like frickin' Cicero. It was a great talk, and a great reading. It's usually pretty easy to zone out during the reading part of these events, but with Ford it was actually easier to stay with him and listen to his story. I'm looking forward to reading it.

When I got up to the table to have Ford sign my copy of "The Lay of the Land" and "Wildlife", the first thing he said was, "Hi, what's your name?" I told him and he reached out his hand to shake mine. "Hi, I'm Richard Ford," he said, and then he signed my books, remarking that "Wildlife" was his favorite of his books. Barbara Ehrenreich, who said not a word to me while she deigned to sign my book, could take a lesson from this guy.

Anyway, it was nice to go to one of these things where the highlight wasn't exiting the building with a signed book.

On to the other interesting thing.

When we got home from the Ford signing on Monday night, I found an email from our old production design teacher in my AOL in-box. Apparently he (or someone he knew) Googled his name, and happened upon an old post on the Inanities. (It comes up 5 pages into the search results.) His email was a response to a blog post from way back in October 2005 in which I referred, briefly, to the circumstances surrounding his departure from school. You can read that post here. My old post is kind of embarrassing to read when you know he's read it too, but there it is. (You may note that I changed the names of the other teachers mentioned to less Google-able initials.) I'm a little skittish about going into depth about the email on what is essentially a public website, but I feel I can say that, in the email, CM related his version of events, named who he believed to be the true villains in the scandal, and defended his wife's choice to do what she did.

Anyway, thought I'd share that with you fine folks and fellow alumni. And I'm out.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wii and T.C.

I went up to my folks' house in Oxford and broke crescent roll with my aunt and uncle from Missouri who I hadn't seen for 21 or so years. As it happened, they brought my cousin with them: 17-year old Matt, whom I met for the first time that day. Turns out he'd brought his new Nintendo Wii with him. I had the chance to try the thing out before dinner and here's my verdict:
Not so much.

I know lots of people have already bought Wiis and are already enjoying them -- my experience was little more than cursory: I tried just two of the four sports games that come with the Wii: boxing and bowling. If I'd spent more time playing the Wii, I might have liked it better, but based solely on the half hour or so I spent playing the thing, any interest I had in getting one myself went out the window. Take the boxing game, for example. Using the motion-senstive controller, you can lean from side to side to avoid your opponent's blows, you can jab high and hit the face and you can jab low and hit the stomach. (However, unlike other non-Nintendo boxing titles, you can't hit any lower than that. Which is sad.) And you can bring your gloves up or down to protect your face or your own abdomen respectively. After playing a few rounds, I got the basic gist of how to play. Here's the thing: I could throw a series of quick jabs (albeit in my patented middle-school girl-style), we'll say four punches, and my boxing avatar would only register one of the punches. If this were some other sort of Wii game, say Excite Truck, and I was asking my truck avatar to do something that was impossible under the laws of that game's physics, say fly, then yeah, fie on me for wanting too much, but this is Wii Boxing: I am a human playing another human on TV. If I can throw a flurry of jabs, however weak and ill-advised, I think it should show up on-screen and not be subject to the seemingly arbitrary rules of the game's programming.

Bowling was a little better, but it's difficult to get excited about a bowling game, motion-sensitive or not. I watched my cousin play some of the new Zelda game and I can't remember the last time I've been that bored and that frustrated watching someone else play a game. I don't know if it was his gameplay or if it was the game itself (I suspect a combination of both) but then again, I've never understood the allure of the Zelda titles since the original on the NES. None of them have been good.

I'm not going to write off the Wii altogether -- the technology Nintendo put together for the Wii may one day allow for other game-designers to create an amazing game that will make Wii a must-have system. And Matt did suspect that his particular controller was "twitchy" even though we changed out the controller's AA batteries after what couldn't have been more than a couple hours of gameplay. I just don't think the Wii's quite there yet. But kudos to them for going in a new direction and trying to create an entirely new gaming experience. So many kudos.

A couple other things.

1.) T.C. Boyle seems like a good guy. He's also a good writer. But if you'd like to take a listen to a feted author letting his ego take over and presenting his own pompous, self-important side to the public (via an interview with Ed Champion of the blog,, you can listen here. In this hour-long interview you'll hear Mr. Boyle talk of his typical moviegoing experiences. As T.C. explains, when T.C. laughs in a theater, he is usually the only one laughing because he, unlike the rest of the audience, is laughing not at the film's jokes, but at the transparent ways in which the filmmakers are trying to manipulate the audience into laughing. He laughs at their ham-fisted attempts to manipulate because he sees them quite clearly for what they are. The rest of the audience, you see, dolts that they are, does not see these transparent manipulations and, as a result, laugh precisely when they're told because they are the Great Unwashed, and unread ignoramuses to boot. I imagine that when someone tells T.C. a joke, he doesn't laugh at the punchline like all of those other morons, but rather at the clever way the joke's set-up subverts the listeners expectations so that the punchline can have its intended impact. Oh, T.C.! O, Vaunted One! How blessed we are to live in the same world as one so generously gifted with intellect!

Anyway, Boyle goes on on a variety of subjects in this same sort of I-am-smart-and-everyone-else-is-grotesquely-stupid vein for awhile. Like I said, he seems like a nice guy overall, but I wonder if his particular outlook isn't shared by a lot of venerated writers who've just managed to keep a tighter lid on it. John Irving comes to mind.

2.) And finally, I thought I'd post up a page from the Oscar Mayer job I've been working for the last week or so. (I finally finished it yesterday.) [Ed. note: I've taken down the Oscar Mayer board, as per Heath's sage advice, and am replacing them with a couple boards from a Molson commercial I did a couple years back. Enjoy the hijinks of these beer-loving white men in the rap star's limousine.]

Enjoy the rest of your Wednesdays.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Casino Royale". Reviewed. Now.

Hola everyone! Hope everyone had an excellent Thanksgiving. I had a whole post written up but, owing to some ongoing technical difficulties (i.e. DSL service to our apartment is temporarily out), I'm unable to access that scintillating post and will have to post it tomorrow ... or whenever our Bell South people manage to fix what's wrong.

Anyway. I saw "Casino Royale" with my dad and my brother this weekend. Good stuff, but not without its flaws. Based with some faithfulness on Ian Fleming's novel, "Casino Royale", this latest installment in the Bond saga is essentially the "Batman Begins" of the James Bond mythos. Apparently, the children of Albert R. Broccoli and current owners of the rights to the Bond character, realized that the franchise was getting stale and terrible with Pierce Brosnan playing Bond (though not through any fault of his), and needed an upgrade. Their hearts were in the right place and though I'd have preferred a more extensive overhaul of the franchise (which would have included hiring exciting filmmakers to direct instead of action-movie journeymen like Martin Campbell), what they managed to do here puts Bond on the right track.

First, Daniel Craig's fantastic as Agent 007. Watching the previous Bond actors, from Connery through Brosnan, I never felt like Bond was a dangerous or unpredictable guy. Watching Craig in the role, however, you get the impression that James Bond is a little bit out of his mind: Bond version 2006 is a dispassionate but eerily competent hitman who just happens to have a way with the ladies and just happens to drink martinis. The womanizing and the shaken-not-stirred thing are just components of a complex character in "Casino Royale", but they are not his defining characteristics as they have been in previous films. Craig's Bond is complex and real, however simple and direct he might be in his professional life. Put another way, it's fascinating to finally see a great actor play Bond -- the others either haven't had the chops to bring Fleming's Bond to life, or were never given the opportunity. Craig's got both here.

Though the casting is pitch perfect, the film itself is somewhat problematic. [Here I'll be getting into some possible SPOILERS, so if you haven't see it but plan to, best not to read on.]

First thing, the movie's front-loaded like all hell. The massive foot chase through a construction site in Madagascar is incredible, easily worth the price of admission, but it happens about 10 minutes into the movie; the remaining 2 hours are interesting, entertaining, all of that, but I was expecting a finale sequence to rival that first one in Madagascar and never got it (though Campbell probably intended the sinking building sequence to be it, but doesn't quite pull off the trick). Another problem with the movie is how it jettisons formula. In most cases, ditching formula would be a good thing, but not so much here: though doing away with the Robert McKee-model of screenwriting doesn't make "Casino Royale" terrible by any stretch, it does give the movie an episodic feel which did detract, I felt, from the movie's overall quality. There's the Carribean island episode, the museum episode, the gasoline truck at the airport episode, the long poker game episode, etc. etc. I enjoyed each of them, but when the credits rolled I felt like they added up to a fairly average action movie. Ditching formula is a two-edged sword: on one hand your audience doesn't know exactly what to expect from moment to moment, but on the other hand jettisoning that basic story structure risks disorienting the audience. For example, thirty minutes from the end of the movie, the ostensible antagonist, banker to the world's vermin Le Chifre (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), is killed not by James Bond, but by another unnamed but vaguely familiar assassin (turns out we saw him, Mr. White, in the film's first scene after the opening credit sequence). Formula dictates that Bond kills the film's heavy. Yes, it's predictable and formulaic, but there's a certain satisfaction a viewer feels when the long-awaited showdown takes place and our hero ends up on top. When Bond fails in the duty of the archetypal hero -- namely to kill the big baddie -- the movie feels disrupted and disjointed, and not in a good way. For a good ten minutes after the failure of our hero, perhaps longer, "Casino Royale" coasts along as Bond and his true love, Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green, the girl from Bertolucci's"The Dreamers"), live their lives in the aftermath of their most recent brush with death very much like two people on the verge of living happily ever after. A great novelist once said all good fiction is about trouble -- ten minutes of screentime is a long time to go without any "trouble". The action gets going again eventually, but "Casino Royale" never manages to overcome that feeling of disruption before the director's title credit appears. But in the plus column, Eva Green manages to be a Bond girl with some depth, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, and Judi Dench all manage to be interesting during their few minutes of screentime, and the poker game (they don't play Texas Hold 'Em in European casinos, do they?) is actually intense and surprising throughout, which is hard to do with a game where all the characters are just sitting there, staring at one another. [End SPOILERS]

But all that is really just my overly wordy explanation of why I think "Casino Royale" failed to be a great movie, and managed only to be a good one. But there ain't nothing wrong with a new James Bond movie that's just good. Hell, any good movie in theaters is cause for celebration these days. And even with its flaws, Daniel Craig's performance raises up the entire enterprise to the must-see category for anyone who's ever enjoyed a James Bond movie. And though it's not saying a whole lot, I'll say it anyway: this one's as good as the best of them.

Anyway, that's my "Casino Royale" review. More Inanities tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Is Wii "Wiitarded"? And Some Half-Assed Opinions on "Borat"

Interesting comments on the previous post. After reading these two reviews on Slate, however, one against Nintendo's new Wii, and one ostensibly for the Wii, but also kind of against it anyway, I think the XBox 360 is going to be the one for me. Over the long haul, I need a system that will allow me to commit heinous (though digital) acts of ultra-violence (think "Hitman"), and the Wii will never ever let me do that. Looks like it's going to be me and the fine folks at Microsoft walking hand in hand down Video Game Avenue for the next 5 years or so.


Anyway, "Borat". Peggy and I saw this in a packed theater on Friday night. And I mean packed. I can't remember the last time I was in a theater this full-- maybe not since the last installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Even the front row was fully-stocked. I thought it was a funny movie. I laughed at a pretty regular clip throughout, as did my audience. But the funniest part of the movie for me came out of a scripted scene, a scene not at all dependent on the credulous and overly-polite Americans upon which Cohen preys; I speak of course of the man-on-man naked Kazakh wrestling in the hotel room scene. I laughed very very hard at this. Not Cougar-Scene-in-"Talladega Nights" hard, but tearfully, certainly. What I liked least about the movie was what made up the bulk of "Borat": the scenes involving the dupes. Whether it was the genteel southerners in Alabama who hosted Borat for dinner or the moronic, racist, mysogenistic frat boys he hitched a ride with, that kind of humor just makes me uncomfortable and there's not much that's funny about it. I think Christopher Hitchens was right when he wrote that "Borat" is less a testament to the inate racism and backwardness of rural America than it is evidence of America's surfeit of politeness. (Maybe not so much in New York when Borat was trying to kiss fellow pedestrians, but that's the big city.) Though I guess there's a sort of pleasure in watching small-minded and ignorant sons of bitches hang themselves with their own words, but overall it just seemed like a smart Cambridge graduate from England coming into the American countryside to pick on some hick yokels. Don't they have ignorant hicks in England?

Also, I thought the transitions between the bits were clunky; just throwing up some subtitles while the fat guy talks to Borat in the ice cream truck about which "important interview" they had to prep for next seemed kind of lazy. Overall "Borat" felt like an overlong episode of his HBO show featuring just the one character, but despite the apparent shoestring budget, Cohen manages to pull it off. I didn't love it, but the movie's entertaining and very funny in parts.

(And what's the concensus on the Pam Anderson thing? She had to be in on it, right? Otherwise wouldn't Cohen have had to go to jail for a time.)

Also, Robert Altman, the auteur who directed classics like "Popeye" and "A Prarie Home Companion" and "Dr. T and the Women", died today. Maybe this will inspire me to get up off my ass and see some of the movies he's actually famous for. Anyway, it's sad. Not Kubrick sad, but you know. Sad.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Rare Sunday Post Which All But the Nerdly Few Who Care About Which of the New Video Game Consoles is Worth Picking Up Can Safely Ignore

Hey, back again. Had a good excuse for not updating this week -- I was working! None other than David "All The Real Girls" Green emailed me to do a storyboard gig for a series of commercials he's shooting in the near future. Everything went well and now it's back to writing and blogging.

Anyway, I just got back from Best Buy where I got a chance to try out the new Playstation 3. They had two games available for demo: a basketball game and an off-road racing game. I watched someone else play the basketball game and wasn't too impressed. Other than some terrifying close-ups of the basketball players complete with unsmiling expressions and the lifeless eyes of animated corpses, it looked like most basketball games I've ever played: boring. Good graphics but boring.

The offroad racing game was a different story. Amazing graphics. Sharp imagery, no visible pixelation, no slowdown when there was a lot going on on-screen. When you crash your car while engaging the Turbo, there's a visceral, cinematic view of the destruction in slow-motion; when the car impacts say, a boulder on the race-course, the part of the car that does the hitting shatters into a hundred distinct pieces each with its own unique trajectory; sometimes the entire body of the vehicle breaks up against the unyielding impediment with stunning realism -- as of right now, the PS3's graphics appear to be a little more robust than than the XBox360's graphics. The question is are the manlier graphics on Sony's new console worth $200 more? As of this writing, without having had a chance to try out PS3's other games, I'd say no. The truth is it's hard to get a real sense of how much you're going to like a particular console when the entirety of your exposure to it consists of 3 or 4 5-minute game-playing sessions at Best Buy. Am I going to plunk down $600 on a PS3 on the strength of one cool racing game? I need more. I need to sit with the system, take it apart, stare at it, feel the way the ultra-fast processors feel in my hand while I roll them around like dice. I need to PLAY that thing, know what I mean? Besides, Microsoft and Sony have obviously upped the ante with their consoles, but what about upping the ante on their games? Where's the next-gen game?

Which brings us to the Wii, (Hinesy's early favorite). Nintendo's Wii came out today in the States and if anyone's raising the stakes for new and exciting ways to play video games, it's Nintendo. Wii's winning raves from the most jaded gaming types for it's intuitive motion-sensitive gameplay. You swing the controller and you're either swinging a tennis racquet, slicing with a samurai sword, fishing, racing, or whatever else you can think of. AND it's $50 cheaper than the 360's core system, so does that make the Wii the best bet for just having a good time playing video games? Neither Target nor Best Buy had a playable display of it today -- just a screen with an infomercial playing on top of the console set behind a plexiglass case -- but just from watching the informercial Wii looks like a helluva lot of fun, even if the graphics aren't state-of-the-art. As always, the most important question is which console's going to have the best games over the next few years -- right now nobody seems to stand out on that score. Anyway, before I geek out too hard, I'll just say they all look pretty cool, but I'm leaning towards the 360. "Halo 3" will be coming out for the 360 next year, and that's going to be something to behold.

Anyway, later this week I'll tell you what I thought about "Borat" which I saw Friday night. And I'm out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Stranger Than Fiction" and "Cars"

Thought I'd take a break from writin' and get in a little blog action.

Saw "Stranger Than Fiction" over the weekend. I liked it better than I thought I would. The trailer made the movie look like an uninteresting one-joke movie (not to mention a seriously and determinedly drab-looking one-joke movie), but turns out there's more to it than Emma Thompson's voice booming inside Will Farrell's head while narrating his life. Remarkably, sreenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (of "Finding Neverland" fame) find a way to make a real and poignant story out of this high-concept premise. The love story between Will Farrell's and Maggie Gyllenhaal's characters works surprisingly well and helps ground the film in an identifiable reality, which, as a general rule, the film usually runs from. There were a few inconsistencies in plot and some in character, like the way Harold Crick (Will Farrell) acts as he walks to the bus stop at the end of the film, and the fact that Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor, is reading a Sue Grafton mystery and has George Dawes Green's "The Juror" on his office bookshelves, and one of the film's messages, that great art is worth more than a single human life, seems extraordinarily wrong-headed to me, but overall, this one's not bad. Worth renting.

Also saw "Cars" on DVD Saturday night. Sadly, I called this one correctly back when I saw the first teaser back in 2003 (you remember -- the one featuring Larry the Cable Guy saying "Dadgum!" as if it was hilarious). Well, it's 2006 and the finished movie never rose above the level of that teaser. Needless to say, I didn't like it. I'd say "Cars" is the weakest of the Pixar films by quite a bit. Lasseter and the gang have had much more success anthropomorphizing toys and insects and fish than they have here trying to give human qualities to frickin' automobiles. At certain points in "Cars" it's crystal clear how difficult it was for the animators to turn cars and trucks into characters an audience can care about. At times they make it work, but just as often you could see the movie creak with the effort, particularly during the scenes where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) are falling in love. How is that romance going to work exactly? Or any car romance for that matter? Not that I need to see what happens when a racecar mounts a Porsche, but the movie never even hints at the logic behind what's supposed to be a self-sustaining world even though all of their other films do.

All but one of the Pixar movies prior to "Cars" has set about depicting an alternate reality that exists in close relation to our own. The toys in the "Toy Story" movies had adventures while we humans weren't looking. "A Bug's Life" and "Finding Nemo" operate on the same principle: the secret life of certain kinds of animals. "Monsters Inc." presents a completely alternate universe, but one that has a recognizable relationship with our own: their inhabitants step through portals into our closets in order to scare our children. ("The Incredibles" deals exclusively with humans, so it doesn't really come into play here). But for the first time in Pixar's filmography, "Cars" presents a world completely devoid of and ignorant of humans, populated with human creations. As Moe Szyslak would say, "Whaaaaa?" The world of "Cars" is an entirely alternate reality without any tangible relationship to our own. (The film closest to "Cars" in this way that I remember was the abyssmal "Robots".) So if John Lasseter and the Pixar crew can't be troubled to answer questions like "Where do they get their fuel?" and "How are they able to do anything at all without opposable thumbs, like, for example, what does Doc do in his workshop exactly? Does he get up on his hind wheels to do woodworking?" and "What happens when they die?" and "How in hell do they procreate?" then they're asking their audience (their adult audience anyway) to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than usual, which takes an effort that might detract from a viewer's involvement in the story. I'm not asking for cinema verite in my anthropomorphizing animated movies, I just think that when filmmakers introduce audiences to a completely new world, they should go out of their way to show all the ways that world works; "Cars" did a poor job in that respect.

(Also, any movie that features a character voiced by Larry the Cable Guy as the film's comic relief is probably not aimed at the likes of me, so there's that. Man, was he not funny.)

Anyway, I could dismiss the whole thing and say that "Cars" was more of a kid's movie than Pixar's others have been, but Pixar's in the business of making the best animated movies in Hollywood and they've always done that by making big-tent films that appeal to everyone in a family. "Cars" wasn't it. Oh well. I hope they step up their game with "Ratatouille" next summer -- after this one, I'm sort of worried Pixar might be on some sort of downward skid.

Anyway, enough of me criticizing the work of immensely talented (and working) people. Back to writing.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Couple Trailers and a Clip of Rumsfeld Doing Crazy Things During Press Conferences

A few links, two of them funny and one of them pretty damn cool but slightly worrisome. First, the funny ones.

1.) This is the trailer for the new CGI-animated movie Meet the Robinsons. The reason I'm linking to this trailer is because of a brief scene right at the end involving a Tyrannasuarus Rex. It made me laugh out loud. It manages to be pitiful and hilarious at the same time. Check it out.

2.) I was not aware that the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson was in the business of doing actual comedy, but clearly they are. Their writers have come up with a damn funny bit involving the secretary of defense that you can view here. It's silly but very well-done.

Okay, the cool but slightly worrisome link.

3.) This is the trailer for "Spider Man 3". Like I said, looks pretty cool. I'll let you watch it if you haven't already. I'll meet you below the picture of Spidey to tell you what I think of it.

All right, coolness aside, doesn't this movie look crowded as hell? Sandman, Green Goblin 2, and Venom? And then the love traingle aspect between Parker, MJ and Gwen Stacy which isn't even alluded to in the trailer? This is way too much, I think. If anyone can pull it off, it's Sam Raimi, but I worry this thing could lapse into "Batman Forever" territory pretty easily.

Yeah, just a bunch of links today. Enjoy your weekends.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

America Wises Up Two Years Too Late

The news is coming fast and furious these past two days.

First, hallelujah like all hell that the Democrats took the House and, in about 1 and a half hours or so when George Allen of Virginia concedes the race to Jim "Dirty Writin'" Webb, will officially take control of the Senate. Strangely, I'm not really excited about it. I'm mostly just relieved. This Congress and this President have done terrible things to our country for six years and I've actually gotten accustomed to hearing news reports night after night about how the Republicans are sending the country down the crapper. It's been a really bad time for reasonable people in this country and I don't know if I'll be able to handle positive political news again. My minimal expectation for this new Congress is that this rush of awful policy decisions (taking us into Iraq, botching the occupation of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, legalizing torture, ending our right to habeas corpus as we know it, mishandling the Katrina response, making it more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy, passing steep tax cuts for the wealthy and for big corporations like Exxon, shooting old men in the face with birdshot, etc., etc.), will end. On this, the second day after the election, both sides are talking about bipartisanship and compromise and getting things done. That's sweet and all, but if history is any indicator, I expect we'll see little in the way of compromise from this President. I believe something will happen with immigration reform because Bush's views on the issue are more in line with the Democrat's views than with his fellow Republicans. Maybe even a slight raise in the minimum wage. But other than that, I see deadlock in the future. I see each party putting up ideas that will appeal to their bases so that they can protest loudly when the other side knocks it down. If Bush was smart, if Bush wanted to save his abysmal Presidency from Worst in History status, he'd co-opt the Democratic agenda in his last two years and start getting real legislation passed through a shell-shocked Congress. Like Clinton did. In any event, I expect an obstructionist Congress and after these 6 years, that's a beautiful thing. I also expect the subpoenas to fly fast and furious, and that's an even beautiful-er thing.

I enjoyed Bush's press conference yesterday. He seemed almost contrite. And a little like he'd just been kicked hard in the crotch. Firing Donald Rumsfeld was a great (and shocking) move, the only sane thing Bush has done in as long as I can remember, but it would have been an even greater move three years ago when things started to go to hell after the initial invasion. Or two years ago after Abu Ghraib. Or even one year ago when Iraq was descending into civil war. It's as if Bush never gave any credence to his critics (who've all been clamoring for Rumsfeld's ouster for years and years), until the voters put those critics in power. Oh, now they might have a point. What a bunch of arrogant bastards. How's this for arrogance? For your reading pleasure, an excerpt from an interview Karl Rove did with NPR's Robert Siegel a couple of days before the election:
SIEGEL: We're in the home stretch, though, and many would consider you on the optimistic end of realism about -
ROVE: Not that you would be exhibiting a bias ...
SIEGEL: I'm looking at all the same polls that you're looking at every day.
ROVE: No, you're not. No, you're not.
SIEGEL: No, I'm not.
ROVE: No, you're not. You're not. I'm looking at 68 polls a week. You may be looking at four or five public polls a week that talk about attitudes nationally but that do not impact the outcome of -
SIEGEL: I'm looking at main races between - certainly Senate races.
ROVE: Well, like the poll today showing that Corker's ahead in Tennessee, or the poll showing that Allen is pulling away in the Virginia Senate race.
SIEGEL: Leading Webb in Virginia, yeah.
Mr. ROVE: Exactly.
SIEGEL: But you've seen the DeWine race and the Santorum race - I don't want to have you call races.
ROVE: Yeah, I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to THE math.
SIEGEL: Well, I don't know if we're entitled to our different math, but you're certainly -
ROVE: I said THE math. I said you're entitled to yours.
Unbelievable. Everyone else is wrong, but Rove, the "architect" is right. Everyone else is just too dumb to see what he sees. Which was why seeing Bush smack Rove a little in front of the press corps yesterday was particularly gratifying. A reporter asked Bush about a reading contest the President and Rove were having. Bush said, "He's winning. I guess I was working harder on the campaign than he was." I laughed and laughed. Sure it was a dick thing to say to the guy who put your incompetent ass in the White House not once but twice, but it's Rove, so who's complaining? No one deserves a public spanking more than Turd Blossom.

Anyway. The rubber doesn't hit the road, as they say, until everyone gets sworn in in January. I think the two months leading up to the matriculation of the new Congress will be mercifully politics-free, and I am pleased with that. And when they do, I hope Speaker-Designate Pelosi stays true to what she said in an interview with Brian Williams the other night. She said she would preside over the most "open and honest" government in history. How refreshing is that? I'm looking forward to watching what happens next year with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid. (I enjoyed writing that last sentence quite a bit.)

In unrelated news, Ed Bradley died from leukemia today. He was only 65. Terrible. Aside from that silly earring he started wearing back in the nineties, he was a great television reporter.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Night

It's nights like this that it really sucks not having cable. I'm trying to keep up with the midterm elections by watching the big-time coverage on the big 3 networks, but my local affiliates have pre-empted all of that excellent political analysis so they can all cover all these amazing and totally consequential Georgia elections. I know I for one am much less interested in hearing Russert's and Stephanopolous's knowledgeable insights about control of the Congress than I am about hearing some slow-talking poly-sci graduate from Georgia State University drawl on and on about what an interesting race the winning candidate for Agriculture Commissioner ran. How's this for bucking the national trend. All over the country, Dems are taking House seats from Republicans. In Georgia, Republicans are taking seats from Dems. Not a backward state at all.

Are Georgians really that much more interested in these bullshit local elections than in the elections that have national implications? Really? Anyway. I'm breathing again. Nightline's on now, so I'm spared the local coverage for at least another hour or so.

We've taken the House and we await word on 3 races in the Senate. The Allen/Webb race in Virginia, the Ford/Corker race in Tennessee and the McCaskill/Talent race in Missouri. Those will be the deciding races. And it's not looking good for any of the Dem candidates.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Charity Quilt Auction Does Big Business, and Why "Lost" Is Sucking It Right Now

Been cleaning up the place today. Dragging the vacuum around the apartment and running loads of laundry and whatever else. Just as exciting a Monday as you could want. On Saturday Peggy and I went up to Newton County for my mom's Quilt Guild charity auction. My mom and her friend, Helen, ran this year's auction and made a few changes from the way it's been run in previous years. Like hiring a professional auctioneer for one, and airing a television commercial for another. Last year the auction grossed a little under $10,000. This past Saturday the auction grossed a little over $14,000. Not too shabby. So congratulations, mom. Good job.

Hmm, what else? Watched a couple episodes of "Lost" yesterday on videotape. (Thanks again, Pat!)

I'm slightly less down on the show than I was a week or two ago on account of the writers dribbling a few teasing glimpses of what's really going on over the last couple episodes, but only a little. I think part of the reason the show's suffering right now is that three of the big players, Jack, Sawyer, and Kate, are currently moldering in primate cages away from their fellow survivors. In terms of narrative momentum, this is akin to weighing anchor. The writers must recognize the effect this is having because every now and again the writers have the "Others" take the principals out of their cages (and Jack's cell) to show them something (a funeral or an illuminating vista) or do something to them (hard labor, unnecessary surgeries) or have them do something for them (necessary surgery), but none of our heroes has a real say in what they're doing. By nature of their position as prisoners, they're only reactive instead of proactive. It doesn't take long for reactive characters to get boring.

The show isn't doing much better on the other side of the island. Even with characters unconstrained by literal cages, they can't figure out what they ought to do with themselves. So until they figure it out, the characters (including a few new ones) trudge off to old sets and have run-ins with monsters of seasons past but shed no new light on the nature of these monsters. Revelations saved, no doubt, for season 8, if they get that far. The uncertainty the writers obviously feel about what to do next with their show is reflected in the actions of the crash survivors' new leader, Locke. After the hatch "implosion" (does anyone else wonder how exactly a person can be blown clear of an implosion?), a mute and befuddled Locke ups and constructs a sweat lodge so that he can have a vision of how he should be spending his time for the next few episodes. I don't know how much farther into a novel I'd read if, somewhere in the middle of it, the hero decided out of nowhere to take some mescaline and then use the hallucination he just had to inform his course of action, but that's exactly what JJ Abrams is asking his viewers to do. "Keep watching," JJ's telling us. "It gets better." Not sure if I'm going to be able to go along for his seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-I-go-along joyride for much longer. Four million other viewers have already given up this season. There's only one more episode (or is it two?) and the show goes on 13-week hiatus and starts up again next year. I wonder how many fewer viewers "Lost" will have after they return from their long hiatus.

I don't know. Even the best of these sequential shows lose their way if they're allowed to go on too long. Look at "The Sopranos". The fall-off in quality on that show hasn't been calamitous, but it's certainly been noticeable. A few do manage to keep it up: "West Wing" was good right up until the end after a season or two in the doldrums, each season of "The Wire" has been consistently amazing even into its fourth season, but few storylines can sustain such a long arc, and shouldn't be expected to. I'm really starting to think the Brits do it right. A couple seasons, maybe just one, and then they brush off their hands and walk away to think of the next one.

Anyway. That's my "Lost" rant. I gots to go finish the laundry, so I'll just say good night, er'rybody.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What I've Been Up To. (Also DeLillo's "Libra")

What up, folks. Happy Friday.

I've been going pretty good on my book this week, which was why I've been lax on el bloggo (I know, last week it was the GRE and now it's this. Always something.) What I've been doing for the last few months has been totally re-writing the final third of my novel. From September 27th to yesterday, November 2nd, was write, longhand, chapters 19 and 20: the final two chapters of my book. Last night, I finished chapter 20. Both chapters, all told: 100 pages. But it's very much incomplete. My plan now is to revise (and whittle down) the handwritten pages as I type them on my trusty electric typewriter, then make a final set of revisions on those typewritten pages, and then enter all of that onto the actual Word document, at which point I would begin the final polish of the entire book -- tightening, straightening, reworking. I have a notecard "To Do" list specifically for the book. It's not too long. (Here's one: "Sharpen description of the clubhouse's first floor.") All of that may seem like overdoing it a little, all of that revising, but this new ending I've written is so raw (read: bad) that it needs to be processed a lot to line up with the rest of the book's quality. But even knowing I have all that work ahead, writing out 'The End" a little after 8PM last night was very nice. Nearly there.

In other news, I finished Don DeLillo's excellent "Libra" on Tuesday. What it amounts to is DeLillo's all-encompassing theory about who killed John F. Kennedy told in the form of a novel. Having done a modicum of research on the subject ever since I saw "JFK" in 1991, I have to say that DeLillo's theory is eerily plausible. He deftly combines aspects of the wilder conspiracy theories with the Lone Gunman theory to create something that feels like the God's honest truth. To me, this read like an official account of what actually happened that day.

DeLillo's book predates "JFK" by three years and, happily, covers some of the same ground; much of it takes place in New Orleans. mean-drunk Guy Banister's in there, Dave Ferrie and his crazy glued-on eyebrows are in it quite a lot, and Claw Shaw makes a cameo, but sadly no Jim Garrison. The main characters in the novel are Lee Oswald, Jack Ruby, the CIA guys Everett, Parmenter and Mackey, and Oswald's mother. For another writer, synthesizing the dry facts of a now 40-year old assassination into a compelling narrative would be tough work. But DeLillo's good. Real good. One of those writers that can demoralize fledgling novelists with his easy command of the English language. He jumps from character to character throughout, managing to make the third-person limited voice he uses for each one convincing and authentic. He makes Dave Ferrie's obvious insanity comprehensible, Oswald's Russian emigre wife heartbreakingly sympathetic, and he limns the dark corridors of the CIA's creepy sub-culture so well you kind of understand why the out-of-favor CIA men who initiate the plot are incapable of pondering the moral implications of what they've set in motion, and also why they believe the CIA will welcome them back as heroes if it works out. Though some of the text is a little on the self-indulgent side (DeLillo went a little overboard with Oswald's mother -- a page of her stream-of-consciousness goes a long way), and because DeLillo's voice is fairly bloodless, a feeling of detachment settles over the events in the story; it's difficult to break through the icy perfection of his sentences to absorb the story on an emotional level. But that aside, "Libra"'s an excellent book. I liked it better than his novel "White Noise", the National Book Award winner he made his name on.

I started King's "Lisey's Story" a couple days ago. So far so good. Little annoyed with the substitution of "smucking" for "fucking" every page or so (Lisey and her writer-husband Scott have a lot of little words exlcusive to their marriage), but I'm sure King will set my mind to rest about it.

Also, wish my mom luck with her Quilt Guild's quilt auction tomorrow afternoon. Me and the wife will be there, if not bidding, then watching others bid. Anyway, have a good weekend. If anyone goes to see it, let me know how "Borat" is.

Monday, October 30, 2006

"Grudge", "High Tension" and "The Queen". You Can Probably Guess What I've Been Up To This Weekend.

Back from the weekend with a passel of movie reviews.

"The Grudge". Had no interest in seeing this until my brother wrote in his blog how terrified this movie made him. You can read it here, and then make fun of him in the comments. No offense to my brother, but I was right to have avoided this film for this long. Not good. Peggy put it nicely when she turned to me about two-thirds through the movie and said, "You get the feeling they're just making this up as they go along?" And she's right as she is about most things -- there's a haphazard, incidental quality to this movie that makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. The basic premise is goofy, and we only get the whole, surprisingly pedestrian backstory when the movie's nearly over. [If you haven't seen it yet, I'm going to figure you don't care if I give anything away in this here post.] Here's how the ghosts got that way: In life, the Japanese woman ghost was obsessed with a professor played by Bill Pullman (I know! What the hell's he doing in this?). The woman's husband finds out and in a violent rage he drowns his son and kills her. Because the mom and son were so pissed off at the moment of death (I don't remember the pages of titles they flashed at the beginning too good), the grudge they carry stays in the house. Anyone who comes into the house will be hounded by these annoying Japanese ghosts for the rest of their lives. Uh, what?

How many millions of people have died in crime of passion murder-suicides? Why aren't all their houses cursed with Grudge-style ghosts? When I heard their story, the ONLY reaction is, "So?" I mean, it's sad and all, but in the pantheon of violent deaths, it's not really unusual, is it? Contrast their untimely death with Samara's, the girl from "The Ring". Now that girl went out of this world in a bad bad way -- in "The Ring", you totally understand how her death could have psychic implications that extend beyond the physical world. In the Japanese Scary Ghost-Girl movie genre, if your central violent or horrifying death isn't worse than, or even on par with Samara's, you got to keep brainstorming. A second draft would have been a real plus in this case. Anyway, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

"High Tension". We went into this one not knowing a lot about it, which was good. In case anyone else wants to check out this French slasher movie, I'll try and keep you in the dark, too. I can't say I really liked this movie, but I enjoyed watching it play out. If you like grisly slasher movie deaths, this one has a few keepers (I especially like the one involving the bureau). But by the end of it, though, I was scratching my head right when all was supposed to be illuminated. Summary: Not bad for what it is. Doesn't make a lick of sense.

"The Queen". We saw this at our local art theater last night. The reviews have been uniformly excellent and Oscar buzz for Helen Mirren, who plays Queen Elizabeth the Second, has been intense. She's fantastic in it, as are the other actors, so I'd say she's a lock for a nomination. The plot of the film is set in 1997, and deals primarily with the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, specifically the royal family's reaction. Tony Blair has just become Prime Minister only days prior, and at the time he was widely hailed for his pitch-perfect public response; one of the tabloids calls him "The Mourner in Chief" because he read the public mood so astutely. The royals on the other hand, particularly Queen Elizabeth, opt instead for the "stiff upper lip" style of grieving, and their seeming indifference to Diana's death provoke a bitter reaction in the public. Much of the film is taken up with a fascinating exploration of how the royal family's Old World sensibilities are out of step, for better and worse, with our over-televised, overexposed modern age.

Mirren does for Queen Elizabeth in "The Queen" what Anthony Hopkins did for Richard Nixon in "Nixon": the actor's performance begins to eclipse their real-life counterpart until they seem to actually become the person they're portraying. Though we'll never get a Barbara Walters-style interview with the current Queen of England, after seeing this movie I feel as though I know the woman pretty well. By the end I felt as sympathetic to her plight (relatively speaking, of course), as I did to Diana's, if not moreso. Technically, everything about the film is, as Christian Bale says in "The Prestige", "top notch", but it's the subtle touches here and there that give you both the basic humanity of the Queen while reminding you that she is the descendent of an awe-inspiring lineage going back centuries and centuries. For instance, Queen Elizabeth mentions in her first conversation with Tony Blair, almost in passing, something her "great-grandmother, Victoria" once said. "Holy shit!" I thought. "She's talking about Queen Victoria!" It's then you realize how rare a thing the English royal family is in this modern age -- a known and predictable quantity that represents a living link to a grander era in British history; kind of like what the Pope represents for Catholics. Anyway, an excellent movie, one I expect to end up in my top ten of the the year.

And it is now 10PM.

[Ed. note: since I wrote all this, Peggy's been on-line reading about what "High Tension" was all about. Some aspects do seem to play out logically, but other movies have plowed similar terrain with a lot more success.]

And I'm out.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Just Another Post About the Jim Webb Thing

Man I'm getting so weary of politics in these final weeks. It's hard not to imagine yourself in their shoes, dealing with the twin indignities of enduring vicious personal attacks and having to make vicious personal attacks in turn just to stay in the race. Everyone says they hate all the negativity in politics, myself included, but the fact is that elections aren't won by how good you can make your guy look, they're won by how bad you can make your opponent look. So this we must endure. Every two years.

Anyway, an update on the Jim Webb non-story story percolating today. If you're of a mind to waste 30 seconds of your life, you can click here and see the usually cowed Wolf Blitzer confront Lynn Cheney with some of her own medicine. She thinks Jim Webb's a degenerate because of what he wrote in his novels, but as you can see in the clip, she isn't too keen to talk about the R-rated material in her own novel, entitled "Sisters" (and yes, there are lesbian undertones in it). The thing about this whole business that gets under my skin the most is that this new tack taken by the Allen campaign is forcing us all to scan works of art for the "naughty bits", and then castigate the writers of those naughty bits as pervy scum, unfit for life much less public office. Isn't it fiction? Isn't coming up with disturbing imagery part of the job description?

Can you imagine what hell Stephen King would get from the likes of George Allen if King decided to run for office in Maine? Or John Irving? The Republicans would trot out the scenes from King's novel "It" when the children have sex in the sewer below Derry. Or the scenes in Irving's "Until I Find You" where the character of Jack, a young boy, is repeatedly molested without any overt signs of authorial disapproval. Do the requirements of their job, namely to imagine scenarios and characters freely, unfettered by the constraints of social mores, negate their feasibility as potential holders of public office? But these are just two examples from guys I've read, but this is the case with almost any serious novelist who doesn't write fiction intended for Christian bookstores. No one's safe from these kinds of attacks.

I haven't read Jim Webb's fiction and don't plan to -- seems kind of hawkish and military-fixated -- but I hate to think that he'd have been better off if he'd imagined a coterie of pinched-faced "Values voters" looking over his shoulder as he wrote his books, trying to keep whatever he wrote safely within their narrow boundaries of "good taste".

Anyway, I'm just more disgusted with this cynical political play than usual, thought I'd rant a little more about it. Again, have a good weekend.

GRE Kicks My Ass and Jim Webb Makes the Mistake of Not Being Mitch Albom in The Virgina Senate Race

Happy Friday, folks.

I've been lax on this thing, but it's been for a worthier reason than "I didn't feel like it". Not much better, but better. I've been studying for the Graduate Record Exam (or GRE) over the past couple weeks and I made my first attempt at it yesterday afternoon at the Thompson ProMetric Testing center over by Northlake Mall. If I'd done better on it, I probably wouldn't be referring to it as a "first attempt", but because, according to the GRE, I'm exactly as good at taking the math section of the test as I am at taking the Verbal (I got the exact same score in both sections), my plan is to take it again. Because I am not as good at math as I am at "verbal", so my guess is I can get a higher score on the Verbal. I'm not certain I'm going to grad school next year for a few reasons. 1) I don't know where my wife's going to be working, 2) I'm abivalent about whether grad school's even a good idea for me, especially the degree I'm thinking of getting, and 3) well, I'm sure there's a third reason. But if I have a decent GRE score under my belt, I'll have one fewer obstacle in my path if and when I do decide to apply to some damn school. They're good for 5 years after all.

Let me say a little something else about the GRE. The score range in both the Quantitative sections (math) and Verbal sections is scored on a range between 200-800. Before you get to either of those sections, however, you have to spend an hour and fifteen minutes writing two essays, one taking a side on an issue and supporting your argument, and the other taking apart a weak argument. The GRE study guide companies all tell you that this part of the test is the least important. So I did that and then came the Verbal section. The one half-hour section of the test I most wanted to do well on. First question: easy. The way it is with these "Computer Adaptive" tests, is that the first question is one that is of average difficulty. If you get it wrong, you get an easier question for your second question. If you get it right, your next question's harder. The more difficult-rated questions you answer, the higher your score. Third question, an anology question, I was already stumped. I had it narrowed down to two or three choices, but I didn't know with any real certainty which of these was most likely correct. I think I got it wrong because the next questions was SLAKE:THIRST. Not as hard. With these Computer Adapative tests, the first questions are absolutely the most vital to determining your score. Anyway, it went downhill after that. There are 28 questions in the Verbal section. The little timer on my screen told me that I had 2:47 left on this section, and I had about 9 questions left, at least three of which had to do with a longish reading comprehension passage that had just popped up onto my screen. By the time I'd finished reading the passage (and comprehending little to none of it), and then clicked B for all the remaining answers (questions left unanswered count against your score more harshly than incorrect answers, especially at the end), I was ready to just cancel the whole thing and get out of there. As bad as the Verbal had been, though, the math was worse. Of the questions that appeared on my test, I knew how to do precisely 10% of them, despite my hours of preparation. I guessed on most of the questions because the Verbal had so demoralized me that I'd already chalked up the whole thing as a loss. When my scores came back (and I'll save myself the embarassment of posting them up here), I was shocked. I thought I was going to see a combined score of 2, but they were considerably higher than I thought they'd be.

So the good news is that my performance on the test wasn't a complete humiliation. The bad news is that I'm going to have to take that exhausting test again because I ain't going down like that, not when I know I can get a much higher Verbal score. Anyway, that's what I've been up to.

In the world of politics, the already icky Senate race in Virginia between Republican incumbent George "Macaca" Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb has just taken a turn for the ickier. "Thanks" mostly go to Matt Drudge, who's splashed the "story" at the top of his site since late last night. You see, in addition to being Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, Jim Webb's also a novelist. With a little less than 2 full weeks before the election, the struggling George Allen campaign has gone through all of Jim Webb's novels and pulled out all the quotes they could find that right-wing talk audiences (hell, even left-wing talk audiences) would find most objectionable if they heard them recited on the radio. I'm not going to cut and paste them here because, taken out of context as they are, they're pretty unsavory. But you can visit our friend Matt Drudge and he'll happily tell you all about them. I was actually taken aback by the most prominent of the quotes, but this morning on talk radio Webb gave what I take as an entirely satisfactory explanation for the passage which, of course, Drudge misrepresented in a headline that linked to this article. It turns out Webb witnessed the act described in the novel in a slum in Bangkok and was recounting it to lend verisimilitude to his story. (You can probably get a sense of sort of "act" in question just from that clue). The Allen/Webb race is one of the closest in the nation -- control of the Senate could depend on who wins it. It seems that each side is working very hard to make the other candidate so unpalatable that only the most die hard Virginia partisans will show up at the polls. If it's not Webb's novels, than it's Webb's widly mysogenistic comments from back in the 80s. One of those "hold your nose and vote" sort of contests.

Anyway. I'm hoping to get over to the bookstore today to pick up Stephen King's latest, "Lisey's Story". It's been getting excellent reviews everywhere so I have a reasonable expectation that it'll be a worthwhile read. And here it is, one more time: have a good weekend, everybody.