Thursday, December 31, 2009

So very meta--

One last surprise for the old year. Charlie Kaufman is a writer of TV shows and movies. I didn’t like Being John Malkovich, I didn’t like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I hated Adaptation. The ideas behind all those movies are interesting but the films themselves are obnoxious and off-putting and full of decent actors doing bad work (and the dreadful Jim Carrey being dreadful). There were two reasons why I even made a stab at watching Synecdoche, New York; 1) Kaufman hadn’t directed any of the above films—this is his directing debut, so I figured he couldn't do any worse than Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry; 2) ever since my graduate school days, I've had a love/hate thing for works of postmodernism and metafiction. So I gave this a shot and to my almost horrified surprise, I liked it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a schlubby struggling theater director (has Hoffman ever played a non-schlubby character?) who, after having a moderate success with a version of Death of a Salesman, decides to go whole hog on a huge theater project: staging his own ongoing life story, in a huge warehouse set the size of several city blocks, with actors playing the parts of himself, his loved ones, and friends. The unfinished project goes on for years, and eventually Hoffman casts actors to play the actors who are playing real people. His wife leaves him, his daughter grows up, his romantic life suffers, and he becomes paranoid about his health. Still, the show must go on.

The key for me to enjoying this movie was letting go of any ideas of reality or coherence right from the get go. The first scene depicts what seems to be an average day in Hoffman's life while working on "Salesman," but if you pay attention to background details, you see that months are flying by (from September to Halloween to Christmas and beyond) rather than minutes. Not only is time weird here but so are everyday events: his young daughter poops neon-green; years later, after his artist wife and daughter leave for Europe, the daughter's diary, hidden under her pillow, updates itself magically with entries on her experiences; the wife has a successful career creating paintings so small that they can only be seen through a magnifying glass; a young woman whom Hoffman begins dating lives in a house that is perpetually on fire. Rather than being a chore to keep track of, the later doubling and tripling of characters/actors becomes great fun.

Perhaps most surprisingly, amongst all these postmodern & metafictional shenanigans, I actually found a rather sad and almost profound core of feeling at the center of the film, though I can't really articulate what "message," if any, I took away from it all. I think it's probably allied to Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on; I'll go on" philosophy expressed in several of his works. You can feel the weight of Hoffman's problems, real, imagined, or exaggerated, pressing down on him and yet he continues to work (for 17 years!) on his "play." Hoffman is fantastic (not unusual), and the rest of the cast, including Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Dianne Weist, and Tom Noonan, are fine, though no one else is given enough "meat" as a character to challenge Hoffman. I suppose to truly unravel the plot mysteries, you would need to watch this several times, but I'm not sure I want to go back and break the spell of the first viewing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Catch-Up, part 2

A few more notable movies I saw during the past year that I haven't already written up here:

Playing By Heart (1998)--Though over ten years old, this film still feels like an archetypal current-day indie movie: several narrative threads whose connections aren't clear until near the end; quirky characters; a mix of big-name actors, soon-to-be-famous actors, and actors who didn't go anywhere; and conflicting tones of comedy and melodrama. It also has a "newbie" element, in that the project feels very personal for the first-time director/writer (Willard Carroll, though technically this was his second film). The film follows the paths of several couples, some romantic, some not. Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are an older couple dealing with his cancer diagnosis and with some unresolved past issues; fragile Gillian Anderson dates flippant Jon Stewart; Ellen Burstyn reconciles with her gay son (Jay Mohr) who is dying of AIDS; at the center is the strange on-again/off-again relationship between party girl Angelina Jolie and an attractive but chilly boy toy (Ryan Phillippe). Dennis Quaid also appears as a guy who pops into bars, chatting up strangers of both sexes with clearly made-up tales of his life. Though we don't see the connections until near the end, virtually everyone winds up together in a climactic wedding scene which, despite seeming inevitable, does come off as fairly clever. The performances are all over the map, with Jolie and Anderson faring the best. The comedy is never very effective (the cast members in the above publicity still look far happier there than they ever do in the movie) and the melodrama is often trite, but there is still something winning about this small-scale production.

Caché (2005; aka Hidden)--A comfortably upper-middle class French couple (Daneil Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are terrorized by a stranger who constantly videotapes their comings and goings and leaves the tapes on their front porch--the above picture of the couple's neighborhood becomes very familiar to the viewer. The husband soon connects the threatening surveillance to a shameful secret from his boyhood involving an Algerian man who, as a boy, had been briefly adopted by his family. This is a fairly effective thinking person's thriller, using Hitchcockian tension to tell a story of suppressed guilt and politics. There's not a lot of action or violence (except for two short scenes which are quite shocking) and the long takes become a bit wearing, but overall this kept my interest, and its ambiguous ending works well.

Brick (2006)--A film noir homage set at a high school, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a drab loner who plays private eye when his ex-girlfriend vanishes and is later found dead. He goes through his paces as a downer Bogart and most of the noir cliches are present, including hard-boiled slang, violence, and a femme fatale, but it just doesn't come together. Gordon-Levitt is good, as is Lukas Haas as a kind of tall and skinny Sydney Greenstreet figure, but the other performances, the plotting, and the visual style are all forgettably bland. This probably sounded good on paper but it's not worth catching.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Catch-Up, part 1

I suddenly realized, as I scanned the magazine covers at the newsstand last week, that in addition to the usual year-end lists of favorite movies, music, etc., everyone is also making "Best of the Decade" lists as well. My consumption of popular culture these days is decidedly odd, skewed away from both the stuff at the top of the box-office or record charts, and the stuff that winds up being critical faves. I tend to watch and listen to the stuff that ends up in the vast middle, stuff that might make a small splash but then vanishes from the radar.

I don't know that I feel moved to do a decade-encompassing list or post, though I will probably make a year-end list soon. But as I looked over my movie and book journals, I noticed several works I found notable (for reasons both good and bad) that I haven't mentioned here yet, so I'm going to try and cover those very briefly over the next week.

Up (2009)--As a rule, I don't care for Pixar movies; as with the products of the Harry Potter machine, I can appreciate that they are well-made and even clever, and yes, they may be more than "just" kids' stories, but I find them uninteresting and uninvolving. This one, I enjoyed, mostly due to its visual style. An old man, under pressure to sell his property so high rises can be built, ties balloons to his house and floats away, along with a Boy Scout stowaway, to find an adventurer he had admired in his childhood who has been missing in South America for years. The plot is standard-issue moralizing about hero worship and fulfilling our dreams, but almost wordless opening sequence, which encapsulates the old man's life from childhood to the present day, is lovely, and the colorful balloons that fill the screen from time to time are delightful eye candy.

District 9 (2009)--Aliens who look like tall insects make an emergency landing on Earth, in South Africa, and are soon relegated to ghetto camps, despised and distrusted by humans. They can't seem to leave--it turns out they are working on producing fuel needed to get back home. A human, just as prejudiced as anyone else against the aliens, winds up wounded and slowly begins transforming into a human/alien hybrid. The authorities, who are doing grotesque experiments on sick and dying aliens, want to get hold of him and he throws his lot in with the aliens. A rather heavy-handed allegory for any number of intolerance atrocities (slavery, Nazism, apartheid). The digital creatures (actors in motion-capture outfits who are then erased out of the frame and replaced by CGI) are effective, and Sharlto Copley is very good as the human-alien. The production was relatively low-budget but doesn't look it.

The Invasion (2007)--Dreadful remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; despite the presence of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeremy Northam, this movie barely kept me watching to the end, and 2 weeks later, I could barely recall a thing about it. Watch the 1956 and 1979 versions, both excellent, instead.

Whatever Works (2009)--Woody Allen just keeps on keepin' on, making variations on his earlier, more inspired movies, even if audience and critics don't follow. Here, Larry David (above) plays the Woody Allen character, an aging misanthrope whose life is changed when he falls for a very young girl (Evan Rachel Wood). Yeah, the pairing is a little creepy, even without knowing Allen's real-life situation with the almost 40-years younger Soon-Yi Previn, and there is absolutely nothing new here; even the gimmick of David talking directly to the camera is a re-heated Allen technique. But David makes a somewhat fresh substitute for an on-camera Allen, Wood and Patricia Clarkson are good, and the handsome Henry Cavill (below) is a treat.

Hamlet 2 (2008)--A high-school drama teacher who is about to lose his department stages a wildly irreverent musical version of Hamlet. The YouTube teaser for this, a production number called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," is great fun, but nothing else in the movie even comes close. Steve Coogan, a big comedy star in England, has done nothing for me in this or Tristam Shandy. I'm not sure where this goes wrong, but it sure does. Possibly of interest to Glee fans, as it seems like it might have inspired that show.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"We are your overlords"

Though I can't call myself a Led Zeppelin fanatic, the band was important to the development of my musical tastes in my teenage years. "Whole Lotta Love" came out when I was 13, just after I hit puberty, and it was a revelation to this kid who had really just discovered rock and pop music that very summer. In the late 60's one could listen to the radio and hear The Archies, The Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, and Led Zeppelin all in one half-hour--the kind of diversity that hasn't existed on commercial radio for years now. I liked all the bands I heard on top 40 radio, but my only real exposure to what would become "heavy metal" (or just "heavy" in the late 60's) would have been Steppenwolf and Cream. Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" changed everything: it was, to quote myself from an earlier blog post, "a strikingly strange piece of music for mass consumption: blues riffs, sexual references like 'backdoor man,' and that crazy explosive middle section." Not to mention that "every inch of my love" line, which was like hard-core porn to a freshly sexually-aware teenager who was pretty sure he was gay.

I tended to buy singles back then, but I knew the AM top 40 radio version of "Whole Lotta Love" was missing that orgasmic middle section (that you could only hear late at night or on the FM progressive rock station) so I bought the album. I never took to it as a whole, though I did like the beginning of side 2, with the triple-threat piledrivers "Heartbreaker," "Living Loving Maid," and "Ramble On," but I sure enough wore out "Whole Lotta Love." (Years later, I read that you could literally wash albums with warm soapy water, and Zeppelin II would be the first one I would subject to that treatment--I think it kinda helped...) I liked Zeppelins III and IV, though after that, they would mostly fall off my radar (with the exception of a handful of songs on Physical Graffiti).
Now I feel my own private Led Zeppelin renaissance happening in the wake of having read a new biography of the band, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, a British rock journalist. This one is less sensationalistic than an earlier best-seller about the band, Hammer of the Gods, and manages to humanize the group a bit. Yes, they trashed hotel rooms, did loads of drugs, and had sex with oodles of groupies; yes, guitarist Jimmy Page was into "magick" and the writings of occultist Aleister Crowley (and even owned an occult bookstore in England for a time); yes, Robert Plant wore skintight jeans and thought a lot of himself; yes, John Bonham's death from too much alcohol seemed, like Keith Moon's end, predestined; and, yes, John Paul Jones was the quiet one, though he is on record as being unhappy that he wasn't asked to join up with Plant and Page for their 90's collaborations.

But like Papa John, the John Phillips autobiography, this book presents the cautionary aspects of their story (more money and more fame don't make you happier) and presents the sympathetic real people behind the legends. To me as a teenager, Plant and Page always seemed like dark gods who could do no wrong, but they've both had tragedy touch their lives (above and beyond the death of Bonham which brought an end to the band). Plant's 5-year-old son died suddenly of an infection while Plant was on tour in America, and a year later Plant was in a car accident which took him a year to recover from. Page, who everyone hailed as a musical genius, got wrapped up in heroin to the detriment of his health and creativity; though he's gone straight since then, he's never managed to even come close to getting out the Zeppelin shadow (unlike Plant who has had a major solo career which has hit a new peak in the last couple of years in his recordings with Allison Krauss). Instead Zeppelin is an albatross around his neck. Perhaps most interestingly, the role of their blustering and vicious manager Peter Grant is given full coverage here.

The book gets a bit weird in structure, bouncing back and forth in time, sometimes without sufficient clarity, and a few minor errors are problematic (Plant's Honeydrippers project came years after his first solo albums, not before; the album is called In Through the Out Door, not Outdoor). Wall completely fails at his strange fictitious interior monologue chapters, supposedly from the viewpoints of the individual members, but overall the book is a success, largely because he has interview all the living members of the band in recent years, so this is several notches above a slapdash bio pieced together from press releases and magazine interviews.

As for the title of my post, it comes from a line from one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, "The Immigrant Song." I never knew the lyrics except for the crystal-clear opening ("We come from the land of the ice and snow/From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow"); it turns out one of the most ominous-sounding lines, which I always took to be "We are yours, over and over," is actually the fabulous and truly ominous "We are your overlords." Below, that very song.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A worthwhile Christmas movie

For as much as I love Christmas, I do not enjoy recent Christmas movies. The made-for-TV variety have mostly become romances which often have little to do with the holiday (except that some network exec thought that snow and Santas would make a good backdrop for an otherwise routine and forgettable love story), and the theatrical holiday movies, often about Santa Claus, are all about action and overkill. The new Disney/Jim Carrey Christmas Carol looks just dreadful.

I have found one little indie Christmas movie (from 2007, available on DVD) worth watching. It's called Noelle, and some online critics have issues with it because they believe it has a pro-life agenda. Honestly, a Christmas movie without some kind of moral or spiritual agenda isn't much of a Christmas movie, so that wouldn't automatically be a strike against it in my book. Though the movie does involve the issue of abortion, it is handled with restraint, and the pro-life lesson is not the only moral situation covered in the film.

Father Keene arrives in a Massachusettes seaside village a week before Christmas to make a decision about closing down the local parish. The congregation is small and aging, and the priest, Father Simeon, is a drunkard who says during a sermon that his church has become a mausoleum. Keene suggests that Simeon make one last stab at respectability, namely, a living creche to be held on Christmas Eve, which unfortunately will conflict with a traditional party thrown by a local town hotshot, Mrs. Worthington.

This gets Keene involved with Marjorie, a Worthington daughter, who is involved in an affair with Seth, a rich snob who, unbeknownst to anyone, is actually engaged to someone else. Marjorie seems unhappy and Keene wants her to be Mary in the nativity, but eventually it comes out that she is pregnant with Seth's baby and has been considering an abortion. This triggers a crisis of conscience within Keene (for reasons unknown to us until the end, though you'll figure out why early on) and he tries to get her to set her life in order.

Father Simeon's plotline is also important. He's not an old man; in fact, he and Keene were in seminary at the same time. Keene thinks Simeon has lost his calling, but Simeon throws that accusation back in Keene's face when the rather cold Keene admits he's not a "people person." For all of Simeon's faults, he does care about his parishoners; he's been secretly using church money to pay for an old fisherman's medical bills. All the story threads climax on Christmas Eve, and though the writer fudges some plot details, specifically how far along Marjorie's pregnancy is, the outcome is satisfying.

Keene is played by David Wall, a Robert Redford look-alike, who is also the director and writer, and I'm thinking he should have left one of those jobs to someone else. Kerry Wall (his real-life wife) is nicely understated as Marjorie; Sean Patrick Brennan as Simeon (pictured at left) is handsome and gets the worn-down feeling of his character right, but the less said about his acting, the better. Still, I like this movie if only because it's not a froufy romance or Santa Claus fantasy. It looks good--somewhat surprisingly, it was filmed on location in snowy Cape Cod, not Canada, which seems to be the go-to location for TV and movie locations these days. The title refers, I think, to a little girl whom Keene keeps seeing in misty visions all over town, and she's the main clue to the final outcome. The movie's serious tone (with some unobtrusive humor mostly involving the aging parishioners) is just right. As I said before, the moralizing, though central to the movie's action, is never heavy-handed (except for the one line of dialogue that Noelle has at the end of the film). I'd much rather watch this 4 or 5 more times than have to watch even 10 minutes of the new Jim Carrey Christmas monstrosity. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A caveman walked into a cabin...

Every so often, a disc will arrive from Netflix and I have no memory of putting it our queue (oh, what the hell, it's really my queue since Don rarely adds anything to it, though he is very good about watching the movies I pick). What has usually happened is that, in reading an online source, like a blog or the New York Times, I'll come across an interesting flick; I then immediately open a new tab, go to Netflix, add it to the queue, close the tab, and keep net-surfing. Then I forget about it until it shows up a couple months later. That seems to be what happened with The Man from Earth, a 2007 low-budget indie which is usually described as science fiction, though it's just as much a philosophical fantasy as sci-fi. After the disc sat around for a few weeks, I came close to returning it unwatched, but this vacation morning, I finally popped it in and was glad I did.

A college professor, John Oldman, is leaving his school after 10 years of climbing the academic ladder, getting tenure, and becoming next in line for chair. A handful of friends have gathered with him for one last evening at his rustic cabin in the woods--he's giving all his furniture to charity and is only taking a couple of pieces of luggage with him. His only reason for leaving is that he's restless, but when his friends press him, he finally takes them into his confidence and tells them his secret: he was born 14,000 years ago, in the late Stone Age, and has remained alive and healthy (and has never aged past 35) ever since. Whenever people start noticing that he hasn't aged, he picks up and leaves to begin a new life somewhere else.

For a time, his announcement creates a fun drawing-room diversion. One professor claims that, if the human body regenerated and detoxified itself perfectly, such a thing could be possible. Another wonders if John could be a vampire of sorts, drawing life force off of those around him. He claims to have met the Buddha and Van Gogh (and does in fact have a rare Van Gogh painting). But no one really takes him seriously until he makes another startling claim: he is Jesus Christ, or the man who was taken to be Christ, spreading Buddhist teachings in the Middle East; he survived the crucifixion (his body heals perfectly and doesn't scar) and has lived to see his teachings, via the New Testament and Christianity, somewhat distorted over the centuries.

This causes most of his friends to react in one of two ways: to assume he's gone mad (or showing signs of early Alzheimer's), or to get angry at him for carrying a intellectual joke too far. One character calls in a psychiatrist who, at one point, threatens to have John committed and even pulls a gun on him to get him to admit his story is an elaborate prank. A religious woman gets furious at John for his "blasphemy." John's girlfriend Sandy remains the most neutral but even she can't quite believe either possibility. Of course, there's a third option: he's exactly what he says he is.

This script was the last thing that science-fiction author Jerome Bixby (Twilight Zone, Star Trek) finished before he died. It's been done essentially as a stage play or an old-fashioned television play--a single set, all dialogue, little action, no special effects--so this will not be for all tastes. I enjoyed it, for its interesting premise and for the performances of two of the actors: Tony Todd (from the Candyman movies, pictured below) as the most open-minded of the friends, and David Lee Smith (pictured above) as the "caveman" professor. Smith reminds me of Mad Men's Jon Hamm, in looks, in the way he carries himself with a kind of weight-of-the-world heft, and in his intensity. Most of the other actors are OK (Ellen Crawford as the religious woman, William Katt as the prof who's sleeping with a student), but one, Richard Riehle, as the doc, is almost amateurishly over-the-top. Luckily, Smith has the lion's share of dialogue and he is up to the task of keeping the viewer's attention when the director is doing little to help.

Some of the problem is with the script. The characters are not always consistent; for example, Crawford is referred to as a "Biblical literalist" and goes the most bonkers at John's debunking of Christianity, yet she also says she doesn't believe in things like the Nativity (wouldn't that mean she's not a literalist?). Todd's character, who seems to be trying hardest to believe John's story, brings up out of the blue the possibility that John is a drug addict. And the climax, which involves a wild coincidence and the death of one of the characters, is disappointing. Some critics don't like the fact that the story doesn't end in ambiguity and instead gets resolved. I don't mind the resolution, but the way it's achieved is awkward.

At any rate, I do recommend seeking out this little gem if you're in an adventurous, thoughtful, anti-rollercoaster-movie mood. It's not much to look at (and the the late-night scenes in the last third are grainy and smudgy), but it's philosophical fun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A 50's TV Christmas


My mom picked up an early Christmas gift for me, an 8-DVD set of Christmas movies, cartoons, and TV programs. Called Holiday Family Collection, it features mostly material which is in the public domain, meaning that movie-wise, it's the same old tattered flicks you can buy for 5 bucks at a Wal-Mart holiday bin (the 1935 Scrooge, Beyond Tomorrow, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). But the 4 discs with TV shows are worth having, if you like the holidays and don't mind mediocre prints of early television shows. There are Christmas episodes of relatively well-known shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Ozzie & Harriet, and Red Skeleton, but what I'm enjoying are the shows that I'd never heard of, mostly from the late 40's and 50's. Who knew there was a Scarlet Pimpernel TV show with Marius Goring (the romantic lead in The Red Shoes)? Based on the vaguely Christmas-themed episode included here, it seems to have been a low-budget affair with lots of talk and little action, but as a novelty, it was fun to watch, and that's pretty much how it goes for the rest of the shows on the discs.

The most interesting thing I've watched so far is The Nativity, a 1952 hour-long episode of the Westinghouse Studio One anthology series. Notice I said "interesting," not "compelling" or "exciting" or "fun." It's an adaptation of the Nativity story put together from various mystery plays of the Middle Ages, presented in verse and intoned in a faux-Shakespearean spirit by a cast of slow-speaking, dreadfully serious actors, none of whom I recognized (there were no credits and the cast list on IMDb is woefully incomplete). The sets are shadowy and minimal, like I imagine an off-off-Broadway play would be like. The show was probably broadcast live; there are no noticeable dialogue flubs, but there are loud clunking sounds off-camera every so often--someone tripping, I presume.

The plotline is straightforward and traditional, with Mary and Joseph in a Bethlehem manger, angel visitations, three kings, four shepherds, and King Herod. Joseph has a whiny voice and Mary looks 30 if she's a day. A bright spotlight and echoey off-camera voice indicate the presence of an angel. The only real plot twist has the shepherds (three older guys, one younger "Gilligan" type) bringing humble gifts of their own to the Christ child. Most descriptions of this show online call it a musical, but the rhymed dialogue is spoken, not sung. The Robert Shaw Chorale does provide a more or less continuous flow of carols and hymns in the background, and they are well chosen to match the narrative. The writing is not the strong suit here (there are lines like "Kneel we down on knee" and "Heartily I pray with all my heart"), and neither is the acting. Actually, there is no strong suit; this isn't really very entertaining to a 21st century viewer, but I did stick with it, imagining I was a 50's TV viewer with only a couple of network choices available.

I also watched a half-hour 1949 production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (oddly titled "The Christmas Carol"), narrated by Vincent Price. It hits most of the high spots of the story (the Cratchits, Marley, three ghosts, Christmas morning redemption) but given how much it has to cram into thirty minutes, it still drags along in the middle. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Nelson Leigh) is the most effective of the ghosts, despite being clad in pretty much just a sheet. Scrooge is played by Taylor Holmes, father of 30's leading man Phillips Holmes (pictured above with Leigh), and he's about the worst Scrooge I've ever seen--it's not that he's bad, but he commits the sin of making the character dull. His transformation at the end is OK, and I gave thanks that Tiny Tim's presence was kept to a minimum.

Lastly, I saw the Liberace Christmas show from 1953. It's a half-hour of Liberace mostly alone at his piano (complete with candelabra), playing and sometimes singing songs like "Sleigh Ride," "Jingle Bells," and "Silent Night." He's accompanied occasionally by strings, and the episode ends with his large family arriving, as through having come over the river and through the woods, and his brother George dressed as Santa Claus--see the picture at the top of the blog post. I mostly remember Liberace as a campy over-the-top schmaltzmeister, but here he plays it pretty straight (no pun intended) and the music is quite pleasant. He even gets all serious and tells the Christmas story. He introduces his mother, Frances, as his producer, and apparently she really was. There's a Thanksgiving episode included on the set which I haven't seen yet, but I hear it features a genuine Pueblo dancer performing to something called "Ritual Fire Dance," so I'll have to make room on my busy TV schedule this month to see it. I may report back later if anything else in the boxed set is worth noting, but I'm already happy I have it so I'll have some new holiday treats to indulge in this year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A boring epiphanic glow

I love the feeling of having an epiphany after watching a great movie. I even find I can get an epiphanic glow from a really bad movie. But this weekend, I had an epiphany from a lackluster movie. The problem is, I'm not sure what the epiphany was all about. (So I guess it wasn't really an epiphany after all, eh?)

In Management, Steve Zahn plays a cute nebbishy guy who works at his parents' motel in a small Arizona town. He's drifting through life with no focus, no friends, and seeming to take no real joy in his life, though he doesn't feel bad enough to change things. One day, a woman who sells art to corporations (Jennifer Aniston) stops at the motel for a couple of nights. Zahn is immediately smitten and tries some nervous flirtatious moves on her. At first, she's dismissive of him, but nicely rather than rudely. This, of course, encourages him. On the morning of her departure, she impulsively has a quickie with him in the laundry room, which encourages him even more. He takes off to find her and make her fall in love with him, and the rest of the movie charts their relationship's ups and downs. Two main obstacles: his immaturity and her boyfriend, an "ex-punk" entrepreneur (Woody Harrelson).

From that summary, and the presence of Aniston, you might assume that this is a glossy, brightly-colored mainstream Hollywood romantic-comedy confection that spent a week at #1 at the box-office and pulled in at least 50 million during its run. But it's not that kind of movie. The presence of Steve Zahn might make you think this is a little indie film that got good buzz and slowly built a following, winning awards and critical respect. But it's not that kind of movie, either. Who knows what the hell the presence of Woody Harrelson made you think.

Instead, it tries to be a cross between the two. The low-budget style is indie all the way, a "Little Miss Sunshine" wannabe. The screenplay, however, would have worked better with a big budget, and Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds as the leads. The problem is that the plot contortions are so outrageous that I just couldn't buy the sincere Aniston and Zahn engaging in this weird back-and-forth dance of attraction and repulsion. I expect an indie film to be either more realistic or way more bizarre than a mainstream film, and this falls awkwardly in the middle.

Aniston gives a good performance; like in her earlier indie film The Good Girl, she tamps down the bouncy glow and creates a character, or at least tries to. As with the movie itself, she winds up falling between a realistic, somewhat sad character and a plastic Hollywood heroine. A couple of reviews referred to her character as "high powered" and "upwardly mobile," but that's not right--she's actually just a glorified salesperson, and it seems pretty clear that any career moves will be lateral. Still, I had a hard time buying that she'd ever give in to Zahn, even for a zipless quickie.

Zahn is appealing as usual, though he's losing his carefree boyish looks, and seems a bit long in the tooth to be playing a rootless character who should be in his mid-to-late 20's rather than his mid-30's (Zahn's actually over 40, though he doesn't quite look it yet). I'm not saying someone in his 30's or even 40's couldn't be rootless and floundering, but the character details (still with his parents, having no life or interests outside of his thankless job) seem to skew younger. The character is a fan of Bad Company, but that's a vague plot point that goes nowhere, or more specifically is wasted on a dumb, predictable serenading scene. I much preferred Zahn in this year's B-thriller sleeper Night Train.

Harrelson seems to be acting in a completely different movie--that's meant to be a fairly neutral observation and that's all I have to say about him. James Hiroyuki Liao has some good moments as a Chinese version of Zahn; a young guy working and living with his parents, who much too quickly becomes Zahn's best buddy.

Back to my epiphany: I guess it has to do with the fact that the cross between Hollywood cotton-candy plotting and Pacific Northwest indie style doesn't work. This would have been a far more enjoyable movie had it come down squarely in one camp or the other: either let Aniston wear make-up and get a good but funny crying-jag scene (or something like that) or let Zahn turn out to be a chronic masturbator who ends up alone in his dad's basement. (The real ending is happy but far less interesting.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 3

Oh, Carly. How did I love thee? Let me count the ways: your voice (especially in its husky register), your melodies ("Let the River Run," with its rises, falls, and swells, would make a great national anthem), your lyrics ("I had some dreams/They were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee," from "You're So Vain; "Great ambition is all a dream/Let me drown my pride in the sea," from "Never Been Gone"), your accessible rich girl persona, and, gay as I am, your physical presence, especially on the covers of the 70's albums No Secrets and Playing Possum (see below). I kept buying your albums until the 90's when you fell off my radar, though I very much enjoyed your 2007 album of standards, Into White, which sounded like it was recorded among puffy clouds and twinkly stars (and I mean that as a compliment).

But, oh Carly, what you've done now... On your new album, Never Been Gone, you've taken some of the best-loved songs of your own back catalog and re-recorded them in new arrangements. This usually strikes me as a desperate marketing act (see Joni Mitchell), but the song selection was solid--in addition to the two songs quoted above, there's "Anticipation," "The Right Thing to Do," "Coming Around Again," and "Let the River Run"--so I bit. The first bad sign was the cover photo, a terrible close-up of you which I think you took with your cell phone. The second bad sign is the almost amateurish liner notes essay in which you tell us about the family and friends who helped you make the album; the third bad sign: it's been released on your son's own fledgling label.

There is some good news, Carly: a few of the re-arranged songs are just fine. The beautiful title song, a favorite of mine about escaping the hurlyburly of everyday life by going home to Martha's Vineyard, is arranged a little more loosely than the original but still sounds good; "Boys in the Trees" and "The Right Thing to Do" are just different enough from the originals to be interesting; "Coming Around Again" is burdened with some ill-advised improvisation near the end, but it's OK. The rest are a mixed bag, most of which aren't terrible but I can't imagine wanting to revisit them, either. "You're So Vain" is especially disappointing, with the wear and tear on your voice particularly noticeable here--oddly, it's in your lower voice that the problems arise; your higher notes sound fine to me. This is an album for die-hard Simon fans, and perhaps best obtained song by song on iTunes so the weak stuff can be avoided. I still love you, Carly, but next time, please, at the very least, get some pros to take pictures and do the art direction.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 2

Back in the day (1983), the mini-series V was what they call water-cooler TV; that is, something that everybody was talking about the next morning. With the advent of DVRs, streaming video, and DVDs, meaning not all viewers are watching a show at the same time, I'm not sure there is such a thing anymore (except for American Idol and cult shows like Lost). But I vividly remember everyone at work chatting about the shocking scene during the first night of V when the human-looking alien ate a mouse (in my memory, it was the woman, Diana, but research seems to suggest that she actually ate a guinea pig and a male alien ate the mouse). There was also the very hot Marc Singer (who, as the original Beastmaster, was probably a first crush for lots of gay boys of the era) and huge spaceships floating in the air.

The mini-series spawned a full series the next year which I didn't watch. I decided to try out the new series, but gave up after two episodes. Of course, the effects are better--not just the floating spaceships, but the very cool interiors of the ships. Everything else, including acting and writing, is worse. The basic plot remains the same: one day, alien spaceships appear over several major world cities. The aliens, who look just like humans, announce that they are here in peace, seeking our help and offering us in return miracle medicines, an end to crime, and other utopian possibilities. We accept them wholeheartedly except for a small resistance group, and of course the resisters are right, as the aliens turn out to be lizard-like beings who want to take over the earth.

The chief spokesalien is Anna, a creepily sexy--or sexily creepy--woman (Morena Baccarin, looking very different than she did as the cosmic hooker Inara in Firefly) and she's very good. Scott Wolf seems very uncomfortable playing a news anchor whom Anna latches onto to make her message palatable to earthlings, though he quickly realizes something's not right with the whole situation. There's a mother-son pair who are central to the narrative: Elizabeth Mitchell (from Lost) is fine as the federal agent who doesn't trust the Visitors (hence the "V"), but Logan Huffman is dull as dishwater as her son who is swept up in the excitement and joins a group of young people recruited to spread pro-alien propaganda (read: Hitler youth). A ruggedly handsome priest (Joel Gretsch, pictured) is on board with the resistance, despite his superior's faith in the Visitors. We discover there are sleeper cells of aliens who have been on the planet for years, and some, including Morris Chestnut, have decided to resist the invasion, but at what price?

The "Hitler" and "resistance" references aren't far-fetched; the original series was created as a WWII resistance drama and became a sci-fi show, and I imagine the resistance aspect will become central here. However, I wasn't very taken with the first two episodes; the first was OK, but the second was slow-moving and predictable. And worst of all, there was no rodent-eating at all, just a couple of scenes of split-open human flesh showing lizard skin beneath. I don't see myself sticking with this, but if you hear of any good unnatural eating scenes, let me know.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 1

The great 60's cult TV series The Prisoner has been "re-invented" for the new century. The original British series, from 1967, ran for 17 episodes and was notorious for its surreal tone, ambiguous situations, and lack of concrete closure (though many opinions about the show's meaning and ending are floating around out there in the Internet ether). Patrick McGoohan (pictured below) played a spy who left his agency, was gassed in his apartment, and woke up in an isolated place called simply the Village. Instead of a name he had a number (Number 6); his nemesis was the nominal leader of the Village (Number 2), usually played by a different actor in each episode; #6 would keep trying to escape the Village but no matter how far he got--and in one episode he seemed to get as far as London--he would always wind up back in the Village.

The new version, airing on AMC, is much less ambitious than the original: it's a 6-episode mini-series being presented over 3 nights, which kind of makes it feel like they don't really hold out much hope for a positive reception in the long run and are burning it off as a sweeps event. I've only seen the first 2 shows, but they don't seem terribly promising. Anyone who has seen the original will be making comparisons; unfair, perhaps, but inevitable. The bad news is that this show suffers in that realm. Jim Caviezel cuts a handsome sturdy figure as 6 (they don't use the word "number" in addressing each other), but he lacks McGoohan's charisma, or anti-charisma--in the show, he came across as rather cold, but you could tell there was lots of stuff boiling underneath. Ian McKellan, who has become almost as legendary a figure as Olivier or Gielgud, is the mysterious 2, though here he's been given almost too much background (a sick wife, a teenage son who seems to be being groomed to take over in his dad's footsteps). I like McKellan a lot--he made The Lord of the Rings worth sitting through--but so far, he hasn't had much to do, and what he's done has been forgettable.

The atmosphere is strange but not as surreal as in the original--in the 60's the setting was a seaside village with a bunch of quaint but strange looking small houses; here, it's in the middle of a desert with ordinary-looking A-frame houses and huge glimmering towers at the edge of the dunes. Caviezel is not a former spy, but an employee of some kind of multinational corporation. The character can remember some things from his past (most of the villagers have memory loss problems, having only rudimentary dream-like images of an outside world surfacing in dreams), and seems to be slowly regaining more memories as the show goes on. The supporting cast so far has been unremarkable except for Lennie James (the mysterious outsider in Jericho, pictured) as a friendly cab driver. Apparently the new series will end with all mysteries explained, something antithetical to the letter and spirit of the original. I'll keep watching for the heck of it, but I'm not feeling especially drawn into this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Have a very dysfunctional Christmas

While I was growing up, my mother was notoriously crazy about Christmas, a trait she passed on to me (so, no, November 12th is not too early to review a holiday book); however, my dad was an alcoholic, so I know a little something about dysfunctional holidays. Augusten Burroughs' new book, You Better Not Cry, is a collection of short essays about some of his more memorable Christmases, mostly of the dysfunctional type. I should point out that I have never read anything by Burroughs before, though I know two things about him: he writes, with dark humor and edginess, about his crazy family, and he's gay. So of course, I was expecting another David Sedaris. That may not be fair to Burroughs, but my expectations definitely affected my experience of reading this book.

These essays do in fact sound like stabs at Sedaris-like true stories, and most work well enough. The first three are written from the viewpoint of the author as a child and they make his family sound quaintly nutty rather than downright crazy; any of them could be adapted into a family TV special, though the title story, the funniest one in the book, is about little Augusten's conflation of Santa with Jesus and is perhaps a bit too edgy for prime-time--it ends with him kissing a wax Santa figure a little too enthusiastically and turns suddenly into a scene out of a George Romero movie.

The tone changes dramatically with the 4th story, in which an adult Burroughs, prone to alcoholic blackouts, wakes up in bed one morning with a naked Santa Claus, or more precisely an old man with "a small WWII-era erection" who wears a Santa suit. The two best stories follow: "Why Do You Reward Me Thus?" a beautifully written tale about the Christmas he spent in an alcoholic daze with a group of homeless people, and "The Best and Only Everything," equal parts wrenching and touching, about Christmases spent with an HIV-positive boyfriend. The last essay, a relatively happy though not necessarily funny story about his current partner, is closer in spirit to Sedaris' latest work but is the weakest tale in the book.

Still, I'm happy to have read this, and it makes me want to go read his first memoir, Running with Scissors, to help complete the picture I have Burroughs from these stories. Occasionally, especially early on when he's writing in the persona of his younger self, his writing seems a little too crafted, like he's set a goal to try and write a laugh-out-loud line every five paragraphs or so. Like Sedaris, he takes a winding, sidetracking route through his memories which sometimes works (the naked Santa) and sometimes doesn't--he begins "Claus and Effect" talking about a boy he knew whose birthday fell right after Christmas, but this feels like a tacked-on part of the story rather than being integral to it. Still, I gotta love a guy who can write a sentence like this about Hannukah: "I'd stop forcing the poor Jews to tart up their humble little temple dedication anniversary into some corn-fed whore of a holiday to compete with our super-slut, three-titted Christmas." Much as I love my multi-breasted holiday, I almost fell out of bed laughing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Things that go bump (or just stand there and stare at you) in the night

Paranormal Activity, according to the buzz, is the new Blair Witch Project: a scary movie made on a very low budget by non-Hollywood indie filmmakers which is supposed to make you scream and jump out of your seat using just a creepy mood and old-fashioned scare tactics with virtually no special effects. Both movies purport to be compilations of found footage, taken by amateurs who wind up the victims of some supernatural force. And both were cleverly marketed over the Internet and through film festival showings. I loved The Blair Witch Project, but was disappointed in Paranormal Activity, perhaps because my expectations were too high. But I also think that this new movie, while clearly inspired by the earlier film, didn't improve on it or do anything to fix its flaws.

A young unmarried suburban couple, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone (pictured in a rare light moment at right), have been bothered by strange bumps and sounds in the night and have bought a video camera which they set up in their bedroom, hoping to catch footage of whatever is causing the disturbances. At first, very little is captured on film, but soon, doors start slamming shut and sheets are being lifted up on their own. As we see more strange occurrences (some even in the daytime), we become privy to their deteriorating home life: she's pissed off that he's become obsessed with the camera, and he's pissed off that she hadn't told him that this kind of haunting has happened to her before.

And that's really about it. The visitations become a bit more graphic, though there is no gore and, as far as I could tell, almost no camera tricks until (possibly) the last minute of the film—the very last shot looks like it was CGI-enhanced. The creepiest stuff is the simplest; a couple of times, Katie gets up in the middle of the night and just stands there in the bedroom, stock still, for hours at a time, staring at her sleeping boyfriend. My biggest gasp came when a light flicks on downstairs (where no one is supposed to be). There is a loud bass rumble whenever the invisible force is present (shades of the Jaws theme music), but Micah and Katie don't seem to hear it, which leads me to believe that it was added in post-production.

The pluses: as I noted above, much hair-raising creepiness is produced with just old-fashioned atmosphere; the leads are not as irritating as some of the characters in Blair Witch Project (although Katie's whining starts to get a bit old); Micah looks good in a t-shirt. The minuses: there is no context (very little background for the characters is given) and no real narrative drive—once the basic story is established, events and characters don't develop or deepen. A ghost-hunter is brought in for a couple of scenes; he tells them it's a demon, not a ghost, that is responsible and gives them the name of a demonology expert, but nothing comes of that at all. There is no rhyme or reason for the ending; the film doesn't have a climax so much as a stopping point, as if the director said, we gotta stop this at 90 minutes no matter what. Its shortness is a plus, but I was left not caring about either character, and what little ambiguity is left at the end is uninteresting, unlike Blair Witch Project in which the ambiguous ending was genuinely startling and haunting.

It may not be fair to keep comparing this film to Blair Witch, but it brings on these comparisons itself: the found footage basis, the rough style of shooting, the ever-moving hand-held camera, lack of gore or effects, lack of background music, unknown actors whose real first names are used for their characters, and an ending that doesn’t explain things. For me, the biggest flaw in Blair Witch is the lack of a script; while that may have kept things fresh, it also led to long pointless stretches of people yelling and cursing at each other. This movie also seems to have been minimally scripted, and though the long pointless stretches aren't as long here, I wish we had gotten to know the characters better. For me, I guess it came down to expectations; it just didn’t match up to the buzz and reviews. Had I seen it opening night, or in a packed auditorium, my experience might have been different.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampire Hunter at the Office

The Insatiable is another recent B-horror flick with a solid B-lead. The basic plot is simple and draws on traditional vampire lore, mixing in elements of the modern workplace comedy. A serial killer is terrorizing the town, ripping off the heads of its the victims. One night, a lonely office drone doofus (Sean Patrick Flanery) sees the "Head Ripper" at work; she's a vampire (Charlotte Ayanna) who puts the bite on her victims then rips their heads off to hide her tracks. Flanery does some online research and finds out that a paraplegic vampire hunter (Michael Biehn) lives in his apartment building; with his help, Flanery tracks her down but she's so beautiful, he can't bring himself to stake her, so instead he traps her in a steel cage in the basement of his building. He brings her rabbits to feed on, but she insists she needs human blood or she'll wither away and die. What's a lovestruck doofus to do?

Most of the vampire elements are all here: she sleeps in the day and has to be staked in the heart, though this one can be seen in mirrors (in a goofy scene involving a side view mirror which actually says "Vampires in the mirror are closer than they appear"). Ayanna is fine, the main requirement of the role being that she be sexy and exotic-looking. Flanery, who is in virtually every scene, carries the movie and does a nice job as a lonely loser, all twitches and grimaces with flinching looks at practically everyone he comes in contact with. The character feels quirky and real, and Flanery is rather brave in not making himself any more likable than he has to be; we have sympathy for him but he never becomes cuddly or cute, even though Flanery himself is both.

The scenes of Flanery at his flange manufacturing office are comic, sometimes painfully so, with Jon Huertas (one of the cops on TV's Castle) as a total jackass bully who rides Flanery about his wimpishness, his lack of a sex life, and even his name (Harry Balbo). We know he's going to come to no good end, and his exit from the film near the end is a great gory scene. Josh Hopkins (the ex-neighbor from Swingtown) is an office nice guy, and Boyd Kestner is a cop on the trail of the Head Ripper. The low budget hurts a bit, with the few CGI effects being rather disappointing, but the first scene of Ayanna feeding on a victim is very effective. The ending is predictable but satisfying.

BTW, we saw Paranormal Activity today. I'll write a full entry on it next week, but for now suffice to say that it's no Blair Witch Project. It has it moments, but it's a letdown.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two evil bankers for Halloween

I'll wrap up October here with a couple of Halloween-style scary flicks of recent vintage, both, in a nice touch for these tough times, involving bad-guy bankers. Drag Me to Hell got good reviews and has an old-fashioned horror movie plot: someone falls under a curse that will supposedly send her to Hell, and she has three days to break the curse. Alison Lohman plays a banker who evicts an old gypsy woman for not making her house payments. The gypsy (pictured) puts her under the aforementioned curse and horrible things start happening, though many of them wind up being in her mind. Her boyfriend (Justin Long) and an expert in the occult (Dileep Rao) try to help her, leading to what should be a climactic seance scene, but as with current Hollywood movies, there is at least one ending too many, and here, a final predictable "Carrie"-style twist that looks good but isn't very scary and doesn't really fit. I didn't like Lohman at all--there is no way her character shows enough backbone at any point in the film to be up for an important promotion at the bank--but the scare scenes work well enough, and the I did like the seance, especially the surprise appearance by a goat.

I seem to have developed a fondness for recent B-movie thrillers, both the kind that wind up going directly to video (see Night Train) and the kind that wind up on cable (see Kaw). Messengers 2: The Scarecrow sounds like a late-night Sci-Fi Channel offering (I'm boycotting the "SyFy" spelling for now), but it's actually a prequel to a theatrical horror film from a few years back. However, you don't need to know anything about that earlier film to enjoy this one. A struggling farmer (Norman Reedus) is about at the end of his rope and almost ready to consider giving up and selling the farm when he finds an old scarecrow in the barn. A neighbor encourages him to put it up, and sure enough, next day, the crows have all fallen dead and his corn is healthy. As his fortunes rise, people who stand in his way (including a banker about to foreclose) wind up dead. Reedus starts drinking, upsetting his good Christian wife, and it turns out, in a kind of "Wicker Man" twist, that the helpful neighbor and his young, slutty wife are pagans, and Reedus begins to realize that scarecrow may require a blood sacrifice to keep him and his farm going.

Reedus (at right), who I liked a lot in a small role in Cadillac Records and a bigger role in John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns in Showtime's Masters of Horror series, is a perfect B-lead, reminding me of someone like Tom Neal, star of the classic 40's B-noir Detour; handsome in a quirky way, soft-spoken, intense, and capable of giving resonance to a character, but also someone you know will never get to tackle a mainstream Hollywood lead role. He's good here, if maybe a little too low-key at times, considering what his character goes through. The mood is well sustained and the scarecrow manages to be creepy without looking ridiculous. I'd recommend this one as a Netflix rental, if not necessarily a purchase.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Baghead

Baghead is a hard film to put in a slot: the one thing it's not is what it was marketed as: a horror film, though it does play with those conventions. It's kind of a romantic comedy, indie style and with very few laughs, and a meta-movie, or a movie about the making of movies. It's not quite a satire--that would cut too close to the filmmakers' skin--and according to Roger Ebert, it belongs to the genre known as "mumblecore," which is defined by Wikipedia as a film with "ultra-low budget production, focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors."

Four actors (2 guys and 2 gals) decide to get serious and make their own movie, so they go off to the woods for a weekend to isolate themselves and come up with a script. First they plan a romance movie, based perhaps on their own tangled romantic pasts, but eventually a startling vision of a man standing outside the cabin in the dark with a bag over his head gets stuck in their minds and they decide to use that as the basis for a horror film, Blair Witch style. The next day, however, the bagman vision seems to have become real and as tensions build (related not just to the mysterious figure but also to their personal relationships), they barricade themselves in the cabin that night, afraid that they have somehow conjured up a supernatural killer.

For a time, this works nicely, but it's clear all the way through that this will wind up not a horror movie, but a story about romantic relationships (and artistic creativity). The problem is that none of the four are particularly admirable; yes, I guess it's nice to have a movie with flawed characters rather than artificially nice and plastic people, but that leaves us no one to attach ourselves to or to care much about. The actors are fine: Ross Partridge (pictured) is the handsome guy with the girlfriend, as opposed to his buddy--Steve Zissis--the chunky guy desperate for a girlfriend. Elise Muller is the girl with whom Ross has had an on-again, off-again thing for some time, and Greta Gerwig is the woman who wants Ross but might settle for Steve. Many critics call this a spoof or parody, but it doesn't seem like that to me. Certainly the beginning and end feel like a string of in-jokes (poking fun at the indie film circuit) that I don't quite get, but as far as a Blair Witch spoof, while it uses that film as inspiration, it's never really making sport of it. Watchable and interesting, with at least a couple of creepy moments for an October night.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great-Grandnephew of Dracula

In addition to my traditional October dips into Lovecraft, Bradbury, and the Hammer and Universal horror movie classics, I have consumed a handful of newer horror specimens. First up is Dracula: The Un-Dead, a quasi-official sequel to the granddaddy of vampire tales, Bran Stoker's Dracula. It's co-written by Stoker's great-grandnephew, Dacre (pictured; not even a direct grandson: bad sign #1), who has no previous writing experience (bad sign #2), and Ian Holt, who claims to be a "screenwriter," (bad sign #3) though his only credit is a direct-to-video horror movie called Dr. Chopper (bad sign #4) with Costas Mandylor and a star-free supporting cast (bad sign #5).

There is some promise as we begin by picking up the stories of the main characters from the first book (Jonathan and Mina Harker, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing) several years later, 1912 to be exact, but by page 150, Dracula is still nowhere to be found (bad sign #6), and the main villain is Elizabeth Bathory, a historical figure who supposedly murdered hundreds of virgin girls and bathed in their blood to stay young. There have been books and movies with her as the lead, but when you're expecting THE Count Dracula, substitutions, even a strong, sexy, bloody lesbian, just won't do. The writing is incredibly pedestrian; Holt and Stoker don't even try to replicate Stoker's style (and let me just say I think the original book is on the boring side, but it does have atmosphere to burn). Instead they substitute Multiplex Movie Rollercoaster style instead, clearly aiming for a big screen adaptation--apparently Holt based his part of the book on an unfinished screenplay.

I read the book all the way through and it doesn't get better. They manage to bring in Jack the Ripper in a moderately clever way, beginning with a cop who is sure that Van Helsing is the Ripper because of how he chopped up the vampire Lucy, and a plotline about Mina Harker's past relationship with Dracula is interesting, but everything else is pretty sad sack or worse: 1) the writing remains terrible; 2) Dracula does indeed crop up under a different name, but he not only isn't the star of the book, he's turned into a good guy; in other words, just another boring brooding conflicted post-Anne Rice vampire; 3) almost everyone of interest dies, and not in interesting ways; 4) the last sentences of the book are a laugh-out-loud punch line, but I don't the authors intended them to be funny.

Don't bother. Wait for the inevitable over-budgeted, over-CGI'd piece of crap movie in a couple of years from now, more like the horrible Van Helsing movie with Hugh Jackman than Lugosi or Langella.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My rant on the death of bookstores

A news story about the closing of the B. Dalton bookstore chain triggered varied emotions in me. Throughout the 80's, I worked in bookstores as a clerk, a buyer, and a manager, and later when I was in graduate school I continued clerking part-time through the mid-90's. Most of that time was spent in local independent stores, but for a few years, I worked for Pickwick Books, a discount chain which was a division of Dalton's, and when they went under, our store was transformed into a B. Dalton. Like most people who gravitate to working in bookstores, I loved books and reading, and at times, especially early on, it felt like I was getting paid to hang out in a place where I would be anyway and chat with regular customers who wanted my recommendations.


But like everything else, retail bookselling changed. For years, local stores co-existed with chains like Dalton's and Walden's, but when the megastores (Borders and Barnes & Noble) moved in, the landscape changed. Even while I was working part-time at a local indie, I would visit Borders frequently because they had so much stuff: the bestsellers of course, but also mid-range literary titles, small press and university press titles, and deep backlist. But soon Amazon.com and other online sellers began offering such a huge selection, even a big store like Borders was finding it hard to compete.

I tried for years to be loyal to my brick-and-mortar stores, but even the biggest stores now rarely have what I'm looking for, and I don't necessarily mean odd, esoteric titles either. Borders is the worst; there's a huge Borders near me and I can rarely find what I'm looking for, even when it's a relatively big title which has been featured in the New York Times Book Review. When their computers tell you they have the title, and even narrow in on the shelf it's supposed to be on, but I (a former bookstore clerk) can't find it, and then a clerk (often a sneering, hipper-than-thou type, which frankly I would have loved to have been back in my youth) can't find it, there's something wrong. This happened to me so often, I've finally skipped Borders almost altogether. Barnes & Noble is a little better, but I refuse to pay for their discount card and I get irritated when the clerks keep pressing me to get one.

I guess what I'm saying is that, except for specialty stores (mystery, SF, academic), maybe it's time to kiss the physical bookstore goodbye. Online is the way to go. Yes, I miss the activity of looking through books to find serendipitous surprises, and that's something that online bookselling will never be good at, but I'm always happy with my shopping experiences at Amazon. They have what I'm looking for, it's almost always discounted at least a bit off of the list price, and there are no clerks to sneer at me or babble at me about their discount card.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A wave chicane; or, the authority of the lyric sheet

Back in the days of vinyl, one of the great joys of listening to an album was to read along with the lyric sheet. On the radio, the chorus to CCR's "Down on the Corner" might sound like "Well, Napoleon and the baby," but with the album's lyrics in front of you, it suddenly became clear that John Fogarty was singing, "Willy and the Poorboys are playin'." It wasn't always a physical "sheet"; sometimes they were printed on the actual record liner (a paper or plastic jacket in which the record was placed so the cardboard jacket wouldn't scratch it) or on the outside jacket. The fanciest albums might have a whole separate booklet with words and photos and, in the case of some Pink Floyd records, posters or decals. Nowadays, lyric booklets, if they exist, are small and the typeset even smaller, and I wonder how many of the dwindling number of consumers of the physical artifact that is the CD bother to read them anymore.

At any rate, the lyric sheet always seemed to be the ultimate authority for figuring out the words and perhaps figuring out what the song meant--not to mention knowing who played what, as band members and session musicians were often listed song by song with the lyrics. It never dawned on me to question the lyric sheet; after all, wasn't it official, right from the horse's mouth via the record company? On Sunday, "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" by Electric Light Orchestra came on my iPod for the upteenth time. It was their first top 40 hit, back in 1975, and though it doesn't get as much oldies airplay as songs like "Mr. Blue Sky" or "Don't Bring Me Down," it's still one of my favorites.

The first lines in the song, according to the lyric sheet that comes with the album Eldorado, are as follows: "Midnight on the water/I saw the ocean's daughter/Walking on a wave chicane/Staring as she called my name." I remember as a teenager wondering, what the hell is a '"wave chicane"? I looked it up in several dictionaries and never found it. I decided that it was some part of a wave and let it go--what else could it be, since the lyric sheet must be right. Plus, it kinda sounded mysteriously cool. On Sunday, however, I realized I was singing, "Walking on a wave she came..." That makes more sense, and "came" is a more precise rhyme for "name." But still, the official lyric sheet says, "chicane." Would the InterTubes be able to solve this dilemma for me?

The short answer is, no. Almost every day of my life lately, I am moved to mutter to myself, "Geez, I love the Internet." But it hasn't been much help here. Typically, the Internet is a wonderful place to find song lyrics, but one must always be on the watch for sloppy transcriptions, typos, or just plain wrong guesses that are posted as authoritative lyrics. Some sites say "wave chicane"; some say "on a wave she came"; one site says "wave's chicane." An entry about the song at the Jeff Lynne Song Database makes the dubious claim that a chicane is "the frothy tip of a cresting wave," which is kinda what I had decided when I was 18, but as I did some surface digging, I found no other source, authoritative or otherwise, that gives this definition. The most common meaning of the word ties it to "chicanery," which is "deception by artful subterfuge." I'm sure Lynne (pictured) didn't mean that the wave was being sneaky.

So where does that leave me? My universe is slipping its moorings; I can no longer automatically trust in the Lyric Sheet, and the Internet has let me down (though it is thanks to the Net that I know I'm not the only person in the world who has wondered about this lyric fragment). I suspect that Lynne is singing "on a wave she came," but part of me would like to believe that there is some strange arcanity to that line that will never be be made clear.