Tuesday, November 29, 2005

FINAL CUT: Que Sera Sarah

For my birthday, my wife and I had some delicious crepes at one of Chicago's finest restaurants, a quiet little French eatery called La Creperie. We opted for the coq au vin dinner crepe, and created our own dessert crepe with a banana filling and chocolate sauce. It's a marvelous little place, and the next time you're in the Windy City, it's definitely worth a visit.

This is not specifically relevant to the issue at hand. It's just a really good restaurant, so I'm happy to share the good word.

Anyway, after dinner, we headed over to the movie theater across the street, where we intended to take in a double feature. Alas, the wise guys at the Landmark Century have figured out that if you space out the films, it's much harder to stick around for anotherflick. A short-sighted policy, if you ask me. Fewer screenings means fewer tickets sold, and no Dots sales. But it's their loss. And ours, since we were not treated to a nightcap of Good Night, and Good Luck, and at to settle for a meal consisting entirely of Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.

Sarah Silverman is a stand-up comedian with a two-pronged attack: first, she stands there looking absolutely beautiful, with a sweet smile and a faraway glint in her eye. Second, she starts speaking, and the gleeful nastiness of the words coming out of her mouth fully hit you. In the film's prologue, she tells her friends about the show she has written: "It's about the Holocaust...and AIDS...but it's funny." Like the gun that must be fired before the end of the play, she intends to make good on her promise.

Silverman is a refreshing comedian. Even Chris Rock is doing material about the differences between women and men. Meanwhile, Silverman opens with a joke about being raped. It's easy to imagine her sitting around thinking of taboo topics, and then setting out to puncture them. Much of the laughter she earns is at the sheer audacity of her subject matter. A much-quoted joke from the movie goes, "When God gives you AIDS -- and God does give you AIDS -- then I say...make lemonAIDS." She's cute, shocking, and satirical all at once.

The problem with the film is the same with every comedy concert film made since HBO went on the air: why on earth would you go to a movie theater to see it? (Unless you were planning on watching another movie about McCarthyism right afterwards.) We're talking about watching someone talk for an hour and a half. Silverman seems aware of the problem, so to spice things up, she sprinkles in a few amusing musical numbers. The best of these finds Silverman in go-go boots and a That Girl hairdo voicing a series of sweet, racist nothings. "I love you more than black people don't tip," she trills. It's very funny, but it breaks up the flow of the routine. From what can be seen, she's singing these songs as part of her concert, but we're getting the full music-video production. The pieces are artlessly slammed together, without so much as the smoothness you might find in an episode of Pulp Comics.

In the end, that's the real problem with Jesus Is Magic: it doesn't deserve to be a movie. Silverman is very funny, and has genuine screen presence. But the movie turns out to be a lousy vehicle for her talent. More to the point, it's just not something you have to see on a big screen. Some of her colleagues, like Jack Black and David Cross, have found success in the medium. Hopefully, she will too. With a different movie.

Monday, November 28, 2005


While it is true that Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for our good fortune, it must be noted that the actual being thankful is usually limited to that moment when you look at the vast spread laid out on the dining room table, lick your lips, and realize that your only regret is that you cannot eat it all. (And you will attempt it anyway.) In most cases, Thanksgiving is usually devoted to the glories of television. Save for an instance around a decade ago when I attempted to help my nephew fly a kite, I have probably spent most of my recent Thanksgivings staring at the flickering box. And while I enjoy a Law & Order marathon as much as the next guy, the beauty of Netflix is that you can personally select the gloriously stupid programming that you allow into your home. Which is why, whilst I assembled the ingredients for a green bean casserole, I reveled in the wonders of that cinematic masterpiece, The Gumball Rally.

I go way back with The Gumball Rally. From what I recall, it's one of the first motion pictures I ever had the privilege to see in a theater. I would have been 5, I think. And that's appropriate, because this is one of the first, best examples of the live-action cartoon. Somebody got the bright idea that you could have an entire movie that consisted of one long car chase. Someone else thought that was brilliant, put up the money, and history was made.

Like the Cannonball Run movies that followed, The Gumball Rally is based on an actual illegal cross-country race. However, where the Cannonball movies felt the need to spice things up with big stars, gratuitous cameos, and blatant attempts at slapstick humor (ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jack Elam), Gumball is based on the premise that the race itself is hilarious. All that's required is to assemble the barely-sketched-out stereotyped participants -- socialite wives, dumb hicks, snooty old guys, lunatic Hungarian motorcyclist -- and start their engines. In fact, it's interesting to see how blatantly Cannonball Run rips off its predecessor. Funny foreigners? Check. Obsessed cop? Check. Racers masquerading as public servants? Check. Hey, it's a race! What's to be creative about?

Michael Bay owes a lot to movies like The Gumball Rally. Consider the merits of the explosive punchline. Van leaking gas? Cute. Van leaking gas careening through traffic? Funny. Van leaking gas, careening through traffic, and crashing into a fireworks factory? Hilarious. It's as though the movie wasn't actually written, but was assembled from flash cards.

Mind you, the race has to do all the work. This is a movie whose idea of star casting is Michael Sarrazin and Tim McIntire. And seriously, a good chunk of the film's "plot" hangs on their good-natured rivalry. A rivalry we care about not one whit, by the way. Which clears the way for such future stars as Gary Busey (in an early appearance as a dim-bulb Southerner) and the magnificent Raul Julia. Ah, Raul. Such a great actor, and such a checkered film career. As an vain, sex-obsessed Italian professional driver, he's clearly understood that it's over the top or bust. When we first meet him, he's making race-car noises while making love. One assumes that the character profile ended right there. It's a magnificent, ridiculous performance, and Julia is undoubtedly setting the pace for everyone else in the film.

Not everything works, of course. The most disastrous side trip is a thoroughly obnoxious central-casting Brooklyn couple, Lázaro Pérez and Tricia O'Neil in a Rolls-Royce. It's important to note: THEY'RE NOT EVEN OFFICIALLY IN THE RACE. Why the hell are we stuck with them, other than to spend a few seconds checking out O'Neil's rack? (Pathetic trivia I know: O'Neil later goes on to play the captain of the Enterprise-C on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So, way to upgrade there, Tricia.) The joke seems to be that the Rolls neatly avoids all manner of disaster, until a very unpleasant run-in with a biker gang that plays like something out of Death Wish. It's extremely unfunny, and like the entire Rolls-Royce subplot, has no place in this movie.

Mentally edit that out, and you're in for a delightful, brainless time. Look, all you need to know about The Gumball Rally is in the trailer. They don't tell you who is in the movie. They tell you the kinds of cars they drive. "Charger! Porsche! Ferrari!" cries the announcer. And then they show you some crashes. That, my friends, is knowing your audience. Make it fast, make it loud, and they'll beat a path to your door.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


I'm deeply fascinated with the Baseball Hall of Fame. The process whereby the greatest figures in the game are selected is endlessly fascinating to me. Truth be told, the whole process of anointing greatness intrigues me. I just get a little more involved with the baseball version than I do with, say, the Agricultural Hall of Fame. (Although I'll bet that's pretty interesting, too.)

As a proud member of the Newman Smith High School Debate Hall of Fame, I think I have a certain appreciation for how significant these honors can be.

November is a busy month for Cooperstown. The offical 2006 ballot will be announced in the next couple weeks (although they've already confirmed that Pete Rose won't be on it, so adjust your selections accordingly), and yesterday they came out with a ballot of candidates from the Negro Leagues who will be chosen by a special committee. I'll get to those lists in coming weeks, but for now, my attention is on the only category where everybody -- you and I, included -- get a say.

Along with the plaques to actual inductees, the Hall of Fame gives awards for lifetime achievement in baseball writing and baseball broadcasting. They're sometimes referred to as being in separate wings of the Hall, but really, they just get a scroll and membership in the Veterans' Committee. Writers receive something called the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, while broadcasters get the Ford C. Frick Award. And that's where we come in.

The people who decide on the Frick Award have a list of ten names to choose from. Some special committee picks seven names, but the last three are chosen by a public vote. And the public has a lot to choose from, as you will see here:

Vote for the Ford C. Frick Award

That's a lot of flippin' names. To be honest, I think anyone who has ever sat behind a microphone at a baseball game is on that list. I mean, Norm Hitzges? Hall of Famer? Seriously?

I kind of feel like anyone who already is an actual member of the Hall of Fame should not be eligible to win the broadcasting award. Isn't Dizzy Dean happy with the honor he has? Especially considering he's dead? Ooo, okay, bad example. Substitute Ralph Kiner. Doesn't Ralph have enough? And frankly, most of the former players are not exactly representative of the pinnacle of the sports broadcasting profession. A few have won, like Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker. But this is an award primarily for broadcasters. So that's how I vote.

You get to vote once a day through the month of November, and each time I vote, I always check off the names of Mark Holtz and Skip Caray.

Holtz was the play-by-play man for the Texas Rangers the entire time I lived in Carrollton, and was a consummate professional. He had a deep voice, with the tiniest hint of a twang to convince you that he was a Texas announcer and not just some hack they imported from out of state. He played off well with his color man, Eric Nadel (who I'm haven't voted for). It's a sentimental choice, compounded by the fact that he died a few years ago. He's the reason I don't have a rule against giving the award posthumously. He has never made the final 10.

Skip Caray is better known here in Chicago as Harry Caray's son, or sometimes as Chip Caray's dad which is a shame. (Chip Caray is on the list, too. The hell?) I know him as the long-time voice of the Atlanta Braves, and like most of the country, I got introduced to his work when WTBS went national. I know many baseball purists complain about him, which I don't get. Part of his appeal is that he doesn't sound like anybody else. His voice is sort of like a poorly-tuned horn. It stays at an unusually high-pitch, which makes him sound perpetually surprised. That's why his great call of the 1991 NLCS ("Slide, Sid!") is so remarkable, because you don't think he can get more excited, and then he does. This is another sentimental choice. He has also never made the final 10.

I don't have a regular choice for my third slot. For a while, I voted for announcers with long, respected careers, like Ken Coleman or Dave Niehaus. But they always make the final 10, so they don't really need my help. So lately, I've been voting for Jon Miller, who is quite active and certainly doesn't need a lifetime achievement award. But he's so good at his job, it seems like it would be the right encouragement to the TV networks to show them what a good announcer should sound like. You dig, Fox? Miller good. Buck-McCarver-Piniella bad.

Ugh. Piniella. Holy cow.

Monday, November 21, 2005

FINAL CUT: Play With Fire

The birthday weekend was celebrated with two voyages to the local cinema, which -- compared with the once in four months that preceded it -- was a veritable bounty of filmed entertainment. The second outing, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, may be saved for a later discussion. (Or may be forgotten altogether.) The short review was supplied by Edison Girard, who noted that it would make a fine HBO special. Amen to that. But the bigger review goes to the bigger movie. For Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cannot be sloughed off with a pithy one-liner.

Why not? Because any movie based on a 734-page novel that clocks in a little bit short of three hours merits a little depth in the discussion. (Incidentally, I've completed my review of the original novel, so that'll be going into the queue over at BookADay soon enough.)

The fact that we're even talking about a 734-page novel that didn't require an adaptation the length of War and Remembrance is a real tribute to the red pencil of screenwriter Steve Kloves. He's walking a real tightrope here: Goblet of Fire is a crucial pivot point in J. K. Rowling's saga. It's the book that transitions the story from a schoolboy's magical adventures to a battle between good and evil that threatens a civilization. It draws on characters, situations, and ideas that have been planted in the first three books, and that are essential to a satisfactory resolution of the story in the last three books. Everything seems crucial. To a more literal-minded filmmaker (I'm looking at you, Chris Columbus), it all would have been essential.

Kloves and director Mike Newell have found another way, and I'm still impressed that they managed to jettison so much of the book and still make it work; not just as a self-contained film, but as part of a series that doesn't betray the source novel. It's possible to honor the spirit of a book but change the specifics of the plot dramatically. The film version of John Grisham's The Firm comes to mind, as it completely re-works the troublesome ending of the book, even while it uses the very words of the novel to justify the liberties. Kloves has not so much altered as streamlined Rowling's prose, shaving away every bit of excess weight that he can to make a movie possible. This could be a valuable screenplay to use, if you want to teach a class on film adaptation.

That's not to say nothing is lost. For one thing, the characters who Kloves must include are frequently given short shrift. Alan Rickman's Professor Snape, for example, is essential to the advancement of the story. But in this truncated telling, he barely exists, and doesn't even get a line of dialogue until the two-hour mark. Evidently, he also felt compelled to bring in nosy reporter Rita Skeeter, embodied here by Miranda Richardson. The choice is odd, though, because Rita's ultimate fate in the book is not part of the film, which suggests that it will not factor into the movie of the next book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which begs the question why she had to be here in the first place.

Characterization also takes a major hit. Harry's fellow school champions are reduced to the simplest outlines. Viktor Krum is sullen and stuck up, with two lines of dialogue at the most, while Fleur Delacour is pretty, but hardly seems capable of competing in the contest, given the skills we see here. There is an unavoidable sense that you're getting the Cliff's Notes version of the story. If you've read the books, then you can fill in the blanks. But that doesn't make Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire a moviegoing experience -- it makes it a multimedia experience.

I liked the movie a great deal, though. It's quite entertaining, very exciting, and carries the sense of dread that typifies the book. And as much as it races to get from one plot point to the next, it doesn't shirk the other key responsibility of tracking our three heroes' growth as teenagers, which culminates in the charming-yet-painful Yule Ball sequence (which is somewhat more tolerable onscreen than it was on the page, despite Harry and Ron's irritating attitude towards friends and dates).

I have one complaint, and it lies with the casting of Michael Gambon as Dumnbledore. He's not getting it. Part of what makes the Hogwarts headmaster such a compelling figure on the page is that he seems utterly simple, almost addled, yet harbors a deep wisdom and vast emotions well beneath the surface. It makes the moments where his feelings present themselves a great deal more potent. The late Richard Harris touched on this, infusing Dumbledore with a frailty that no doubt could have been cast away at a moment's notice. Gambon, on the other hand, plays everything right on the edge, and he hardly seems the rock in the storm that Harry should be turning to with his troubles. Dumbledore's unhappiness in the scene revealing the school champions is the first sign that something has gone wrong, and the situation does not improve. Gambon is a fine actor. But he's either being mis-directed, or he's failed to understand the dynamics of the character.

I remember reading that Richard Attenborough was campaigning for the part. I think that would have been a good call.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: Smile For the Birdie

I'm having to re-evaluate my whole stand on photography.

I despise pictures of myself. I don't like my smile. I don't like my hair. I always look sloppy. It never turns out at all the way I would like. So there came a point many years ago when I decided to avoid being in them. Oh sure, every now and then, I am cajoled into holding still for the camera. But I steadfastly refuse to enjoy it.

Not long after I made that decision, I found that I was also starting to turn against being behind the camera, as well. I think the reason for that is because, if you bring a camera with you, it's inevitable that you will be asked to move to the other side of it before too long. So it's pre-emptive. Don't bring a camera, you can't be photographed with it.

There's also the issue of space. Pictures -- before the advent of pixels -- take up lots of it. So it seemed silly to me to lug around two packs of photos from every trip I've ever taken when I remember the details quite clearly.

I'm not saying it makes any sense. I'm just saying that it did at the time.

This came to a head in the preparations for my wedding. My fiancée and I had decided to rely on amateurs to do the work for us. Bring your own camera, take whatever pictures you like, and that'll be the permanent record. Suited me fine, since I hate pictures.

A few weeks before the big day, the love of my life had a major freakout, and realized that she needed the services of a professional. She would not be deterred. We needed a picture-taker, and a good one. In the proud tradition of grooms with only a matter of weeks to go before the wedding, I said, "Whatever you say, dear."

The point of all this is: we got the pictures last week. There's a box of pictures taken by the professionals, as well as a book of photos snapped by my Aunt Claudia, who is not a photographer by trade but is extremely skilled. And they're sensational. Just truly outstanding. I mean, they're so good, there are actually several where I don't despise the way I look. It's astonishing. And they capture the whole event. Everytime I open the book, I'm reliving the whole day.

In short, I may have been wrong about the whole pictures thing. And that's not a small admission to make. I'm starting to regret not having a better record of many key moments in the past decade, that I don't have more pictures of friends and functions.

Oh, I still look awful in a great many pictures. There's a fine example over at Arnie's blog (see October 15), in which I look like I have a neurological disorder. But I'm beginning to accept that vanity may be getting in the way of future contentment.

Besides, when I have a kid, I'm going to take pictures of that child until my eyes fall out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Earlier this year, I joined in a project called The Hall of Merit. The HOM was the brainchild of a baseball fan and sabermetrician named Joe Dimino, who got tired of people complaining about the questionable job the Baseball Writers Association of America and the Veterans' Committee had done in selecting members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and decided to do something about it. So he set up his own hall, and let slip the dogs of war.

The basic concept of the HOM is that we can use statistical analysis to prove who really are the best players in the history of the game. Running counter to this is the attitude of many sportswriters, who believe that statistics are the private domain of mathematicians and they ruin the beauty of the game. As is true in almost any dispute, both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. (And I'm drastically over-simplifying things here. Because we don't need to spend all day on this.) But it's the writers who get to vote for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Well, says the spirit of the Hall of Merit, we'll use cold hard facts to make our picks, and we'll see how things turn out.

Every two weeks, there's a new election. They started in a hypothetical 1898, and each election represents a new year. I waited until 1934 before I submitted my first ballot, because my knowledge about the skills of early players is severely limited. I also waited because it's kind of intimidating. There are some top baseball writers who have participated in this project, like Eric Enders and Dan Greenia. And there are only about 50 voters in any given election, so it's a lot of responsibility for a guy like me, even if nobody outside of the 50 of us knows the thing exists. But it's 1965 now, and I've voted in every year since my first. Evidently, I'm enough of a regular that I was described in the wiki as a "long-time voter." Heh.

The recently-concluded 1964 election is a good representation of how we work (and how I differ from everyone else). We elected Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese on the first ballot. He has a nice long career, and it was easy for me to rank him 1st on my ballot. We also elected pitcher Wes Ferrell, who had a short career with a few outstanding seasons. He did not appear on my ballot at all. So I am what you might call a career voter, and I am a dying breed in the HOM electorate. Most voters prefer a player's prime (the best seasons of a player), while a few others look at peak (the best individual season of a player). Prime has garnered more and more success in recent years, with the election of Ferrell and Hughie Jennings (a shortstop with five great years and absolutely nothign else). Meanwhile, I'm in the unusual position of stumping for a reds pitcher named Burleigh Grimes, who threw a legal spitball and had a nice long, durable career with some better-than-average seasons. In the HOM world, I'm the Grimes nut.

Since us commonfolk don't get a say in the official Hall of Fame, I'm enjoying having a voice in the unoffical Hall of Merit. For the coming election, I get to review the careers of Larry Doby, Enos Slaughter, and Mickey Vernon, among others. It keeps baseball alive even when there are no games. And there's always more to learn.

It'll be a pleasant way to spend the winter.

Friday, November 11, 2005

THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE: Flood Warnings in Dover

Pat Robertson is a magnificent son of a bitch.

Before we get too deep into this, "The Damned Human Race" is the umbrella title I've chosen for commentary on current events. Back in college, I had a twice-weekly radio commentary that mined similar territory under the name "The Situation." I contemplated using that again, but that bitch Tucker Carlson stole it for his punk-ass show. So I've decided to start fresh. Besides, I consider it an upgrade. The new title, I stole from Mark Twain. The old? From the Fresh Prince. Movin' on up.

In any event, it's a very apt title, because "The Damned Human Race" is precisely how Reverend Pat thinks of us. He seems to feel that mankind is always just two steps away from being singed to a crisp by an angry and vengeful god. He prays for God to strike down intransigent Supreme Court justices. He draws on God's wisdom to select the world leaders deserving of assassination. And now, he plans to sit back and watch as God's wrath is meted out on the poor, pathetic heathens who go to the ballot box in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Pat Robertson on Dover; MSNBC Lets Reuters Do Their Work For Them

What I think of "intelligent design" is a rant for another time. What's really interesting here is the insight we're getting into the American mind. Here's how the story of Dover has unfolded thus far.

- Members of the Dover school board, possibly concerned that science does not reconcile with the teachings of their faith, but definitely concerned that evolution alone does not satisfactorily answer the question of "what shall we teach our children about how the world came to be," vote to include the notion of an almighty creator (not to be confused with an Almighty Creator, mind you) into the curriculum.
- Parents, thinking that this puts the school system in the position of teaching religious belief as scientific fact, sue the board in federal court for violating the separation of church and state.
- Voters, evidently deciding that their vote really does count, elect replacements for every single member of the board up for election. Eight incumbent. Eight defeats.
- A guy with a TV show, in a fit of pique over the very vocal rejection of this particular brand of activist politics, tells the voters, "Don't be surprised if something really bad happens to you."

It's a beautiful sight to behold. And it's perfectly in keeping with the current national standard of "If you disagree with me, then you are scarcely better than a syphillitic child molester with an Uzi and a seat on the board of Enron." There seems very little room for gray area in public debate. So why should God be particular? As Noah will tell you, God's not exactly particular about who he wipes out.

The thing is, the voters clearly were trying to find some gray area. We believe in God, they said. This just isn't the place for him. And that doesn't sit well with Pat Robertson. If it's not all God, then it must be all Satan.

And that's why Pat Robertson makes me smile. Sure, he got smacked around for saying the president of Venezuela should be murdered. But he just got up, dusted himself off, and went back for more. You really have to admire a guy who is willing to go on national television and joyfully reveal to the masses that he is just be so stupid. So intolerant. So comtemptuous of his fellow man. So very, very un-Christian. It's a bold stance that hardly anyone else would be willing to take. But Pat takes it proudly.

May Zeus bless and keep him.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: Put That Useless Knowledge to Good Use

John Glynn has been begging me to join Pub Quiz for almost a year. So naturally, I finally went on the night he didn't need me.

I somehow imagined that Pub Quiz was just one of those things a bar would to do draw customers on a Tuesday night. And it is that. But it's so much more. This thing is serious. There are special pre-printed forms. There's a website. When they show you photos of celebrities, they have photo credits on the side. This is no run-of-the-mill bar game. This is Serious Business.

I initially turned John down for a couple very good reasons. For one thing, I never had Tuesdays free. Either Clair and I had an appointment to keep, or I was rehearsing for my sketch show, or I was appearing in my sketch show...always something. The other reason is, frankly, I don't enjoy hanging out in bars.

But earlier in the day, John had posted to the Chicago improv bulletin board, and he was once calling out to the community to join in the trivial fun. And my Tuesday night was free, and I didn't know when that was going to happen again. And for once, I decided, I wasn't going to let John down.

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" John sighed, understandably peeved.

"I didn't know."

He wasn't happy about it, but he offered my services to a charming young lass named Jen Messner, who earned the right (by virtue of paying the entry fee with a $50 bill) to called our team "Mommy Warbuxxx." The x's are key. It was Jen, myself, her chum Len, and his pal Andre. I knew Jen by reputation, but beyond that, I knew nothing about my team. So glory was clearly just around the corner.

If you find yourself in Pub Quiz, prepare yourself, because it's cutthroat. There are seven rounds of questions, for crying out loud. We had three rounds of general knowledge, a round of match-the-gory-movie death, a round of name-the-celebrity-in-the-picture (hence the photo credits), one round of "goodbye" related questions, and one of "sorry" questions. Brutal, I'm telling you. Know any of Robert Scott's companions to the South Pole right off the top of your head? Neither did anyone at the Hidden Shamrock.

I won't bore you with play-by-play, except for these highlights:
- Andre identified Dan Rather as the author of a quote about apologizing for using bad documents at the last possible second. Brilliant save.
- Len didn't even blink in labeling a photo of Lindsay Davenport.
- Jen insisted the picture was Anne Heche. I thought Laura Linney, but didn't feel strongly enough to argue. Good move. Celestia, it was.
- The marathoner who stopped in the middle of the London Marathon to relieve herself, went on to win the race, and apologized to the country afterwards was Paula Radcliffe. And I don't have any idea why I know that.

We ended up finishing second, having blown the tiebreaker that we weaseled our way into. That meant we made back our entry fee, plus a few extra bucks. (I did, anyway. I think the bar makes money off the competitors who drink. Which would be everyone else.) So fun was had by all.

Except for John, who was perturbed. For which I'm sorry.

Monday, November 07, 2005

PAGE TURNER: Sails of Fortune and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2005

I'm a regular contributor to the BookADay website, which discusses all things related to the printed word. My latest contributions are now on view in the "Current Reviews" section, so I invite you to stop by. It's a delightful little site, and not merely because it hosts my reviews.

I have been writing book reviews for Bookaday since late last year, and it has been interesting to see how I've become more critical as a reader. Not critical as in adversarial, but critical as in more demanding. It's been fun to read authors with huge reputations in the field and see how they stack up now that I'm actually trying to set the bar. For example, Asimov still does pretty well with me. Philip K. Dick, not quite so good.

I remember the first time I really felt like a movie demanded a review from me. It was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Now, this was not the first bad movie I ever saw. It was not the worst movie I had ever seen up to the point. And I certainly did not go in to the movie with high expectations. I mean, it looked bad, and looks were not deceiving. But it's the first time I remember turning a truly critical eye to a movie in an effort to fogure out precisely where it went so wrong. I had always gone with the flow as a moviegoer. But walking out of this particular piece of celluloid effluent, I really felt the need to analyze it in my mind. It wasn't enough that Superman IV was bad. It was the kind of bad that required further study.

This has kind of come to a head with the latest review I have up, because I really didn't care for the book at all. Since I have literary aspirations myself, I thought long and hard about just how inflammatory it was necessary for me to be. I mean, I've never thought a critic should be cruel just to get a chuckle. But a critic has to be honest, and if the book is bad, you have to say it.

So I slammed the book. I didn't find the story very well told, didn't think it did what the author wanted it to do. It's an unquestionable pan, and I didn't enjoy writing it at all. It was much more pleasant to prepare my other new review, a travel guide that I used for my spring vacation. (And the vacation was more pleasant than both of them, but that's another story.) So the intent is not to sound mean. It's just the disappointment of a reader who wishes they'd spent their time with a better book.

And please don't judge me for going to see Superman IV. It was a more innocent time.

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Friday, November 04, 2005


Today is my wife's birthday. Whoo hoo!

I'm marking the occasion by attempting my first embedded-link post.

November 4

Of course, I suspect that, if you're reading this on any day other than November 4, the readout will have changed. This is a bit of a flaw in my brilliant plan.

Editor's Note: A more appropriate solution has been found. Many thanks to Mrs. Larsen for the tip.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: The Gift Shop at Mecca

I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive guy. I think capitalism is better than communism, but I think Wal-Mart is a force for evil in our society. I like to live in the city, but I enjoy patronizing stores that don't belong to a chain. I would be very happy if I had a lot of money, but I don't believe that money makes you happy.

And yet -- god have mercy on my pitiful soul -- I love the Mall of America.

I lived in Minnesota for a little over a year, and the first time I finally made my way up to the Twin Cities, I did two things: I went to a Twins game, and I went to the Mall of America. (For those who know that the Mall stands on the ground once hallowed by Metropolitan Stadium, this must sound downright blasphemous.) It was love at first overwhelmed-by-mass-consumerism.

Everything about it is just a little ridiculous. The fact that the massive parking ramps have levels named for states, so you can repeatedly make the lousy joke (as I like to do), "Yeah, I'm parked out in California." Or "Everybody remember, we're parked in Texas." The fact that there are multiple Caribou Coffee shops throughout the Mall. And best of all, that there's a frickin' log flume ride in the middle. To say nothing of the fact that they decided to put this momument to spending in Bloomington, Minnesota. It's absurd. But it's just absurd enough to be charming.

My wife and I were in Minnesota this past weekend, so we went. You have to. It's there, and it draws you like a magnet. Plus, the complete lack of a sales tax is too good to pass up. Especially for people like us, who live in Chicago and pay the highest sales tax in the United States. Sure, it's hard to get everything on the plane. But it's so worth it. Even if the Christmas decorations were already up. (This was before Halloween. Maybe we should just never take them down.)

This is utterly embarrassing. I mean, it's a mall. Granted, it's a huge mall. Gi-normous. I explained it once as the equivalent of taking four malls and making them into a square. But that doesn't do it justice, because most malls aren't three stories. It's just huge, and it goes against everything I stand for. But everytime I walk in the doors, I get excited. I don't even buy that much. But just knowing that I could...

I'm so ashamed.

When we go back, we'll definitely ride the Ripsaw.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

RED ENVELOPES: Advance Warning

I love hoax movies. You know, the kind where it purports to be a live broadcast or a news broadcast, and of course all kinds of hell breaks loose, and somewhere in America some yahoo tunes in late, and misses all 53 of the warnings that the lawyers made the network put in, and they don't utilize the scientific method at all to figure out why only one network has the biggest story in the history of mankind, and they freak out, and the next day some glory-hog congressman proposes new legislation to control the runaway media. Love those movies.

The grandfather of them all is, of course, The War of the Worlds. I went on at length about the latest movie version yesterday, so I'll try not to spend too much time on this. But it was Orson Welles, in all his prankish glory, who faked out the country in 1938, and created this wonderful notion of using the medium to con the populace. They played it again on Halloween night, and it's funny to think of terrified people staring at their radios. Well, funny now.

In 1988, public radio did an updated version, which I enjoyed so much I bought the CD. It used all the wonderful public radio conventions, including a parody of Stardate which nicely uses some of H. G. Wells' language. This was the first time I ever heard the mellifluous voice of Terry Gross (in her role as vintage radio host Rose Butler), and I suppose if I'd known her as Miss Fresh Air, that might have spoiled it right from the get-go. But I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially as she interjects, in the middle of the chaos, that listeners should remember to mail in those pledges. And it's got Jason Robards and Hector Elizondo, so there's much to love.

Probably the best of the hoax movies is a stellar little piece of TV called Special Bulletin, which does not seem to be available on video, and that's a crying shame. It's a tense film, depicting a group of terrorists threatening to explode an atomic bomb in Charleston, South Carolina. It's very effective, but what's marvelous is the way it criticizes TV news merely by showing it doing its thing. My favorite moment is when the network anchor is interviewing a physician, and the doctor is reviewing tapes of the terrorists to gain some insight into their mindset. And he notices that one of them mentions "white count", which he correctly interprets to be in reference to white blood cells, and a clear indiciation that the terrorist is suffering from radiation poisoning, and that the bomb is most definitely real. And the anchors totally miss it, because they're too busy trying to get to the next item. Marvelous writing, and positively prescient, considering the movie was made in 1983. If they did an update, the news would be even more clueless.

This is what brings me to my recent Netflix rental, Without Warning, a 1994 mock newscast depicting a major asteroid impact on Earth, and the mysterious nature of its true cause. It was kind of fun, watching things go from bad to worse. And it screws with your head, because the cast mixes actors with actual broadcasters. So there's John deLancie (Star Trek's Q) tossing back to the studio and real-life newsman Sander Vanocur. Strange.

If there's a flaw, it's that the film seems too polished. The filmmakers lay out all their cards, so that we can eventually piece it together, even if the media can't. Liek a jigsaw puzzle, we don't see the whole pictures until all the pieces are in place. But it's too polished. It doesn't have the element of chaos, of people trying to keep it together, that makes Special Bulletin such an achievement. In that film, you felt the frustration you often feel with watching the actual news, where you're trying to figure out the story, and you can't get the information you need. Without Warning tells you there's chaos, but it's a very orderly, carefully-controlled sort of chaos.

There has to be a way of transferring the joy of the hoax onto a stage. Must figure that out.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

FINAL CUT: When Worlds Collide


The fine folks at Spectravision (or OnCommand or whatever the hell the hotel in-room movie service is calling itself now) presented War of the Worlds to us the other night for a nominal fee. My wife had been resisting seeing the movie because of her unwillingness to help bankroll the freakish ravings of Tom Cruise. I tried wearing her down by reminding her that it wasn't fair to punish all of the other people who worked on the film, who probably didn't realize that Tom Cruise was about to go totally batty. Eventually, I guess I won out, because she agreed to my movie pick.

Does "intense" adequately describe the movie? Probably not. After a few minutes of exposition, the funny storm appears, the lightning strikes, and the first alien machine crawls out of the ground. And there's a brief hesitation...and then they get right to slaughtering the masses. From that moment, the movie never lets up, as Tom Cruise and his precocious daughter and irritating teenage son run from place to place trying to escape the obliteration of the human race. No clever one-liners, big cheers. Not even any moments where the characters stop and say, "Okay, let's just catch our breath and take stock of the situation." The film is relentless, constantly tossing the leads from the frying pan to the fire and back again.

At the end, Clair and I were exhausted. I turned to her and said weakly, "Yay. Summer blockbuster."

Out of curiosity, I swung by Rotten Tomatoes to gauge the critical reaction to the film. Much of it was similar to mine: a fantastic production, but grim and unsettling. Several reviews suggested that director Steven Spielberg had lost his touch, asking, "Where's the fun?"

That's when it hit me: maybe it's not fun on purpose.

I think the lust for what New City critic Ray Pride calls "apocalypse porn" began with Independence Day. There was something very bracing about the previews for that movie that came out six months in advance. Right there in the trailer, they blew up the White House, they blew up the Empire State Building, they basically blew up the world. So you watched that, and you said, "Damn. This is a movie that's not screwing around." And it worked to the extent that, when I saw the movie, I was able to completely shut off my brain and ignore the veritable flood of inconsistencies and unlikelihoods that drove the film's story forward. It was all "whoa" and "cool" and "dang!" The movie served the same role as a rollercoaster: it simulated the experience of being in mortal danger without the actual peril. It was thrilling.

Soon enough, movies had to have that thrill. And special effects made that possible. Explosions could be bigger, and we could get closer to them. Cataclysm became a good formula. It was hyper-real, and it seemed as if we might no longer recognize the real thing. Which turned out to be true on...say it with me...September 11.

That so many people commented that watching the actual terrorist attacks was akin to watching a Jerry Bruckheimer movie illustrated just how dependent moviemakers had become on the threat of utter disaster to involve an audience in their stories. That a special effects ploy had become quite real made the fake thing seem terribly hollow.

At the time, Steven Spielberg rejected the idea of making a movie about September 11. It was too painful, too horrible to consider turning into popcorn entertainment. And he made a movie about the Holocaust, so he should know.

One thing that has always made a Spielberg movie stand out from, say, a Michael Bay movie, is that no matter how fantastical the elements of the story, it's always personal. Yes, aliens are visiting the earth, but it's not about scientists or soldiers. It's about a boy in the suburbs, or a utility worker who keeps seeing Devil's Tower. So yes, he's made his share of popcorn entertainment. But with a human heart.

Except for The Lost World. That had no heart. And it blew.

So I'm trying to imagine him getting the script for War of the Worlds. Here's a guy who re-created a concentration camp for the screen, who re-created D-Day for the screen. He assumed the mantle of Stanley Kubrick to complete one of the great director's last projects. He's not the same guy who made Duel.

Anyway, here comes the script for a movie about aliens destroying the world. Killing millions. Wreaking havoc. And what I'm thinking is, Spielberg flips out. "Are you kidding?" he says. "We just watched our country brutally attacked, we're watching our own soldiers dying regularly in a Middle Eastern desert, we're scarred by current events. And you want people to laugh and cheer and death and destruction?"

And then it hits him. "I'll show them," he says. "They want to see explosions? They want rampant killing and people running for their lives? Sure, I can do that." And he does. And he shows it for the misery and despair and gut-clenching fear that it is.

War of the Worlds is the response to every stupid piece of apocalypse porn the film industry has produced. It's the end of disaster movies. It's Spielberg taunting the audience. "This is what you want? Fine. I'll give you what you want. But unvarnished."

I really think he's trying to punish us as viewers. Consider that one of the first people to be killed by the aliens is a man filming the event with a camcorder. We have seen the machine rise up over the remains of a destroyed church, and people have wisely backed away. But they still linger to watch, gaping at the destruction. And one has a video camera. And the next thing we see is that camera cluttering to the ground, its owner reduced to ash. The lesson: don't rubberneck.

Reinforcing my take on this movie is the way Spielberg peppers the film with 9/11 iconography. Oh, September 11 is everywhere in War of the Worlds. People running from explosions. People covered in dust and ash. Refugees dotting highways and clamoring to get on ferries. Bodies falling from the sky. Pictures of the missing taped to fences and walls. Timothy Noah of Slate noticed it, and he called it offensive, saying Spielberg had no right to appropriate these images for his entertainment.

The thing is, I think Spielberg doesn't intent to use these images for entertainment. I think he's taking them to leach out whatever entertainment we might find in the rampant destruction he is depicting. He's trying to attach consequences to an outlandish event. Blowing up the White House had no real impact, because it was cartoonish. But War of the Worlds refuses to be a cartoon. The 9/11 references make you queasy. Stop enjoying this, Spielberg seems to be saying. Grow up.

Unfortunately, screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp undercut this message with the character of Robbie, the teenage son of Tom Cruise's Ray. Robbie is irritating in that way that teenagers are, but he becomes an essential character the first time the family encounters troops on their way to engage the alien enemy. Robbie's gut reaction is to join them, to take on the invaders. In a way, he echoes the thousands of men who joined the military the day after Pearl Harbor. He is impulsive but brave, wanting to confront the aggressor head-on.

Ray rejects this notion, constantly trying to avoid death and protect himself and his children. And the movie seems to side with him, since virtually every person we see who attempts to stand up to the aliens -- or even stops to look at the aliens -- is pulverized. And it certainly looks like we've seen the last of Robbie when he finally breaks away from his father, telling him, "I have to see this." He wants to be like us. He wants to see the death and the destruction first-hand. He wants to rubberneck. And Ray lets him go.

So comes as a real surprise at the end of the movie when Ray has finally dragged himself and his daughter to Boston, where he hopes to find his pregnant ex-wife. He finds her alright. She's alive, her boyfriend is alive, her parents are alive, the entire neighborhood looks completely undamaged -- and there's Robbie. Unscratched. It's as though Spielberg wanted to make us suffer for the sin of looking at death, but finally couldn't pull the trigger himself. It undercuts the lesson. To say nothing of not really making sense. "He's alive? What?!?"

If I'm right, and Spielberg really does intend War of the Worlds as a corrective to crap like Stealth, then I don't think it's going to work. People seem drawn to explosions and catastrophe. We can't help it. Maybe it makes us feel a little bit superior. "Hey, I'm not dead in a plane crash." Maybe we need the vicarious thrill of seeing disaster without being in disaster. But his movie does go down like strong medicine. We have seen man brought down to his knees by forces we cannot stop or even comprehend. And it turns out not to be very much fun.