Thursday, December 29, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: Frackin' Good TV

In the overall scheme of things, I don't watch very much TV. I don't want to get all high-and-mighty about this; if my schedule permitted it, I'd probably watch TV all the time. I know this because of the way I get sucked into those damned Law & Order marathons every time. Mind you, the Dennis Farina episodes aren't really cutting it for me, which only proves what we all already knew: Jerry Orbach was magnificence personified. But the principle still holds.

I bring this up because the end of the year is bringing with it the usual flood of "Best of" and "Top 10" lists, and I'm finding with great satisfaction that the few shows I do take the time to watch are the ones getting the acclaim. It's like redemption, had I only been knocked down so low that I needed to be redeemed.

Take this outstanding list from the TV writers at They've very wisely let each of their critics wax rhapsodic about a particular program, and I must admit to being rather pleased as I perused the objects of their affection. To wit:
- Shows I've Already Raved About Here: Arrested Development, Project Runway
- Shows I Watch Pretty Much All The Time: The Daily Show, Lost
- Shows That Are Quickly Becoming My New Law & Order-ish Cable Rerun Fix: CSI, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
- Shows I Haven't Really Gotten Into Because I'm Not Up For A Medical Drama Right Now: House, Grey's Anatomy (although my wife just added the latter to our Netflix list, so we'll see)
- Shows I Know I'm Supposed To Watch, But Haven't: Veronica Mars

But as I worked my way through, I realized that I was actually hoping against hope for the inclusion of one more show. And at the end, I was rewarded, because one of the best shows on television right now, honestly and truly, really is Battlestar Galactica.

I know, I can't believe that last sentence either. It was about two years ago when the Sci-Fi Channel -- home of such cinematic masterpieces as Cube and Mansquito -- started running promos for a "reimagining" of the source of some of Dirk Benedict's finest work. (Not to slight The A-Team, but...well...) The rumors started flying. Starbuck was a woman. The Cylons look like humans. The Lorne Greene role would be assumed by Edward James Olmos. It did not bode well.

(It is possible to overthink these things, of course. I mean, the original show featured a monkey in an orange bear costume. It had an episode where all the men got some virus or something and the Vipers had to be piloted by -- horror of horrors -- women! It had tight pants and lots of feathered hair -- on the men. This was by no means television's finest achievement. It was pleasantly diverting, the moving red eye was cool, and then it was cancelled and we all got on with our lives, except for Richard Hatch. So it's not like there was this sense of something wonderful being desecrated. It just felt like that strange, Thirtysomethingesque attempt to turn The Brady Bunch into The Bradys. You know. Just a bad idea.)

So the astonishment that accompanied the actual airing of that miniseries cannot be understated. They stripped away everything that was cheesy about the original show and unearthed a haunting story about a civilization that is nearly destroyed and running for its very existence. They the gave up modern-day special effects that downplayed the whiz-bang and instead tried to put a cinema-verité style in space. Finally, they saddled virtually every character with just enough baggage to make you care about their plight, but not so much that you wanted to slap them around. It was like finding a tarnished antique in a junk shop. Clean it up, and it's a centerpiece.

The only thing more amazing than that was that they managed to keep it going when it became a regular series. Plotlines that should have grown tired remained strong. Actors were sometimes annoying, but never grating. And the season finale was genuinely shocking, in a way that they often aren't. My brother-in-law gave me Season 1 for Christmas, and while I didn't even know I wanted it, I think he nailed it. Putting in a disc to see how it looked, I got sucked in once again. Recent TV shows have notoriously poor replay value. (Do I want to own ER? Um, no.) But this show's got it.

I got through four outstanding episodes of Season 2 before the wizards at Comcast decided I had had quite enough of that. They moved Sci-Fi to the premium digital section, replacing it with the Golf Channel. Because they serve the same demographic, you see. Even more annoying, they lied to me about it. They said, "Oh, no, your neighborhood won't be losing that channel." And then they moved it. So I'll say it: Comcast sucks. For anyone who regularly googles that phrase, welcome to my blog.

Other than the personal pleasure I take from ripping on Comcast, I bring that up because it allows me to mention that episodes of Battlestar Galactica are now available for download on iTunes. And new episodes begin in January. And what I'm saying is, this show is good enough that I'm tempted to shell out 2 bucks a pop to watch the episodes I've missed on a tiny, tiny screen.

So thanks for the validation, MSNBC. And Time Magazine, and everyone else who is on the bandwagon. It's good to have everyone staring at the same pretty picture.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

RED ENVELOPES: Daggers in the Hizzy House

Say what you will about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it opened up a previously untapped vein for movie that move at a glacial pace, traffic in unrequited love, and have stunning cinematography and fantastic fight scenes. As usual, Ang Lee has much to answer for.

And sure, we all benefitted from this breakthrough. But no one quite so much as director Zhang Yimou, who finally found a way to get the Chinese government off his back for making movies like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.

"If I make movies with lots of martial arts in them," he reasoned, "they won't bug me about the content, because they won't think there is any."

Thus empowered, Zhang went off to make Hero, which took the Crouching Tiger template a step further by enhancing it with a ravishing color scheme, adding a layer of humorous absurdity to the battle scenes (a shot of one man fighting off tens of thousands of arrows is particularly memorable), and proving definitively that a movie with Jet Li does not have to be crap.

I liked Hero, but didn't love it, so I was all ears when people started telling me that Zhang's next film, House of Flying Daggers, was everything good about Hero and then some. Jason Chin went so far as to lend me his copy (which featured menu screens in Chinese, telling me that he probably picked it up on a street corner in Greenwich Village), which I watched whilst whipping up a delicious batch of Toll House cookies. And now I can say with unwavering certainty and firm conviction: "Eh."

I think there's a law of diminishing returns. Like Crouching Tiger and Hero, Flying Daggers features an apparent criminal (played by Zhang Ziyi, who appears in all three of these films) out to undermine the ruling government. There's someone enraptured by her -- here it's a police spy -- and tries to win her love, all while the government pursues them and attempts to subdue them with hundreds of soldiers. The plots of these three films are not identical, but there is a sameness that makes watching the film frustrating. It would be like making more Matrix movies that were just like the original, but changed ever so slightly. Oh. Wait.

The movie is certainly an accomplished piece of work. Zhang once again has a tremendous sense of the visual, including a stunning fight scene in a bamboo forest that features assailants on every level. More than that, Flying Daggers has a tremendous soundscape, with every movement literally amplified to the height of importance. Nowhere is this more evident than in an early scene in which a dancer has to mimic the sounds of stones being flicked off of a circle of drums. The balance between silence and sound is brilliantly accomplished, and undoubtedly the film's greatest achievement.

But it's just so slow! The discovery of the title organization -- and the subsequent surprise about its membership -- comes so late in the film that it's hard not to question the point. And the final fight scene, set against a transition from autumn to winter, almost feels more ironic than poetic, as I was tempted to look outside and see if the seasons had changed for me as well. I'm all for a patient, thoughtful approach to filmmaking. But the languid rhythm of this movie seemed aimed more at inducing sleep than introspection.

Among my recent Christmas gifts was The Best of Sugar Ray, a band of whom I said many times, "I would never want to own any of their albums, but the moment they come out with a greatest hits CD, that'll be worth having." And while even that has its share of filler, I think I've been proven right. And so it might be with Zhang Yimou. His two recent forays into martial arts love stories have stunning moments, but the whole package doesn't add up to much. But maybe, if they put together a "Best of Zhang Yimou", that'll be something to see.

On an only-slightly related note...
A frequent poster to this site, Mr. Paul Winston, has apparently received a blog for Christmas, and he is using it to review some of his favorite films. (For the record, he seems to be watching a much better class of movie than I.) You can read them yourself at his blog, Film Treats, which I've also added to the newly-updated list of links over there on the left. Mazel tov.

Monday, December 19, 2005

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Getting Closer(s)

A while back, I promised to get to the other two elections being held for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Since the electors will announce their results on January 10, I'm thinking that now is a pretty good time to talk about that.

The Ballot for the 2006 Election

Fourteen new candidates on the ballot this year, and I'm not at all certain that any of them are going to get the necessary 5% of the vote to make it to 2007. The best of the bunch are guys who had great potential, but never quite realized it. Will Clark was a strong first baseman, but eventually petered out. Orel Hershiser is notable for a scoreless innings streak that boggles the mind, but doesn't have a particularly outstanding career as a whole. Dwight Gooden had such a stellar start, and snorted it all away. For an honor that recognizes a career, I can't really justify voting for any of them.

Possibly my most disappointing non-vote is Albert Belle. As players I actually have seen go, he's one of the few that made me gawk in astonishment. I had the privilege of attending the home run derby as part of the All-Star Game celebration in the Ballpark in Arlington in 1995. We all knew his ability, but we also knew he was a surly jerk. So he did not exactly have us in the palm of his hand. As I recall, he worked himself down to the last possible out, and then proceeded to unleash a series 7 monster shots over the left field wall. With each swing, he hit the ball harder, and the crowd grew increasingly vocal in its amazement. The ovation that followed when he finally ended his turn was immense and truly appreciative. One reason people love sport is for the "Holy Crap!" moments; those brief flashes of brilliance or luck or talent that are so unexpected as to leave you searching for the right words. Albert Belle had just provided a very heat-tired crowd with a good reason to stand up and cheer. He didn't win, but I was delighted and surprised to discover that I wished he had.

Sadly, I doubt Belle had inkling that he'd won us over. If ever there was a man who was angry at the world, it was him. I have to believe that affected his play. Injuries did their part, too. But a man who is always trying to figure out how everyone is trying to screw him now is not going to be at his best. Albert Belle at the top of his game was awesome. But he was so rarely there. He can't be considered for the Hall.

That leaves the returning candidates, and I continue to throw my support behind Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. Closers are tough to evaluate statistically, because there's still debate over their most important stat, the save. They were stars in an era when closers came on in the 7th inning, and had to hold off the opposition for the remainder of the game in order to get credit. Nowadays, Eric Gagne can rack up racords for consecutive saves without ever seeing the 8th. There's just no comparison. It's hard to imagine two pitchers who were considered game-enders, season after season, in the way these two were. Fingers and Eckersley, two of the three currently-inducted relievers, had that quality. Today, only Mariano Rivera carries that kind of cachet. Most relievers now are in the vein of Bobby Thigpen: one monster season and little else. I say Sutter and Gossage belong.

Given a ballot, I would also vote for Bert Blyleven. He has staggering career numbers, but few seasons that are outstanding on their own. Still, when you look at his numbers closeup, he does come through when the team needs him most. (His contributions to the 1979 champion Pirates, for example.) And it's very hard to say that a man with 287 wins, over 3700 strikeouts, and 60 shutouts isn't worthy. I'd vote for him, which should please the folks over at BertBelongs. Plus, "The Dutch Master" is an outstanding nickname to put on a plaque.

My other definite vote goes to Andre Dawson. He and Jim Rice have gained attention because of the solid career numbers they put up "before the juice". I lean toward Dawson because he was more consistent throughout his career -- Rice tails off rather quickly -- and because I'm on a mission to stack the Hall with Expos. Tim Raines, I will have your back.

Rice is a borderline candidate, a guy I'm not ruling out but am not totally behind yet. Alan Trammell is another one, and the tragedy is that is his teammate Lou Whitaker had made it to a second year of eligibility, they probably would have been elected in tandem. Lastly, there is Tommy John, whose phoenix-like comeback is the stuff of legend, and who proved astonishingly durable after his career-saving arm surgery. I don't actually know whether that should favor him or not. After all, he underwent the operation; he didn't perform it.

So it's Blyleven, Dawson, Gossage, and Sutter for me, which is a smaller group than I typically endorse. Sutter is within 10% of election, and probably has the best shot of anyone to actually get elected. (Ryne Sandberg jumped 15% to earn his plaque in 2005.) But the talk is that no one will get elected at all. It's happened before, most recently in 1996. But I think that would be a shame. These are four guys who would fit well among the membership of the Hall of Fame.

Of course, there will be inductees. There's one other election to discuss, and that could very easily result in a flood of new Hall of Famers. But that's a discussion for another time.

Friday, December 16, 2005

MY BONNIE: Here We Go Again

If you're going to make a promise in your blog, you really ought to keep it. I mean, even if only three people are reading it, that doesn't make it any less of a public declaration. Do the right thing. Be true to your word.

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Which is why I'm here now to be true to my word. I said I was going to finish that book I was writing. I said I was going to start re-printing the first chapters, and then the new material would follow shortly thereafter. Well, dammit, I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. So let's do this thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present Chapter One of Dead Men Are A Girl's Best Friend.

The new page is still under construction, so with any luck, it'll look much better by the time we get to Chapter 2 or 3. But for now, it has all the words, so that ought to be enough.

Bonnie's story originally began unspooling in early 2003. Dave Gilley wanted to create a section of the old ImprovChicago website that was devoted entirely to the creative efforts of members of the Chicago improv community. I volunteered to write a serial novel, similar to the efforts of Charles Dickens or Stephen King's The Green Mile, except that I couldn't guarantee that kind of quality. I'm not sure what I had in mind, but it seemed like a fun challenge to tell a story where I wasn't at all sure of the ending. Dave agreed enthusiastically, and I was off.

The best part about this first chapter was that, among those few people who read it, they were really surprised. I think I achieved one of my goals, which was to write something that didn't seem at all like me. I haven't read nearly enough Hammett or Chandler to have the whole hard-boiled noir thing quite nailed, but I had my own little variation on it, and it worked pretty well.

I will try not to overburden these chapters with comment. After all, I should be spending my time writing them, not writing about them. But I'm proud of what has come so far (which you'll be seeing in the coming weeks), so I feel like I owe it to this story to see it through.

Happy reading.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

FINAL CUT: Here Comes the Man in Black

Probably the most bizarre double feature I've ever created for myself at the theater was the one that developed a few years ago, when we followed up a screening of Chicken Run with a viewing of Samuel L. Jackson's take on Shaft. Yes, peas in a pod, those two films. So after that particular brand of cinematic whiplash, there's really nothing all that weird about last Sunday's triple shot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a second helping of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and a chaser of today's discussion topic: Walk the Line.

I don't know if biographical pictures about recently deceased music legends constitutes a trend. Walk the Line, director James Mangold's take on the life of Johnny Cash, follows closely on the heels of last year's hit Ray. In many respects, the two pictures are unsettlingly similar. They begin in the rural South, feature protagonists whose brothers die when they are very young, and introduce the elder versions of their main character waiting for a bus. There's drug abuse, leading to run-ins with the law. There's cheating on a marriage. There's a record label that doesn't want our hero to put out the record they want to make. It's all here. You might be forgiven for thinking that there's a certain Mad Lib quality to this. "Okay, I need the name of a music legend." "Sam Cooke!" "Excellent. Roll cameras!"

Perhaps the most dramatic similarity is the unexpected casting in the crucial lead role. Ray, of course, won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his uncanny re-creation of Ray Charles. Yet somehow, the makers of Walk the Line have managed to come up with even more unorthodox pick for their version of Johnny Cash: Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix is an actor I'm psychologically-pre-disposed to dislike. Ever since his Oscar-nominated (!) performance in Gladiator, in which he utters the most idiotic piece of dialogue in film since the entire script of Basic Instinct (to wit: "He vexes me. I'm very vexed."), my gut reaction is to wince when he comes onscreen. This is terribly unfair, since he has done some fine work, including his lackadaisical brother in Signs and his nicely understand vocal turn in Brother Bear. But casting him as Johnny Cash is another thing entirely. Cash looms large in stature and legend. The memory conjures up a big statue of a man, with a confident swagger, whereas as Phoenix seems small, sometimes even sniveling. How is it possible to find any kind of common ground between these two men?

In The Birdcage, one of that film's more successful jokes lies in Robin Williams' attempt to make Nathan Lane appear more masculine. After suggesting that he walk like John Wayne, Lane responds with an exaggerated lope that suggests a man walking in Jello while twirling a hula hoop. Williams is dumbstruck, saying, "I just never knew he walked like that."

I can think of no better way to describe Phoenix's remarkable performance in this movie. He really doesn't look the part, and almost never makes you forget that you're watching a performance. But there is something unmistakably true about his take on Cash. He's not the statue, and he's not a replica. He's a reminder that Johnny Cash was, after all, a real human being, and Phoenix presents a very believable picture of the flesh & blood version of the icon. It's a very successful dare.

A big factor in his favor is that Phoenix, along with all the other performers, does his own singing. It's not as much of a stretch as it seems; Johnny Cash was not known for his melodious singing voice. Phoenix does a credible interpretation of Cash's cavern-deep voice and its train-track cadence. But the difference is in the acting. Freed from the need to follow a pre-recorded track, Phoenix gets to inhabit the role any way he pleases. This cuts both ways; Sinead O'Connor's lip-synched video for "Nothing Compares 2 U" is legendary for the raw emotion it conveys. But there's no question that allowing the actors in Walk the Line to sing for themselves lends an air of realism and credibility that other musical biographies can't achieve.

In a way, all this talk of Johnny Cash and Joaquin Phoenix is unfair. Although Reese Witherspoon doesn't make her first appearance as June Carter until well into the first hour, her character has already been introduced, and the picture as a whole is chronicling a couple, not just one man. Witherspoon has a stronger part than most of her films allow her, and she takes full advantage of the opportunity. In many respects, she is a more confident than Cash, and even if we're not always sure what she sees in him, there can be no doubt what he sees in her. She's a crucial counterpoint to Phoenix, and unlike many a filmed love story, their relationship seems fated, rather than dictated by the script.

Walk the Line is a very good movie, as these things go. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is to say that I feel certain it is a better film than Ray. What that film had to sell was the strong performance of Jamie Foxx. Beyond that, it definitely felt like marking milestones in a life, and then looking for a place to stop. By comparison, Walk the Line actually has a story to tell, an arc to chart. It doesn't always avoid cliché, but it makes what might be a familiar story work, and never fails to be convincing. Over the closing credits, we hear the real Johnny and June for the first time, in a performance of "Long-Legged Guitar-Pickin' Man". Many times, when a film shows us "the real people" for the first time, the contrast is shocking, undoing so much of the construction the film has struggled to build for two hours. (The end of Nixon is an excellent example of the phenomenon.) But Mr. & Mrs. Cash don't contradict the film of their lives. If anything, they help bolster the idea that the film got it pretty close to right. Which is appropriate for a film about musicians. It's harmony.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Trouble

Christmas is coming. It's going to be here in a little over 10 days. You may have heard about it.

I am so unprepared.

To be honest, getting married has totally thrown off my calendar. At the beginning of October, we had this massive event, where nearly all of our friends and family came to town to see us, and they gave us presents, and it was just tremendous.

Oh, and it was unseasonably warm.

Ever since then, the world has just kept right on going, and I have yet to catch up. We were in Minnesota for Halloween, so we didn't go through my usual exercise of complaining about costumes. My wife and I each had birthdays in November that were real casual and low-key. For my part, my birthday fell on a Sunday, so there weren't even the usual day-of greetings from co-workers or theater folk.

Then came Thanksgiving, which was also pretty quiet, since it was just the two of us, and there seemed to be no need to make a big production out of dinner for two. Not that we didn't have a lovely dinner. It just wasn't a whole turkey-baking fest, you understand.

I don't know why I'm so defensive with you.

So now, here comes Christmas. The city is blanketed with snow, the music is everywhere. (Well, actually, the music's been playing since before Halloween, but that's another rant entirely.) Lights are up all over, and people are throwing Christmas parties left and right.

And me?

I haven't hung one ornament. I haven't bought one present. I haven't even made a single plan for Christmas Day.

What's my deal? I'm not against the holiday. I love Christmas. I'm just utterly unprepared for it. People keep asking me what I want, and I don't have the first clue. I need to make a list of gifts to get for people, but I haven't even made the list of people. I'm supposed to buy a Secret Santa gift for work. I haven't done that. The gift exchange is Friday.

The fact that we're staying in Chicago probably has some bearing on my attitude. It doesn't have the feel of "an event". Frankly, Christmas this year is just going to kind of come and go. There's a lot of excitement that usually builds up to holiday travel, or hosting holiday guests, and we don't have any of that this year. So maybe that's it.

What's really odd is, I know I'm running out of time. I can hear the clock ticking. The future looms. It makes me very nervous. And yet, I'm no closer to doing anything about it than I was before.

Music is actually the one area where we're ahead of the game. Previously, I have relied upon my old friend, the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, to provide the proper atmosphere. In recent years, I have thrown in the Now! That's What I Call Christmas collection, even though it totally falls apart by Track 6 of the second disc. (I mean, seriously. "Christmas in the Yard"? Nuh-uh.) But the glorious evil that is iTunes has changed that. Now we can download every manner of musical merriment. And my wife has taken full advantage of this new tool. She has spent at least two nights assembling her perfect Christmas mix CD. She's been listening to snippets of songs, rearranging the order, matching up jingling bells and jolly choruses. Over and over. I've heard the end of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" approximately 753 times. I don't think I'm exaggerating. It's starting to drive me mad.

It's good, though. It means a least one of us knows what they're giving for Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2005

FINAL CUT: The Lion, King

Despite my earlier difficulty taking in multiple motion pictures in one day, I'm happy to report that it still possible to maximize your moviegoing experience in the city of Chicago. And given how much it costs to go to the movies in Chicago, I tend to think of it as a moral imperative. I don't want to get anyone into trouble or somehow cause an increase in security measures, but suffice it to say, if you were to go to some sort of multi-cinema -- perhaps an American one -- your chances of enhancing your ticket are very strong.

Part one of our triple feature was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is looking to follow in the footsteps of The Lord of the Rings in both (a) successful adaptation of beloved fantasy series by god-fearing Oxford don and (b) long and unwieldly title. Based on the initial product off the assembly line, the prospects look pretty good.

I just finished reading the Chronicles for the first time a couple weeks ago, so the story was pretty fresh in my mind. In adapting C. S. Lewis, the filmmakers have quite the opposite problem of those attempting to put Tolkein or J. K. Rowling on screen. Instead of trying to condense vast amounts of information into a digestible movie, Lewis is a very economical writer. I don't think a single one of the Narnia books clocks in at more than 220 pages. So the trouble becomes trying to add material without disrupting the delicate balance of the original book or making the whole thing seem overinflated. Given that handicap, it really is high praise to be able to say that the movie has faithfully captured both the story and the spirit of Lewis' book. In fact, when you look at the potential for slavish faithfulness to a source (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, anybody?), the filmmakers have to be justifiably proud for having captured the original material so thoroughly and honestly.

In many ways, this is the kind of movie that is just asking to be a disaster. With the exception of Tilda Swinton's icy White Witch, it's pretty much children and CGI characters most of the way through. But if you're looking for an example of how far the movies have come in the past 15 years, look no further than any scene with the Pevensie children and a pair of long-married beavers. Not only do the beavers look and feel real, but director Andrew Adamson shows great aptitude in filming them as you would any flesh-and-blood actor. The camera can move fluidly and flexibly, and the vast array of animals and fantasy creatures are ready for their closeup, or to remain safely in the background. This universe, to put it simply, works.

Of course, none of this would matter if the story's most important character didn't work. But from the moment the great lion Aslan first appears, any doubts about the film are utterly erased. In each of the seven Narnia books, Aslan is the most vital, most essential character. But more significant than his role in each plot is the overwhelming impact of his presence on each and every person in the series. Aslan is quite simply awesome. You can't helped but be thrilled with his every appearance, and impressed by his stature and depth. I don't envy the filmmakers the challenge of getting all this across, but they pulled it off. Aslan is a masterful CGI creation, with real heft and a magnificent mane. But he also has the power and grace that he should as a character. I am not totally convinced that Liam Neeson's performance is the best we could have; there's a touch of boredom in his reading. But he does convey both the traits of ferocity and gentleness that make Aslan so potent. To re-iterate: if Aslan doesn't work, nothing else matters. Aslan works.

For those who know Narnia as an allegory, Aslan's importance is even greater. (Hint: He's Jesus.) And that's been a subject of some controversy, as co-producer Disney has been attempting to lure much of the same audience that flocked to see The Passion of the Christ. (What a strange-looking DVD shelf that must be.) I didn't see Mel Gibson's savior-snuff film, so I don't know how much religion is necessary to appease that crowd. But I feel pretty confident in saying that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will prove satisfying no matter what your particular slant. The themes of sacrifice and faith resonate clearly, without the need to know the New Testament. And for those who do look for the Christian themes in Lewis' original book, they're still in there. Everybody wins.

I am a little concerned for the future prospects of the series. Lewis is constantly introducing new characters, jumping around in time, telling completely disconnected stories, with only Aslan and the concept of Narnia is constants. Whether audiences will want to follow along, and how much future adapters will have to work to flesh out flesh out the increasingly thin plots, remains to be seen. But even if they can't maintain this level to the end, that should be no reflection on the beginning. The Chronicles of Narnia are off to a fantastic start. And best of all, the figured out how to do Aslan. That makes things a whole lot easier from here on out.

Friday, December 09, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: Departing on Runway Two

'Twas a year ago, methinks, when Bravo began a full-fledged commercial assault to promote the newest member of the reality TV family, Project Runway. It combined two things about which I am completely indifferent: high fashion and reality competition shows. I was nonplussed. My then-fiancée, however, was bursting with anticipation.

As is so often the case, she was right. From the first episode, in which twelve designers were called upon to create a party outfit comprised entirely of items bought from a grocery store for 50 bucks, I was unexpectedly drawn in. As a rule, I don't think very much of shows like Survivor or The Mole or others of that ilk. They are, for all intents and purposes, game shows. And not even game shows based on merit, like being able to answer trivia questions or play an elaborate game of hangman. They're endurance contests and tolerance contests. Not very interesting, I find.

I soon realized why this was different. Project Runway did something that is very rarely seen: it managed to show the ins and outs of the creative process. It's a very difficult thing to get across. How do you show someone coming up with an idea. Well, this show found a very elegant way of accomplishing it. By watching a group of artists all trying to accomplish certain tasks in their own way, you actually get a glimpse into how different minds work. It isn't about strategizing; it's about talent. Which, luckily enough, makes for fantastic television.

The breakthrough for me really came in the third episode of Season 1 when the eventual contest winner, Jay McCarroll, truly came into his own. Until that point, he had been bugging the crap out of me. He insisted on proving to everyone who outlandish he was, and he kept calling himself Jesus, and he used to work in the porn industry so Clair and I referred to him as "The Fluffer." But then, in an effort to create a dress that might be sold by Banana Republic, Jay suddenly discovered that his shining personality wasn't going to cut it. And so, using the Chrysler Building as his inspiration, he created what was easily the most beautiful garment produced in the entire series. As a result, Jay realized that he actually had the skills to win this thing, and I realized that I couldn't call him "The Fluffer" anymore.

Well, for the most part, it's about talent. Ironically, the winner of that Banana Republic challenge, the now-infamous Wendy Pepper, seemed convinced that she was on Big Brother, and that strategizing and scheming were the key to victory. So she proceeded to irritate everyone on the show, as well as everybody who watched it, by trying desperately to be more clever than everyone else, and meanwhile consistently coming out as the second-worst designer each week. To her credit, she managed to parlay this into a spot in the show's grand finale, a runway show at New York's Fashion Week. Fortunately, however, her natural inclination to focus on the game and not the art finally did her in. And that, to me, is proof of Project Runway's superiority among reality TV shows. Wendy Pepper might have won Survivor. But there was no way she was winning Project Runway.

All this matters because Season 2 made a smashing debut on Wednesday night, and all the familiar elements were back and as good as ever. There's Heidi Klum, our hostess and the worst dialogue looper ever. At the time of filming, she's very pregnant, and not only is she glowing, but motherhood seems to agree with her backbone. She actually calls some of the designers on their crap. Way to go, Heidi!

And there's Tim Gunn, fashion director of the Parsons School of Design and the roving advisor to all the contestants. Tim is an excellent teacher, but more importantly, he's gentlemanly to a fault, so a great portion of comedy is derived from watching him delicately try to tell a designer that they are creating a disaster. My favorite moment of the premiere episode was when many of the designers were far from finished with two hours to go, and Tim is struggling to find the right word without being discouraging, and he finally says, "I'm alarmed." You had to see it. As much as everyone hated Wendy Pepper, they love Tim Gunn even more.

And our judges are back, and even they've gotten sharper. Fashion designer Michael Kors is on board, and even though I spent the fall looking for the right necktie and Michael's collection didn't even come close to what I was looking for, I still love his ability to get to the point. In the premiere, he succinctly describes everything that is wrong with a dress that looked perfectly fine to me. He points out that if you removed all the trim and lace and frills, all that's left is a boring top and skirt. And I think, "Damn, he's right." Which is why he's a fashion kingpin and I'm not. And Elle editor Nina Garcia is back, too. She hates everybody, but so far, her ire is directed at precisely the right people. It's like coming home.

The producers get major kudos for kicking things off with a magnificent start. Knowing that so much of the show's drama comes from trying to fulfill challenges before a ridiculously short deadline, they began by sending every contestant six yards of muslin and a directive to make a dress exemplifying their design philosophy within a week. So no one could complain that they didn't get a chance to do whatever they wanted, but still had to race the clock. Right from the start, you get a feel for who is going to be good and who might not. Indeed, the first person eliminated admits that he made his dress in eight hours. Hey, no pain, no gain.

Back when I started this blog, I planned to recap this show in the style of one of my favorite websites, Television Without Pity. Project Runway wasn't in their lineup at the time, and they had utterly neglected to hire me to recap one of their existing shows -- an oversight probably attributable to the fact that they've never heard of me. Excuses. Anyway, they recently wised up, and have begun to recap the show in earnest. That's too bad, because I would have enjoyed the task. On the other hand, it's nice to leave it to some other sucker. After all, I'm still trying to get this blog done on a daily basis.

Initial thoughts based on two challenges: Santino is extremely good, but is playing chicken with karma, and looks to be this year's Kara Saun. Chloe is a good dark horse. Zulema thinks a lot more of herself than I think of her. Andrae's crying jag is really annoying, and he can't leave soon enough. Emmett's maturity is refreshing. Diana has stunning ideas, but is so meek that you can easily imagine her dissolving into nothingness. And Nick can tone down the attitude. A lot.

I hate being stuck on a TV show. It becomes a commitment, and it means you lose an hour of your week. But's nice to have you back, Project Runway.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

BRIC-A-BRAC: We All Shine On

One of the easiest, and least informative, kinds of of news stories you can write is the anniversary story. On this date oh so many years ago, such and such happened. Here's some people who were there. Here's what really happened that day. Here's how the world has changed since that momentous event. Of course, it's not news in the sense that news is usually, in the most literal definition of the term, new. It's filler, but it's effective filler. It's filler that tugs at our memories, and makes us think we're learning something. At its best, it's storytelling. At worst, it's salt in a wound.

We've gotten them every year on September 11 for the past four years, and the 5th anniversary should be huge. The further away we get from events, the more likely we are to focus on nice round numbers. So we show up for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and maybe we'll be back for the 65th...well, maybe we'll hold off until the 70th...of course, the 75th is gonna be gigantic, so we might just want to build up for that.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it's no surprise today's news is filled with remembrances of the murder of John Lennon. It's the 25th anniversary of that hideous event, you see. The die-hards remember it every year, of course. But a big number like 25, well, that's a good time to really remember it.

I certainly understand the impulse to mark milestones in history, as well as in one's own life. It's human nature to take note of each revolution around the sun. Familiar things tend to take us back. So I certainly don't find it surprising.

But at least this time around, I wonder if it isn't time to give the anniversary thing a rest. What exactly are we learning with this particular look back in time? That it was really, really sad? That if he were still here, there still wouldn't be a Beatles? That crazy people shouldn't be able to get handguns? No, what we're doing is trafficking in misery. We're fumbling about for something to make us really sad, and we've found a diamond in this one.

I think what I really object to is the ghoulishness of it all. At one level, there are the people who gather in Central Park, looking off at the Dakota, singing "Give Peace A Chance." I certainly respect the level of their grief. But I don't quite get it. No matter how much this man's art touched you, I'm not sure I can connect with the need to gather and mourn 25 years after the fact. They worry me a little bit. There's a part of the grieving process that they're clinging to, and it's heartbreaking in private, but somehow a little unseemly in public.

And at the other extreme are the exploiters. I'm so glad NBC managed to get hold of interview tapes with the man responsible for all our misery. (I always liked how, in Elton John's song "Empty Garden", he was compared to a ravenous insect.) Why do we need to hear these tapes? Why do we care about why he thinks he did what he did? If ever anyone deserves obscurity, it's this rat. Instead, we choose this occasion to drag him out of the depths and parade him once again. It's cheap, it's offensive, and it has nothing to do with the man we're supposed to be remembering.

John Lennon, sad to say, is an unfinished work. I'm not sure he ever figured out who he wanted to be. In his famed Playboy interview, he talks about going to many different therapies, including est and primal scream, in his words "looking for a daddy." In truth, I don't think he ever stopped doing that, trying to find the place in the world he best fit in. He went from being a rebellious student to a fiery rock-and-roller to a psychedelic poet to a pretentious artist to a peace activist to a heroin addict to a miserable drunk to a stay-at-home dad to a quiet man facing 40 to someone who felt compelled to pick up the guitar once again. He was always movingon to the next thing, never quite comfortable staying in any one place for too long. Being father to his son Sean probably made him the most comfortable, but even that couldn't hold him entirely. And it's this elusive quality that makes attempts to remember John Lennon so irritating. There are so many Johns. If you remember him one way, you haven't gotten the whole picture.

What we're left with, then, is the music. And that doesn't need a date. You can put it in at any time, and John can speak to you, and tell you who he is at that moment. Look, I'm a commemorator. I've got a stack of John Lennon and Beatles CDs that I'm listening to, and I'm doing it because it's December 8, and that's the day John died. But John isn't telling me anything about being dead. He's telling me about his life. Which is infinitely more valuable.

John Lennon sang at my wedding this year. On the album Milk & Honey, Yoko included a demo recording of John singing a song he'd written called "Grow Old With Me." It was inspired by a Robert Browning poem. In Yoko's album notes, she said that John always envisioned an elaborate, syrupy arrangement that would get played at weddings all the time. I don't know if that's true, because Yoko has been known to bowlderize a bit. But I like the story, and I love the song, and I thought the very least I could do would be to help honor that lost vision. So there he was. It was one of the few things that I absolutely was not going to budge on. And it was just beautiful.

I'm angry that a lunatic could murder such a man. I'm sad for his family and his friends and his fans. But I'm not going to dwell on it. I'll stick with remember all the things he made that make me smile, or laugh, or sing along. And I'll think about how he helped make my wedding so wonderful.

That's the John I'm thinking of. He's alive. This day, and every other.

Like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Last month, I briefly discussed the online nominating process for the Ford C. Frick Award, honoring a lifetime's achievement in baseball broadcasting. Well, today the Hall of Fame announced the ten finalists, and I'm proud to report that, of three I voted for -- Skip Caray, Mark Holtz, and Jon Miller -- none made the cut. My streak is intact.

Take a look at the Ford C. Frick Award Finalists here.

Three of the final 10 were chosen from the fan vote, and I have to really hand it to the fans. They did their work. One of them, Dave Niehaus, is an announcer I've voted for in the past. He's the only broadcaster in the history of the Seattle Mariners, and his enthusiasm is legendary. If you've every heard him call a Ken Griffey, Jr. home run, or if you heard the final outs of Randy Johnson clinching the Mariners' first playoff spot, you've heard a very excited man. Evidently, he's like that through entire games. Dang.

The second, Bill King, was the Oakland A's play-by-play man for 25 years until he passed away last season. (Another finalist, Toronto Blue Jays mainstay Tom Cheek, also died last season.) The Bay Area is doing well in this award, as Giants announcer Lon Simmons got the prize two years ago. The clincher, though, is that photo the Hall has of King. It's the most frightening, most awesome, most 1970s attire you will ever see. I almost want to see him win just for that.

The fans really showed me something with their final pick, though. It's Jacques Doucet, who spent 34 years as the French play-by-play voice of the Montreal Expos. That's absolutely fantastic. Not only does it pay tribute to a murdered franchise, but it means that out of all the names on that list, the fans lent their support to the one guy calling the game in French. Now that's what I call an international game. Two men -- Jaime Jarrin and Felo Ramirez -- have received the honor for broadcasting baseball in Spanish. I'm all for adding a third language into the mix. Well done, voters.

As for the picks of the professionals, it's hit and miss. Does Dizzy Dean really need to be honored for his broadcasting? Is there really only one active broadcaster (Kansas City's Denny Matthews) deserving of such recognition? Did Graham McNamee call his first games using a megaphone? (How old is that picture of him?) I kind of get the feeling that the fans put more work into it.

I'm totally behind Doucet for the award, and I've got half a mind to write Bob Costas and tell him so. After that, I'd go with Niehaus, and then who knows. Maybe Matthews. Preferably someone alive. It's not fair, but I kind of like to see the recipients show up. Especially since they'll probably be inducting half-a-dozen Negro League stars this year.

Ah, yes. The Negro Leaguers. That's one of the other big elections for 2006. But that's for another time.

Monday, December 05, 2005

RED ENVELOPES: Water Everywhere

The question of whether a movie is any good doesn't seem like it should be particularly difficult to answer. After all, you either like it or you don't. It's either well-made or shoddily constructed. It either leaves you satisfied or wanting. Sometimes it hovers near the line, whihc leaves you using terms like "sorta" and "kinda" and "a little bit." And of course, we reserve the right to change our minds on these things. But on the whole, it's a pretty straightforward question.

So you'd think I'd have an easier time coming up with an answer for Open Water.

When I sent it back to Netflix, I rated it four stars. In their confused parlance, that either means I "really liked" or "loved" the movie. They're not real consistent on the matter. Point being, I think it's a fair rating. For a low-budget, hi-def video creepshow, it's very well-made. The movie parcels out its shocks and thrills very effectively. It achieves a level of horror to which most blood-and-gore pictures can only aspire. It does it's job, and it does it well. Ergo, good movie.

But all I have to do is tell you the basic plot of the movie, and I think you'll start to see my problem. Open Water is the story of an on-the-go couple who take a vacation to the Caribbean to try to re-connect with each other. There, they go on a deep-sea diving trip -- and are accidentally left behind in the ocean, where they attempt to survive the elements, as well as packs of hungry sharks. Whoo hoo! Let's have some fun!

Much was made of Open Water's similarity to The Blair Witch Project, another quickly-made horror movie about people who fear for their lives while trapped in natural settings that prove to be unexpectedly treacherous. The comparisons are apt, in the sense that both are inexpensively shot on video, and use the apparent deficits in big-name stars and large special effects budgets as advantages, stripping away a layer of Hollywood artifice to make a terrifying moment seem real, and thus all the more terrifying. Of course, the comparison falls apart when you consider that Open Water is a superior film in almost every respect. Better acted, shot professionally, with an actual script to guide the proceedings, Open Water takes the gimmick of Blair Witch and gives it a much-needed polish.

Plus, it's not nearly as irritating. Credit for this has to go to writer-director Chris Kentis, who knows his characters have to seem real in order for you to have any identification with their situation, but also knows that realism must be tempered with some dramatic build, lest it be reduced to the hysterics of reality television. My favorite moments involve the couple trying to cope with their situation and reacting in all-too-believable ways, like trying to remember what they learned by watching "Shark Week", or furiously cursing at the heavens just to try and release some of the tension.

Kudos also go to the cast, which is essentially actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. It's no secret that the scenes in which the characters are trapped in shark-infested waters were, in fact, shot in shark-infested waters. So everytime a shark's fin appears above the surface mere yards away from them, they're reacting to an actual danger. So the fact that Ryan and Travis create characters who you actually like and want to see get out of their predicament is quite an achievement.

But what I keep coming back to is the basic situation that makes up most of the movie: two people trapped, hoping they don't die, and waiting to see if they do. It is a major bummer. The word I would use to describe the general tone of the film was dread, and this movie does as good a job of capturing that feeling as any ever made. Even for a relatively short film such as this, the feeling starts to weigh heavily after a while. You may be rooting for our heroes, but they can't improve their lot, and you can't either, and so you're just waiting for fate to do whatever it will. It's a horror film made by Albert Camus.

So is it any good? Well-made, yes. Successful on its own terms, absolutely. But I'm not altogether sure it's good for you. It's a drag on the psyche, and while there is a place in art for the gamut of human emotion, it does make it very hard to pass along a recommendation. Because for most people, "Go see the well-crafted movie about the long wait for death" is not a selling point.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

PAGE TURNER: 50 Pictures' Worth

"Gail and Nate cried themselves to sleep on Thursday. The rest of his birthday weekend went downhill from there."

Those marvelous opening lines begin the new novel from Matt Larsen, which is either called Gemini Joe or Greater Than, depending on where you look for it.

That kind of confusion would not seem to be ideal for a new book, especially if you don't remember seeing anything about a Matt Larsen in your last issue of Publishers Weekly. Not to worry. Matt -- friend, colleague, and groomsman -- hasn't actually handed his book over to a publisher yet. In fact, he may not even bother. Because his book is the triumphant fruit of his labors as a participant in the 2005 edition of National Novel Writing Month, where it's about the journey, not the destination.

A quick brief for those new to the concept: NaNoWriMo (the preferred abbreviation, although a curiously stingy appellation for a project about accumulating words) posits that everybody has a novel in them, and they would write it if they only had the necessary prodding. So for the month of November, anybody is welcome to accept the challenge of starting from scratch and composing a 50,000-word novel by the end of November 30. You want to write that book? Here's the artificial deadline you need.

Sounds simple enough. Just start typing, and stop occasionally for coffee. Indeed, judging from the list of winners, that is the approach some successful novelists have taken. One winning volume is titled A Month of Random Phlegm Coughed Up By My Brain, a Bastardization of Conventional Novel Writing, in G Minor. I haven't read it, but I have the suspicion that it's not going to be entirely linear.

But 50,000 is a lot of words. For those keeping track at home, that's approximately 1,667 words a day. By the time I reach the end of this sentence, this blog entry will consist of 325 words. So should I decide to write a novel called Shane Writes a Blog, "Chapter One: Shane's Blog Entry for December 1", I'm not even a fifth of the way through Day One.

I have never entered NanoWriMo, choosing instead to live vicariously through others. If I'm not mistaken, this is Matt's second attempt at the literary 1500 meters. Most obvious lesson learned from watching Matt: writing sucks up your life. Several times during the past month, after dinner or in the midst of a game, Matt got to use this awesome-yet-sad exit line: "I'm sorry. I have to go write my book." If you think about it, it's a fantastic way to get out of any situation. It sounds gravely important: "Well, you can't really argue with that. The man has to write his book." And yet it's really cool: "Wow! He's writing a book!" But finally, it's bittersweet, because the darkness of a looming deadline colors the whole enterprise. Do you get to enjoy the process when you're racing through it? It's becomes just one man, slogging away against a tolling clock.

Well, it's not quite that dramatic. But I sounds pretty cool that way, doesn't it? Make a good book, that would.

Choosing November as the month to write a book is really quite cruel. The main reason: Thanksgiving. This 4-5 day holiday sitting right there in the last third of the race, practically daring you to try and finish. It's as though the people running this contest want you to blow off your family and friends. I mean, sure, it could have been worse. They could have picked February. It's the shortest month. But you would get the whole 28 days, because President's Day isn't going to coma-a-callin' right as you're building up to the dramatic climax. Besides, you're going to be stuck inside anyway, waiting for winter to end. But, I suppose that makes completing the challenge in November all the more satisfying. "Look at all the obstacles I've overcome." But you do miss the leaves changing.

This is all very significant to me because we're coming up on the third anniversary of me beginning work on a book of my own. I began writing a serial novel a long while back, that posted on an online literary journal called The Greenroom. (I then became editor of that journal, and then watched it go moribund due to website issues. It will come back, though. I swear it.) In a way, I had a gentler version of NaNoWriMo's artifical deadline in my corner, too. Knowing that I wanted a new chapter to go online every two weeks, I had to chug through the writing and the editing. And for about ten chapters, I was really making a go of it. In fact, as I went along, it seemed to get easier. I was in The Zone (which ESPN has informed me must be capitalized and drenched with reverb when uttered). But I let a deadline slip, and I slipped out of the groove, and the fields eventually went fallow. You see it happen to a lot of NaNoWriMo participants. They get through the first 10,000 words, and then the next 5,000 come much slower, and then you have to go to Ohio to gee Grandma, and you never do see the finish line.

I regret that my story slipped away. And Matt has shown me that I get get it back. I've got 15 chapters written. The construction equipment is on the site; the workers are just waiting for permission to start work.

The word is given.

Awhile back, I mentioned a couple secret projects for this blog which, as the name implied, I kept secret. Now I'll tell you: I'm finishing the book, and I'm doing it here. I'm going to start re-posting the early chapters, and then, starting with Chapter 16, it's all new, baby. And I've got whoever might be reading this site to keep me honest. Let's do this thing.

Dead Me Are A Girl's Best Friend. The re-launch. Chapter 1, coming next week. I'm going to write this book. It'll take more than a month, but I'm gonna do it.

Because right now, Matt can say something I can't. He wrote a book.

Matt's NaNoWriMo Page
An Excerpt from Matt's Novel