Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Get Ready For Some Fun, It's Question Number One

When I started this blog, I had a job that I found less than enchanting. My on-the-job satisfaction is reflected in the fact that I was writing three or four blog posts a week. Then I got a new job, the the posting all but dried up. Perhaps that will tell you how much I've enjoyed my work.

For the past six months, I've been working for a company called Jellyvision. Those of you with computers might be familiar with Jellyvision's best-known product, a snarky CD-ROM trivia game called You Don't Know Jack. Ring a bell?

It's been years since the last You Don't Know Jack game was released, in part because the bottom dropped out of the CD-ROM market, and in part because that wasn't really the business they wanted to be in. They're pushing an interface that creates a simulated conversation between the computer and the user. So while the Jack games do that, they're looking to find more applications of the technology.

What brought me to Jellyvision was an effort to put this system to work in teaching reading comprehension. It was a very exciting project; first and foremost, I got to write passages that students would then be quizzed about. Then I wrote the quizzes. Somewhere, somehow, a 6th-grader might end up reading something I wrote, and learn how to draw inferences from the text. I feel ennobled.

When that project finally wrapped up, I kinda figured my days were numbered. But they continued to find tasks for me (especially in September, when everyone was on vacation and I practically had the place to myself for a month), and I was happy to do them. Which is how I ended becoming a part of an even more interesting project: the resurrection of Jack.

Jellyvision is still trying to figure out how best to re-think Jack for the wired world of the 21st century. We've come up with all kinds of ideas. At least one of them landed me on Arnie's blog, with sock puppets on my hands. I still can't really explain that.

But all of our work came to a head yesterday with the unveiling of the first manifestation of the new Jack: The Daily DisOrDat. It takes the familiar question type from the old game and, as often as possible, ties it in to current events. We're still working out some of the bugs, so you might call this a live beta test (ooo, computer lingo), but on the whole, it's pretty much ready to be seen.

I'm especially proud, because I wrote the question that's up today (regrettably, I can't take credit for the brilliant visual joke that accompanies it). So I have now, officially, contributed to the world of You Don't Know Jack. About the only thing that might be more surreal to me would be writing a Star Trek episode. I've gone through the looking glass.

This is all very bittersweet, because I'm going to have to leave Jellyvision at the end of the year. I'll get into details some other time, except to say that I now hate Reader's Digest with an irrational passion. So just as I started to contribute to this thing I've always been a fan of, I have to quit. It has been occasionally depressing, so I try not to think about it too much. Instead, I try and write more questions, so that I'll still be around, even after I've left.

Anyway, it's nice to be able to show people what I've been doing all this time, and where the blogging went. I gave it up for Jack. So please visit the new website, and play the game, and tell everyone you know to do the same. It's fun, and Jellyvision will be watching closely to see how many people are stopping by. We need hits, people. And when the smart-ass host makes fun of you, that might just be my handiwork.

In the meantime, I've got to find another job that will keep me from blogging.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LONDON CALLING: The Glories of British Cuisine

My grandmother tells the story of being in Munich in 1972, attending the Olympics in the company of my aunt, who was an alternate to the U.S. gymnastics team. (For that reason, I will always hold a grudge against Cathy Rigby.) While there, they met a charming gentleman from England. Since they would be stopping in London on the way home, he offered to take them to dinner in his town.

Anyone out there who has even heard the tales of British dining will know what's coming next. My grandmother, however, had evidently never heard such stories, for she was astonished when the man took them to a Chinese restaurant. Like a perfect straight man, she complained that she expected to sample the local cuisine, and asked why he had chosen to show off a Chinese eatery. Right on cue, he replied, "Well, I certainly don't want to give you British food."

This story stayed in my mind every single time I sat down at a dining table during our London sojourn. British food is bad; everyone knows it. The British know it. It's why everybody recommends you go and get Indian food. The curries are supposed to be sensational.

I don't care for curry, and I grew up with the blandest taste buds within a 90-mile radius, so I figured that I was prepared for whatever London could throw at me.

Pub food is what most people are thinking of when they talk about British food, and we definitely got our share. Roasting is clearly big in pub cooking. We had roast beef one day, roast chicken the next. Along with the familiar fish & chips, you'll find these dishes at practically every pub on the island. But it's not just these items. Every pub seems to have the exact same menu. What is salmon pie? No idea, but it was on every bill of fare. Does every pub serve lasagna? Yes, I think so. It's almost as if there's a commission overseeing the kitchen of every pub in England. The consistency is a little disturbing.

I did discover the glories of Yorkshire pudding this way. I'm not such a stupid American that I thought all pudding should be like Jell-O. But I was sufficiently unfamiliar that I expected it to be more like bread pudding. Or I think that's what I thought. When I was actually served Yorkshire pudding, I was really delighted, and I realized that I had no idea what I thought Yorkshire pudding would be. Clair says it's like a popover, which doesn't actually help me much. It's really like a light, airy dinner roll. It sops up gravy and dissolves in your mouth, and one of the first things I did when I got home was to look up Yorkshire pudding in my copy of How to Cook Everything. I have big plans for myself.

Of course, we weren't confined exclusively to pubs. We worked in some fine dining as well. Usually, we ate depending on where we were when we actually got hungry. Between the racing around and the jet lag, our schedule was completely whacked, so it's not like we had a strict eating rhythm going. But on reflection, that worked to our advantage. If we hadn't been trying (and failing) to find something worth seeing in the West End, we wouldn't have enjoyed the porcini mushroom specials at Galileo's, right across the street from the theatre housing Phantom of the Opera. If I hadn't gotten us lost in the South Bank, then we wouldn't have ended up at an Italian restaurant nestled in the vaults underneath the Waterloo Bridge. The food in these locations was not necessarily the finest I've ever consumed. But they were experiences, unique experiences. Happenstance worked out well.

There's one other experience that has to be noted. Our first hotel was in The City, London's financial district. First thing Monday morning, it was overrun with harried, horribly-dressed business people. Like rats in wrinkly suits and ill-knotted ties, they were. So it's in this environment that we decided to grab breakfast at a place called Fuzzy's Grub, which advertised itself as the home of the only true down-home breakfast in town. For the record, in London, that means a toasted egg sandwich. My father introduced me to the fried egg sandwich, but he never made it with inch-thick toast. Proof of British insanity can be found exclusively in this sandwich. I don't think I ate again for 14 hours, so stuffed was I by this one egg sandwich. Sometimes, you realize you should have just had fruit, and this was one of those times.

But I haven't described the best food in all of London. It's embarrassing, frankly. In an entire country, the finest single thing we consumed... was at McDonald's.

Here in the United States, the Fun Police somehow persuaded the McDonald's Corporation to destroy the two finest things on their menu: greasy, salty French fries, and a hot, scalding, fried apple pie. The fries are mealy now, usually cold, and without flavor. And the pies are a complete joke. They are baked, with a powdery surface and a powdery taste. Two years ago, after seeing Super Size Me, I vowed not to eat at McDonald's again, and the blow was cushioned by the knowledge that the really good food was long gone anyway.

Well, except for England.

McDonald's never felt the pressure overseas to ruin a good thing. So if you decide to throw away your hard-earned pounds at the Golden Arches, you can get yourself a genuine deep-fried apple pie. Clair knew this, and on our first night, somewhere on on the Brompton Road, we beat the rush of inebriated Britons and ordered ourselves a pair of genuine McDonald's apple pies. The crust is crunchy and salty and covered in batter bubbles that crumble in your mouth. The interior is just the right blend of sweet and cinnamon, and is hotter than the hottest, lawsuit-meriting coffee. As soon as you take a bite, your tongue is torched by the scalding juicy apple jelly, and your hands are burned by the same as it bursts out of the crust. It's unavoidably messy, unquestionably bad for you, and potentially permanently disabling. We each had three. A definite highlight of five days in London was the realization that someone still knew how to make it right.

In that respect, I'm glad to be back in America. Now I can go back to avoiding McDonald's all the time.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I voted today. There really weren't any compelling races in my part of the country, and none at all with significance for the American political scene. But I voted anyway. I waited a long time to get the franchise, and I'm not letting it go to waste just because MSNBC doesn't give a crap.

To clarify, my 18th birthday fell two weeks after Election Day. On a campus of tens of thousands of students whose biggest choice was Coors or Shiner, I was not permitted to cast a ballot. The 26th Amendment didn't do me a whole lot of good. So I really make it a point to vote whenever I get the chance. I'm a political nerd, and I might as well commit to that.

As I said, the races on my ballot were fairly inconsequential. We had a race for governor, which featured the incumbent, who is patently corrupt, and the state treasurer, who has great potential for corruption. Naturally, I voted for the Green Party candidate. I'm always happy to scream impotently into the darkness. (I voted for Howard Dean in 2004 a month after he dropped out of the race.) I think the existing corrupt guy is going to win, but at least I don't have to take responsibility for it.

There were also approximately 963 pages of judicial retention votes, which I maintain is the single biggest reason for voter apathy in this country. Is this the case everywhere? I don't remember seeing all these damn judges when I voted in three other states. This has to be completely unnecessary, especially since they're all going to get retained. I took the trouble to actually do five minutes of research on them (including the write-in vote I cast for my alderman in the vain hope that she would take the hint and stop being my alderman), but I promise you almost no one else did. There are incompetent judges, and I'm not entirely convinced that the electorate is the right group to fix that.

The really big deal was that the touch-screen voting machines made their debut. Here in Illinois, we have the touch screens, and we have this system where you draw a line to complete the arrow of your choice. Bo-ring. Also, we had more problems with the arrow system, because polling places ran out of the special pens. Brilliant.

There's all kinds of complaint about the touch screens and how they're rigged or broken or whatever. I don't totally buy this, since we seem to have absolutely no problem using them to handle our money. But I do see how the stakes are a little higher with an election. So I think the biggest question is, do the things work?

I was prepared to ask for the touch screen, but there was practically no one voting, so they handed me my little voting ATM card without a word. Also, I was the youngest person there, so I think maybe they figured I'd give them the least amount of difficulty in figuring it out.

Honestly, I thought it worked swell. I could review all the categories at any time, and when I was done, a paper printout of my choices scrolled by, just so I could be sure that I got the vote I wanted. Admittedly, most of them were those damn judicial retentions, so I nearly passed out somewhere during Minute 15 of the scroll. But from my limited viewpoint, it all worked just fine. Then again, I always used to check my ballot for hanging chads.

As I write this, they're projecting that the Democrats will take over the House of Representatives, while retaining control of the Senate. I find this very exciting, since it means we could very well have our very first shrill Speaker of the House. (That's not a political slam. I just find Nancy Pelosi unbearable to listen to.) It also means that our government might have a check-and-balance system for the first time in six years. Call me nutty, but I think that's a good thing.

I take what I can get.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

LONDON CALLING: It's Actually the Bell

You can't build a landmark. I mean, you can't build something expecting it to be a landmark. The reason buildings get to be landmarks is because they work. They fit the skyline, they ingratiate themselves into their surroundings, their greatness becomes evident over time. You can build something innovative. You can build something beautiful. You can build something popular. But "landmark" takes a little extra.

The real test of a landmark is that when you see it, you immediately understand. Several years ago, I was standing up in a wedding in St. Louis, and I made a point of getting up early the morning of the ceremony, taking the hotel shuttle downtown, and visiting the Gateway Arch. It's an engineering marvel, and it's a historic monument. But more than that, it's a landmark. I knew that the moment I walked up to the base. Which is enormous and triangular. But you sense the majesty of it immediately. And it doesn't matter that St. Louis isn't a very beautiful city, or that East St. Louis and the banks of the Mississippi below are even less beautiful. It's a powerful structure, and it ennobles that city. It lived up to the hype. That's a landmark.

Big Ben is a fantastic landmark.

Our first full morning in London was spent in Westminster Abbey, which is a discussion for a later date. Westminster Abbey just happens to be, literally, next door to the Houses of Parliament. It's as though they're in Britainland in a world-themed amusement park, they're so close together. So my first glimpse of Big Ben was out the window of one of London's fabulous taxicabs, rolling along the banks of the Thames. Perfect setup.

And I kept getting closer and closer to it throughout the day. Here it is nicely framed by the trees. There it is from across Parliament Square, which is nearly impossible to get to. Bit by bit, I got nearer to it, and it still managed to look as impressive as it has in every photo I've ever seen of London.

Why does Big Ben (which, as the title indicates, is actually the largest bell inside the clock tower, not the tower itself, but let's just overlook that) impress me so much? It's hard to say. It's obviously not the biggest structure I've ever seen. I can see the Sears Tower from the end of my block. But to stand underneath it, and look up at it and see that immense clock face, the gold glistening in the grayest sky, is not something I can easily describe. All I can really say is that it lives up to the hype. It's everything that Big Ben is supposed to be.

I don't know enough of the history of Big Ben to know what they were going for when they built it. But I know what they got. They got a structure that singularly says "London" when you see it. And it carries that weight effortlessly. It's a landmark.

And right now, when people are asking me my favorite thing about London, I'm saying Big Ben.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I understand Madonna a little better now.

Not totally, you understand. The Sex book, the conical bras, the fine line between adoption and discount shopping, those things all still elude me. She's kind of a weird one, that Madonna.

But her tendency to slip into an English accent, in spite of her upbringing in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, that I kinda get.

It's widely accepted here in the States that you can say almost anything in an English accent, and it will sound better. Give Patrick Stewart a copy of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and I promise you he will make it sound like an Edwardian classic.

I'm not sure if they have the same feeling in Great Britain, where they all by and large talk like that. I mean, they can buy their own copies of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and the fact that they're reading it themselves in their own accents probably doesn't make the book any better. What I do know is that nobody in England is imagining how much cooler something would sound if it was read with an American accent.

(Well, except maybe rock 'n' roll songs. A lot of British bands try to sound American when they sing. But I'm getting off point here.)

The thing is, there's a real charge from being in a place where there's not just an occasional accent around me, but exclusively accents. Which means, of course, that I'm the one with the accent. Again, I'm getting sidetracked. It's just such a thrill. It sounds incredibly stupid, but I had this ongoing sensation, this repeating thought: "I'm surrounded by British people!" Like I said, it sounds ridiculous. But for someone who has spent over three decades in the same country, it was very exciting.

And then the desire to fit in takes over.

Once, many years ago, my grandfather and I were at Walt Disney World, and we decided to speak with British accents for a while. We didn't declare this out loud. There was just this tacit understanding that we were playing a little prank on the world. And we did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

Now, at cash registers and on trains and running down streets, I was confronted with the real thing. And I wanted to fit in. Again, not a conscious decision. But every now and then, I adopted an accent of my own.

This sounds incredibly childish. I accept that. But believe me, it's a little beyond self-control. When you head this accent that you've grown up to believe is the essence of cool, how can you help but play along? Sometimes it would happen before I'd realized it. It probably drove Clair nuts. But I won't apologize. It just felt like the right thing to do.

So Madonna and the accent? I get it. It's not right. But it makes sense.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

LONDON CALLING: Cheerio, Pip Pip

(I had considered recapping my recent trip to London in a straightforward, chronological fashion. There are two reasons I'm not going to do that: (1) it would have made more sense if I'd composed the entries during the actual trip, which I did not, and (2) that would be so boring. Then it would just be a diary. So instead, I'm going to break up my thoughts into several posts, and try and sort them into topics. Or at least, that's the idea. We'll see how that goes. For now, let's open with some initial musings.)

The first thing you do when someone comes back from a trip is to ask a simple question: "How was your trip?" So when you go on a trip, you've got no excuse for not anticipating the question. You'd better have a pretty good answer.

Right now, I've got three.

- "My trip was wet." The raininess of England is not only true. It is completely without exaggeration. Our first day in London was surprisingly clear. Even sunny. By the next morning, the grey had started to seep in. By the time we reached Stonehenge on Day 3, the rain was out in full force, and had no intention of leaving.

It was raining today in Chicago, and that helped me figure out what was so different about London rain. London had very little wind. Chicago, of course, has a reputation built upon wind. And therein lies the difference. In London, the rain just falls on you. It starts in the sky, lands on you, and there you go. The rain doesn't get thrown at you like little hailstones, the way it does in Chicago. Here, the rain beats you up. Not fun. I think I prefer the London version.

It's certainly not a torrential rain. We only heard thunder once. I can only describe it as steady. Constant. It falls and falls and there's not much you can do about it because it's not leaving anytime soon. (I suggest you bring an umbrella to the 2012 Olympics.) You won't drown in it, but you'll be damp a good portion of the time. I can see how it might get a little wearying after a while. Personally, I was just glad to experience the true Britain.

- "My trip was short." I've lived in Chicago for ten years now, and I don't totally feel like I've even fully explored my own neighborhood. Let's not even get into the South Side, which, I'm sorry to say, I haven't really gotten into. So the idea of trying to explore a foreign country for the very first time in only five days is patently ridiculous. It was never going to happen.

That said, London is absolutely huge, and I don't think there's any way on earth I could have appreciated just how outmatched I was going to be. Of the places we did get to, almost any one of them could have occupied an entire day on my itinerary. It was kind of frustrating. (Although it did inspire my brilliant idea for a travel guide series, Shane Wilson's 30 Days, 30 Ways, in which I visit a city for a month, and spend each day exploring one particular historical attraction or museum or whatever. It would be thoroughly impractical as a travel guide, but a lot of fun to research.)

What we ended up doing was what I call a checklist tour. This is where you mentally tick off all the things you actually see from a list of things you could have seen. This is a variation on what happened the very first time I came to Chicago, as the guest of my old school chum Laura Niesman, and we went to the Art Institute with very little time to spare, so we ended up racing through the museum, stopping only long enough to glance at paintings we recognized. Change the museum to one of the largest cities in the world and a couple hours to five days, and it's practically the same thing. In that sense, we did very well. Saw a lot of big London sights. Only now I have to go back to see what I missed. Which is unfortunate, because I still have the rest of Europe to race through and only scratch the surface.

- "My trip was comfortable." This was the biggest surprise, because I couldn't help but expect to find England...well, foreign. I mean, sure, they speak the same language, and sure, the bulk of my heritage comes from the British Isles. But still, it's another country. I needed a passport and everything. And yet...

You can put the cars on the other side of the street, but big cities are still big cities. I think I had this notion that I would be completely unable to get my bearings. I would be utterly lost, and everyone would recognize me as an alien, and point at me like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and screech. And that didn't happen. From the moment I stepped off the plane, it felt like a place I could understand, that I could get along in.

I'm not explaining this well, because reading this part back, I sound like a complete idiot. But I guess I was prepared for it to feel weird. Different. Foreign. And it wasn't. Clair asked me if I thought I could live in London, and in the sense that it could be overwhelming like New York, I'd probably have to think about it. But in the sense of being comfortable? Feeling natural? Yeah, I could do it easily. And that was a pleasant surprise.

And that's how my trip was. For starters.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Quick One While He's Away

Clair and I leave for London today.

I've never been to London. Or Europe. Or out of the country, in the true sense of travel. Here's a quick summary of my global exploits:

- Banff, Alberta, Canada - one week
- Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada - a few hours
- Tijuana, Mexico - a couple hours, mostly spent in line to get back into the U.S.
- Fajardo, Puerto Rico - one week, which either is (according to the Olympics) or isn't (according to the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries) part of the United States

It's not an impressive list, especially when you consider that my grandparents have visited the Great Wall of China, my dark-haired friend Holly became the hottest thing to hit blond Stockholm, and my wife once went on a pilgrimage to Yugoslavia. The Banff Springs Hotel is nice, but doesn't quite compete.

I have this notion that I'm going to blog from London. That I'm going to keep track of my journeys in that fashion. But since I can't manage to do that here at home, the odds are probably against me. Still, you never know.

I'm going to London. That's incredibly cool.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

RED ENVELOPES / FINAL CUT: All Praise the Pixels

Of the approximately 436 animated movies to come out in the past 12 months, roughly 93% have been CGI epics about wild creatures coming into hilarious conflict with the modern world. I even ended up watching one of them, while trapped in a steel tube hurtling towards in an island in the middle of the Pacific. (That would be Over the Hedge, about which all the newspapers ads have quoted me as saying, "Not as bad as you'd think.") But the news is not all giggles and digital bears. Only a handful of these movies are being considered financial hits. This, thanks to the peculiar world of Wall Street, where a film like Cars can make over a half a billion dollars at the global box office, and still be considered to have "underperformed". But there's a much bigger problem. Many of these films are not especially good.

Perhaps you're thinking the solution here is obvious: make better movies. This is why you most likely do not work in Hollywood, or if you do, investors will never trust you to make the right movies. No, according to one source, the powers that be have decided that there are just too many CGI movies, and they need to make less of those and more hand-drawn films. This is a marvelous theory, especially since only a couple years ago, those same geniuses shut down their traditional animation units because they'd determined that people didn't like hand-drawn movies anymore. I mean, why else didn't they flock in droves to see Home on the Range?

Anyway, they're not going to listen to me and just make better movies. After all, the live-action films are largely crap, so why wouldn't the animated ones follow suit? So let me speak to Hollywood executives in a language they understand: utter illogic. Here's my proposal to you, Hollywood. Maybe the reason moviegoers don't go to see your movies is because...wait for it...they're too long. That's right, it's those darned attention spans that kept everyone from going to see The Wild. You need to make short films. Look at YouTube! Yes, short CGI animated films are the key to economic success.

Of course, I don't believe this for a second. But the short masterpieces I watched this weekend could very easily prove the point. In less than 15 minutes, I saw movies that managed to have more humor and more emotion than any 15 minutes of Open Season.

It began with the Academy Award-winning Ryan, courtesy of our friends at Netflix. (Who only had a broken copy here in Chicago, so they had to send me a copy from the San Jose warehouse, which just fascinates me.) Ryan is, of all things, a documentary. It's the story of an animator, oddly enough, by the name of Ryan Larkin. He made a few remarkable shorts under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada, and got an Oscar nomination himself. This was in the early 70s, and the prevalence of drugs and alcohol combined with an already fragile psyche to completely unhinge Larkin, and he eventually wound up as a panhandler on the streets of Montreal.

It's kind of a downer, no? But in the hands of director Chris Landreth, it becomes something else entirely. This isn't just Ryan's story in CGI form. No, Landreth has used the animation form to reveal the psychological truth of the tale. So Ryan's appearance, as befits a man with a shattered ego, is that of a broken shell. His face is incomplete, his skin doesn't entirely cover his body. In short, he now looks in physical form the way he does emotionally. It sounds grotesque, but it's riveting to watch.

Other participants appear a sketches drawn by Larkin. And Landreth doesn't spare himself. As an active character in the piece, he comes off as plenty screwed up in his own way. At one point, when he makes a stab at intervention, a round flourescent bulb projects from his head, creating a halo just as false as his intentions. (Indeed, in a documentary on the DVD, when Landreth shows Larkin the film for the first time, it's hard to tell who is more uncomfortable: Ryan for seeing how he appears to the world, or Chris for trying to convince himself he's not exploiting a defenseless man.) And later, when a possible reason for Landreth's interest in Ryan surfaces, the animation tells you all you need to know in a matter of seconds. It's a devastating finale, and it shows the raw power that animation can have, if put to a higher purpose.

For good measure, two of Landreth's earlier works, the knowingly-pretentious the end and the creepy Bingo, are included. They help to demonstrate how much Landreth advanced when it came to Ryan. What's more, three of Larkin's films are available for viewing. Walking and Street Musique get all the attention in Ryan, and they are remarkable works, which play endlessly with the morphing abilities of animation. But it's an earlier piece, a wordless fable in charcoal called Syrinx, that was most captivating. Somehow, the pictures seemed to re-draw themselves. Like, I actually felt that the drawing was happening there on the screen, not on some animation table.

In a way, this was a perfect set-up for the Chicago International Film Festival's presentation of Pixar short films. For as much as Cars was a disappointment (in a "yeah, it was good, but it just wasn't the kind of great that it needed to be" kind of way), Pixar remains the foremost practitioner of making dots of light show emotion. That's still evident in their smash debut, Luxo Jr. The tale of two desk lamps, Luxo Jr. shows that you don't even need to change the set, let alone have dialogue or facial expression, to tell a story. The two lamps never leave the desk. They just play with a ball, never straying further than the end of their plugs.

All this was really the set-up for the maiden directorial effort for seven-time Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom. He came to Chicago to present the first ever public screening of a five-minute masterpiece called Lifted. I really can't tell you what it's about. (It will come out next summer, as the appetizer for Ratatouille, and I don't want to spoil any of it for you.) What I can tell you is that we asked to see it again. Rydstrom's a hit. Like the best of these movies, Lifted was funny, it did what only animation can do, and it did it without famous celebrity voices. It didn't work just because it was CGI. It didn't even work just because it was short.

It worked because it was really, really good.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: The Rodent and the Great Emancipator? They Miss You

This has been nagging at me for a while. It's time to get it out in the open. Ease my psychic burden once and for all.

It started innocently enough. The commercial opened with a sleepy man walking into a kitchen, where he finds Abraham Lincoln and a beaver sitting at the dinner table. Behind them, an aquanaut is doing the dishes.

The ad, for a sleep drug which shall go nameless because they're not paying me a dime to talk about this, is silly. Why is this guy dreaming about Lincoln and a beaver playing chess? Who knows? You're just supposed to take it on faith that all these things are floating through his head at night. Whatever. It's no neon butterfly soaring across America, dispensing slumber at every turn, but if they think it will sell beaucoups of sleeping pills, then more power to them. I even got a chuckle out of it. The guy apologizes to the figments of his imagination for not sleeping much, and Lincoln replies, "Hey, it's cool." Lincoln says "cool". I'm down with it.

Then I started seeing the bus ads. Empty fields, filled only with a forlorn Lincoln and beaver. A teeter-totter, empty on one side, Lincoln and beaver on the other. A motorcycle, with an abandoned 16th President and his dam-building companion stranded in the sidecar. (Evidently they couldn't get the aquanaut to commit to the print campaign.) And the only thing explaining these bizarre tableaux is a URL, conveying the cryptic message, "They Miss You."

I've seen the commercial. I know what they're trying to sell. I can't begin to fathom what someone who hasn't seen it is thinking. I know ads are getting really obscure these days. But these posters on the side of the el are so utterly devoid of context, all I can envision is brain-freezes throughout the city. They're just so freakin' weird. What should a person think when the train pulls up and there, on the side, is a despondent-looking Abraham Lincoln. Why Lincoln? Why a beaver? WHY?

(To make matters worse, I'm currently tryring to get through the very-compelling-but-exceedingly-long Team of Rivals, an account of the rise to power and presidency of, yes, Abraham Lincoln. So there I am, reading about how Lincoln is trying to compose his first inaugural address, and the Purple line to Evanston comes rolling by, and I look up to see Lincoln, visibly sighing as he holds one end of an unused jump rope. With the beaver on the opposite end. And they miss me. Very disconcerting.)

Personally, I have this additional level of confusion attached to the making of the ads. I'm imagining this guy getting the call from his agent, learning that he's going to be playing the part of Abraham Lincoln. Finally, all those years of acting classes and playing Editor Webb in countless community theater productions of Our Town and working as the assistant controller for the AAMCO Southwest Regional office are paying off. He's going to play the man who saved the Union. And then the agent goes on.

Abraham Lincoln. In a commercial for sleeping pills.

With a CGI beaver.

Saying, "Hey, it's cool."

How weird must this guy feel shooting the pictures for these ads? "Okay, Abe, just hold the jump rope, and look sad about the fact that the guy whose dreams you haunt isn't catching any z's tonight. Oh, and try not to drop the beaver." Or is the beaver even there? Is he completely CGI? Does Lincoln have to stand there all by himself? Is he method? Is he picturing his little co-star being there?

There are a lot of perplexing ads battling for my attention these days. I don't know if I'm more puzzled by the SUV commercial that depicts a divorced dad getting to spend an extra weekend with his kids or the spot that uses images of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the World Trade Center Towers of Light memorial to sell trucks. There are multiple commercials involving cars getting into massive traffic accidents. Hardly a day has gone by in the past five years where I haven't seen a Geico ad. Madison Avenue has a lot to answer for. So it's a real tribute to these damn sleep aid commercials that they've managed to cut through the clutter and emerge as the weirdest ads around.

I think I'm losing more sleep because of these ads.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Rooting Interests

I'm pretty proud of my hatred of the New York Yankees.

The Yankees are the most successful team in the history of baseball. They have won 26 World Championships, roughly a quarter of all those awarded. Many of the greatest players ever to take the field have worn Yankee pinstripes. The team plays in the most lucrative market in America, and consistently fields the highest payroll in the sport. The owner is obnoxious, the press is abusive, the fans feel entitled. Sportswriter Red Smith famously commented, "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." I contend that if he were making the comparison today, he would equate them with Starbucks. Hating them is really a breeze.

Of course, in recent years, it's been harder to hate them, for the simple reason that the players really aren't hateful people. How do you hate Hideki Matsui? What's really that offensive about Jorge Posada? And Joe Torre? I gained an appreciation for his skill as a manager when he turned the hapless Dale Murphy-era Atlanta Braves into a playoff team in the early 80s. A swell guy. Hate him?

But the fact remains, they're the Yankees. As Jerry Seinfeld might say, I'm rooting against laundry. More accurately, I'm rooting against Yankee fans. There are 30 teams in baseball. I don't subscribe to the view that one of them should start every season with an advantage, and only that team should end up victorious. I like everyone to share in the fun.

So I root against the Yankees. It's pure instinct. In November of 2001, when New York was recovering in the aftermath of you-know-what, a lot of people felt like for once, New York really deserved to win. They needed the psychic boost. I could understand that. And you know what? I was still pulling with all my might for the Arizona Diamondbacks. I just couldn't pull for the Yannkees. Couldn't do it. Still can't.

So I have thoroughly enjoyed the past six years of baseball. The Yankees haven't won in all that time. Oh, they've won a lot of games. Even a couple pennants. But not the game they really want to win. Good times.

Last week, it happened again. The upstart Detroit Tigers knocked them off in four games. In the space of a few years, they went from being the worst team in baseball to knocking off the vaunted New York Yankees. Deeply satisfying. My wife will confirm that I sat in front of the television reveling in the misfortune of the Bronx Bombers. They were going home earlier than they intended.

One of those going home was a pitcher by the name of Cory Lidle.

In nine seasons, Lidle played for seven teams. He came to the Yankees this summer in a trade whose real attraction was slugger Bobby Abreu. It must have felt like quite a fortunate turn. A decade ago, he was a pariah for crossing the picket line. Now he was taking the mound for one of the most legendary teams in sport, and a team almost destined fro the playoffs.

This afternoon, mere days after his season ended, Cory Lidle piloted a single-engine into a skyscraper on the upper east side of Manhattan. He was a major league baseball player with a wife and a son, and he was a year and a half younger than I am.

Also, he was a New York Yankee.

I don't regret rooting against the Yankees. I don't regret Detroit beating them, and I don't regret that Cory Lidle's season ended with the fourth game of the American League Division Series.

I regret that his life ended with the fourth game of the American League Division Series.

I'm working on making all that work out in my mind.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Keeping the Doctor Far, Far Away

I picked an apple this weekend.

Actually, I picked several. I'd never done that before. Pretty cool.

My close encounter with farming came courtesy of our friends the Larsens, who located an orchard in some future ex-urb called Homer Glen, which sounds like the real name of a relief pitcher who goes by the name "Slick." The giant suburban houses with the mammoth lawns and the artificial lakes are just the other side of the fence; in any other neighborhood, the orchard would be a golf course. In fact, it's not really accurate to call it an orchard. They clearly grew all manner of foodstuffs: pears, peaches, sweet corn, raspberries (which they spelled without the p), grapes, pumpkins, trees and vines and fields of every sort. (I'm just going to pretend that the chickens were there strictly for the eggs.) Of course, most of those crops had already been picked over. But there were still apples. Juicy, fresh, honest-to-goodness apples.

I will admit that I've always been a pretty urban fellow. My parents loved to hop in the car and drive for hours and hours, with no real destination in mind, which to an adolescent is like being in a rolling prison. So I've never been the kind of person who's itching to get in touch with nature.

Still, I'm only human. I like trees and mountains and starry skies and all that stuff. So when I found myself standing next to a tiny tree with little honeycrisp apples hanging from the branches, even a self-professed urbanite such as myself had to appreciate the moment.

There is something truly satisfying about plucking an apple from a tree and immediately taking a bite out of it. You can't eat a steak fresh off the cow. So we really got into the swing of things, marching up and down the rows of trees with a little wagon, tracking down the finest specimens of apples we could. It was a beautiful sunny day, we were in the middle or nature, and we weren't underpaid immigrants picking apples because it was the only way we could support our families. Life was good.

My wife and I ended up collecting 20 apples. Several fujis, a couple honeycrisps, at least one giant golden delicious. The Larsens claimed about three times as many. I believe they plan to give some as gifts; I'm guessing the rest they will serve with every meal they eat for the next three weeks. I mean, that's a lot of apples. But that's okay. We were caught up in the spirit of apples.

It was almost uncanny to click over to my friends at Slate and find a diatribe against pick-your-own-apple orchards. The worst was the comparison of the dwarf trees to fattened veal. Thanks for spoiling my fun, guys. Seriously, two days later. I expect a Slate article about blogging on Thursday.

I'm not going to let it get me down. Not anytime soon, anyway. I got out of the house. I talked to the trees. I have apples to last me through next week. I'm a nature-lovin' guy.

I'm not camping or anything, but it's a start.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

They're Gonna Put Me In the Movies

I have made my YouTube debut.

I had not discovered the glories of YouTube until I came to Jellyvision. Was it around before then? It must have been, but who knows? What I do know is, now that I've found it, my time has never been in more danger.

I think it started when Thea, one of the other writers, sent around a link to this bizarre Japanese TV show, which evidently attempts to combine increasingly disturbing English lessons with low-impact aerobics. From there, I was directed by another writer, Andy, to enjoy Mr. T's very 80s fashion tips. From there, it was a steep decline.

It's an amazing repository of stuff. Want to embarrass both Jason Alexander AND the McDonald's Corporation? No problem. Miss a favorite segment of The Daily Show? Easily fixed. (Hey, Dan!) Want to see two teenagers make a better Star Wars movie than George Lucas? Coming right up.

One of the greatest benefits has been the ability to rediscover old music videos. I've long contended that there ought to be some sort of channel that played music videos. A Music Television network, if you will, or at least One that played Video Hits. But alas, no such creature exists. Fortunately, YouTube and a blatant disregard for copyright laws has brought them back. In recent weeks, I've enjoyed the Squueze video for "Hourglass" that I only got to see once back in 1987, a Paul McCartney video for "Beautiful Night" that I didn't even know existed, and Weezer's appearance on The Muppet Show in "Keep Fishin'". Take that, Laguna Beach.

My personal favorite re-discovery was a montage that ESPN made years ago for the end of the year. I remember watching this and being reduced to a blubbering idiot by the perfectly-edited collection of sports clips, even to the point of being suckered in by Aerosmith's "Dream On". So one day, while getting way too lost in the YouTube world, I remembered that montage, and searched to see if they had it. Of course they did.

So I'm kind of excited to be joining such august company. I remain proud of the film, which my friend Matt shot and edited in a four-day sprint, and which involved us and my co-star Meridith being kicked off of multiple el platforms, presumably because of the grave threat to national security we represented. But I have to remind myself that we share that space with endless footage of adolescents lip-synching to Kelly Clarkson songs. In a true democracy, there is no distinction between videos. Welcome to democracy.

But more than that, I've had my time thoroughly wasted by YouTube. It's high time I started wasting someone else's.

Like yours, for example.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

One Year...and Counting

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of my marriage to Clair. Yes, we're pretty proud of ourselves.

At a different function a week ago, my friend Kat asked me what was different about being married. And it's an interesting question, because there's clearly something that separates the Institution of Marriage from the Institution of Remaining Unattached. If marriage didn't mean more, if it didn't have so much significance, then no one would do it. You wouldn't celebrate the occasion with such huge events. Homosexuals wouldn't be working so hard to destroy it. Marriage means something.

My reply to Kat was, "I get to use the phrase 'my wife'."

This sounds glib. But I really don't mean it to be. What I mean is, there is this person who means a great deal to me, and for a year, I've had permission to use a descriptive term that carries extraordinary weight with the world. Wife. That's the really big deal. Checking in to a hotel? "I'll need keys for me and my wife." Being bothered by a salesperson at a department store? "I really can't make any decisions without my wife." It's the ultimate in heightening.

To a certain extent, we've been celebrating the first anniversary of the wedding as much as the first anniversary of the marriage. Our friends Eddie, Diane, and Padraic joined us on Sunday at The Green, which was the site of our reception. It was a glorious, sunny day. The sangria was flowing freely. And for some reason, there was a man in what I can only describe as a subdued zoot suit singing karaoke tunes that had a Latin flavor. "Hey, see if you can remember this one from Mr. Marc Anthony," he would say. Diane says at one point, he even made a little "hep-hep", raise-the-roof gesture with his hand. It was bizarre.

But we didn't care, because a year ago, we had a wedding, and it went perfectly. You plan and plan for these things, and you do so with the understanding that something is going to go wrong, so you had better just deal with it, because that's life. And yet our wedding was about as flawless as you can imagine. I don't think either of us can believe it still. We go back and look at the photos all the time, trying to convince ourselves that it really did happen, and it really was wonderful, and there really weren't any drunken rants or major injuries. It's the most successful thing we've ever done. That's worthy of a raised glass right there.

At some point today, we will finally cut into the cake that officially commemorates the occasion. We have the proper tradition, of course. Cake from a year ago. For the record, this stuff really doesn't keep. In short: ew. But we have it, and we took a bite, and it was pretty awful. Knowing that, we also ordered a new cake, and it promises to be delicious. But we had stuff all weekend, and a huge dinner last night, and there just hasn't been room for cake. But tonight, we're having cake, dammit. Because we've been married for a year, and we plan to celebrate with something just as sweet.

Mmm. Cake.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Okay, That Is Just About Enough Of That

It's October.

My last blog posting was in July.

That's three months.

In all fairness, it's been a busy summer. Saw some movies (like Superman Returns, which actually seems to get worse in my memory as time passes). Read some books (like finally making it through John Adams, which is enlightening yet an epic struggle). Went to Hawaii (which we're evidently supposed to be spelling "Hawai'i" now). Yes, keeping busy.

Of course, some people seem to have no problems with busy summers. Take the case of the fellow who managed to finish one blog and start another one. Kind of makes me look like I have little excuse.

I've picked up subtle hints from the world that it was time to get typing again. Several people have said to me, "Yeah, I read your blog." Then I point out that it's been a while since I wrote it, and they nod.

It kind of came to a head while I was watching Arnie, the aforementioned serial blogger, posting an image to his new digital diary, and I said, "Yeah, I really need to start blogging again." And there I let the matter sit...until Chris, a fellow writer of mine, started setting up a new blog of his own. To which Arnie casually observed, "Shane, I thought you were going to work on your blog again."


Well, dammit, I'm gonna try. I made promises before, and those didn't hold up, so I'm not going to do that again. But I am defintely gonna try. I've got material, and rumor has it I have readers. So I just have to write the thing.

It's October.

Let's try this again.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Well, This Is Embarrassing

Last week, I got a charming little note from my old Second Floor Adriana castmate Mike Otto.

Hey, Shane, long time no see. Just wanted to let you know I was reading the 'oy, the cubs' thread, saw your blog in your sig, clicked on it as invited, and enjoyed it quite a lot

Hope all's well.

Now, I'm always a sucker for a kind word. But two things about this gave me pause:

1) I haven't posted on this blog in a month.
2) Mike has a baby.

Some things make you feel like you're not accomplishing everything you could be.

This won't be much consolation, but hardly a day has gone by where I haven't said to myself, "When you get home, you have GOT to write a new entry." And then I get home and, frankly, find there's something else I have to do.

I'm sure I knew this subconsciously, but I think I used to post most of my blog entries from work. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement for my previous stint in the hospitality industry, but it was really good for the blogging.

I find this is not so much the case in my current line of employment. The fact is, I actually like what I'm doing during the day. (Boy, that's weird.) So I suppose my old blogging habits don't really apply here. And the result is, I haven't quite adapted.

This is all excuses, I know. I honestly do feel bad about it. Because I have stuff to write about. I've seen movies, I've read books, I even got to the ballpark a couple weeks ago. (Tadahito Iguchi? Yes. Losing in the 13th? Not so much.) So I've got material. I just haven't found the time.

Do other bloggers care about this? I'm linked to a movie review site that hasn't posted since 2005, and I'm sure he's doesn't feel guilty. But I do. So this is just a note to assure you that I'm going to try and improve. I've said it before. I'll probably say it again. But I'm committed to this blog thing. And I'm gonna see it through. And if Mike Otto can find the time to read it, even while he's got a screaming infant, then the least I can do is try writing it.

At least, until I actually don't want to do it anymore. Then all bets are off.

Monday, June 05, 2006

FINAL CUT: Wolverine Spins Plates For Your Amusement

To cap off my week-long vacation from the blog (and I'm sorry I didn't warn you about that; I didn't know it would get away from me that long, to be honest), me and the missus took in one of those delightful Hollywood blockbusters that they're always throwing so much money and so many screenwriters at. In this case, the flick of choice was the ominously titled X-Men: The Last Stand. Oh, we heard the verdict of the naysayers. Even my colleague Padriac, who usually opts for brilliant eruditon in his analysis of current popular culture, began his commentary with the august words, "What a turd." But I said, "What the hell? I paid for the first two."

As I write those words, it occurs to me that this same logic did not persuade me to see either Lethal Weapon 3 or 4. So you could argue that I apply my standards inconsistently. The defense stipulates.

I had to consider the possibility that my friends were just too deep into the world of comic book geekdom to appreciate the movie on its own merits. I have never cracked an X-Men comic book (does one crack open comic books), so I consider myself relatively free of preconceived notions. Ah, how good it is to have an open mind.

But no. It just wasn't a very good movie.

It started out promisingly enough. The film begins with a flashback, and the most subtle and remarkable use of special effects I've encountered in quite some time. The story takes us back 20 years, so the visual effects gurus cooked up some nifty age-reducing software to make the film's stars look two decades younger. And damn if the program doesn't work. My jaw dropped when Patrick Stewart stepped out of a car and looked like he was fresh off the set of Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And beside him, Ian McKellen, looking like...um, Yul Brynner from Westworld. Okay, Ian looked kind of weird. What the heck was on his head? But okay, whatever. I'm with you, movie.

The reason we've taken this little trip back in time is to meet a young Jean Grey, the enormously talented mutant who, when all grown up and inhabited by Famke Janssen, gave her life for her comrades at the end of the second film. So you can bet they're setting up something really big for her character. Oh, boy, this is gonna be good.


So then we get another flashback, this only 10 years ago, to an adolescent boy who is horribly maiming himself because of his own mutancy. Ah, okay, another crucial character whose backstory we need to know to understand the momentous events about to unfold. I gotcha, movie. Thinking cap is on. I'm ready to follow.


I could easily go through the introduction of every character in the film and pull this same gag. It doesn't take long to realize that director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn have more story than they know how to tell. Granted, it's a lot of story. And there's a lot of characters, many very compelling. But I believe, in my heart of hearts, that it can be done. These guys just aren't up to it.

Let me try and give you an example to make my point. I don't think it's too big a spoiler to say that Jean Grey is not, in fact, dead. There's a tiny piece of technobabble exposition to explain away her resurrection, which is really all I need. So she's back, but we discover that she had extraordinary powers heretofore unknown to us. She is potentially very dangerous. And it is quite possible that there is nobody on earth who can stop her.

Wow. That's heavy stuff. I mean, we've always thought that Professor Xavier (Stewart) had the strongest mental powers of any mutant. Or that Magneto (McKellen) was stronger than everyone. So Jean Grey is more powerful than them? Than anyone? Damn, that's gonna be some fireworks. Can't wait to see how that's dramatized onscreen.

Will it shock you to discover that this isn't really dramatized onscreen at all? In fact, a huge battle will come and go before we see Jean Grey do much of anything. There's an old maxim of dramatic writing that a gun shown to the audience in Act I must be fired before the end of Act II. It's a simple matter of expectations raised. Kinberg & Penn evidently never got the memo on that old maxim.

And so it goes with nearly every character in the story: interesting plotlines are introduced, only to be cast aside to set up more interesting plotlines. Essentially, Ratner & Co. are like really bad plate spinners on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they're really proud of the two plates they can keep going, and then somebody points out that several more of their plates are falling, and they freak out and rush to keep one of the other plates aloft.

To carry that analogy further, every now and then Kinberg & Penn will purposely break a plate, just because they're so overburdened with characters. Several characters are killed, others are neutered, and maybe we're supposed to have a sense of the gravity of the situation because of all the death and stuff. But all I really felt was that they were killing characters just to get them out of the way. Either that or there's gonna be three discs of deleted scenes on the DVD.

The real tragedy of X-Men: The Last Stand is that they still managed to affect me, despite all their best efforts. The fulcrum of the story balances on a "cure" for mutants, which suits unaffected humans just fine, but is a true quandary for mutants, for whom their oddness has become their true selves. This is rich, emotional ground, and when contrasted with one character's background as a Holocaust survivor, threatens to delve into hard issues of morality. But the filmmakers can never commit to it. Or won't. You can see that the actors are playing the subtext, but the story can't give them the time.

It's silly to judge the acting in a film like this, but it should be said that the cast really outdid themselves. Consider that Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin really only have one scene to convey the nature of their relationship, and aside from one dud of a line, the scene turns out really sweet. Give it up for Ellen Page, whose character is crammed into the film like a sperm whale into a coach airline seat, and still comes across as charming and delightful. Kelsey Grammer is...well, he's Kelsey Grammer in blue makeup, but why not? Ian McKellen does his usual fine work with bad dialogue, but is unsurpassed in his quiet scenes, particularly the shot that ends the film, which does so much to convey the loss of his character. And who knew that Rebecca Romijn could be so moving, in a powerful scene of pain and betrayal. The cast brought their A-game. Their script and their director let them down.

Is all the acting good? Hmm. Well, let's just say that when you have two Academy Award-winning actresses in your movie, please choose carefully which one you choose to give all the lines to. If you're not careful, you could end up nearly cutting Anna Paquin out of your movie entirely, while you end up with Halle Berry delivering your "moving" eulogy. Ugh.

So does it work as an action film? I guess. Everything is competent, well-produced. But it's like a circus: one act is rolled out after another. Roger Ebert used to complain about Steven Seagal movies because a group of ten thugs would approach Seagal, but then they'd each attack him one at a time. X-Men 3 is staged like a Steven Seagal film: one set piece at a time. That is most definitely not a compliment.

Note: if you go, you must stay after the credits. The movie pulls off a very audacious stunt at the end, and while not everyone I've talked to is that impressed with it, I thought it was fantastic. If the whole film had demonstrated that kind of spunk, the moviegoing world would be a much happier place.

Friday, May 26, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: You Can Check Out Anytime You Like

Today is my last day in the hotel industry.

I got into this business by accident. The Cliff Notes version goes like this:

- I moved to Chicago.
- I became a temp, partially because I need the money, partially because I wasn't ready to get tied down, and partially because this is how the new American economy works.
- After stints in the medical and public opinion fields, I found myself in hospitality.
- A few months later, they asked me if I'd stick around.
- I thought long and hard about the prospect of having medical care and a retirement plan.
- I shook the devil's hand.

My language probably tells you all you need to know about my ambivalence over this unexpected turn in my employment history. I was never thrilled to be in the hotel business, and was probably not all too proud to tell people what I did. The fact is, there's nothing inherently wrong with hotels. We've all stayed in them. And I've actually learned quite a lot about the mysterious world of spending the night in a strange place. The thing is, it was never my goal. I always hoped to be somewhere else. Hotels were just...a stop on the way.

That was a very long stop.

To be fair, I've milked this for all it was worth:
- I've spent several nights in four-star hotels for little or no money. The pinnacle of this kind of high living was a week-long stay at one of the finest beach resorts in Puerto Rico, for which my girlfriend and I paid for nothing but food and sundries.
- I've had strange run-ins with quasi-celebrities, including delivering a fax to Christie Hefner, helping Tim Meadows send his Emmy ballot via FedEx, and completely failing to realize that I was on an elevator with Tony Gwynn. I complimented his luggage, which was made of baseball glove leather. I'm still incredibly embarassed.
- I was the liaison when The Tonight Show wanted to film a hilarious comedy segment with Oprah Winfrey. For my trouble, I was captured on camera being manhandled by The Most Powerful Woman in America and wearing a latex Jay Leno chin.
- I had the unique privilege of actually helping people on September 11. Owing to the shutdown of the nation's skies, there were guests who were stuck in Chicago, unable to get home. I had the opportunity to help these people extend their stay at the hotel, or get them directions to other hotels or even to the homes of friends. Part of the misery of that day was the overwhelming sense of helplessness. I'm grateful that I was in a position to actually be useful.

The most important benefit to this job was that it gave me flexibility. Whenever I said I had to go an an audition or do a show out of town, I got the time. Employers are not always so forgiving, but I got pretty lucky. (Especially since I never got called back on these damn auditions. Yes, I'm looking at you, Second City. NOT ONE CALLBACK!) And it was my father who told me of his simple explanation for my odd career path: "Shane has this job he's not thrilled about, but what it does is pay for the stuff that he really likes to do." Nicely put. I know a lot of people who have waited tables or done any manner of grunt work while hoping for a break in the world of theater. I think I not only got to keep my dignity, but the chance to live reasonably well, too.

So the hotel business has been pretty decent to me.

I'm glad to be leaving.

You'll notice that I haven't named my places of employment. (There have been two.) I want to be fair to the people who I respect. But the truth is, there are other who I don't, and I'm continually surprised at the business decisions that are made on a daily basis. I watched this hotel opened for the first time, and it was primed to be great. In recent years, and especially in recent months, people have come on board whose interests do not seem to dovetail with those of a great hotel. Work should not disappoint you. It's time to go.

But there's a more important reason, to me.

If you saw the film Big Fish, you'll remember that Ewan McGregor's character gets sidelined at this fantastic little oasis in the middle of a thicket. He's there for a long time, but he has a goal. There's a girl he's after, and he has to go get her. So even though he's in paradise, it's time to move on.

My life in hotels has been paradise by no means. But I've been away from the road I ought to be on. I want to be a writer. I should be writing. And that's what I'm going to do. A company has hired me to write for them. The new journey starts Tuesday. I don't know how long it will last. But I'm excited, and nervous, and expectant.

I'm back on the road.

I'm checking out.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


When hearing that someone has read the international bestseller The DaVinci Code, my first reaction is usually, "How interesting. What airport were you in?"

For the residents of Wil-Mont Manor, the answer turned out to be Reagan National. Clair had assiduously resisted the siren call of the popular thriller, despite her eagerness to know what all the fuss was about. However, once the publisher had determined they'd wrung all the cash they could out of hardback sales, the paperback edition came out, and my wife no longer had any excuse. And of course, once she had read it, I was going to have to read it as well, for the sake of coherent conversation. Fortunately, I knew it would be a quick read, and it seemed best to get it in my brain before I was exposed to the screenplay penned by Grand Imperial Hack Akiva Goldsman. So I bumped it to the top of the list.

There's not much point in critiquing The DaVinci Code. Is it well-written? Lord, no. Brown provides only the most cursory characterization, making his hero fearless one moment and petrified the next. I can't tell you how irritating it got to be, watching Robert Langdon go from knowing everything in the universe to being utterly baffled in a split-second. Emotions are matters of convenience for Brown.

In fact, almost every plot machination is doled out only when it suits the author. More than any book I can remember reading, you can see the scaffolding in The DaVinci Code. Characters are introduced either to be distractions or to serve as plot devices that never came to fruition. Brown seems to be re-enacting The Great Escape, digging multiple tunnels in hopes that one of them will eventually lead out. This is where a second draft really would have come in handy.

And yet, he really has stumbled upon a blockbuster of a plot. A massive coverup to hide the true nature of Jesus Christ and the corrupt power of the church built to worship him...that's incredible stuff.

Much has been made in the media about the true nature of the history upon which The Davinci Code is based. The short version: it's rooted in truth, but mostly bunk. Just like JFK. To which I have to say, "Well, duh." Anyone who reads this book thinking they're getting the gospel truth (please forgive the pun) is a pretty simple-minded individual. It's a story, and for all his shortcomings as a writer, Dan Brown is a gifted puzzlemaker. Like the demented wit who scoured album covers and translated bizarre backwards messages to concoct the Paul McCartney-is-dead theory, Brown is taking available information and exploiting the world's general ignorance about the founding and propagation of Christianity, and he's using it as the backdrop for his formula potboiler. And dammit, it works. (Well, everything except the part about Walt Disney. That was just stupid.) I was certainly eager to see what would happen next, even as I was openly scorning his hackneyed dialogue. I plowed through The DaVinci Code in less than a week; in part because it's not really challenging reading, but also because I was genuinely interested in Brown's fascinating, if poorly-told, tale.

To sum up: it's a story. It's clearly such. So I'm not sure I understand all the ruckus about using the Vatican as the all-powerful keeper of secrets, instead of the Pentagon or the Kremlin or the usual monolithic villains. And I suppose that demonstrates what a godless heathen I truly am.

Which brings us to the movie adaptation, an enterprise that has the initial benefit of not being written by Dan Brown. I actually had high hopes for the film, because I figured it could streamline a lot of the excess, improve the dialogue, and provide visual information that was hard to decipher on the page. To a certain extent, the film succeeds in each of these areas. However, it's not enough. The DaVinci Code The Movie is tied too inseparably to The Book. Like the first Harry Potter movie, the filmmakers are trying to hard to re-create the book, and are unavoidably weighted down.

The blame for this has to lie with screenwriter Goldsman and director Ron Howard. The best moments in the film come in the form of explanations of all the arcane history and fun with anagrams that are essential to the central plot. When Langdon -- an uncomfortably reserved Tom Hanks -- is deciphering a code, we get to see his mind working in the form of letters jumping out of a word, or planets orbiting in his imagination. It's a neat technique, quite apropos to the setting, and if you ignore the fact that Howard and Goldsman are cribbing from their own work in A Beautiful Mind, then it's inventive, too.

The best scene in the film is the lecture given by Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, in his part as the only person in the story with personality) to explain the clues left by DaVinci in The Last Supper to reveal the true nature of the Holy Grail. It's combines clever visuals with a rather concise and effective verbal summary. Just one problem: it stops the film cold. Remember, while you're sitting here learning about chalices and blades, the clock is ticking. Howard and Goldsman have found a way to convey the information. They just haven't figured out how to make it move.

A lot of talent shuffles through this movie without getting to do very much. Audrey Tautou has a beautiful smile, but she doesn't get much use out of it, as she spends most of her time trying to figure out what's going on. Paul Bettany is driven, and little else. Alfred Molina has what amounts to a walk-on as a top church figure whose actual goals are never quite clear. And most tragic is Jean Reno, who doesn't get to be anything but gruff. Reno is good enough that he gets one of the film's few solid laughs out of his intensity, but he remains without dimension. Supposedly, Dan Brown had Reno in mind when he wrote the character, which begs the question: why?

I'm a big believer in suspending disbelief. Heck, I liked Independence Day when it came out, which is the gold standard for suspending disbelief. And The DaVinci Code, like the book upon which it is based, is an effective piece of simple entertainment. I think it could have aspired to more, given the fascinating subject at its core. But it doesn't. It acts big, but is really very small.

A comparison comes to mind, and it's a weird one. Of all the bizarre things for me to think of, I think The DaVinci Code compares unfavorably with the cinemataic classic Dracula 2000. No, stick with me for a second. It's not a good movie, but after you get through all the talk of Van Helsing surviving for hundreds of years and the unending tease of sex and harping on the decadence of New Orleans, you get to the one real flash of brilliance: Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot. Like Dan Brown, screenwriters Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier have taken the existing data (silver, crosses, stakes, damnation) and plugged it the vampire mythology, and damn if it doesn't all start to make sense. It's hogwash, but it's the very same sense of cleverness and discovery -- the reinvention of religious dogma in pursuit of popular entertainment -- that Dan Brown exploited to make people buy his book in droves.

So yes, what I'm saying is that Ron Howard needs to make more movies like Dracula 2000. And I'll say it again.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I would be remiss if I did not comment on the most amazing thing I saw all weekend. I don't want to be a rubbernecker or anything, but sometimes you see something that is just wrong in every way, and you're immediately grateful that you're alive, and that your impulses sometimes compel you to enjoy a thing that is bad and wrong and just utterly immoral in every way.

Having spent Saturday tooling around town trying to unload some of the enormous amount of stuff that we have been keeping, my wife went to return the car, whilst I checked the news I had missed during the day. And for news, read: the Preakness. Very sad about that. (He's doing better, so far. Let's all pull for a happy life of trotting and inseminating prize mares, shall we?)

When you go to ESPN.com, they sometimes pop up with little video packages on the side. Usually, this is irritating, since they invariably involve either the Mets, Yankees, or Stuart Scott, and I can do without all of the above. But this time, my attention, she was grabbed, because there were highlights of the afternoon matchup twixt the Cubs and White Sox.

When baseball instituted interleague play several years ago, it was really for the sole purpose of pitting storied rivalries against each other. The aforementioned Mets & Yankees, squaring off the the soul of New York. Reds & Indians, battling for Buckeye bragging rights. Marlins & Devil Rays, locked in combat for...um...well, anyway. You see, honestly, no one really cares if the Mariners and Phillies finally get to meet for the first time. No, it's all about these fantasy showdowns. So even though most teams rotate their opponents (witching divisions annually), the schedule makers are always careful to set aside time for the real jackpot matchups. And one of those is Cubs & White Sox.

Well, it was, anyway. This year, the Battle of the Red Line has proven to be the first casualty of the Sox World Series victory last year. For the first few years of interleague baseball, Cubs-White Sox was a faceoff between two teams with a long history of losing. Nearly a century without a championship, so this was all they really had: bragging rights over Chicago. "Sure, we can't beat the Twins, but we can beat the Cubs, dammit." But now, the Sox have nothing to prove. It's kind of weird.

Compounding matters is the fact that the Sox are playing quite well right now (that Thome-for-Thomas swap seems to be working out quite nicely, thank you), whereas the Cubs are downright atrocious. Even if Derrek Lee weren't injured, he couldn't shore up a porous pitching staff (floundering without perennial hospital patients Kerry Wood and Mark Prior) that coughed up a 3-0 lead in the eighth against the Padres. THE PADRES! Meanwhile, Dusty Baker is in a race with Buddy Bell to see who can get fired first this season. Cubs-White Sox has lost a little cachet.

With this in mind, I'm still curious to see how things are panning out at Sox Park. The Sox whomped on the Cubs in Game 1; would they do it again? The headline mentioned something about a dustup. Let's roll that puppy.

What followed was a truly glorious video clip indeed. It's the second inning, there's a line drive to left, and here, rounding third, comes Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski. The throw is off, for Cubs catcher Michael Barrett is still standing right in the basepath, so Pierzynski does what you do in this situation: he barrels into Barrett, sending him flying.

It's quite a blow, but it's a clean play, and Pierzynski seems pretty pleased with himself. He slaps home plate, confirming that he did indeed score the run. Then he sort of staggers to his feet, and Barrett catches him. In fact, it looks like he's trying to stop him, like a bouncer working the line at a club.

Then there's this brief moment, where they're looking at each other. I told my friend Ted that it looked like Barrett was thinking, "I don't know whether to hit you or kiss you."

That's when Barrett hits him.

I can't tell you how glorious this moment was. I'm not a fan of violence. It accomplishes little, and hurts many. I also bear no ill will against A. J. Pierzynski. A lot of poeple dislike him, but he was a key element of the Sox playoff run last year, and seemed like a genuinely fun, irreverent fellow. And I've always like Barrett, going back to when he was about the only thing the Expos had going for them. Nevertheless, this was amazing video.

Consider the average baseball fight. It's usually pretty pathetic. One guy glares, the other guy glares back, and then they run at each other, the benches clear, and there's just a bunch of pushing and shoving. Jim Bouton has a nice passage in Ball Four about looking for someone he knows during a brawl, so he can look like he's supporting the fight, but not actually get himself in harm's way.

Probably the finest specimen of the bench-clearing brawl is the legendary charge of Robin Ventura against 46-year old Nolan Ryan. If I recall correctly, Ryan plunks him, Ventura storms the mound in a rage, and Ryan coolly grabs him in a headlock and starts bonking him on the head. It's a fantastic image.

When he retired at the end of that season, the Rangers game him a pair of steers for his ranch. Named Ryan and Ventura.

And that's what makes Barrett punching Pierzynski so remarkable. This was a real, fist-pulled-back, Hollywood-style punch. More than one commentator said he coldcocked him, which doesn't seem quite right to me, since coldcocking ought to involve the butt of a gun or a candlestick or something. But by god, this was a genuine, no-doubt-about-it punch.

I watched the clip several times, in part for the sheer enjoyment of seeing something so completely unexpected, but also to watch the astonishment of other people. There was a couple behind home plate who sat impassively, even after Pierzynski had scored and the crowd was cheering, right up until the moment that Barrett hit Pierzynski. Then their hands rose to their dropping jaws, and you just know they were saying in unison, "Holy crap!"

The best has to be Scott Podsednik, the Sox on-deck batter. There's no doubt he's stunned when Barrett launches his punch, and as soon as Pierzynski goes down, he takes the Cubs catcher down like a lineman. He was like a Secret Service agent, springing into action at the sign of trouble. This is as close as we are ever likely to get to the seminal moment in The Naked Gun when Detective Frank Drebin, in disguise as an umpire, leaps upon a hypnotized Reggie Jackson to prevent him from assassinating the Queen of England. In the dugout, the players go nuts, screaming, "He got Reggie!" I like to think that the reaction in the White Sox dugout to Barrett's punch was almost identical.

Cubs pitcher Rich Hill called Pierzynski "gutless", which would be comical if it were Hill's biggest blunder of the day. Of course, giving up two homers to Tadahito Iguchi was far more atrocious. When my friend Padraic questioned why Hill didn't get yanked immediately, I had to admit that it showed remarkable restraint on the part of Dusty "Goin' to the Bullpen" Baker. And anyway, Hill got sent back down to the minors on Sunday, where the guts are plentiful. So I would have to say to Padraic that Dusty was merely biding his time.

I think what made this so much shameful fun was that it was pure. Recent on-field scuffles have largely been ugly. Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire. Drunk fans beating up a first-base coach. Delmon Young throwing his bat. Distasteful to the extreme.

But this had no pretension about it. Barrett just let his brain go to screen saver, wheeled back, and popped a guy on the jaw. The reaction of everyone around was pure shock, the kind we so rarely get anymore; it was a moment of truth. And it was unadorned beauty, and I loved it, and for that I am truly sorry.

I shouldn't still be talking about this. Everyone has moved on. Pierzynski homered in the third game, but Barrett got the game-winning hit, so everybody's focused on baseball again. And Barrett has repeatedly said that he has no idea why he opted for a haymaker, and that he's really embarassed. So, that's cool. Bygones.

So, just to recap the important lessons we've learned from this column:
1) Violence doesn't solve anything.
2) It is possible to move beyond shocking events.
3) This was really cool.

Monday, May 22, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: A Moon for the Misbegotten

I rented June Moon for one reason. Thank heavens it turned out to be the right one. Because anything else would have been wrong wrong wrong.

Something called the Broadway Theater Archive has been putting out DVDs of old plays that were videotaped sometime in the 1960s and 70s. If you've ever seen old videotapes from the early 1970s, you know that we're not talking about the height of video production technique. Lighting is poor, editing is awkward, sound is muddy. Think of soap operas, only without the commitment to quality.

Compounding the matter is that we're talking about entire plays, pieces that are intended for a stage, with the inherent thrills of a live audience and the potential for utter disaster looming at every turn. And we're transferring this experience to a TV soundstage, with no audience and only the best production values of public television at our disposal. In short, that dog don't hunt.

Part of the real value of the series is seeing young actors before they really hit it big, performing in plays that provide maybe a glimmer of their potential talent. Here's Dustin Hoffman playing opposite future Facts of Life legend Charlotte Rae in Journey of the Fifth Horse. There's the Beastmaster himself, Marc Singer, essaying Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. And if you ever longed to see Andy Griffith acting alongside John Houseman, then this version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author represents your best chance. And stars galore: Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, George Takei...they're all here. And there's lots more where that came from.

Susan Sarandon is the big name in June Moon, batting a pair of gigantic eyelashes as a shrewish gold-digger in this 1920s comedy about a naive songwriter who comes to New York to make his name. People who like to browse the IMDb might also recognize Jack Cassidy (father of David and Shaun), Estelle Parsons, or Hall of Fame That Guy Kevin McCarthy. It's an impressive cast. And they are in service of an atrocious script.

The play does not loom large in the legends of the two acclaimed writers who churned it out, Ring Lardner & George S. Kaufman. With a tedious romantic plot about to simple-minded kids being pushed around by the big city, a couple of additional relationships that aren't explored and aren't especially interesting, and several mediocre songs to stop the action, June Moon is the very definition of a hoary chestnut. It plods along, resting heavily on the performance of Tom Fitzsimmons as the songwriter. Fitzsimmons goes way beyond being merely inexperienced, and pushes the character well into the realm of stupid, and possibly even mentally challenged.

As far as I can tell, the only reason to revive June Moon is because of the pedigree of the authors. There are some decent lines, especially the zingers thrown out by a professional piano player named Maxie. But the story is awkwardly developed, with a boring prologue that introduces our main couple without benefit of chemistry, followed by a first act that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the prologue for at least 15 minutes. A streamlined version of the play might run half-an-hour, meaning the Lardner & Kaufman lack the dramatic skill to be found in any given episode of Two and a Half Men. Clearly, they had nowhere to go but up. June Moon is 90 minutes that drag on for an eternity.

So why did I watch this? Because I am overzealous when pursuing my interests. You see, in the role of Maxie, director Burt Shevelove cast someone he had worked with before. One of his collaborators, a fellow with who he co-wrote the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and a version of Aristophanes' The Frogs. Yes, the musical theater aficionados among you will have figured out that June Moon stars none other than Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer, lyricist, and puzzle maker who occupies a privileged space in Shane's Pantheon of Greats. (Other enshrinees include Jim Henson, Roberto Clemente, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Dinner at the Pantheon is interesting, to say the least.) You might see Sondheim's role listed as a cameo. Don't believe it. Maxie is a huge part, and ends up machinating the reunion of our two heroes. He's essentially the only sane character in the play, which is why he gets all the good lines.

As an actor, Sondheim is an outstanding composer. But in a way, his understated, uncertain performance makes a nice counterpoint to the tremendous overacting of his co-stars. In particular, a long scene where he is forced into conversation with the dim Fitzsimmons is quite entertaining, and hints at the kind of writing for which Kaufman would later earn acclaim. Sondheim isn't good enough to redeem June Moon which is a wreck. But he certainly validated my rental. In particular, one line of dialogue made the whole endeavor worthwhile. When an announcement is made that George Gershwin is in the next room, most of the cast rushes out to catch a glimpse. Maxie, however, ambles across the stage, disinterested. A character asks if he isn't going to go see Gershwin himself. Maxie replies, "He can come to me."

Knowing the chaos he was wreaking on Broadway musicals, you can honestly believe that Sondheim means it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

FINAL CUT: There's This Movie, See? And It's About Teenagers, See?

The summer blockbuster season has begun in earnest on Friday. The release of Mission: Impossible III heralded the arrival of all the things Hollywood holds so dear: big stars, outrageous stunts, mammoth explosions, the works. Poseidon followed closely on its heels, promising huge stunts, loud noise, and the introduction and eventual death of hundreds of fictional characters. After that, we've got arcane religious mysteries this week, followed by a mutant war next week. Thrills and chills, excitement and escape...it's the time moviegoers live for.

So naturally, me and the wife went to see Brick.

I have been trying for a couple weeks now to think of how to sum up the pleasures of this charming little film. Evidently, I've come up dry, because I've decided to lead with the same thing that every review has: the premise. It's a lame start, but it's essential to understanding what makes Brick so unusual and so delightful. But here it is: Brick is a film noir, complete with swift and brutal violence, a dangerous femme fatale, and the requisite smart, rapid-fire dialogue.

Oh, and it's set in a modern-day high school in Southern California.

That setup has the word "gimmick" written on it in 30-foot-high letters. And I suppose, in the final analysis, it is. No one makes movies like the noir classics of the 1940s, and certainly nobody talks anymore like the characters in those movies, especially not in high school. (Probably no one really talked like that then, either.) So the whole movie is dependent on an audience's willingness to accept what on face value looks more absurd than the most outlandish fantasy film.

But the true test of a gimmick is what you do with it. If all you have is the gimmick, you aren't going to get very far. I'm reminded of the weird thriller Suture, which is predicated upon your willingness to accept that a large black man and a thin white man look nearly identical to every other character in the film. It's a leap that's hard to make. Or the charming obscurity my wife discovered, Man of the Century, whose lead character speaks in the patter of a 1920s dandy, despite the fact that he is surrounded by a very real, turn-of-the-millennium New York City. It's silly, but the disparity between the two worlds is more distancing than absorbing. The whole movie is in irony quotes.

Herein lies the glory of Brick: you recognize the gimmick, but even at its most obvious, you don't question the integrity of the story. All the credit for this achievement deservedly goes to writer-director Rian Johnson, who chose a remarkably difficult task for his first film, and pulled it off. The movie sounds and feels just like it stepped out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, and hits with the same wallop.

Perhaps the movie's finest scene is the one the best illustrates the conceit of the film: our hero, a slacker named Brendan (in the person of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who truly deserves to have reviewers stop mentioning his old TV credits), is dragged away from his investigation of the diaappearance of his ex-girlfriend to take a meeting with the vice-principal (Richard Roundtree, channelling every gruff-black-police-chief character of the past 25 years). What follows the classic verbal showdown between detective and cop, a fast-talking battle of words that goes beyond parody and manages to measure up to the real thing. I was laughing out loud at this point, a little bit because it was funny, but mostly because it was just fun. It's been a long time since I watched a movie where you could actually tell that the people making the movie were enjoying themselves. Brick is filled with that sense of joy.

A little further mention of Gordon-Levitt is in order. The cast takes to the tricky language with varying degrees of success. On the plus side is Matt O'Leary as the requisite source of information. Less successful is Nora Zehetner, who doesn't quite give off the sense of danger that the script ascribes to her. But the whole movie really rests on Gordon-Levitt's shoulders, and he's completely worthy of the task. I'm reminded of Johnny Depp's unsavory origins on television, and how he overcame them by choosing projects to his liking and basically satisfying his own muse. Gordon-Levitt seems to be picking roles in a similar manner, and if he sticks to it, and if Hollywood can figure out how to make use of that, he could eventually be just as big as Depp, and certainly as good an actor. Just a little prediction for you to check up on in 15 years.

Brick did something relatively unusual in movies these days. Lots of movies make me laugh. A few make me cry. A surprising number make me think. Brick, however, made me satisfied. I had an experience, and though the film (in true nor fashion) does not tell a happy tale, I walked out of the theater very pleased.

That's a lot to ask for these days.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Break's Over

I haven't posted in a while. The three of you who read this thing regularly may have noticed.

In truth, the past couple weeks have been awfully hectic. Much to my surprise and delight, I have obtained a new job. This is an unexpected development, to say the least, and the whole experience has left me a little off-balance. So blogging has not been my top priority.

I'm a little reluctant to go into too much detail That's partially because I'm still finishing out my time at the previous job, and there's something a little unseemly about discussing a new job while you're still at the old one. Also, since I don't officially start my new employment until after Memorial Day, I maintain the irrational fear that they will come to their senses and take it all back. It's like the way you don't want to think about going on vacation until you're actually out of the office, because some bit of hubris is going to come along and ruin everything. Or maybe I'm the only one who thinks that way. It's not so much that my glass is half-full, as it is that I never expect the waterline to get above the halfway mark.

Running through the mental archives, I realize that I've actually had very few jobs in my life, so my experience with the whole leaving/starting fresh thing is very limited. Actually, I can't think of very many people who do, except maybe Larry Brown. My friend Ted probably underwent the most radical shift I know of, leaving the world of TV news for the friendlier confines of promotions for some Silicon Valley upstart. On the other hand, my other friend Holly (look at all these friends!) has been with the same company since we got out of college. So I'm guessing her 401(k) is well-vested by now.

But the move is pretty exhilirating. I'm kind of screwed up about the radical change in my routine, but it's good to do knew and challenging things. So this has lots of upside. And I can't emphasize strongly enough how unexpected this turn of events has been. As it happens, I really went beyond my usual comfort zone to get this job. As the repeated words of one episode of Sports Night, "Did you know we could do that?" I didn't know I could do this.

Alright, I'll tempt a little bit of fate (while scrupulously adhering to the confidentiality agreement). I'll be doing creative writing for an interactive software company. Technically, I'll be an independent contractor, which means I've finally gotten the man off my back (until next April, when the man comes around to explain that I'm not really in the right bracket to qualify for all those deficit-gorging tax cuts). And -- this bears repeating -- I'll be writing. For a living.

This is very exciting. Like first-hill-on-a-rollercoaster exciting.

Gotta go. That phone call will be my mother wanting to know why I didn't tell her about this sooner. I'm avoiding the jinx, Mom. Not you.

Friday, May 05, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Many Weddings and a Funeral...and a Random Body-Dump

Lately, my approach to Netflix has been to set aside one slot for my wife. There are some movies that she wants to see that just don't interest me in the least. (The infamous Catwoman debacle is a prime example.) But there's no reason she should suffer just because we don't see eye-to-eye on every movie. After all, I know she's not going to join me when Red River finally comes.

Unfortunately, my wife is not the kind of person who likes to sit down and watch a movie. As she herself admitted, you kind of have to trick her into it. "Oh, is there a movie on?" As a result, Morvern Callar sat around our house for several weeks before I finally plopped the disc in the player. It was just time.

The plot: Morvern (played by Samantha Morton with considerably more hair than she featured in either In America or Minority Report) is a Scottish stockgirl in a grocery store whose boyfriend kills himself in the middle of their apartment because "it seemed like the right thing to do". He leaves behind a novel he has written, and asks her to submit it to publishers. He also leaves her money in the bank to pay for his funeral. Morvern, however, submits the book under her own name, dumps his body in the moors, and spends the money on a holiday in Spain.

It's a start, right? Kind of a downer, but an intriguing premise. No. It's not a premise. It's the entire film. I've just told you pretty much everything that happens. This story seems like it could pick any of these threads and follow it to an interesting conclusion. But it really isn't interested in any of them. And that's reflected in the film itself. The first 20 minutes are devoted to Morvern having absolutely no visible reaction to the corpse she has to step over to get to the kitchen.

Let's think about that last sentence for a moment. Dead body in the hallway. No crying or cheering or anything. Morvern seems like a pretty detached soul. Well, she's not alone. Virtually everyone in the film is riding a major wave of ennui. Guests at a New Year's party mindlessly ransack a house. Vacationers in Spain never bother to go out and see Spaniards, instead participating in mindless sex games. (A man and woman called upon to swap swimsuits in a bag couldn't look more dour if they were in a Soviet breadline.) Among the only mildly happy people are Morvern's new book agents, who are too vapid to be depressed.

It's hard to imagine a more pointless movie than Morvern Callar. Not poorly made, but with no particular place to go and no real idea how to get there. It's like a vacation slideshow that focuses entirely on the packing. And nobody's especially happy, so you're not really sure why any of them are there. The Scottish Tourism Board must be thrilled.

Needing an immediate antidote, I broke open another envelope and threw on Wedding Crashers. It did it's job: it made me smile. This is owing almost entirely to the efforts of stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan, opposites who complement each other perfectly. Wilson's laconic drawl is wonderfully dry when paired with someone hyperkinetic, and Vaughan's second-before-the-explision personality shines next to someone moving at a slower pace. And for one of the films from the same core cast (following in the footsteps of Old School, Anchorman, and Starsky & Hutch), it has an unusually strong supporting cast, led by a friendly but still way-too-intense Christopher Walken. There's also a fetching Rachel McAdams (who, for the two people who will understand this, is in full Carrie Barrett mode), the amusingly nutzoid Isla Fisher, and a criminally-underused Jane Seymour. No doubt her thread was much longer in the original script, which was probably 300 pages. Throw in the obligatory Will Ferrell cameo, and you've got a film that's working a lot harder than you'd expect it to.

Because when it comes right down to it, Wedding Crashers is really a trifle. The plot is predictable, the outcome is pre-ordained, and you never take the really serious moments half as seriously as the people onscreen do. It's a confection. Like the old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road movies, you don't really care about the details. You just want to see two pros do their thing. Wilson and Vaughan are the pros, and they do their thing very, very well.

Now if they made a movie about someone putting their name on the novel of a dead guy, I'll bet it would go somewhere.