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, 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, 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'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.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Your Journey Towards the Dark Side Will Be Complete

Princess Leia: But Alderaan is peaceful! We have no weapons, you can't possibly...
Governor Tarkin: Would you prefer another target, a military target? Then name the system! I grow tired of asking this so it'll be the last time: Where is the rebel base?
Princess Leia: ...Dantooine. They're on Dantooine.
Governor Tarkin: There. See, Lord Vader, she can be reasonable. Continue with the operation; you may fire when ready.
Princess Leia: WHAT?
Governor Tarkin: You're far too trusting. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration - but don't worry; we'll deal with your rebel friends soon enough.

When George Lucas finally authorized the release of his original Star Wars trilogy on DVD back in 2004, he did it with the understanding that we would have to accept his many changes to the movies since their original release. Remember the films you saw in a movie theater? Well, those memories had better be good, because you'll never get them again. Now and forever more, Sy Snootles would sing "Jedi Rocks" instead of "Lapti Nek". Luke Skywalker would see the ghostly image of Hayden Christensen at the Ewok celebration. Han Solo would kill Greedo in response to a laser bolt fired just over his head.

Why did I believe this to be true? Why did I assume George Lucas would be so cruel as to deny me a return visit to my childhood memories? Because he said so. In the September 24, 2004 issue of Entertainment Weekly, he said exactly that:

I've been lucky enough to be able to go back and say ''No, I'm going to finish this the way it was meant to be finished.'' When Star Wars came out, I said it didn't turn out the way I wanted -- it's 25 percent of what I wanted it to be. It was very painful for me. So the choice came down to, do I please myself and [finally] make the movie that I wanted, or do I allow the audience to see the half-finished version that they fell in love with?

If you really look at it, there's hardly any changes at all. The thing that really caused the trouble on Star Wars is the whole question of whether Han Solo or Greedo shoots first. The way it got cobbled together at the time, it came off that [Han] fired first. He didn't fire first.
So I sighed heavily. I sucked it up, agreed to take what I could get, dusted off a Virgin Megastore coupon, and took home my own copy of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Super Deluxe Mega-Updated Special Effects Blowout Edition. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was crisp and clear and 80% of the movies were unmolested, so it would do.

Today, I saw read an article that linked me to this:

This September: Original Unaltered Trilogy on DVD

As if to underline the point, the image on the front page was cleverly subtitled, "See Han Solo shoot first."

I suppose in some respect, this should be considered a victory. For all his rhetoric -- that they were his films, and he could do whatever he damn well pleased with them, and if he wanted Darth Vader to be the Girl in the Thunderbird from American Graffiti then that was his right, and what the hell do the fans know anyway, so they're not getting the original films, nuh uh, never ever ever -- for all that, Lucas caved. He's putting them out in all their pre-VIC-20 glory. Does he need the money? Did he see the light? Was this his craven plan all along? Who cares? We win. We get the movies we love, he gets his bonus Wampa footage, and everybody goes home happy. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Take the cannoli.

But it's impossible to overlook the utter comtemptuousness of the gesture. Whether it was his plan or not, George Lucas built up a tremendous amount of goodwill with Star Wars. The movie was all-consumingly entertaining, so staggeringly popular, Lucas could really do whatever he liked. And he did. He made the other two Star Wars movies, and most of us were willing to forgive the Ewoks. He got the Indiana Jones movies going. He oversaw some treacle like Willow. And he set up Industrial Light & Magic and let them do their thing. And then he just sat back and coasted on a sea of adoration. Like Barry Sanders walking away from the gridiron, George Lucas took his laurels and rested.

And then he took all that capital and spent it like a madman. He started authorizing more merchandise. Star Tours was great. Droids, the cartoon series...not as great. And books. Oh, I read those first books. Those damn Timothy Zahn books, and then the few that came next. I read them until I awoke to the fact that my life was far to precious to me to waste on the Solo twins.

And then came Jar-Jar. Yes, the cheapening of the Star Wars brand began in earnest with the release of The Phantom Menace. Now, of course, we all recognize that movie for the weird mess that it is. But you have to remember, back in 1999, how much we all wanted to like it. I proclaimed myself pleased with the film, except that the doubts kept nagging at me, like a delicious steak dinner that I started to realize was actually Spam. Of course, the spin machine said Attack of the Clones was better, but my guy told me otherwise. By this time last year, I was just ready for the whole thing to be over. The disappointment was too much. The original films had been good, I told myself. They must have been. That Lucas didn't want us to see them anymore only proved the point.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't trust George Lucas anymore. ("Dantooine is far too remote...") Maybe he really does want to connect with the original fan base. Maybe he's able to see his original work in a new light. But I doubt it. My cynical side has the upper hand. I'm glad I'll be able to get the undoctored movies, but I'm annoyed at the gauntlet I had to run to get them.

So, this is it. I'll buy this damn set, alright. I'll get my original movies. And then I'm done. Star Wars is over. I'll watch it with the kids, and we might have Lego Star Wars for the PS6, and maybe I'll even have the ol' Millennium Falcon up on the bookshelf. But that's it. No expanded universe, no trading card games, no C3PO's cereal. None. Finito.


A long time ago, there was this notion that there were to be 9 movies. Supposedly, once I, II, and III were in the can, attention would turn to VII, VIII, and IX. And oh, what a grand epic it would be. But eventually, someone would come along and claim that this was never true, and that it was only supposed to be two trilogies in the first place, and any talk of a third trilogy was sheer poppycock.

And who was the unassailable source for this? Why, it was none other than George "Mr. Revisionist History" Lucas himself. Here he is in that same Entertainment Weekly article.

EW: You're pretty definitive about not making the once-rumored third Star Wars trilogy -- episodes VII, VIII, and IX.
GL: I'm not going to do it. I'm too old. I've got other movies I want to do. And I don't want anybody else to do it, so I've locked it up so nobody can ever do it. There may be TV offshoots from people, but the saga itself, the story of the Skywalker family, is over.
So there you have it. All done.

Mm hmm. Yup.



Officer Cass: Our scout ships have reached Dantooine. They found the remains of a Rebel base, but they estimate that it has been deserted for some time. They are now conducting an extensive search of the surrounding systems.
Governor Tarkin: She lied. She lied to us.
Darth Vader: I told you she would never consciously betray the Rebellion.
Governor Tarkin: Terminate her. Immediately.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: The Laugh Track Will Tell You When to Be Amused

Sometimes, I'm dead certain that I'm not particularly funny.

A lot of people can say this, but they don't necessarily feel the pressure to be funny. I, on the other hand, have placed a lot of pressure on myself to be amusing. So to not be funny is a pretty large shortcoming. Like a tone-deaf opera singer.

I made the decision to be a funny person back in high school, when I had the sudden realization that my original approach -- to be insufferably earnest to the point of righteous anger -- wasn't working. Every now and then, I break out that old people-pleasing technique, and I'm immediately reminded what an epic disaster it was. So I had a road-to-Damascus moment in the 10th grade, and decided that I was going to get a lot further in life if I tried to be funny, with a healthy dose of self-deprecation for seasoning. (I still vividly remember Steven Shiflett's contempt when I announced that I was going to be "self-depreciating". Details matter.) The effect was almost instantaneous.

I've ridden the funny-guy thing for a long time, but it definitely came to a boil when I got into the world of improvisation. Too many people still make the mistake of calling it "comedy", which I would argue is unfair, since it limits the potential to make true theater in an instant. But the fact is, comedy is harder. Anyone can make instant anguish, but it takes real talent to compel an audience to laugh with something you just made up. Remember, there was never a game show called "Make Me Cry". (Although if there was, you could definitely catch reruns on Lifetime.)

The thing about being in the world of improv is that you run up against people who are unquestionably funnier that you are. People for whom the ability to create comedy is more innate, more readily accessible. One of my colleagues, Jordan, is funny with staggering ease. I'm almost positive that he's not even trying. One of his lines that I quote most frequently ("Get to the point!") is not funny in any sense of the term. In fact, it was genuine exasperation. But in that situation, with his timing and level of frustration, it was downright hilarious. He's got a gift. Maybe it would backfire if he were testifying in court, but on a stage, it's the real deal.

My approach is quite different. I seem to specialize in jokes that are greeted with a puzzled silence, only to be followed about two minutes later by closed eyes and a mournful nod. My jokes are slow burn. I've mastered the craft of time bomb comedy. I've mostly come to accept this, although I still pine for the laugh. Imagine telling a rock band that the moshing will really get going once the set is over.

Spending almost 48 straight hours with the members of my improv troupe, Whirled News Tonight, was a stark reminder of something that I know deep down, but often hate to acknowledge: these people are a damn sight funnier than I am. Particularly during the 12 hours we spent in the confines of a converted FedEx delivery van (the rental car company obviously thought we wouldn't notice the old paint job), I laughed myself silly at the witticisms of fellow performers. My triumph, on the other hand, came in a challenge to name all the films of a given actor. And that's the comparison: Shane knowing obscure Joe Pesci films? Impressive but freakish. Alex every single time he said the words Sense and Sensibility? Comedy gold.

It was in the presence of these comedy legends that I got the latest proof of my non-funniness, in the form of a podcast. It goes something like this:

- The Chicago improv community has a bulletin board to exchange messages and whatnot. (This board screwed me over bigtime, but that's another story.)
- One of the board administrators set up a toll-free number where people can call in and leave random messages.
- These messages are then stitched together and posted on the web as a weekly podcast.
- I don't know why. Just because.
- At dinner on Friday night in Cincinnati, Steve got the idea leave a message that sounded like we were calling someone who couldn't join us. So we literally passed a cell phone around the table.
- You can hear the finished product yourself. The podcast in question is right here. We start at 11:45 into the program.

I played it for my wife last night, because I remembered being quite amused by the whole thing. And indeed, it's pretty funny, considering the humor consists of saying non sequiturs into a cell phone. I could list all the highlights, but then I'd really just be listing everyone.

Except me. I'm the third voice, and I've got nothing to say. I mean, I can tell what I was going for. I'm obviously trying to be unintentionally insulting. But it's just not funny. We're all doing the same bit. We're all going for a dry, underplayed, Gould-and-Sutherland-in-M*A*S*H delivery. And everyone pulls it off, except me. I've suspected this for a while, but now there's actual recorded proof. That's a little disappointing.

I may have to rethink my whole approach, because as much as I enjoy trying to be a humorous individual, I don't have enough self-confidence to accept that I'm not actually achieving the desired end. So I either need to get funnier, deal with my unfunniness better, or channel my efforts differently. Fozzie Bear, I cannot be.

The punchline should go here. Dammit.