Wednesday, June 30, 2004

BOOKS: Joe R. Lansdale

I had never read any Joe R. Lansdale before two weeks ago, and brother, have I been missing out.

Actually, that's a lie. I've read his comic book collaborations with artist Timothy Truman, of whom I was a fan from such books as Grimjack and Scout. Their works together have included a Lone Ranger and Tonto mini-series, and three Jonah Hex mini-series (one of which got them sued by Johnny and Edgar Winters).

I greatly enjoyed the Old West as portrayed in these comics. This wasn't the cleaned-up Old West of John Wayne films, nor even the somewhat darker version in more recent, "revisionist" Westerns such as Unforgiven or Tombstone. This was closer to Sergio Leone's classic Spaghetti Westerns, where dirty people had ugly teeth and uglier morals. Of course I loved the art, but the writing was also fantastic, and while I may have been aware that Joe Lansdale was a well-established novelist, I didn't bother seeking out any of his other books.

That was a mistake, which I have at long last remedied, by reading Lansdale's Bad Chili and The Magic Wagon back-to-back.

Bad Chili is the fourth in a series (up to six, so far) of crime novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. (Why did I start with the fourth? Only one my liberry had.) Hap is a down-on-his-luck, '60s agitator turned offshore oil rigger, and his best friend Leonard is a gay black Vietnam veteran, too surly to even keep his bouncing job. And, to give you a feel for the tone of this book, when we meet them in the first chapter, Hap gets savaged by a rabid squirrel:

We broke and ran. The squirrel, however, was not a quitter. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that it was in fact gaining on us, and Leonard's cussing was having absolutely no effect, other than to perhaps further enrage the animal, who might have had Baptist leanings.
Probably the best way to describe this book and its flavor, the blurbiest way, is "Elmore Leonard in East Texas." Or Carl Hiaasen, or Tim Dorsey, or whichever of that Florida crime novel cadre you want to use. Bad Chili isn't a detective novel, nor an adventure story, nor really a typical crime novel. Its cover describes it as a "novel of suspense", but that still doesn't quite get it right. It simply is what it is, which mostly involves weird and dangerous things happening to two good ol' boys.

As with the Florida novelists I mentioned, it's not the plot that matters; the plot is just an excuse to create vivid and memorable characters, have crazy stuff happen to them, and give them rich, distinctive, hard-bitten, hilarious, colorful, quotable dialogue. My favorite line in the book: "He had an expression on his face like a man who had just been told he was going to have to swallow and pass a bowling ball, then bowl a strike with it."

Lansdale is the guy who wrote the story the film Bubba Ho-Tep was based on, so, if you've seen that, maybe you've got an idea of what I'm talking about here.

The Magic Wagon is an earlier, lesser effort, but still enjoyable. It's a Western, and it involves a traveling medicine show, Indian mysticism, surreally malevolent weather, and the mummified corpse of Wild Bill Hickock. Its tone is much tamer than the other book -- Bad Chili has non-stop foul language, a thoughtful but very frank approach to sex, and much more brutal violence -- but it still ain't for kids.

Lansdale is a real discovery for me, one I should've discovered much sooner. I plan on going through as much Lansdale as I can find in short order, starting with the remainder of the Hap and Leonard series.

Caveat: Lansdale uses the "n-word" in his books. And he uses it a lot. A lot. Same with any number of gay-directed epithets. Does he use them in a manner accurately reflecting the speech of certain real East Texans, both modern and historical? Yes. Does he use them in a prurient fashion, for cheap shock value, in an irresponsible way? No, absolutely not. He makes it very clear that the people who use those terms are generally vile, ignorant, racist, homophobic buffoons. But, for those with more delicate sensibilities, it's perhaps best to be aware of that little fact going in.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

TV: Moon over Parma, bring my love to me tonight

I've been mostly disappointed with this summer's run of The Drew Carey Show, the finale to its nine seasons on the air. That a show I once loved, a show that once burst with originality and humor, should exit in such an ignominious fashion in the first place is dispiriting enough. But even worse is the fact that they're not even trying.

A note on why a whole season's worth of new episodes is being burned off like this over the summer: about three years ago, when The Drew Carey Show was riding high on the Nielsens, as was Drew's side project, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, ABC, which had recently suffered through the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? implosion, desperately wanted to keep one of its few remaining non-game or -reality show stars onboard. So they threw a boatload of cash at The Drew Carey Show, in the form of two entire seasons bought in advance. Funny thing happened, though, when the first shows of that first prepaid season aired: they tanked. Hard. So hard, ABC yanked the show off the schedule midway through the season, and aired the remaining episodes during the dead of last summer, under the radar, with next to no commercial promotion, as stealthy as a ninja graverobber.

Fall 2003 comes around, and ABC finds itself in quite a bind. They've got another entire season of Drew Carey bought and paid for, but they don't want it anywhere near their fall premieres. I don't know why ABC even allowed the filming of this final season to occur; perhaps they figured they'd recoup some of their losses in summer commercial money, perhaps Drew Carey himself, or the show's production company, insisted on the shows being made to add to the lucrative syndication package. Either way, here we are, burning off an entire season over the summer hiatus, two episodes per week.

As I said, though, the real sting comes from the lackluster effort everyone involved in the show is exhibiting. The writing, which used to take chances, and go off in unique and experimental directions (the musical episodes, the April Fool's episodes, the live, semi-improv-ed episodes, the hilarious "special" episode, in which every single melodramatic sitcom cliche was exploited in a blatant bid for Emmy attention), is rote and uninspired, and the performances from the actors -- it would be generous to say they were phoned in. It's more like they're communicated via tin cans attached by waxed string. They all know they're lame ducks, killing time until they hit their quota of episodes, and they all act (or fail to act) accordingly.

Drew Carey was never a gifted actor, and as he stumbles and fumbles over his lines in these episodes, ruining punchline after punchline, you can almost see a weary, baggy-eyed, half-drunk director behind the cameras chanting, "Keep rolling, keep rolling." But it's the real comedic core to the show that disappoints the most: Ryan Stiles as Lewis and Deidrich Bader as Oswald. At one time, they were one of the best supporting comedic duos ever to hit the TV screen. Ever. Now, the ennui of the production has sunk into their performances as well, and their chemistry, their timing, their sheer joy have all taken a hit. They, like everyone else, are waiting for this zombie of a show to realize it's dead, and stop moving once and for all. The only life shown by a performer this season has come from guest stars Michael Gross (Family Ties) and Susan Sullivan (Dharma and Greg) as Kellie's wickedly self-absorbed, vicious, alcoholic parents. Now that was a funny episode.

The major storyline of this final season doesn't help things any: Drew has gotten girlfriend Kellie pregnant (the lovely but in-over-her-head Cynthia Watros, who can't come close to matching even the half-assed comedic mania of Stiles and Bader; that said, she's still a better actress than Christa Miller, whom she replaced last season -- and who, strangely enough, is showing more comedic talent in her occasional guest appearances on Scrubs than she did in seven seasons on Drew Carey). Plus, Mimi's son Gus is getting storylines of his own. So the majority of this summer season features child-based humor. The last refuge of the creatively bankrupt.

I offer a fond farewell to The Drew Carey Show, an important and influential member of the modern sitcom family. It's just a shame it didn't get the chance to go out in a blaze of glory (as Friends and Frasier did this year), instead having to suffer through an extended, painful, and largely unheralded death. RIP.

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Monday, June 28, 2004

MOVIES: I'm going to rectify certain inequities

I rewatched my Spider-Man DVD today (after a day of panic in which I thought I had lost it). Loved it, as always -- but there's still one thing that bugs (ha!) me about it:

Why does everyone call May Parker "Aunt May"??

Peter, I can understand. Technically, she is his aunt. You've got me there. But why Mary Jane? I mean, do you call your friends' relatives Aunt This and Uncle That and Cousin The Other? If so, why? (And what kind of name is "The Other"?)

And, strangest of all, why in the hell would Norman Osborn address her as Aunt May? He's a grown man, for crying in the night. A corporate giant, a titan of industry. Why would he refer to his son's roommate's aunt as if she were his own? Weird. Next to that, a radioactive spider doesn't sound all that implausible.

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MOVIES: I'm a good walker, bro.

You know what I like? The Station Agent.

I watched it for the first time on DVD this Saturday, and I now wish I had gone out of my way to see it in the theater (out of my way is usually the only way to see limited release independent films in Ventura County, so close and yet so far from L.A.). I loved it completely.

It stars Peter Dinklage as Fin, a train hobbyist and a dwarf (that's what he calls himself in the film, not my stab at a politically correct term -- I don't have the slightest idea what the P.C. term is these days), who inherits a small train station house in a New Jersey backwater. There he meets the endlessly chatty and charismatic Joe (Bobby Cannavale, in a star-making performance) and the klutzy, emotionally turbulent Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, who was Oscar-nominated for Pieces of April the same year The Station Agent came out, 2003, but could just as easily have been nominated for her work here), who almost runs Fin under the wheels of her SUV, not once but twice, in a side-splittingly hilarious sequence.

Fin is an angry and closed-off man, maybe because he's different, maybe for other reasons; his only love is for trains, and the train station he lives in. He shuns Joe's friendship as best he can, but Joe eventually wears him down with his limitless reservoir of goodwill (when Fin won't let Joe join him on his ritualistic train track walk, Joe insists, "I'm a good walker, bro"). And Olivia soon becomes the third member of this unlikely team, partly through her attraction to Fin, partly through Joe's well-meaning manipulations.

Peter Dinklage (whom Cannavale amusingly refers to in the DVD commentary as "Dink," which seems a tad too close to "dinky," but how can you resist making a nickname out of "Dinklage"?) is the anchor; his character is a thoughtful, deliberate man, and as an actor, he never allows the film to proceed beyond the character's pace. He controls the movie with his performance, and it's an excellent one. In a remarkably short time (short enough for you to lose the urge to say "no pun intended" every time you use the word "short"), you forget there's anything different about Fin -- although he can't let himself forget.

Patricia Clarkson, I'll be honest here, I've been in love with since The Dead Pool. Yes, the last Dirty Harry movie. (Damn, that was 16 years ago. I guess Dirty Harry couldn't survive post-Reagan.) And I've never loved her more than I did in this film. For one thing, the director has allowed her to be sexier here than in any other role I've ever seen her play; she was 42 in this film, but you don't doubt for a second that both Fin (Dinklage was 33) and Joe (Cannavale, 31) could fall for her. (Hell, I did, all over again.) She's a strikingly intelligent and beautiful actress, and I hope her bounty of well-written parts from 2003 carries over into this year and beyond.

And Bobby Cannavale is a genuine discovery. And I'm guessing he's been discovered, judging from the four feature films he's got lined up for release in 2004. He's so effortlessly charming, it's hard to believe he's acting. Even when you fear he's becoming too competitive with Fin for Olivia's affections, you still can't help liking Joe unreservedly. I look forward to seeing Cannavale in whatever his next release may be.

Nothing blows up in this movie. Nobody gets shot. The only death is from natural causes. It's a slow, quiet film, but it's got a wonderful sense of humor that grows as the characters develop (the first time Fin allows himself to make a joke, you laugh half from the humor, and half from the release of tension), and the small town setting is gorgeous. The four main characters are all people you'd like to get to know better (that's including Michelle Williams of Dawson's Creek as the town librarian, who has a relatively minor but pivotal role), and when the film ended, I wished I could spend more time with them.

It's the small things in this film that will win you over. I'll let you decide whether the pun is intended or not.

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Sunday, June 27, 2004

TiVo: Let's start with the big one

You know what I love? TiVo.

I used to say the debit card was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. (One card! And it does everything! It's magic!!) Well, TiVo is better, my friends. Great TiVo, giver of life.

Every second with my TiVo, I rue the 32 years of my life I spent without it, wasting my time on useless crap like reading, socializing with friends, moving my muscles, etc. I would take TiVo intravenously if I could. I would stick it in my earholes and smoke it in a pipe. I'd bake it in a cake and eat it. I like it, all right?

Plus, I've got it in conjunction with DirecTV, which allows you to TiVo two channels at once. That one channel at a time nonsense is a sucker's game. You gots to get the two-channel hook-up, dawg. Get this: you can record two channels at once, and watch a third, previously-recorded program at the same time. It's like seeing the face of God.

So, as an intro to the kind of TV lover I am, and the truly sickening amounts of time I spend watching it, here's a list of all the programs I currently have on my TiVo's Season Pass list (which automatically records every new episode, bless its little electronic heart).

1. The Amazing Race 5 (beginning next week; best of all the reality shows by far)
2. The Shield (previously #1, but the season just ended; it's my favorite show on the air)
3. Arrested Development (one of the two best sitcoms currently airing)
4. Scrubs (the other one)
5. Coupling
6. Alias
7. Gilmore Girls
8. Smallville
9. The Daily Show (next to The Shield, my favorite show; it's not higher on the list because there are so many repeats -- if an episode doesn't get recorded due to conflict with a higher priority Season Pass, I can always catch the next airing)
10. Justice League (gotta dig that Flash)
11. Teen Titans
12. Dinner for Five (if you don't get IFC, you're missing out)
13. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law
14. Ebert & Roeper
15. Joan of Arcadia
16. Insomniac with Dave Attell
17. South Park
18. Kim Possible (yeah, that's right, Kim Possible. It's funny, okay?)
19. Late Night Poker
20. Monk
21. Star Wars: Clone Wars (no new episodes any time soon, but I keep it on here so I don't forget)
22. Celebrity Poker Showdown
23. Less than Perfect

And this by no means is anywhere near the total list of programs I watch. The Simpsons, Enterprise, The Drew Carey Show, Futurama, Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, World Poker Tour, Match Game, Dave the Barbarian, Iron Chef, That '70s Show, Survivor... really, it's enough to break a weaker man's will. But I persevere. Nay, I thrive! And I do it for you, so that you don't have to.

But you should. TiVo's really, really cool.

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Saturday, June 26, 2004

As always, blame Ian

So this is my blog. Blame Ian. In order to comment at his excellent new comics blog, Brill Building (which, technically, is non-capitalized -- "brill building" -- but I'm far too anal to let that sit), I had to register here at And then I figured, as long as I'm already registered....

You know what I like? Probably not, is my guess. Lots of stuff, is the short answer. Long answer is what I plan to post here. All my flavorite TV, movies, books, comics, music, video games, and miscellaneous additional crap that falls under that semi-dignified descriptor "Pop Culture." It's a much more respectable term than "Stuff I Can Enjoy Without Having To Get Off My Fat Ass," which, while possibly more accurate, won't move as many plush toys.

Ideally, I'll post every day. But as this world is less than ideal, let's chuck that idea out the damn door tout de suite. Less ambitiously, I'd like to post every weekday, with specific days set aside for different aspects of the Culture we call Pop: Mondays for movies, Tuesdays for TV, Wednesdays for books, Thursday for comics, and Friday, potpourri. (For example.) Realistically, I'll post whenever I damn well please. Hell, this may be my first and last post right here. If I don't make my every-weekday schedule, well, as the Dread Pirate Roberts once said, "Get used to disappointment."

Oh, also, I hate a lot of stuff. Lots of stuff. Lots and lots and lots of stuff. Lots. I plan on posting about some of that, too. Because, after all, it's often the most negative reviews that prove the most memorable. And funniest. But I'll try to keep it to a tolerable minimum of blackest, vilest vitriol. If I can.

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