Wednesday, August 31, 2005

MUSIC: The best I ever had

I love the Who. I think Who's Next is not only the best rock album of all time, it's quite likely the best anything ever. So I've listened to that album, as you can imagine, an obscene number of times. Which means I've heard the song "Bargain" -- I can't imagine an exact number, let's just say a lot.

It's a pretty intense declaration of love. "I'd gladly lose me to find you/I'd gladly give up all I got." Etc. So I've always thought it was odd that during the bridge, when Pete Townshend briefly takes over the vocals from Roger Daltrey, Pete would sing this negative, cynical line: "In life, one and one don't make two/One and one make one." Man, that's a cold view, I thought. Even when you're with someone, he's saying, even when you're part of a couple, you're still alone.

For some reason, when I heard this song today, I suddenly realized that I had it exactly backward. It's actually a positive, hopeful line. He's actually saying that when two people join together, they're no longer separate entities; they combine to form a single unit greater than its individual parts.

I don't know why I never saw that before. Clearly, I'm the negative, cynical one.

I still don't get the part about drowning an unsung man, though.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

TV: Prison Break

The first new show of the broadcast networks' Fall season premiered last night, and the most praise I can muster is, it could've been worse. Prison Break is just ridiculous. It's just mind-jarringly, staggeringly ridiculous. But if you can kind of squint and pretend you don't see all the stupid malarkey, it's not that bad.

Lincoln Burrows has been sentenced to death for killing the Vice President's brother. Linc's half-brother, Michael Scofield, believes he's innocent, so he robs a bank and gets thrown in the same prison as Linc -- so that he can bust them both out! Because it just so happens he helped design the prison, and he's got the blueprints hidden in tattoos on his body!! And he smuggled in a helicopter up his ass!!!

Okay, not that last bit, but he might as well have. Everyone Michael meets figures into his plans in some way, whether it's the prison doctor, who happens to be the governor's daughter, or the Mob boss, who can hide them once they escape, or fellow inmate D.B. freakin' Cooper, who has money stashed on the outside they can use. Or then there's the warden, who just happens to be building a scale model of the Taj Mahal for his wife's anniversary present -- which structural engineer Michael just happens to be able to help him with.

It's silly, and it's going to get even sillier, it looks like. Lincoln is scheduled for execution in one month, according to Monday's back-to-back premiere episodes, yet according to the coming attractions, it's already been pushed back to 60 days. How will Lincoln keep getting a stay of execution long enough for Michael to carry out his plan? (Via very silly means, I have to assume.) And what if the show's a success (as I wondered when I first heard about this show)? How tedious will it become, as week after week Lincoln somehow avoids execution, and Michael keeps failing to actually break them out of prison?

And still. I was able to disengage from the plot holes and implausibilities, and enjoy the show -- not a lot, but enough -- for its actors (even the hammy ones), its style, and its mystery: who really killed the V.P.'s brother, and why frame Lincoln? This show benefits greatly from its timeslot, and its early debut. Monday competition is fairly weak for the near future; in fact, it's basically non-existent for another two weeks. That's exactly how many more episodes Prison Break has to convince me to keep watching.

Monday, August 29, 2005

TV: Rome

Bloody and sexy and undeniably epic, Rome is another win for HBO. It's not Deadwood, or The Sopranos, but it's a tremendous achievement nonetheless. "Not the best HBO has to offer" still means "better than almost anything on television."

The first episode is a little hard to follow, what with the vast cast of characters and all their sinuous political motivations to establish. The pace is just slow enough for you to catch all the details you need, while still sweeping you up in what will apparently be the central story of the series, the clash between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. Caesar has been away from Rome for eight years, conquering Gaul ("Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres," don't you know), and has won the hearts of the lower classes with his frequent shipments of war spoils back to the city. Magnus, the Senate leader, is himself of the lower classes, but despite his frequent defenses of his long-time friend Caesar to the Senate, secretly he resents Caesar's popularity with the masses, and plots against him, should he ever return.

Their battle promises to be huge and devastating, but for now it's all intrigue at a distance. I liked the deliberate pace of the episode in setting things in motion, though other reviewers (who have had a chance to see more episodes than I have) complain that the momentum never increases, making the pacing feel ponderous instead. (Though I have to question the attention span of the Slate critic in particular, when she makes such a simple factual error as claiming that in the first episode "a topless woman bathes in bull's blood during a ritual sacrifice." If I must nitpick, I must; the fact is, the woman is wearing a gown -- a flimsy one, but still: not topless. Perhaps it was an honest mistake on the critic's part, but it's a mistake that coincidentally reinforces her stance that the series contains more blood and nudity than she prefers.)

Magnus and Caesar's story is epic in nature, but so far the two of them (especially Caesar) have yet to become real, humanized characters. Of more initial interest is the developing friendship between Centurion Lucius Vorenus and Legionnaire Titus Pullo. At the beginning of the episode, Vorenus has had Pullo flogged and imprisoned, awaiting death, for breaking rank during battle (the hot-headed Pullo went all Braveheart and jumped into the thick of battle rather than remaining in his place in the shield wall). When they are enlisted to retrieve Caesar's personal standard, which has been stolen, they have to come to terms with each other, and their relationship is very interesting, with soldier's duty and loyalty scarcely restraining what begins as disdain (on Vorenus' part) and fierce resentment (on Pullo's).

Also of interest is Caesar's niece, Atia, who is plying her considerable political wiles on Caesar's behalf in Rome. Plying her considerable sexual wiles, as well; of the copious amount of nudity in the debut episode, most of it is Atia's. She even uses her young son, Octavian, as a political pawn, sending him to deliver in person a gift horse (don't look it in the mouth!) to Caesar in honor of his final defeat of the Gauls. My favorite scene in the episode is when Octavian encounters Vorenus and Pullo, and the child shrewdly and sneeringly lays out for them the exact political motivations for both Caesar and Magnus, regarding the stolen standard -- motivations which, as simple soldiers, they had never suspected, nor even considered. It's an incredibly sharp scene, laying the difference between soldier and politician into stark contrast, while defining the political drama for the audience at the same time.

The scale of the series is impressively grand, with vast sets and multitudes of costumed extras filling the backgrounds. But the characters and conflicts keep things on a relatable scale -- especially when involving Atia, or the two soldiers. HBO has got another bona fide winner. Which is almost a shame, considering the multitude of new series I'll be trying to catch in the weeks to come (starting with Prison Break on Fox tonight). Damn you, HBO, for taking another 12 hours out of my life!

Friday, August 26, 2005

COMICS: The Incredible Hulk: Destruction

I think there's something wrong with issue #2 of The Incredible Hulk: Destruction. Aside from it just being a shitty comic, I mean. This is the worst comics revisionism since... well, since Jeph Loeb took a shot at writing the Hulk. The Abomination married two women named Nadia? Emil Blonsky wasn't an enemy spy -- he was one of General Ross' Hulkbusters?? "Hell," says the Abomination in this issue, delivering the ultimate low blow to previous continuity, the now-revealed-as-fake spy story was "even fictionalized in a comic book." Shyeah, whatever. Ass.

But above and beyond that. Look at the 28th page of the comic. (The 17th story page, counting the "Previously..." page.) It's a flashback to a battle between the Hulk and the Abomination, played out in silence. Only, it's not supposed to be silent, is it? It's missing all its captions. You can tell by the way the Abomination speaks the non sequitur, "And yet you don't," on the next page. Yet you don't what? That doesn't follow at all from the previous dialogue, which was General Ross listing the reasons he thinks Emil Blonsky wanted to turn himself into the Abomination.

Not that it matters, I guess. This was an awful comic to read. One less page of dialogue was a mercy. Peter David is one of my absolute favorite comics writers, and I've never been more disappointed with a Peter David book. The David-authored Hulk is almost my favorite comic character ever (second only to John Ostrander's Grimjack), and I actually think I won't be buying the next issue. That's a bad comic, dude.

Also, if that janitor shown on the 2nd (again, counting the "Previously..." page) and last pages of the story isn't Banner in disguise, I'll eat your hat.

(EDIT: Peter David has posted the missing dialogue on his blog. It doesn't change this being a bad comic one bit.)

MUSIC: True story

As long as I'm on the topic of music, and prompted by the inclusion of "Nothin' But a Good Time" on the list in my previous entry, I will now tell you what I said when I first glimpsed a Poison album cover in the store (and I was being serious).

Image hosted by

"Oh, hey, does Heart have a new album out?"

MUSIC: 100 Songs

Okay, fine. Here's that music meme that's going around.

A. Go to
B. Enter the year you graduated from high school in the search function.
C. Bold for the songs you like, strike through the ones you hate and underline your favorite. Do nothing to the ones you don't remember (or don't care about).

I'm actually gonna change that up: I'm italicizing the ones I completely don't remember. I'll leave the ones I'm indifferent to unchanged.

1. Faith, George Michael
2. Need You Tonight, INXS
3. Got My Mind Set On You, George Harrison
4. Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley (I just heard this on the last episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Still hate it, but it was a funny use of it.)
5. Sweet Child O' Mine, Guns N' Roses
6. So Emotional, Whitney Houston
7. Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle
8. Could've Been, Tiffany
9. Hands To Heaven, Breathe
10. Roll With It, Steve Winwood
11. One More Try, George Michael
12. Wishing Well, Terence Trent d'Arby
13. Anything For You, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine
14. The Flame, Cheap Trick
15. Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car, Billy Ocean
16. Seasons Change, Expose
17. Is This Love, Whitesnake
18. Wild, Wild West, Escape Club
19. Pour Some Sugar On Me, Def Leppard
20. I'll Always Love You, Taylor Dayne
21. Man In The Mirror, Michael Jackson
22. Shake Your Love, Debbie Gibson
23. Simply Irresistible, Robert Palmer
24. Hold On To The Nights, Richard Marx
25. Hungry Eyes, Eric Carnen
26. Shattered Dreams, Johnny Hates Jazz
27. Father Figure, George Michael
28. Naughty Girls (Need Love Too), Samantha Fox
29. A Groovy Kind Of Love, Phil Collins
30. Love Bites, Def Leppard
31. Endless Summer Nights, Richard Marx
32. Foolish Beat, Debbie Gibson
33. Where Do Broken Hearts Go, Whitney Houston
34. Angel, Aerosmith
35. Hazy Shade Of Winter, Bangles
36. The Way You Make Me Feel, Michael Jackson
37. Don't Worry, Be Happy, Bobby McFerrin
38. Make Me Lose Control, Eric Carnen
39. Red Red Wine, UB40
40. She's Like The Wind, Patric Swayze (Patrick Swayze had a single??)
41. Bad Medicine, Bon Jovi
42. Kokomo, Beach Boys
43. I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That, Elton John
44. Together Forever, Rick Astley
45. Monkey, George Michael
46. Devil Inside, INXS
47. Should've Known Better, Richard Marx
48. I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love, Chicago
49. The Loco-Motion, Kylie Minogue
50. What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield
51. Make It Real, Jets
52. What's On Your Mind, Information Society
53. Tell It To My Heart, Taylor Dayne
54. Out Of The Blue, Debbie Gibson
55. Don't You Want Me, Jody Watley
56. Desire, U2
57. I Get Weak, Belinda Carlisle
58. Sign Your Name, Terence Trent d'Arby
59. I Want To Be Your Man, Roger
60. Girlfriend, Pebbles
61. Dirty Diana, Michael Jackson
62. 1-2-3, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
63. Mercedes Boy, Pebbles
64. Perfect World, Huey Lewis and the News
65. New Sensation, INXS
66. Catch Me (I'm Falling), Pretty Poison
67. If It Isn't Love, New Edition
68. Rocket 2 U, Jets
69. One Good Woman, Peter Cetera
70. Don't Be Cruel, Cheap Trick
71. Candle In The Wind, Elton John
72. Everything Your Heart Desires, Daryl Hall and John Oates
73. Say You Will, Foreigner
74. I Want Her, Keith Sweat
75. Pink Cadillac, Natalie Cole
76. Fast Car, Tracy Chapman
77. Electric Blue, Icehouse
78. The Valley Road, Bruce Hornsby and The Range
79. Don't Be Cruel, Bobby Brown
80. Always On My Mind, Pet Shop Boys
81. Piano In The Dark, Brenda Russell Featuring Joe Esposito
82. When It's Love, Van Halen
83. Don't Shed A Tear, Paul Carrack
84. We'll Be Together, Sting
85. I Hate Myself For Loving You, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts
86. I Don't Want To Live Without You, Foreigner
87. Nite And Day, Al B. Sure
88. Don't You Know What The Night Can Do, Steve Winwood
89. One Moment In Time, Whitney Houston
90. Can't Stay Away From You, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
91. Kissing A Fool, George Michael
92. Cherry Bomb, John Cougar Mellancamp
93. I Still Believe, Brenda K. Starr
94. I Found Someone, Cher
95. Never Tear Us Apart, INXS (I don't remember it, but I probably don't like it. I never liked these guys. Never.)
96. Valerie, Steve Windwood
97. Just Like Paradise, David Lee Roth
98. Nothin' But A Good Time, Poison
99. Wait, White Lion
100. Prove Your Love, Taylor Dayne

That is a buttload of songs I'm claiming not to remember! I just never listened to that much pure pop, I guess. (By this time in high school, I was listening mostly to the music of 20 years earlier -- Hendrix, the Beatles, the Doors. I bet if I looked at my first year of high school, I'd recognize 95% of the songs.) A lot of it unavoidably filtered down to me -- I tried to avoid George Michael, but wasn't always successful, and even liked one or two of the songs I heard -- but most of it just passed right by me.

It's entirely possible if you played some of these songs, I'd go, "Oh, yeah! That song!" Probably followed by, "I hate that song!" But some of these names, they just mean absolutely nothing to me. Eric Carnen? (Is that right? Carnen? Not Carmen? Okay, if you say so.) Pretty Poison? Jets? Roger? Paul Carrack? Johnny Hates Jazz sounds vaguely familiar, but that song title sure doesn't.

And there are an awful lot of songs I don't recall from pretty high profile people. I don't remember a Michael Jackson single? Or one from Elton John? Or Van Halen? Or even Hall & Oates? Did I never know these songs, or did I erase them from my memory on purpose?

And that is a lot of cheesy crap I like, but hey, I'll own up to it. Phil Collins? Sure. Huey Lewis? You better believe it. "Kokomo"? "Don't Worry, Be Happy"? Yes, and yes. And frickin' "Sweet Child O' Mine" is my favorite? Damn straight. That song kicks so much ass it's not even funny, and I'm not afraid to say so. (The runners-up would be "Fast Car" and "Cherry Bomb". And maybe that live version of "Candle in the Wind".)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

TV: Friday Night on IFC

Last week, the Independent Film Channel debuted three new shows which I had been looking forward to. Well, two shows I'd been looking forward to, Hopeless Pictures and Greg the Bunny, plus a third one, The Festival.

Unfortunately, none of them really worked for me. Hopeless Pictures seemed like the best bet: a critically-praised-to-high-heaven cartoon created by actor Bob Balaban, who is a veteran of all those Christopher Guest mockumentaries, and who is awesome. The cartoon has the feel of one of those mockumentaries; the voice actors sound like they're just playing off each other and improvising as they go. I mean, look at the cast. Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Martin Mull, Balaban -- they probably are all just improvising. The animation has got a unique, eye-catching visual style, like pastel chalk drawings inspired by Picasso. And it's on IFC, so it's uncensored (there's plentiful strong language, and even a raunchy sex scene, in the first episode), which you'd think would give it a freedom no other cartoon series can match.

But it just isn't funny. The whole concept feels tired right from the start: it centers around Hollywood producer Mel Wax (McKean), who is a neurotic mess from all the stress of his wheelings and dealings, as well as his many extramarital affairs. Yet another Hollywood-sticking-its-head-up-its-own-ass production. I mean, I like Entourage, but there have been just so many of these kinds of behind-the-scenes, satirical show biz exposes out there recently. Kirstie Alley and Fat Actress, Lisa Kudrow and The Comeback, Pilot Season on Trio, the George Clooney-produced Unscripted... Hopeless Pictures would've had to have been very good to be worth adding to this already overstocked pond. And I don't think I laughed once. The funniest bits involved Jonathan Katz as Mel's therapist, and even they weren't that funny. Katz, of course, was hysterical as Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist for many years, but his performance here is repetitive and uninventive. "Have you got a minute?" "For you: two minutes." He must've said that a half dozen times in this one episode. I think there's a lot of room for this show to improve, and I think there's a tremendous amount of talent behind it, but this first episode was very disappointing.

Next up was Greg the Bunny. After the failed Fox sitcom, Greg returns to where he started, IFC, making short parodies of independent films. (And I mean short -- the show is ten minutes long.) The show's opening credits, a funny take on The A-Team's credits, gave me hope that this would be better than Hopeless Pictures, but the actual meat of the program, a parody of Annie Hall called Bunnie Hall, again fell flat. Greg plays the Woody Allen part, and the parody starts with the classic lobster scene. Only here, Greg dumps his girlfriend and starts dating the lobster. And that's what the whole ten minutes was about -- a lobster plays the Diane Keaton role. Maybe the idea of a bunny puppet doing an impression of Woody Allen is supposed to be inherently funny, but it wasn't enough to make me laugh, and the bit as a whole wasn't crazy or clever enough to make me laugh, either. Again, like Hopeless, I see promise, but the first episode was poor.

The comedy block wraps up with The Festival, a mockumentary about an independent filmmaker's adventures at a Sundance-like film festival. The festival is called M.U.F.F. (Mountain Union Film Festival), which should give you an idea of the level of humor in general. The cast is mostly unappealing, and the pace is glacial; in this first episode, all the main character has done so far is check into his room at the festival. The festival stuff is interspersed with interviews with the festival's progammers, sponsors, the filmmaker's Harvey Weinstein-like producer, etc., but none of these people are especially entertaining or interesting. But hey, there's gratuitous nudity! Well played, IFC, well played.

Still, I don't see any reason to check out the second episode tomorrow. The other two shows -- probably worth keeping track of. For a little longer, at least.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

COMICS: The Walking Dead

Aside from being pretty much the only horror comic out there worth reading (let alone zombie comic, of which there are far too many, and of which I've only ever seen two that were any good), there's a new reason to read Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead: my letter is printed in this issue. Sweet!

The letter basically expands on my comments here, but also manages to work in (by which I mean, is primarily about) a plug for my comedy/horror blog, Zombie Eat Brains. Because why not try to weasel a few hits out of an audience already predisposed to liking zombies?

Needless to say, I'm very grateful to Kirkman for being game enough to print the website's address -- and even more grateful he actually managed to resist making a dumbass joke about my name. It takes a strong man to do that. So thanks. And cool!

Not printed this week: the letter to Invincible, emailed the same day, which also expanded on comments made at this entry, and which was far less complimentary. Actually, it's even harsher than I remembered, looking back at it now. But that kind of thing really pushes my buttons. Whattaya gonna do?

COMICS: Editorial swimwear

Now that I've gotten caught up on the comics I've missed for the past couple weeks, I can finally ask this pressing question:

In Defenders #2, it's really, really obvious to everyone that Umar's bathing suit is a post-production, editorial addition, right?

Dave's Long Box recently took note of this bizarre (and apparently Marvel-specific) phenomenon as manifested in Thor #499. Dave calls it the "De-Nudifying Effect," and I have no reason to call it anything else.

In Defenders #2 (and here is where I wish I had a scanner to offer you visual proof, but I don't, so just imagine it for yourselves), Umar is shown in one scene taking a shower in front of her brother Dormammu (creeeepy), and in another scene taking a bath, or perhaps just a quick dip in the hot tub. (Bitch likes to get clean!) In both scenes, the artwork has very clearly been arranged so that none of her actual naughty bits are on display. That's an intentional choice by the artist. The editorial meddling comes with the addition of a black bikini colored in over the art. Marvel obviously was uncomfortable with even the implication of nudity (especially in conjunction with the strongly-implied incestuous nature of Umar and Dormammu's relationship), so they slapped on a swimsuit where it really didn't belong (why would Umar wear a bikini in a soapy shower?), presumably to protect the children. Because heaven forfend a child should run across the suggestion of an unclad side of boobie or flank of buttcheek in a comic with the word ASS on its cover. (A word partially concealed by a "CENSORED" bar, but still.)

Not that I'm arguing for more nudity in comics. Or less nudity, for that matter. I'm just saying, it's silly to try to have it both ways. It's like Demi Moore's famous body-paint cover shot from Vanity Fair: she's naked!! But let's add some color and pretend she's not!!

MOVIES: Another Thin Man

1939's Another Thin Man, the third in the famous comic detective series, is yet another terrifically entertaining film. Perhaps not quite up to the levels of the first two, but very nearly there.

The fantastic William Powell and Myrna Loy star once again as the hard-drinking mystery-solvers Nick and Nora Charles -- although this time only Nick is drinking, for the most part; Nora has to care for the newest addition to the family, Nick Jr. (Why did they decide to have a baby? Nick is asked. "Well, we have a dog, and he was lonesome," he replies.) I was wary of the baby being thrown into the mix, but he remains enough in the background not to hamper the main proceedings.

The high comedic point in this chapter of the series, I'd say, takes place at the West Indies Club, where Nick and Nora have both gone, following separate leads. Nora takes the chance while there to try to stir up Nick's jealousy; she's recently learned from a police detective of Nick's many former girlfriends. Nick, of course, is more amused by her efforts than threatened, casting her grins as she's swept up dancing with the man she mistakenly thinks has a clue for her. Fortunately there aren't any singing numbers (the previous film, After the Thin Man, was brought to a dead halt by two completely superfluous performances), but there is a dance routine by two of the club's performers that is quietly astonishing in its pure grace.

There's also a very funny scene near the end of the film, in which a gaggle of Nick's lowlife friends decide to throw Nick Jr. a birthday party. The room is packed with thugs and hoodlums, all cradling babies in their arms. Enter Shemp Howard (!), who is stopped at the door because he doesn't have any kids. Sure he does, he says, and produces a baby -- "I rented him for an hour."

The mystery is even more convoluted than in the first two films, to the point of where I gave up rewinding and pausing the DVD, trying to figure out who was who and what they were up to. I just trusted Nick would figure it all out for me at the end, and what do you know -- he did! But for the third film running, I picked the culprit right from the beginning; my theory that it's always the most likeable, least suspectable of the suspects who's guilty was confirmed yet again.

Next up: Shadow of the Thin Man!

MOVIES: I Dream of Acting Lessons

According to this item at, the lead roles in the upcoming I Dream of Jeannie film will be played by Jessica Alba and Jimmy Fallon.

Well, that's interesting. I guess you have to applaud the producers for their willingness to take such a bold risk. It's not often you see a major project like this cast with non-actors.

Monday, August 22, 2005

TV: Starved and Philadelphia, Part 2

Since I wrote about their pilot episodes, I've watched two more episodes each of Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Both, surprisingly, have improved since the pilots, but only Philadelphia has really grown on me.

Starved has gotten a few more laughs out of me since that first episode, but I still don't care for any of the four main characters. And it certainly isn't because this is a show where you're not supposed to like the characters, like, say, Ricky Gervais on The Office or Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm; they'd rather be the guys who do jerky things, but are still somehow loveable, more like on Seinfeld. I mean, this last episode was just begging the audience to love these characters, with Billie breaking down in tears, Dan estranged from his wife and moved in with Adam, who has been pretending to have a girlfriend so that he can be alone to indulge his food-disorder compulsions (binging and purging), and Sam being there to give moving pep talks to both Dan and Billie. I don't care for the characters -- except maybe Billie, who is, so far, the least awful of the four -- and the show still strives too hard to be edgy and offensive -- the last episode featured Sam injuring his scrotum during a grooming mishap -- but I will admit they've mustered up a few laughs here and there. It's not a must for me, but I don't see any harm in continuing to watch. (Also, I really get a kick out of the fact that Evie from Out of This World plays Dan's wife.)

The real winner has turned out to be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It appears FX agrees with me; after following Starved the first two weeks, this last week Philadelphia took over the lead-in spot, which indicates higher ratings, or at least a higher level of faith and/or enthusiasm from FX's programmers.

The cast may be a bunch of nobodies (though at least they've finally gotten their names listed on the show's IMDb page), and, yes, they're also an unlikeable crew of characters. But they've won me over in a way Starved has failed to do. First of all, they just seem to gel together as an ensemble much more cohesively than that of Starved. They play off each other well, building on and trumping one another's lines, demonstrating a comedic give-and-take that works very nicely. And while the humor still goes for awkwardness and controversy, for some reason the subjects of the last two shows (titled "Charlie Wants an Abortion" and "Underage Drinking: A National Concern") didn't drive me away as much as the pilot episode ("The Gang Goes Racist"). Probably because I'm exactly the kind of uptight white guy they were trying to needle with their humor in the debut.

The four lead characters are all insensitive doofuses who always make the wrong choices (even the one female, Dee, who is normally the voice of reason, but who nonetheless decides to date a high school jock in the "Underage Drinking" episode), but they're funny doofuses. It's often a mean funny; the characters, though best friends, will frequently tear each other to pieces (topped off with "Are you gonna cry now?"); when Dee accepts the high school jock's invitation to his prom, Charlie repeatedly crows to her brother Dennis, "That guy is totally gonna bang your sister!" And the meanness isn't limited to one another; when Charlie (whose sudden, outraged freak-outs have made him my favorite of the four) discovers he may have a son, and that the kid is completely rotten, he instantly sinks to the kid's level. "You're ugly," the kid tells him. "YOU'RE UGLY!!" Charlie screams back, not caring that he's in the middle of the mall.

They can be mean characters who do mean things (for example, Dennis makes up his mind on abortion according to which group of competing protesters has the hottest women), but they often fail to be better people in very recognizable ways. And when all is said and done, I wouldn't mind having a drink with them in the Irish pub they own. (I think.) On the other hand, I would never want to share a drink -- or even worse, a meal -- with the characters of Starved.

MOVIES: Oldboy

Man, was that a kick in the teeth. Of course, that's not as bad as what else happens to teeth in this movie.

Oldboy, the 2004 Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winner just released on DVD, is a brutally nerve-wracking thriller from South Korean director Park Chan-wook. It begins with Korean businessman Oh Dae-Su, who is kidnapped and imprisoned while on his way home for his daughter's birthday. He has no clue who his captors are, nor why they have taken him, nor how long they're going to keep him. After nearly a year in his cell (which resembles a small hotel room), he learns from the TV news that his wife has been murdered, and he's been framed for the killing. All he can do is plan his escape and plot his revenge.

After fifteen years, he is released, as suddenly and inexplicably as he was captured. And he begins his quest for the truth -- and for vengeance. He has no one to turn to; his wife is dead, his daughter is living with a foster family in Europe, and he is believed to be a murderer. And, as he soon discovers, he has a deadline -- five days.

This was a real gut-punch of a film. It's tremendously violent -- in one of the film's most horrifying scenes, Dae-Su performs impromptu dental surgery with the claw end of a hammer -- but the psychological torture is even more severe. The closer Dae-Su gets to his goal, the more anguish he endures, until it's nearly unbearable, both for him and the audience.

Oldboy is absolutely riveting. The Kafkaesque opening scenario is fascinating, and it actually develops into a real conclusion -- we're not left hanging, as I feared at the beginning. And Choi Min-sik's performance as Oh Dae-Su is intense and disturbing. He suffers through the deepest depths of despair, hysteria, insanity, all the while fearing the monster he suspects he is -- for both whatever crimes may have led to his imprisonment, and for the things he does after his release.

And the visual style of the movie is incredible. It's dream-like at times, as hallucinatory images of the past and present collide. And the action scenes are uniquely and creatively staged, with a real standout being a full-scale brawl in a narrow hallway between a dozen men and Dae-Su, who is armed only with his trusty hammer. No MTV-style quick cuts here; it's one long, chaotic, seemingly half-improvised scene unfolding across the full screen.

This is a tough movie to take at times, but it's well worth the experience. The story and style are amazing, truly audacious in their creativity and depravity. Oldboy is a signal of great things to come from director Park Chan-wook, both in his future work and in his catalog of films yet to be released in America.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

COMICS: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life

I once said that I would be the last comics-type blogger in the world to read Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life. Well, last week I read it. Do I win?

I didn't think I'd like it, which I why I waited so long to check it out. I'd paged through it briefly at the store and thought: hm, not for me. But then the second volume, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, came out, and I paged through the first few pages of it, and found that I really liked what I saw. It was clever and funny and different, and I liked the rough and cartoony, but still very well drawn and effective, artwork, and I was intrigued by the characters, and I thought: hm, maybe this is for me, after all. So I picked up Vol. 1, and I was completely captivated by it. I've reread it twice already, and all I can say is: you were right, comic weblogosphereiverse, and I was wrong. Scott Pilgrim is great, great fun.

The story is targeted at an age group about a dozen years younger than me (or more -- I did turn 35 last week, damn you all), which is probably also why I resisted it in the first place. But it's not aggressively, exclusionarily (if that's a word) youth-oriented, with a bunch of lingo and references that an old feller like me can't get hep to. Its characters and experiences are immediately familiar and relatable, and for all I've heard of its video game influences, they don't get any more difficult to decipher than a visual homage to Street Fighter, and a name-check of Drum Mania and Super Mario 2.

Yes, everything's familiar and relatable -- until it isn't. After a first chapter of straightforward, winning character humor, I was surprised by the sudden turn into the fantastic, meaning the way Ramona Flowers is able to enter Scott's dreams (a shortcut runs right through them). It's silly and odd, but it doesn't derail the story; the step beyond reality actually helps raise the stakes Scott's playing for. Now to win Ramona's heart, he doesn't have to merely divest himself of his current girlfriend, Knives Chau; he also has to defeat all of Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends in battle -- grand, explosive, ridiculously over-the-top, wire fu-and-magic style battle. It gets crazy, but it manages always to be grounded by the cast and their relationships. It's an absurd cartoon, but it's got a sweet, quiet romance at its heart.

I really enjoyed watching the story unfold. The details and the dialogue are solid. When 17-year-old Knives first tells 23-year-old Scott about her daily school life and its little soap operas, Scott's interest and enthusiasm for the tales are genuine and infectious. After meeting Ramona, whose age and experiences are more on a level with Scott's, Scott sees Knives' stories as the banal, petty things they are. His change in attitude is subtle, well portrayed, and rings very true.

And the little jokes and interplay between the characters are very funny. Most characters take a light, teasing tone with their friends, which feels real. When Scott introduces Knives to his band, he insists that she be good, though clearly she's never been anything but. "No, really. Please be good." "I'll be good!" "You promise to be good?" Cowed: "Yes. I'll be so good." Until bandmate Stephen Stills interrupts them. "He made me promise to be good!" she says. "He may have been kidding," Stephen advises her. "Are you normally bad?" Later, Knives asks Scott if he always calls Stephen by his full name. "Who, Stephen Stills? Yes." When Knives likes Wallace, Scott's roommate, a little too much, taking attention away from him, Scott immediately dismisses him: "Wallace, you go now. You leave. Begone." When Stephen gets the band a gig, he tells them how it came about: "This guy at work was like, 'Steve, do you know anyone in a band?' And I was like --" "Great story, man," Scott finishes for him. And who is the gig with? "Crash and the Boys." Scott: "Awww, man? That one band with Crash? And those Boys? I hate them!" Most of the humor is on that same low-key level, but it's ever-present, and it builds into a constant, almost giddy pleasure.

Sometimes the story is a little too sitcom-y; Scott's inability to break things off with Knives once he starts dating Ramona is like something straight out of Three's Company. And sometimes Scott's dialogue is a little too stylized for supposed comedic effect. "I... but... it's... not... it's totally... it's... y... you're not the boss of... me?" It's funny that Scott's flustered at this moment, but the dialogue as written undermines the comedy.

But the missteps are few and far between. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I regret not having given it a chance when it first came out. But one good thing has resulted: I don't have to wait for the next book to be published -- I can buy it this weekend. And I will, you just watch me!

COMICS: The dry spell

I've been slacking off on talking about comics for a while. Not that I was ever the most prolific of comics bloggers, but I still usually make my one weekly attempt at it. The sad truth is, I haven't been able to afford a trip to the comics shop for the past two weeks. Hopefully I'll have that situation rectified by tomorrow, and be able to make a trip this weekend. Also, I'm working on my super-timely (meaning within a year or two of its release) review of Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life -- I just need to check some quotes when I get some time later today.

Meanwhile, you can click on the shiny new button on the sidebar to the right (or its copy below):

Blogcritics Pick of the Week for my very first post at that site: a revision of this post about The Devil's Rejects (with the bit about drinking Jack Daniels in the theater cut out -- shh, don't tell!). Pretty cool, eh? Yes, I am great, I can not deny it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

META: Pretty, pretty pictures

Hey, look up there! ^^^

I added some pictures to my header. Sweet? Nay, super sweet!!

I got the idea from Latigo Flint, whose template is very similar to mine. I hope he doesn't take it the wrong way; he is the quickest quickdraw in the world, after all.

Right now, the pictures are representative of some of my all-time favorites in the worlds of TV (Al Swearengen from Deadwood), Comics (Grimjack), Movies (Robocop), TV (Daffy Duck), Music (Who's Next, bitches!), Books (Peanuts), and TV (Vic Mackey from The Shield).

I don't know if I'll rotate new pictures in on a regular basis, perhaps according to my current reading/viewing/listening tastes, or if I'll just get lazy and never feel like changing my template ever ever again. The latter, probably. But for now, I'm pretty damn proud of the new look, and my ability to figure out how to accomplish this simple, simple change. I rock.

MOVIES: After the Thin Man

After the Thin Man delivers every bit as much entertainment as the first film in the series does, once again anchored by the intoxicating (and intoxicated) romantic comic interplay between William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The case is as needlessly complicated as that in the first film, but it serves the purpose of setting Powell, as reluctant detective Nick Charles, and Loy, as his adventure-seeking wife Nora, into action. Comedic highlights include Nick's interactions with Nora's blueblood family -- they feel he's beneath their station, and Powell delights in antagonizing them further; a surprise party thrown for Nick & Nora's return home, populated by a bunch of freeloaders who don't recognize the Charleses when they see them; a New Year's Eve celebration at a Chinese restaurant, at which Nora gets to meet all of Nick's lowlife friends; and Nick's drunken unconcern as an all-out brawl rages around him. And my favorite line: "Come on, dear, let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty."

The film starts off almost exactly where the previous film ended, on the train taking Nick and Nora from New York back home to San Francisco. They don't get any time to rest, though, as they're almost immediately thrown into a mystery involving Nora's stuffy relations. The truly curious thing about this film is how much happens in such a compact amount of time. The film lasts almost two hours, which was fairly unusual for a 1930's comedy, and yet the action spans only two days, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. (And since the story is advanced at times by the classic headline-on-a-spinning-newspaper gimmick, you begin to think San Francisco must have a dozen papers, with new editions released hourly.) The extended running time must have been the studio's response to the unexpected popularity of the original. They made sure to deliver an "A" picture this time out, which meant a couple of time-wasting musical numbers, as well as an inordinate amount of uninteresting screentime spent with Asta, the dog, who I can only assume tested well with audiences of the era.

The plot, as I mentioned above, was as unduly complex as in the first film. (And the culprit just as easy to pinpoint. In my post about the first film, I said, "in these early detective movies, it's almost always the nicest, least suspectable of the suspects" who is guilty. Jimmy Stewart appears in this film. You may draw your own conclusions.) It's not the plot that matters, really, it's the way Powell and Loy interact with the plot elements, and especially with each other, that makes this film so much fun. They're a superlative screen pairing, quick and witty and charmingly infatuated with each other. The promise of a baby to come in the next installment, Another Thin Man, does not hold much appeal for me -- why meddle with a winning team? But I'll still be renting it soon, for more of the magic between Powell and Loy.

Friday, August 12, 2005

COMICS: A 100% Real Journal Comic About Things That Actually Happen

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Jeffrey Rowland's Overcompensating is frickin' hilarious. That is all.

Oh! Also: Wigu is pretty damn funny, too.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

TV: Starved, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Following their stellar track record with dramas (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and now it appears Over There as well), FX is making another attempt at the sitcom genre with two new shows, Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

They already tried once, with Lucky, which was an incredible success. Except for the fact that nobody watched it but me, apparently. I still don't understand why they gave up on that show after only one season. Sure, it wasn't a ratings blockbuster, but it had quality that should've been nurtured, like Arrested Development. It was a show about gambling addicts -- mainly poker -- at a time when poker was already a national obsession and only growing bigger. It was tremendously well-written: nominated for an Emmy for Best Writing two weeks before its cancellation. It had a fantastic cast, led by John Corbett, fresh off the huge success of My Big Fat Stupid Unfunny Greek Wedding, and Ever Carradine of Once and Again, who is so ridiculously beautiful and charming, she might actually get me to watch that sure-to-be-stupid show where Geena Davis becomes the president when it debuts. And most of all, Lucky was just plain funny. Like, Arrested Development funny. I still haven't forgiven FX for cancelling it. In fact, I will never forgive them. Grr.

But we're not talking about Lucky. We're talking about Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. My quick review: they can't hold a candle to Lucky. Screw you, FX!

Okay, I've only seen one episode of each so far. But neither amazed me. They both deal in the comedy of humiliation, which has never been my favorite brand of humor -- I can barely sit through an episode of The Office. And they both strive to be shocking -- Starved with its eating disorders and frank sexuality, Philadelphia with its gay and racial humor -- but neither show has a cast winning enough, or talented enough, to mine enough laughs out of the shock to really succeed.

And let's look at those casts. Starved is headed by Eric Schaeffer, who also wrote and directed the pilot. Schaeffer seems to think he's charmingly flawed, charismatic but troubled. I think he's loathsome. I just don't care for him as a performer; he always casts himself as the ladies' man lead in his own projects, when he's actually so creepy and disturbing it seems more likely women would cross the street to avoid him. Take this pilot episode, for example: he instantly charms a woman on the subway into a date, which in and of itself is unlikely enough; then on that date he forces her to throw away her shoes, which he doesn't like, and wear new shoes that he's bought her. Creeeepy. Does she ditch him immediately? No, she has sex with him that night! Yes, of course she does, that's very likely. And he has such utter contempt for her as a person that he'll only listen to her talk about her day while she's simultaneously giving him a blowjob, and speaking in a British accent (to mimic an actress on a TV commercial he likes). This character is an asshole, but Schaeffer still thinks women would find him irresistible. I just don't get it.

But he's got an excuse for being an asshole: he's got an eating disorder. He's obsessed with food, he conflates sex with food (the TV commercial he's obsessed with uses sex to sell cookies, which leads him to try to recreate his girlfriend in the image of the commercial's star), he's got an unhealthy body image, he's under constant pressure -- you get the idea. But why does this make it okay for him to be a jackass? And why does this woman still want to be with him?

There are plenty of assholes on TV who are also funny and charming enough to like and laugh at, from Archie Bunker to George Costanza. The problem is, Schaeffer's character is just an asshole.

The rest of the cast is a pack of nobodies, who don't bring much to the show, at least not in this first episode. Which leads us directly into the cast of Philadelphia, which is such a complete pack of nobodies, that as of this writing, the IMDb page can't even be bothered to name them. And neither can I... except to note that the female lead, Kaitlin Olson, who previously appeared in the last two dreadful seasons of the Cleveland-set Drew Carey Show, has a line in the pilot about a dream she had in which she found herself in Cleveland -- which I enjoyed, whether or not that was an intentional inside joke.

The show centers on three knuckleheads who own a bar in Philly (Olson is a waitress at the bar), and the stupid and offensive things they do. The first episode is all about misunderstandings and prejudices involving race and homosexuality. The guys make a racist assumption about one of Olson's friends, then spend the rest of the episode trying to prove they're not racist, while only digging themselves deeper. There might be some clever humor to be found in this premise, but these guys don't achieve it. They're such a bland and uninteresting group, it's hard to feel one way or the other about them, to root for them or to revel in the pain of their missteps.

FX has enough of a reputation for quality (a well-earned rep, for sure) that I'll check out another couple episodes of each show before making a final judgment. It's possible I'll grow to accept the characters more, which will help bring the humor out. But I just don't have the time, or the room on my TiVo, to keep following unlikeable characters who are also unfunny.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

MOVIES: The Devil's Rejects

Boy, have I got a backlog of stuff to talk about. But I'll start with the most enjoyable theatrical experience I've had this year: The Devil's Rejects. And no, I'm not kidding. I had a blast.

A few mild spoilers are ahead, if you care.

I didn't expect too much from Rob Zombie's sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses, which had its moments of creepiness and sick humor, but which mostly irritated me with its MTV-type quick cuts and camera trickery which to me are more indicative of ADD than an actual directorial style. Kind of like a Rob Zombie video. But Devil's Rejects somehow hits all the right notes, and it hits so many different notes. It goes from Peckinpah-influenced shootouts to Tobe Hooper-inspired dirty horror; its humor ranges from the light and ridiculous (a movie critic's examination of the aliases used by the Rejects -- all Groucho Marx characters) to the sick and awful (vehicular manslaughter has never been funnier); it has scenes of intensely claustrophobic terror which open up into the panoramic vistas of a road movie. And Zombie has laid claim to a more personal directorial style with this film. Zombie, weird as it is to say it, has grown leaps and bounds as a filmmaker and storyteller from his first project to his second.

Part of my immense enjoyment of this movie, I have to admit, comes from the context. I saw it on Sunday as part of an early celebration of my birthday, which was Monday. I went with a group of similarly-minded friends who were very enthusiastically into the film, laughing and clapping throughout. And I may or may not have topped off my Coke with a bottle of Jack Daniels I snuck into the theater. I can neither confirm nor deny this.

But still! What it does, it does very well. It's less a straightforward horror film than its predecessor; Zombie has said that if 1,000 Corpses was his homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rejects owes just as much to Dirty Harry or Bonnie and Clyde, or, as mentioned earlier, the sadism of Peckinpah, perhaps best exemplified by Straw Dogs. The horror and violence this time out are more humanized, and all the more brutal and affecting for it. The characters, while certainly still whacked-out, aren't as inexplicably bizarre, and therefore easily dismissed, as they were in the first film. Here, they're not quasi-supernatural horror monsters; they're just mean and evil criminals, which makes their actions far more brutal and chilling.

There's a lot of humor in the movie, too, a lot of cruel, dark humor, which can come and go in a flash. It's a gas to see comedian Brian Posehn appear in the film, for example; he adds a lot of comic relief. When he gets captured by the Rejects, I was grinning, expecting some goofy interplay between them; instead, they blow his brains out almost instantly. That jolted me but good. It was an excellent reversal of expectations: there's your punchline, sucker! Then there's my favorite line of the film, funny but dripping with menace at the same time: "Boy, the next word that comes out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin' Mark Twain shit. 'Cause it's definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone."

This is one of the best B-movies the '70s never made. It's chock full of all kinds of actors from memorable '70s or early '80s roles, such as Michael Berryman, the bald mutant from The Hills Have Eyes, to Ken Foree, Peter from the original Dawn of the Dead (and the televangelist in the remake who gets to say, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth"), to (Ian had to point out these next two to me) P.J. Soles, who was so memorably killed in Halloween, and E.G. Daily, probably best known as Dottie in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, to Leslie Easterbrook and Priscilla Barnes, formerly of Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company, respectively, to Sid Haig, who stars as the killer clown Captain Spaulding, who is a graduate of any number of '70s crime flicks (with a major in blaxsploitation -- Black Mama, White Mama, Coffy, Foxy Brown) which influenced Devil's Rejects.

And the '70s soundtrack is fantastic. The film is bookended by two great musical sequences. The first is the escape of Baby (played by Sheri Moon Zombie, who does indeed moon the camera at every opportunity) and Otis (Bill Moseley, who is chillingly good, and for whom there is already a stupendously naive, but oddly touching, online campaign to get him an Academy Award nomination) from a thunderous shootout between the Firefly clan and the local Sheriff's Dept; their escape, complete with '70s-style freeze frames, plays out in silence but for the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," which has never sounded creepier. And the grand finale of the film, set to Skynyrd's "Free Bird," is all gorgeous helicopter shots of wide-open desert hill highways (with California very obviously substituting for the alleged Texas setting) culminating in another firefight more brutal than the opener. Say what you will about Zombie as a director -- and I'm sure you will -- the man uses soundtrack music as well as Tarantino or Scorsese.

I had a great time seeing it, but is The Devil's Rejects actually a great film? Yes; for what it is, and what it wants to achieve, yes, it is great. It took me on a hell of a ride, it surprised me both with its humor and with its violence, which made even a horror-phile like me cringe, and it left me looking forward to another Rob Zombie film. Though it's steeped in homage, it's a tremendously original and inventive film, miles better than pretty much any horror or action film of the new millennium. I won't say it transcends the genre(s), because Sean T. Collins recently warned us all not to; instead, I'll borrow his phrase and say it epitomizes the genre(s).

Friday, August 05, 2005

BOOKS: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Here is a joke I wrote about the new Harry Potter book in my other blog:

"The sex scenes are more gratuitous than ever, but man, are they hot."

Nobody thought it was funny. You probably don't, either. Because Harry Potter is serious. It is serious goddam business. And don't you forget it.*

J.K. Rowling certainly doesn't forget it this time out. There's a lot less fun to be had in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince than in previous installments, which is a shame. There are moments of lightness -- primarily involving the romantic entanglements of Harry, Ron, and Hermione (which, I have to admit, are tremendously entertaining) -- but mostly it's dead serious, alternating between Harry's suspicions of Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape, and Harry's private lessons about the life of Lord Voldemort, given by Headmaster Dumbledore, who has been horribly injured in between this book and the last.

The story moves forward quickly, which doesn't leave much time for tangents, fanciful excursions, or most of the gigantic cast outside the central half-dozen or so. Or for any kind of exposition, apparently: I grew rapidly and increasingly frustrated with the vast number of people, places, things, and events which were peppered throughout without a word of explanation. Rowling seems to assume that every reader of her series is a devotee of the highest order, with the texts of the previous five volumes memorized, or at least re-read immediately before beginning this one. Which leaves someone like me, who hasn't given a thought to Harry Potter since The Order of the Phoenix was released two years ago, all too often floundering and bewildered.

So it's a quick read (or it was once I allowed myself time to get into it), but a gripping, thrilling one; the last couple hundred pages or so tear past like a speeding bullet. The school year seems to fly by, racing into darkness, as the burden of impending adulthood weighs ever heavier on Harry, and Dumbledore directs Harry farther down the dark and lonely path to what will be his ultimate destination, a fight to the death with Voldemort. Strangely, outside of Harry, it's Voldemort who seems to get the most character development in this book, by way of Dumbledore's lessons; perpetual Potter-hater Draco Malfoy also gains an extra dimension or two as things progress.

Rowling's writing is streamlined, but sharp; she even gets in a couple of digs at the expense of America's "War on Terror" (or "Struggle Against Extremism," as it has recently been rebranded), especially our policy of detaining uncharged suspects indefinitely. The revelation of the titular Half-Blood Prince is too abrupt, and unsatisfying, but the rest of the story more than makes up for it. Maybe not the best of the series, but a worthy entry for sure, priming readers for the seventh and (allegedly) final volume a couple years down the line.

*Alternate possible reason why nobody thought it was funny: because I'm not funny.

TV: Entourage

What is the deal with the "Previously On" intros to Entourage? They're completely irrelevant! It's almost like they're satires of the whole "Previously On" concept.

Previously on Entourage: Turtle and Drama had sex with a woman at Sundance... who does not appear in this episode!

Previously on Entourage: Vincent filmed a commercial for Japan... which is not mentioned at all this week!

Previously on Entourage: The guys went to a party at the Playboy Mansion... which does not figure into tonight's show in any way whatsoever!

There are occasional bits which might help out the new viewer (Vince is playing Aquaman in a James Cameron film, Vince used to date his co-star Mandy Moore), but most of the time, it's like HBO said, "Okay, you get 30 seconds for the 'Previously On' teaser. Whaddaya got?"

"Uh... nothing, really. Last week's episode was pretty much self-contained, as is this week's."

"Well, then just pick a bunch of crap at random! We're giving you 30 seconds, and by God you are going to use them!!"

Thursday, August 04, 2005

TV: Firefly

Another quick note, to those people who recommended Firefly to me when I briefly mentioned it in my post about Wonderfalls:

You know what? It is pretty good!

The Sci Fi Channel has begun rerunning Firefly on Fridays, a little before Battlestar Galactica. Last week they showed the two-hour pilot episode. Which is a smart way to begin. As you fans already know, when the show first aired on Fox, Fox did not start with the pilot. They started with the next episode. They thought the pilot was too confusing or some such, so they decided to shelve it and air the allegedly less difficult later episode. Which goes to show you how colossally fucking stupid Fox can be. A pilot, you morons, is what lets people figure out who the characters on the show are, and what the hell the show is about. So instead of two hours of introductory background, they gave us an episode in which we didn't know who anyone in this large cast of characters was, and we didn't know what was happening -- there was a war? With who? When did it happen? What part in it did these characters play? How did these characters all meet? What's with the guys with the blue hands? What are they doing? They're after that weird chick, River? Why? How come none of this makes any sense? Oh, because it was all explained in the pilot. Which you didn't show us, Fox. You shitheads.

No wonder I didn't like the show when it first aired. I can't imagine why Fox thought the pilot didn't work, because it drew me in completely. There's a little adjusting time in the beginning of the episode, where things are a little vague, but then each character is introduced in an entertaining and comprehensible fashion, the situation is laid out for us, and off we go.

Tomorrow's episode on Sci Fi will be the first episode Fox aired, and the first episode I watched. I'm interested in seeing what I think of it now -- when it first aired, I hated it; I only watched one other episode, and gave up on the show. If I had been allowed to start with the pilot, I would've kept watching. A lot of people would've kept watching. The show might even still be on the air, instead of coming to theaters as Serenity next month. Good job, Fox!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Where the Monsters Go: The Horrorblog Update Page

Just a quick note to acknowledge Where the Monsters Go: The Horrorblog Update Page, created by Sean T. Collins (again: no relation) (again again: that assumes you know my last name is also Collins). Much like its forebear, the Comic Weblog Updates Page, Where the Monsters Go keeps track of all horror-related blogs, beginning with the ones most recently updated.

I was going to wait and see if I wanted to email Sean and ask him to add my other blog, Zombie Eat Brains, to the list; my interest in updating it has tapered off recently, and I wanted to make sure I was actually going to keep the darn thing going before bothering Sean with it. Now that I seem to have gotten back into the groove with the updates, I went to check out the Horroblog Update page -- and found that Sean had already added my blog without my asking.

Well, shucks, that's darn sporting of you, pardner. Thanks. And everyone else: if you've got any interest in reading horror on the internet, reading about horror on the internet, or maybe just keeping track of updates on your favorite zombie blog, make sure you stop by Where the Monsters Go. It's an excellent resource.

Now, if only I would get off my ass* and create a Pop Culture Weblog Update Page, like I've threatened to do in the past, the internet would achieve perfection.

*By which I mean, "Remain on my ass long enough to do the necessary computer work."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

MOVIES: The Thin Man

I got the opportunity to begin filling in a sorely lacking area of my movie knowledge with the recent DVD release of the Thin Man box set. I'd never seen a Thin Man movie before, and I was happy to see that my local video store had the entire set broken apart for individual rental. I've only watched the original film so far, 1934's The Thin Man, but I can already tell I'll be enjoying the entire series (there are five more to go!).

First, a nerdy observation: the phrase "the Thin Man" doesn't actually refer to the main character, Nick Charles, does it? In this first film, it's clearly a phrase applied to the character Clyde Wynant, who goes missing early on. (In fact, the IMDb page names the character "Clyde Wynant, the thin man".) So why name all the sequels after a non-recurring character? I could ask the same of the later Pink Panther sequels, I guess, which are named after a diamond that doesn't appear in them, and probably get the same answer: who cares? Hey, no need to get defensive! Just making an observation.

Not only is this the first Thin Man film I've seen, I think it's the first time I've ever seen either William Powell (as Nick Charles) or his partner, Myrna Loy (as Nora Charles). Powell is very funny and charming as the wise-cracking, reluctant detective, and Loy matches him quip for quip (and drink for drink), plus: my goodness, she's lovely, isn't she? They have a ridiculously easy, believable, well-developed chemistry, and play off one another perfectly; it's no wonder audiences were charmed enough with the pair to demand five sequels.

The mystery itself isn't very interesting. I figured out whodunnit almost instantly (in these early detective movies, it's almost always the nicest, least suspectable of the suspects), but it's not the destination, it's the journey. The entertainment comes from the way Nick and Nora Charles approach the case, and life: with carefree abandon, always light-hearted, always inebriated (these two drink more than Hemingway and Bukowski put together), always with a one-liner at the ready. My favorite bit, and probably the most quoted line in the movie, comes the night after Nick has been grazed by a bullet. He and Nora read the papers, and he says, "I'm a hero, I was shot two times in the Tribune." "I saw where you were shot five times in the tabloids," Nora observes. "It's not true," Nick replies with a sly grin, "he never came near my tabloids."

There's maybe a little too much plot getting in the way of the action (as Joe Bob would say); the mystery is convoluted, and I was puzzled by one character, Nunheim, whom the other characters seem to be aware of before they let the audience in on it. But that doesn't diminish the fun of seeing Nick demonstrate how a martini should be shaken to a fox-trot beat, or watching Nora, catching Nick in the middle of a bender, ordering five martinis at once to catch up, or catching the cute faces the two make at one another throughout. Powell and Loy are an electric screen couple, and I can't wait to catch the first sequel, 1936's After the Thin Man. Bonus: Jimmy Stewart co-stars in that one!

Monday, August 01, 2005

MOVIES: The Aristocrats

This weekend, Ian Brill and I went down to L.A. to see The Aristocrats, a documentary directed by comedian Paul Provenza, about the dirtiest joke ever told.

It's simultaneously the funniest joke ever, and the lamest joke ever. Here's the joke:

A man walks into a talent agent's office, and says, "Have I got an act for you!"

[Dirty stuff]

"What is the act called?" asks the talent agent.

"The Aristocrats!"
It's a lame punchline -- the act does filthy, classless things, but pretentiously refers to itself with a highbrow, sophisticated title. Har-de-har. The comedy comes in the middle. That's where each comedian is free to improvise the vilest, most disgusting, most violently, nauseatingly profane things he or she can conjure up in their sick, twisted little mind. What does the act do? The more awful, the better -- and funnier. Think of the worst possible (or even impossible) things one person can do to another -- at least one of the comedians makes it happen in this joke, from the sexual to the scatological, from bestiality to incest to cannibalism to above and beyond.

The entire documentary is about this joke. It's told many times, by many, many comedians -- it's probably only told in its entirety once, though, because once is all you need to get the concept; the rest is just comedian after comedian trying to top everyone else with their own version of the act. Most of the comedians reflect on the joke as well as telling it -- where did it originate? Why do comedians never tell it onstage? Why is it funny? Is it funny? Is it only funny to Americans? (Both Eric Idle and Eddie Izzard, for example, seem not to get the joke, or that the comedy is in the telling, not the text, and try to think up ways in which to make it better, but which actually ruin it.) And what does each version of the joke told say about the teller? (Nothing healthy, in most cases.)

There are a few real standout performers. George Carlin's version isn't especially spectacular, but his analysis of the joke, and of comedy, is the most insightful. Judy Gold turns the joke on herself -- she was hugely pregnant at the time of filming, and she incorporates her unborn child into the joke. Wendy Liebman turns the joke on its head: the act is the most dignified, uplifting, family-friendly performance ever. "What's it called?" "The Cocksucking Motherfuckers." Kevin Pollak does the joke as Christopher Walken. And Bob Saget -- oh, man. Bob Saget. Even the other comedians in the movie talk about Saget's version. And he does not disappoint. It is hysterical, and unspeakably obscene. He keeps stopping in the middle of it, wondering why on earth he is torpedoing himself by telling this joke on camera -- but then he keeps going, and it gets wilder and crazier and filthier and funnier.

And there's seemingly no end to the ways in which the joke can be told. Penn and Teller do it as a magic trick. Eric Mead does it as a dazzling card trick. It's performed as a juggling routine, a ventriloquist act, it's done in mime, in one of the very funniest performances in the film. The South Park guys do it in animated form, in which Cartman tells the joke to Stan, Kyle, and Kenny; in a Q&A following the film, director Provenza told us that Trey Parker said that if they'd had more time, they would've had the South Park kids act out the joke for a talent agent, which would probably have been the most obscene thing in the history of the world.

Then we get to Gilbert Gottfried's performance, which is already legendary in the world of comedy. It was at the Hugh Hefner Roast, which occurred only three weeks after 9/11. Gilbert quickly turned the crowd against him with some 9/11 humor -- resulting in boos and cries of "Too soon!" -- and he decides, the hell with it, if he's going to be offensive, he's going to tell the most offensive joke ever. So he launches into "The Aristocrats," and he slays. He just destroys them. He brings down the house. It's spectacular, watching him turn the audience from hatred to uncontrollable, unanimous laughter (well, almost unanimous; Hef didn't seem very amused). It illustrates the power of comedy in a way that's rarely been seen before.

The downside of the film is that it's not well shot; it was assembled bit by bit over the past five years in a catch-as-catch-can fashion, and shot with handheld home video cameras, which are frequently operated in amateurish fashion -- shaky, poorly framed, poorly lit. Provenza told us in the Q&A that this was partly out of necessity -- he had to grab performers when he could, and film on the fly; Saget, for example, is backstage at his own show, and he has to quit the joke before he's finished because he's called onstage to do his act -- and partly intentional -- if he had paused for proper lighting, or makeup, or whatever, the comedians might've lost the loose, raw, uninhibited quality from their performances, or might've had second thoughts and declined to be in the film at all (in fact, at least one person, Provenza told us, asked to be removed after being filmed).

But it's a vital, tremendously entertaining, totally unique take on the world of comedy. It's great fun for anyone who can laugh at a dirty joke, and it's absolutely essential for anyone at all interested in the mechanics of comedy. As far as I know, it's only in L.A. and New York right now, so catch it there if you live within reach, or look for it when (and if) it goes into wide release -- it will be released as unrated, which will definitely limit how and where it can be shown.

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