007something

Five discs down on “Alias,” and they lost me somewhere. Maybe it was because I had to rush the thing back to the video store, so I fast-forwarded through the clip-show episode and any bit where acoustic guitar started playing and people started talking about their feelings. But I wasn’t intrigued by the Saga of the “Snowman.”

Before the show came out, I read a preview in Entertainment Weekly or something, where they interviewed J.J. Abrams. He said the concept of the show was “what if Felicity were a super-spy?” That’s what sold the show for ABC and most viewers, apparently, but it’s what turned me off and made me not want to watch it. (Plus, the descriptions of torture scenes.)

I’ve watched a lot of WB series since then, and I had prepared myself for lots of montages of our-heroine-in-emotional-turmoil while pop hits play in the background. But it seems to be getting less of the “Felicity” influence and more of the Ken Olin influence. I mean, good for the guy for producing and directing, and throwing a bone to his “thirtysomething” cast-mates by giving them (and himself) cameos, but I personally don’t want that in my action series. Therapy sessions and sepia-toned conversations while drinking wine and sitting on throw pillows? No thanks. Riding motorbikes towards Hummers full of gun-toting former-Soviets only to launch an ejection balloon at the last second and get picked up by a passing DC-10, leaving the motorbike to ram the bad guys in a huge fireball? Bring it.

Now that I’m going to be getting them in the mail, hopefully there’ll be less pressure to watch them like blipverts, and I won’t get “Alias” overload. If nothing else, it should keep every blog entry from being about that damn TV show.

Internet Movie Fun Special Friendship Society

I signed up for Netflix again, because I needed another monthly expense and a source of meaningless consumerist stress and deadlines. They were very happy to see me back, and they had my queue and my friends list waiting for me and everything.

And that’s the thing. I’ve got one Netflix friend and that’s fine, but it’s just… I want more. Partly because my friends list looks skimpy and sad, and partly because all his movies are, how do I say it?, kinda Frenchy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just gotta wonder why you hate America so much.) And mostly because I’m just curious to see what other people have in their queues.

So if you know my e-mail address, and you’ve got a Netflix account, see if you can add me to your friends list. If you’re on Netflix but don’t know my e-mail or don’t know what I’m talking about, then send me your address and I’ll get you on my list. And if you’re on Netflix and know my e-mail but don’t want to be on my list, then fine. Screw you.

Moron Alias

Okay, I’m 11 episodes in, and I’ve got the next two DVDs sitting there waiting for me so I can’t write too long. But I’ve had cases where friends have gotten into series on DVD long after I’d lost interest in them, and it was always neat hearing their take on the show. It was like being able to watch the show again, from the start, without having to do something as exhausting as sit and watch television.

So here’s my take on the show so far, divided up into the bad like the evil SD-6, and the good like Sydney’s ever-loyal friend Francie:

  • Bad: The wormy, nerdy “Q” guy, Marshall. Yeah, it’s a spy show, so you’ve got to explain the gadgets. But the whole schtick doesn’t work on any level, as comic relief or otherwise. It’s annoying, not endearing.
  • Good: Victor Garber as the dad. He’s got the toughest part to play, I think, and on a show this over-the-top, he could’ve come across as really lame, either two-dimensional bad guy, or over-sympathetic killer-with-a-heart-of-gold. He just sells it.
  • Bad: The surfeit of twists and subplots. I get that the show’s supposed to be fantastic, escapist, action television, but it’s veering around so much that it never gets to linger on anything of significance. Maybe that’s an aspect of watching it all at once instead of having to wait a week between episodes, though.
  • Good: Stuff really happens, in every episode. I’m used to series that introduce subplots that never get resolved until the end of the season if that soon; it’s cool to see a show that isn’t afraid it’s going to run out of ideas. If someone makes a threat, they’re going to do something about it within the next two hours. If you get hint of a deep dark secret, you’re not going to have to wait long to find out what it is. There are at least two cliffhangers per episode!
  • Bad: The annoying reporter friend. He’s just a tool, and he deserves to die.
  • Good: Jennifer Garner really is pretty hot.

All right, back to it. I’m in the middle of a meeting at CIA headquarters in which we just learned the identity of the assassin who killed Agent Vaughn’s father!

I wonder if it remembers me

The neat thing about amazon.com’s comments sections, apart from the obvious entertainment value, is that people on the internet are so eager to jump on top of each other to show how hip they are that you can often learn something useful.

Case in point: the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou does not have the music that plays when Zissou & the rest of the Belafonte crew finally make contact with the jaguar shark. Thanks to a bajillion amazon readers, though, you can discover that it’s called Staralfur by Sigur Rós and it’s available for free from this site.

Of course, I can’t listen to it, because ten seconds into it I remember the scene from the movie and start blubbering, but maybe one of my many weblog fans will be able to take advantage of free post-rock Icelandic music!

38 Seconds

That’s how long I was able to watch G4/TechTV [warning: link is slow and annoying] tonight before having to turn the channel out of disgust. As a frame of reference and to give an idea how much tolerance I have for bad television, I turned it to VH-1 and “Gameshow Moments Gone Bananas,” hosted by Ben Stein giving a “shout out to his ‘peeps’,” making the quote sign with his fingers around “peeps,” and was able to leave it on that channel for a good 12 minutes. I only had to turn the channel when they put on one of those “Where You At?” ads with the granny talkin’ all hip-hop on a cell phone.

How did we let it get to this? I watched a lot of television in the 70’s and 80’s, and as awful as it got, it was never able to overwhelm me with its sheer crass stupidity and desperation. I’ve lived through “Dynasty,” through Carrot Top commercials, through Pauly Shore’s popularity, through all the “I Love the 80’s” marathons. I used to look forward to watching DIC and Filmation animated series. I’ve even seen “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments televised on ESPN-2. I’m not exactly one of the cultural elite.

But tonight on G4, a loud young woman with bleached hair, a nose ring, and a Jem and the Holograms T-shirt was showing viewers a fan site dedicated to David Hasselhoff, and the whole hip, young, fun, and irreverent cast were pointing at the pictures and tossing paper airplanes about. And for some reason, this made me sadder than the entire Trinity Broadcasting Network ever could. It’s depressing enough that there’s even an entire network devoted to videogames, but when the human beings (presumably) on this network are even more shallow and obnoxious poseurs than videogame characters… it boggles the mind. It was as if the characters of a self-described “cynical” alternative comic had somehow come to life and taken control over a television studio.

I just realized that I would rather watch Country Music Television and UPN than the network that is trying to target me.

Betcha I can tell ya where ya got them shoes

In all the hoopla over four-year-old media, I forgot to write about Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr.

It’s always amusing to read reviews on Amazon from people who just plain don’t get it, but I can’t fault “New Orleans traveller” too much, because apparently he or she was looking for a travelogue about New Orleans. This book isn’t a travelogue, even though I feel I’ve got a better idea of the city now than I did from any number of movies or books or television specials about it. This book does exactly what the title says: rambles. And it’s a mistake going into a Roy Blount Jr. book expecting to find a hands-off, balanced analysis of the topic at hand; you read the book to find out what Blount has to say about it.

Expecting a straightforward travelogue out of Roy Blount Jr. is missing the point as much as expecting Dave Barry-esque “humorous essays” out of his essay books, or calling his memoir “self-indulgent” or “not as funny as I was hoping from the Garrison Keillor show.” Blount doesn’t just write about cities or people or politics or sports or dogs or presidents or whatever the topic is at hand; Blount writes about himself. And his friends, and his family, pets he’s owned, jobs he’s had, movies he’s seen, things he’s found at junk stores, and whatever else pops into his mind as relevant to the subject. By the end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read a travelogue as much as you feel that you’ve caught up with an old friend who for this conversation, happened to keep veering back to the topic of New Orleans.

That’s why I think Blount’s writing transcends the “humor” or “travel” or “essays” labels that get assigned to them in bookstores. Taken together as a body of work, it’s about the whole of human existence, at least as much as he’s processed. Hyperbolic? Maybe, but then again, somewhere between hyperbole and “he’s funny on the radio” describes how amazed I am by his writing. When I’m reading his stuff, it’s like watching a magician who’s pointing out the wires and mirrors and hidden pockets in his cape, but is still somehow able to make a flock of doves appear out of nowhere and leave you convinced that it’s magic. He’s written whole essays about writing and how difficult and laborious process it is, but can still come up with a perfectly concise and evocative phrase to describe New Orleans humidity (“those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting hamfat”) and make it sound as if the phrase had just popped into his head in the middle of an unfocused ramble.

When people talk about writing, they talk about how difficult it is to find your “voice.” Blount’s not only found his voice, but it’s all-encompassing. It’s the voice of a man who’s got total control over the English language combined with a total lack of pretension. It’s “folksy” without being naive, funny without being meaningless, rambling without being pointless, introspective without being self-indulgent, and disarming without being deceptive. Once you’re disarmed, he can talk about oysters and orphans and leave you with sympathy for both. In this book, he talks about the death of his friend Slick Lawson, and it was neither a casual aside nor a maudlin eulogy, but real, genuine memories. And of course, memories are what writing is all about.

Blount’s been my favorite writer for years. One of my favorite things I own is a postcard he sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote to him back when I was a sophomore in college. It’s one of the old kinds, with the scalloped edges, and has a photograph of two radio personalities from Alabama I’ve never heard of. On the back are a couple of paragraphs of tiny handwriting, responding amiably to a couple of the points in the letter and wishing me well. Somebody else reading it wouldn’t think much of it — it doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not particularly funny for a “humorist,” and there are references to things that I must’ve written in my three-page computer-typed letter that even I don’t remember writing.

But it was the perfect response. In a short essay called “Having Wonderful Time Suckling Little Dog” in his book Now, Where Were We?, he writes about his postcard collection and how postcards, especially second-hand ones, always have something more going on than is obvious on the surface. Bizarre or bizarrely mundane photographs, personal messages without any context, and captions that are either completely misplaced or painfully self-apparent — the best postcard is at the same time a non-sequitur and something indefinably familiar. So what would be better to send to a young man who’d sent a long, gushing fan letter out of nowhere, expressing an admiration for his work and an odd sense of familiarity just from reading it?

Blount uses a lot of poetry in his work, and it’s almost always clever and funny and bounces around an idea. But the real poetry — the sense that you’ve just read something profound without seeing it coming, and the admiration for an idea that is perfectly expressed using just the right words — is in his prose. I haven’t yet read his biography of Robert E. Lee, but considering how much Blount talks about Lee in Feet on the Street, I’m worried that he may have kept himself out of the biography and stuck to the facts. That would be a huge disappointment. I want to see Blount write more biographies, and make himself as much as a character as he always does — not some dry, distant dump of some other person’s life, but a real conversation. “Here’s everything I’ve figured about how life works so far. What’ve you got?”

SD-6

Hot on the heels of my groundbreaking review of Jurassic Park, a scoop about this hot new television programme called “The Alias!”

All right, I avoided this show for as long as I could, partly because I had a feeling it would get me all sucked in, partly because I was working too much to watch much television, and partly because Jennifer Garner always struck me as nothing more than a slightly softer version of Hilary Swank, who gives me the heebie-jeebies something fierce.

But then I heard about the zombies, and everybody knows I’ve got a soft spot for zombies. [pause for obligatory brain joke] So I’m three episodes into it, and this is what escapist television is all about. Double, triple, and quadruple agents; ancient scrolls and prophecies; the basements and boiler rooms of exotic locales all around the world; TV-friendly techno music; duplicitous dads and soap opera drama — I am, of course, hooked. Plus the episodes I’m watching have Gina Torres, who rocks as hard as can be reasonably expected; and Carl Lumbly, who does the voice of J’onn J’onnz on “Justice League Unlimited,” which has got to count for something.

I’m still curious to see when, exactly, the show starts to go south. I’ve seen a couple of posts on Google and elsewhere lamenting that it’s already gone bad what with the “stupid zombies,” which of course baffles me, as I can’t imagine how zombies would do anything other than make a show better. These series inevitably let me down; I learned my lessons from “The X-Files” and “24” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and I won’t let myself get too close. But for now, I’m enjoying the edge-of-your-seat adventures of plucky grad student Sidney Bristow and her string of steely-eyed unshaven young love interests.

And then after that, I’ve heard mention of a television series about the criminal underworld called “Mr. Soprano” or some such that could shape up to be something big. You heard it here first!

It’s a UNIX system. I know this!

I found a copy of Jurassic Park for ten bucks today, so I picked it up, thinking what a great deal I’d gotten. What I’d forgotten, though, was: 1) the movie’s 12 years old at this point (it was released in 1993!), so it’s been relegated to “classics” pricing, and 2) it’s really not very good.

Maybe that’s not fair. I mean, there’s the fact that it was written by the evil Michael Crichton, and then there’s the blatant anti-dinosaur bias. And based on how much he delights in watching them suffer, it’s clear that Spielberg hates children almost much as he hates Dennis Weaver. But overall, it’s fine for what it is: a Steven Spielberg movie.

That’s not supposed to be as condescending as it sounds (as if Mr. Spielberg were all that upset about my opinion anyway) — dude made Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. It just means that it has all the stuff he’s great at: pacing, tension, clear and understandable plots, incorporating effects without making them seem soulless, and memorable action sequences that are excellently choreographed.

It also means that it has all the stuff that he thinks he’s good at, but really just comes across as cloying and smarmy: interminably long and overdone reaction shots, obnoxiously swelling soundtracks, and plenty of scenes clearly intended to be clever, such as the T. Rex and the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the World” banner.

I’d forgotten about Spielberg ever since he tried to reinvent himself as a Serious Director with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (I have to admt I haven’t seen either), but there’s still something about the guy that bugs me. The scene with the T. Rex attacking the jeeps at night is just unqualified brilliance. Even if the whole rest of the movie consisted of nothing more than grandparents and kids giving warm, knowing glances at each other while using the magic of love and a child’s imagination to bring a dying dinosaur back to life to a heartwarming John Williams soundtrack, the T. Rex scene would be awesome. As I remember, even The Lost World, a much, much worse movie, had a pretty bad-ass scene with a Winnebago falling off a cliff or some such. So the man’s capable of stuff which is just flat-out great.

So how does one explain the rest of it? Or in other words: from whence Short Round? Does the man really and truly believe that wacky and heartwarming ethnic sidekicks, or racially diverse little girls doing gymnastics to fight off velociraptors, are what’s required to give an action movie “heart?” When he’s got the little girl contorting her face in ways that just aren’t natural, and he keeps directing her “More! Really really big dinosaur! It’s going to bite you in half! And your parents will abandon you because you’re ugly! You’re more scared!” does he sincerely believe that this is what’s necessary to convey genuine emotion on the screen? Or is he the most pandering and money-minded son of a bitch on the planet, hobbling his talent to make something that he knows will sell to Middle America and gross 200 million instead of just 50?

And that, my friends, is why the internets is a great thing — blogs make it possible to bring you the freshest of movie reviews to the comfort of your home. Y’all may be saying to yourself, “Steven Spielberg movies can be cloying and pandering; yeah, thanks for the newsflash, Chuck.” But don’t think that the threat is over. War of the Worlds is coming out soon, and it’s got not only Tom Cruise but Dakota Fanning. Dakota Fanning, an up-and-coming child star who by all accounts can actually act. (And she’s from my hometown, by the way). And Jurassic Park IV is in the works!

Well, I suppose I could talk about Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but there’s not a whole lot to say. Angelina Jolie is incredibly hot, smart, funny, and just plain appealing, and I usually don’t like her. Brad Pitt is competent but basically a cipher. The movie is a lot smarter than it looks like from the ads, and it was a lot of fun to watch.

Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)

Not if anything to say about it I have!

I saw Revenge of the Sith Monday night, so I guess Star Wars is officially over. And I guess it was a pretty good send-off. The theater was more crowded than you’d expect to see on a Monday night, if not as crowded as you’d expect to see on the week of a new Star Wars movie. The crowd clapped for the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl, and again for particularly satisfying deaths and fight scenes. It seemed as if they were clapping to build up their enthusiasm instead of out of genuine enthusiasm, but it’s the same idea.

I’ve got two big “event movie” memories: one was waiting in line for four or five hours to see The Empire Strikes Back at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, the only theater that was showing it, on its opening night. All thoughout the movie, there was no question that this was A Major Event. During the opening crawl, during big fight scenes, whenever a main character appeared on-screen for the first time, there was applause and cheering. Whenever Vader made an appearance, there were jeers and booing. During the big revelation, there were genuine gasps from everyone. No one was thinking about Joseph Campbell, or the demise of the art film in favor of commercial summer blockbusters, or merchandising deals, or implied racism, or any of the layers of irony and distance we’re supposed to look at Star Wars with now. Everyone was just there to get caught up in the spectacle and melodrama and wonder of it all, and it all just worked.

The second memory was of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Tate Center student theater at UGA; it wasn’t released on video yet, so this was the first time any of us had seen it since its original release. The theater was packed, and you got the same reaction from all the self-important, jaded college students. People cheered for Indiana Jones, hissed at the villains, laughed, applauded, and just enjoyed the thrill of seeing a classic action movie. The audience was used to big summer blockbusters by that point, and knew the movie inside and out, and of course as a college crowd was watching it with some since of liberal over-analysis and ironic detachment. But it still just worked.

It’s pretty much impossible to get that from a Star Wars release anymore; it’s been ruined not just by George Lucas himself, but by decades of over-analysis, artificially high expectations, over-familiarity, accusations of plagiarism or shallowness or whatever else people want to throw at it, and just age. There wasn’t so much a sense of wonder out of seeing Revenge of the Sith as there was a sense of inevitability, or of closure. It was just a case of wrapping everything up. “We’ve got to end a war, start an empire, have a bunch of lightsaber battles, kill a bunch of Jedi, get this guy into a respirator suit, and get these babies off to their respective home planets, all in about 2 hours. Let’s move, people!”

Still, while it didn’t manage to have the resonance or wonder that the original trilogy did, it did deliver on the spectacle. It was better than the first two, by far. But at this point, that feels like describing lessening gallstone symptoms to a doctor. It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that “there was nothing in the movie that outright sucked,” but with the Star Wars movies, the quality of the effects and the depth of the world has never been in question. So not sucking is a pretty big achievement. I’d say that Revenge of the Sith is good enough that it’s not a closer to the first three episodes, but it stands as a good prequel to the original trilogy.

In fact, it makes me wish that Lucas had just made the one movie as a prologue, and left all the Clone Wars and Fall of the Republic stuff to other people, like Genndy Tartakovsky. Where Revenge of the Sith really excelled was where it was like the Clone Wars animated series — minimal dialogue, minimal back-story, quick cuts between action scenes all across the galaxy. And maybe most importantly, staying true to the nature of the old serials on which the whole thing is supposedly based, where heroes and villains became resonant not by virtue of what they say but by how they look and what they do. The coolest characters are the ones with the least back-story and the least dialogue, from Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Count Dooku and General Grievous. And Darth Vader was a more interesting character in the first 15 minutes of Star Wars than he was in any of the six hours of Episodes I, II, and III.

But you could spend hours talking about what Lucas could’ve done with the prequels, which is something people are doing all over the internet and will most likely keep doing to a depressing degree. So I’ll just write my one recommendation: if you start the opening crawl with “War!” then you really should follow it with “Huh! Good God!”