I call foul!

Hooooooooooooooooooooly crap!

I just finished watching the first episode on “Alias”, Season 2, Disc 4. There’s only one other time I can remember that I felt compelled to yell back at the screen during a TV show, and that was an episode of “Twin Peaks” where Bob crawls out from behind a planter in the Palmer living room. The only thing that kept me from screaming back “oh hell no you didn’t just do that” at the last 5 minutes of this episode is that I started watching it at 1 AM and I got neighbors. (Plus, I’m a suburban white guy, so I shouldn’t be saying that kind of thing anyway).

I know I said they don’t like to drag out plot lines, and instead just throw everything at you at once, but this is crazy!

Everything after this is a big SPOILER for “Alias,” so stop reading if you haven’t been watching the show and think you might want to at some point.
Continue reading “I call foul!”

Disney shows some balls

I just read that Disney is actually releasing Pom Poko on DVD in the US next week! This is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and in fact one of my favorite movies, but I assumed that since Disney owned the US rights, we’d never, ever, not in a million years, no way no how, ever see a US release.

One of the reasons I like the movie so much is that it was my first exposure to an entire section of Japanese folklore. Before seeing Pom Poko, I’d never heard of tanuki. (Actually, it turns out I had, but I’d never made the connection.) But the “problem,” as far as Disney’s concerned, is that tanuki are always depicted as having huge testicles, and in the folklore it’s the source of their power. It’s non-sexual, or at least more a symbol of fertility than sexuality, but to Americans (myself included), the first reaction is always, “Whoa, check out the ball sack on that raccoon!”

Which is why I thought that once Disney bought the US release rights to all Studio Ghibli movies, we’d never see an American release of Pom Poko. It’s not just a case of how the characters are drawn, either; it’s actually the source of a couple of major plot points — one group of tanuki attack a police group using their scrotums, and another wise old tanuki turns his into a giant sailing ship. So Disney was left with the option of either going in and heavily editing the movie, or not releasing it at all. Since it’s a relatively obscure movie even among anime fans, I can’t imagine the money they’d make from the release would warrant the time and effort it’d take to edit it so heavily.

I haven’t seen it yet, obviously, so they could’ve turned the movie into a eunuch. But I’m encouraged by this interview with the translators, which suggests that they got around the concerns simply by translating “scrotum” as “pouch.” We’ll see.

And although I realize I’ve spent the entire post so far talking about testicles, the point is that it would be a shame to see it edited because it’s relevant to the folklore but such an inconsequential aspect of the movie overall. The real reason I love the movie so much is because it gets its message across so perfectly. It’s mostly an environmental message, like many Studio Ghibli movies, but it’s not reduced to platitudes or schmaltzy symbolism. It has talking animals throughout, but like Watership Down, they stay true to their nature. They’re not just furry stand-ins for humans, they’re really animals.

Or at least, they’re really animals as the traditional folklore portrays them. Tanuki are fun-loving tricksters, and they have difficulty fighting against the humans destroying their mountain specifically because it’s not in their nature to take anything too seriously. When they try to fight back on the humans’ terms, they fail. When they’re in hiding and the humans try to call them out by singing the traditional children’s song, the tanuki can’t help but sing back. And more importantly, when they try to deny their true nature and blend in with the humans, they lose the essence of themselves. I’m sure that it has something to do with the fact I was working for EA the first time I saw it, but the ending never fails to make me start tearing up, every time I see it.

Beats All You Ever Saw

So as I mentioned, I saw The Dukes of Hazzard movie, and it was dumb enough to warrant its own post. Seriously, this is an aggressively stupid movie. Pretty harmless overall, but damn is it stupid. But then, that makes it a near perfect movie version of “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show. It’s less like the show and more like a cross betwen Super Troopers, “Jack-ass,” and NASCAR.

You’ve got to give some credit to the movie for making the characters real rednecks, not the pasteurized family-friendly pretty boys of the TV show (and for that matter, the Smokey and the Bandit/CB Radio crap that the TV show was trying to capitalize). The guys in this movie are way under-educated, they don’t shave, they say “sumbitch” and “shit” and “yeehaw” a lot, and they like drivin’ fast and blowin’ shit up just for the hell of it. And credit the movie for taking people that would be pretty gross and scary if you ever met them in real life and making them seem pretty harmless.

I read an interview with jessica Simpson where she was concerned about her performance and worried if she could pull it off; I don’t know where the hell that came from. She’s awful in it as an actress, but she’s not really there for her acting. And so that works — she’s astoundingly hot. Impossibly so — she crosses that line of “so hot she doesn’t seem real,” like Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then comes back around to just being hot again.

As for the guys, Stiffler as Bo is pretty much redneck Stiffler with a chia beard and his weird Neanderthal grin the whole time. Johnny Knoxville I hate to say anything about, because it’d just be saying the same thing as all those reviews and interviews that always get written about him. He’s just got charisma, there’s no other way to put it. You may not want to like him, but you do. He doesn’t hog the camera and grab for attention, he doesn’t play it too earnest or too goofy, he never seems like he’s outside the movie making fun of it — no matter what happens, he’s right in the thick of it, and he makes it seem tolerable. Whether it’s blowing stuff up with flaming arrows, being dragged around the back of a truck, making fun of blacks and Japanese people and gay guys, or listening to Willie Nelson tell stupid jokes.

Nobody else really works so well. Because of the director whose name I can’t spell and it’s not worth looking up, you get lots of Broken Lizard alumni, and a fair amount of pot-smoking. Willie Nelson had some influence on that too, I’m sure. They did stunt casting for a lot of the parts, but the biggest side parts like Roscoe and the creepy guy “Sheev” were given to Broken Lizard guys, who just aren’t memorable. And the director also drives home that this is supposed to be a movie by guys for guys — they’re going for the Spike TV audience big time.

Other things you’ve got to give it credit for: actually setting it in Georgia, acknowledging that Atlanta and rural GA might as well be two separate countries (although I don’t know why they went all the way to Atlanta for a university when they could’ve just driven to Athens), acknowledging that the Confederate flag on the top of the General Lee can be offensive to both blacks and whites without making too big a show of it, good use of narration (although of course without Waylon Jennings, sadly), and casting Joe Don Baker. Other stuff that doesn’t work: Lynda Carter, Willie Nelson, Burt Reynolds who just comes off as creepy and slimy but not in the endearing way you’re supposed to feel about Boss Hogg, and casting Joe Don Baker.

And it just occurred to me that I put more effort into writing about this movie than they probably spent writing the movie itself. It’s not even as if I’ve got much nostalgia for GA or the Dukes of Hazzard anymore.

Sunny and Clear

I read a whole book by myself! It was The Partly-Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. It left me feeling strangely disconcerted. Here’s where I explain why:

1) It made me feel stupid. Not ignorant, but stupid. And she’s got a whole essay about Bush vs. Gore that re-iterates a basic truth: people don’t like to feel stupid, and the popular perception of Gore as an arrogant nerd is what cost him the election. The book isn’t arrogant, but for me it was still a reminder that there’s a lot I don’t know about history, politics, and current events.

I’ve accepted for a while that there’s plenty about politics of which I’m completely ignorant, but I’ve always rationalized it away. “Those people just travel in different circles than I do.” “I can’t watch the news because I get liberal outrage fatigue too quickly.” “I know enough about the key issues to make an informed vote, but leave the details to the people who are more interested in the finer points.” Those excuses are seeming more and more hollow. It’s not just that I don’t know about current events, but I can’t. Most of it just doesn’t make sense to me.

And this book keeps me from using the nerd excuse. I can’t say that the parts of my brain that I could devote to knowing the intricacies of the Karl Rove scandal and the background of the Iraq invasion and its key players, are instead devoted to scripting languages and C++ template syntax and tech trees in World of Warcraft. Because there are plenty of people who know more about that stuff than I do, and can remember the name of the current Attorney General.

2) It made me feel that my time is running out. Even if I did resolve to get more up to speed with what’s going on in the world, I don’t know how I’d be able to do it. It was one thing when I could point to work and say that that was taking up all my time, but now I can’t even do that, and I still don’t have enough time. I can’t even reliably say where it’s all going — I’m contracting now, so I can now point to the block of time I spent today working on the project. But the rest is a mystery. Is it possible I keep getting abducted by aliens? Can you be narcoleptic and not realize it?

My friend Moe was complaining that he needed to get rid of his television altogether, because he spent way too much time watching news programs on cable. The thing I kept wondering was how did he even find the time to spend that much time watching news?

3) It made me feel nostalgic. Not in the heartwarming sense, but the claustrophobic “I remember what things used to be like, and that time is completely lost to me forever” walls-closing-in sense of dread. I can remember a time when I would’ve read this book and identified with every essay. I used to be like that — nerdy and self-deprecating while still being idealistic, always balancing passion about an issue and cynical detachment. Now, though, much of the book just strikes me as trite. It gets better towards the end, as she goes deeper into her subjects, but for a lot I just kept hitting phrases that made me think, “typical self-absorbed shallow liberal sense of entitlement.” Which is odd, because I’m a typical self-absorbed shallow liberal with a sense of entitlement, so how come I can no longer relate?

4) Even though I know what Vowell’s voice sounds like, I kept hearing it as if it were read by my friend Emily. They strike me as remarkably similar except Vowell’s more on the fence about Canada. Actually, there’s a whole essay in which she (Vowell) describes how Americans perceive Canadians, and I thought she was right on the money — basically, they have less in their history to be ashamed of, but less to be proud of either. She paints them as a whole nation of polite and cultured people who don’t take risks. Which may sound disparaging, but is better than the usual answer to “What do Americans really think of Canadians?” “We don’t.”

I don’t think the book was perfect, and I wasn’t completely won over. But I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to be won over, because the book isn’t trying to persuade its readers of anything. It’s just Vowell making sometimes insightful observations and speaking with her own voice. And that voice is great to have out there, if only as an alternative to the polarized, partisan nonsense.

Vowell can describe how she cried all through the Bush inauguration without the whole piece sounding like an attack, but instead a fair analysis of the state of American politics as perceived by the public. She defends Americans’ love of goofing off and being capitalist consumers with no sense of excess but also no sense of guilt; the whole point of “the pursuit of happiness” is that the good life is possible, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of because we work to make it happen.

And she can be fiercely patriotic without its coming across as empty rhetoric, but instead a sincere belief (she describes it as her own religion) that America is the ideal, and it’s up to us to make it work. That idea — that we’re not Americans by accident of our birth, but because of our actions and our beliefs, and that that is what’s worth defending and keeping honest — that’s something we all need to be reminded of.

Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Social Commentary

I was fairly nonplussed about the new Harry Potter book coming out, but the package tracking from amazon.com has gotten me back around to plussed. I pre-ordered it, more out of laziness than omg omg i’ve got 2 know what happens!!!! excitement. I kept seeing promotional countdowns all over Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then Amazon politely recommended that I pre-order it, since I’ve bought (and read, usually all in one session) all the other other ones. So I figured instead of fighting crowds of slobbering, pimply people in wizard hats, and the children who’ll be buying the book as well, I’d just have it sent to me and read it at my leisure (pronounced to rhyme with “pleasure,” of course).

In almost-but-not-quite retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Going for convenience is missing the point almost as much as the trite and curmudgeonly op/ed pieces written by this bloke and this one. They hit all the usual marks when people write about Harry Potter: it’s excessive hype, bookstores open at midnight, sales are beyond comprehension, Pope spoke out against it, a Canadian supreme court issued gag orders on people who bought early copies, it’s a cultural phenomenon even though the books aren’t really all that good, but Rowling gives to charity so she’s all right, and there’s adults reading it as well as kids, and hey look I’m getting my book too so I’m just as guilty as anyone else isn’t life funny? Those columns don’t really provide any new insight other than to dispel the notion that British people are inherently wry.

Yes, it’s good that the books encourage kids to read. That’s every bit as true now as it was when the first one sold eighteen bajillion copies. But it’s amazing how quickly commentators take the easy way out — snap some pictures of a kid in horn-rimmed glasses and a wizard hat reading a book on the floor of a bookstore, mention how Rowling’s made a metric assload of money, talk about “religious” groups protesting the book, and you’re done, like Groundhog Day. What’s much more interesting is seeing how these pop media releases turn into such huge events.

It’s easy to say that it’s all advertising and marketing and publishers and book-chains and media outlets building up hype. But that doesn’t give the fans enough credit. The DaVinci Code sold a ton of copies but didn’t have people making such a big show of their purchase. Fans, even really young ones, are more media-savvy than that, and they wouldn’t be dressing up and going to bookstores unless they wanted to be part of an event. Even if this book somehow ends up being more profound than any of the previous ones, the kind of book that changes a child’s life forever, the experience of actually reading it won’t be as memorable as going out and just being there with dozens-to-hundreds of other people who are all shameless fans of the same thing. It’s why people stood in line for hours to see Revenge of the Sith — whether the actual “product” was any good was pretty much irrelevant. Being there was what was important.

And for the record, I don’t think Rowling gets enough credit. It’s easy to pont out how much money she’s made and dismiss it as just another example of easily-accessible “mass entertainment” prevailing over True Art, while begrudgingly making concessions about charity and the magic of a child reading. But there’s a lot to be said for writing something that appeals to such a wide age range. Great literature? Maybe not. But they do have messages about family, friendship, responsibility, and staying true to your principles even at the risk of being popular. And they exist as more than just marketing vehicles for some trading card game (all the product promotion came afterwards). And what’s better, a competently-written book that reaches millions of people, or an important work of literature that everyone means to get around to reading someday but for now we’d rather just sit and play Pokemon?


I don’t know from audiobooks. Just not my scene, man. Even if I did have the attention span for reading material that lasted longer than the time it takes to have a bowel movement, I get nervous and my mind wanders when I don’t have more than one source of input. What are you supposed to do when you’re listening to someone read you a book? I don’t take public transit and have never had to commute longer than 30 minutes. And I sure as hell don’t exercise. Are you just supposed to stare at the wall? I’m so self-conscious that I can’t even look directly at a wall for more than a few seconds without feeling uncomfortable.

The only time I tried an audiobook was back when I lived in Georgia and decided to take a solo road trip to visit my friend Alfredo in Washington DC. The only audiobooks the Conyers library had available were a biography of Princess Diana and a couple of Star Trek novelizations, so it shouldn’t be any surprise which one I picked. Did you know that Diana’s family was originally part of the House of… okay but seriously. The Star Trek book was engaging enough, and fine for passing the time while driving through the Carolinas, but it’s hardly literature. Real literature doesn’t include laser sound effects, for one thing. The book was read by Levar Burton, which gave it a “Reading Rainbow” quality. (I could be making that up, since I don’t remember which cast member actually read it, but I’m allowed to make shit up because I can do anything!) Anyway, it was fine for that one trip, but I never had the desire to try another one. And I can’t imagine that blind people (no offense) and those who go on long road trips by themselves (no offense) are enough to drive the popularity of the things.

It’s certainly not because the audio adds anything to the experience. Today I’ve been feeling even more culturally illiterate than usual, so I started trying to find a podcast of National Public Radio (the website is kind of Mac-hostile). That didn’t turn up anything useful, but I did find iTunes carrying an audio book of Roy Blount, Jr.’s book, Feet on the Street. “Cool,” I thought, and clicked on the preview.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now, no offense intended to Narrator Paul Boehmer; dude’s got hella diction, yo. But casting is crucial. And if you’re, say, Paul Winfield, and you’re three chapters into reading the autobiography of, say, Rosie Perez, don’t you have some kind of obligation as a professional narrator to stop and say, “Hey wait a second… this just isn’t working out.”

I just spent a whole over-long blog post going on about Roy Blount Jr’s voice and how it comes through in his writing. And it ain’t that. Part of that lack of pretension I was talking about, is the fact that Blount can write the line “Chameleons skitter across turquoise stucco to disappear among elephant-ear leaves and bougainvillea blossoms, which Tennessee Williams likened to bloodshot eyes,” without it sounding all fruity. Even when he is referencing Tennessee Williams. It’s the author’s voice that’s important — if you were doing an audiobook version of Walt Whitman poems, would you cast Nathan Lane?

I was already halfway through this blog post before I checked the site again, clicked on the wrong link, and found the abridged version, which it turns out Blount narrates himself. (I’d assumed that they’d use the same narrator for both versions, and just audio-edit out the parts they wanted to abridge). Now that’s more like it. Picayune has just barely over two syllables, not three. Oyster has an extra r in there somewhere. And you can tell it’s genuine, because it’s got that half-stilted, half-familiar sound that comes from a non-actor reading his own work.

Sounds like one of my uncles proudly reading a kid’s book report to the family. At least, I imagine it would until he got to the parts of the book about how New Orleans taught him to be less apprehensive around gay men. Or how he was walking along the banquette (pronounced banquette) one morning and “coming the other way… are two head-shaven guys and between them a pretty woman with long black switchy hair… And here, from across the street, is what I hear the woman say: ‘My hole hurts!'”

So let it be said that I’m against audiobooks. At least, until I find the version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s as read by James Earl Jones.

Credit Dauphine

Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Television Again.”

I finally got around to watching the last disc of season 1 of “Alias” last night. Man, they weren’t kidding about the “big cliffhanger” thing. Murders, everybody finding out all about everybody else, simultaneous torture scenes, the return of some old favorites from the pilot, and a valuable life lesson: don’t disable a giant ball of mysteriously suspended water unless you’re sure where all the water is going to go. Give the people what they want, JJ!

Best part for me: I’d expected there to be four episodes on the disc and was surprised to see it end suddenly, so I watched the extras and blooper real. From this, I learned two things:

1. I’m in love with Jennifer Garner. Watch your back, Ben.

2. The makers of the show “get it.” I mean, obviously if you’ve got a show with as many double-agents and ancient manuscripts and, you know, the zed-word, they’re not taking it too seriously. But still, I’d been treating the show as a guilty pleasure, trying to maintain a level of distant smugness that I was appreciating it on a level of pure escapism that the makers of the show didn’t intend. Entertain me, plebians!

But in the making-of-the-pilot documentary, Abrams mentions how fortunate they were to get a cast and crew who understood the tone of it. Because it’s always right on the verge of parody, and would descend into just pure nonsense unless everyone treated it as if it were 100% serious.

That actually struck me as somewhat profound. It’s not camp, it’s not “Touched by an Angel” earnest, it’s not an attempt to be gritty and realistic. And it’s not that nebulous three-layers-of-irony detachment of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where it’s not a silly teen soap opera because it’s smarter than that but don’t get us wrong we don’t take ourselves too seriously and aren’t afraid to make fun of ourselves but then again it’s a metaphor for life and we do Meaningful Important episodes as well. The “Alias” guys are just trying to make an entertaining roller-coaster of a show without taking it too seriously and without being too self-referential. And they do a damn good job of it, too.

Plus, Jennifer Garner is at least 18 times more appealing than Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m going to go back and recant all my Hilary Swank comments.

I just don’t understand how y’all managed to wait a year between the cliffhanger and the next season. I didn’t even last 12 hours; I couldn’t wait for Netflix, so I went by the video store to get the first disc of Season 2. Your mom was a spy!

By the way, when I was up on Haight street to get the video just now, I saw Fred Schneider of the B-52’s and a small, easily excitable entourage. I thought it might’ve just been somebody who looks like him, but then I heard him talk. Odd. I wonder what he was doing up there, and I hope that someone hooked him up with some kind bud.


I’d planned on skipping War of the Worlds until it came out on DVD, or at least until I was watching it with someone else. But I was in Japan Town for dinner, one thing led to another, and I caught the late show.

I think Mr. Spielberg has been reading my blog, and I’m sorry I was so hard on the guy. The movie is relatively schmaltz-free, the music is understated, the reaction shots appropriate, and the cast can actually act. Dakota Fanning is just scary good; child stars are not supposed to be able to act that well. (Go Conyers!) And there are even scenes with Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in them, together, and you don’t want to claw out your eyes or run screaming from the theater. That’s saying quite a bit. It’s pretty much exactly what I asked for — the tense and memorable action scenes that Spielberg is really good at, without the schmaltz and the neat & tidy message.

But man, is the result bleak. I mean, sure, the source material is pretty bleak, and when you do it as realistically as you can manage instead of having a layer of 50’s sci-fi irony on top of it, this is what you get. The reviews I’ve seen all keep saying “intense” and “relentless,” and that’s accurate. This is an old-school horror movie, from when people understood that “horror” meant less gore and cheap surprises, and more horrible things happening to people for no reason and they can’t figure out why or how to stop it. Imagine the T. Rex scene from Jurassic Park with better child actors and no goofy toilet gag, then repeat that for two hours.

So it ends up being very well-done, but kind of hollow. Spectacular effects and full-to-bursting with memorable scenes, but without any real depth to make it resonate. And I think that’s not the fault of the director, or the screenwriter, or any of the actors, but just that that’s as much as anyone could possibly get out of the source material. Adding a “life lesson” more blatant than the “don’t get too cocky, mankind” that’s already in there, would’ve come across as trite.

Instead, they decided to go as realistic as they could manage — no clumsy exposition (the narration just gave it a 50’s sci-fi feel, and was appropriate), no sudden epiphanies or life lessons, no gearing-up-for-the-big-battle, just random death, destruction, and confusion. You’ve got to give them kudos for that. (And kudos for having the leads of the 1953 movie show up in cameos). It ends up being pretty upsetting; when the attacks first start, both the kids ask if it’s “terrorists,” which gives he movie some relevance and makes life outside the theater seem even more dark and pointless.

Also, I’m pretty sure someone involved in the production has played Half-Life 2. Obviously they both use the same source material, but a lot of the scenes in the movie are like a live-action version of the game, with all the weapons to fight back removed. I thought it was neat.

Plus they showed a trailer for Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the movie. I’m going to watch the hell out of that movie. It just looks damn cool.

Spoilers for War of the Worlds after the link…
Continue reading “Joims!”


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.