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Friday, April 28, 2006

The Office



Like many, it was with great trepidation that I awaited the Americanization of the UK comedy The Office. My friend Paula, who gets BBC America, had taped them all and I saw them at her house in a couple of marathon viewings. It was simply one of the most amazing TV viewings in my life. The show, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, was at once both brilliantly funny and piercingly painful, probably doubly so for anyone who is endured the soul-crushing life of an office worker.

So, of course, NBC was going to remake it. One can only think back to the horrid attempts to make an American version of Fawlty Towers to understand the pessimism. Now in it's second season, I think the American version of The Office, while not the masterpiece that the UK original was, is an excellent show, and the best sit-com on TV.

The differences are subtle but telling. The boss, this time played by Steve Carell, is a different animal than Gervais' David Brent. Yes, he's clueless, boorish, and selfish, but Carell has taken his boss in a different direction. At first I didn't like it--Carell's Michael Scott seemed more of a ninny, and it was hard to imagine him becoming a manager of anyone. But lately the pathos is starting to come out, which creates a better atmosphere.

Also well done is the flirtation between Jim and Pam (Tim and Dawn in the UK version). Each week there's a little pain between the chit-chat, such as last night's show, when Pam kiddingly told Jim that he could tell her anything, and you could see in his eyes he wanted to tell her how he felt about her. She saw it, too, and her reaction was terrific.

Dwight, the reincarnation of Gareth, is a probably a bit too broadly drawn. I could imagine Gareth as being a real person, but Dwight is too cartoonish (but he is funny). The US show is also doing better bringing the background characters to life.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Satellite Radio



Flush with the giddiness of getting a cell phone, I've added another gadget to my belongings--a satellite radio (Will TiVo be next?). The first, difficult decision, was which one to get--XM, or Sirius? XM has baseball, Sirius Howard Stern. I decided to go with XM. Since Stern went off terrestrial radio in December, I find that I haven't missed his show that much, and I only listened to him for the short drive to work, anyway. I figured I'd get much more enjoyment out of the baseball coverage.

Satellite radio is most handy for long drives. I listened to it on my drive to Gettysburg. It's nice not having to change radio stations as you drive long distances. I've limited myself to just a few stations so far. In the morning, I like to listen to the sixties station, where you'll hear anything from Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy to the Jefferson Airplane. I also enjoy the classic rock stations, and the "college/indie" station, which plays contemporary music like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On Sundays I'll probably listen to classical and standards (they carry Jonathan Schwartz's show).

Unfortunately, I can't get a signal inside my house. The antenna has to be facing the south, and I have no windows that do that. I can use it as a walkman, as long as I'm in a spot with a southern exposure.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Edward Albee



Who is the greatest living playwright? Well, I'll restrict the question to greatest living American playwright, so as not to get into a spat with those that would support Harold Pinter. Answer--Edward Albee, who will be a playwright-in-residence for the coming year at Princeton. That's great news for Princeton, and great news for people like me who live nearby. One of the plums from this residence will be a new Albee play that will be part of the season at the Princeton-based McCarter Theater. I had been waffling about subscribing, but as soon as I heard that I sent in my order form.

I haven't read all of Albee. I have read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf more times than I count. I also saw Three Tall Women in New York, and a production of All Over at the McCarter. In addition, I played a role in Zoo Story during college. I should like to read and see more. His work is thrilling and I'm glad he's still active even as he approaches his eighties.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Turning 45 in Gettysburg



After I manage to get through this work day, I'll be off for four days. Tomorrow, I'll be spending the day with my old chum, Bob, who is turning 45 today (Flanders, New Jersey residents are advised to lock up their daughters!) I'll be turning 45 on Monday, and will be in Gettysburg for the occasion.

A little over a year ago, my mother purchased a bed and breakfast in the heart of Gettysburg. My brother and his wife help run it. It's called The Brafferton Inn, and is pictured at left. The web site can be accessed by the link on the right.

Gettysburg is a great place for American history buffs. Of course there is the battlefield, which I've been through a few times now. There are also a few streets that are packed cheek by jowl with various museums and gift stores. Some of them are cheesy, but there are also many that are more dignified. Every time I visit I try to visit another one. Last time I went through the Jenny Wade Museum. She was the only civilian killed in the battle. The tour was interesting enough, but hardly worth the price. Maybe this time I'll go to the Train Museum.

As for turning 45, well, I've been mentally imaging that number for a few months now, so it doesn't seem quite so bad. Statistically speaking, it's quite likely I've lived over half my life. George Carlin used to do a bit about how God should give people two-minute warnings right before they die. I think we should be notified at half-time. If you get some kind of sign that you've lived half your life, your second half might be a lot more productive. Of course, if you get that announcement while you're twelve years old, that would be a bummer.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Save Us, Al Gore!



I've been thinking about Al Gore lately. Full disclosure--I am a liberal, bleeding-heart, tax and spend Democrat. Like many of my ilk, I have an optimistic eye on the 2008 presidential election, when Boob McNutt will retire to clearing brush and the Democrats have a great chance of retaking the White House. But who? I'm a Democrat, yes, but I have my feet on the ground, and don't look forward to a Hillary Clinton candidacy. She's smart, competent and probably would be a great president, but I think she'd get wiped out in a general election.

There are the usual suspects: John Edwards, Mark Warner, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold, etc. All would be fine. Fortunately, whoever the Republicans put up will be just as little known (with the exception of Dick Cheney, who would also get slaughtered in a general election, or Condoleezza Rice or John McCain). But I think Mr. Gore should make another run for it.

Sure, he has the aroma of a loser about him, and it seems that in this age, if you lose one race you're shamed for life. Candidates regularly ran several times in the old days, and Gore, should he run and win, would fit the pattern of Richard Nixon (an unfortunate comparison, yes, but illustrative nonetheless). Nixon, a young, two-term Vice President, lost a close election, and even was further embarrassed by a loss for California governor, sat out a cycle, and then came back and won.

Gore should be in the spotlight this year when the documentary about his work on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, is released. It won't be the blockbuster Fahrenheit 911 was, but should get the chattering classes buzzing. From reports on those who have seen it, it is very alarming.

Should the Bush administration continue to anger the American public, Gore would have an excellent chance of winning. Voters will wistfully recall that he did, after all, win the popular vote in 2000. Perhaps bumper stickers could read, "Come Back Al, All Is Forgiven!" He would only need to win one state that he didn't win in 2000 (forget Florida--if he could win West Virginia or his own home state of Tennessee, he's in). I'm giddy at the glee I would experience hearing crushed commentators dealing with a Gore presidency, when they were sure he'd been consigned to the political compost heap.

Oh, and my recommendation for a running mate? Not Hillary, but Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Case Histories



The reading of Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, was interesting for me. I liked it, but it took me a while to read it. Since each chapter shifted to covering a different person in the complicated story, there was little momentum from one chapter to the next.

I won't describe the plot, because when I picked it up and started reading I knew nothing about it, which strenghtened it for me, I think. Suffice it to say that a down-on-his-luck private eye in Cambridge, England has three seemingly impossible cases to solve, and they end up intertwining. It is a mystery, but is not in the mystery genre, because it doesn't adhere to the shackling conventions of that genre.

This was Stephen King's choice for best novel of last year, and while I wouldn't go that far, it was an original, occasionally funny, occasionally gruesome novel.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

George McClellan



I finally finished the biography of Samuel Beckett, so I'm back to the book on Lincoln, specifically, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I should note that I have a particular reading habit: I read two books at once--a novel that I usually read during my lunch hour at work, and non-fiction, which I read at home. I had stopped reading the Lincoln book for a time because I had checked the Beckett book out of the library, but I ended up buying the Beckett book because there was no way I could finish it in the library's alotted time.

Okay, so last night the chapter I read was after the first Bull Run, when George McClellan was brought on. Goodwin does not pull her punches. Is there anyone more despicable in American history than this guy? I wouldn't be surprised to learn he hated children and dogs, too. From the very beginning he maneuvered to get General Scott out of the picture, and in letters to his wife fantasized about being president and dictator. Of course his strategy of staying put is well known. He also got one of Lincoln's good friends killed in a battle by not informing another general that he would not be providing reinforcements, and then put the blame on that general.

This chapter only goes up to the end of 1861, so I know McClellan's image is going to take a further pounding. The big mystery is why Lincoln stuck with him so long.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Thank You For Smoking



Getting out of work early on Good Friday, I took in Thank You For Smoking, which I found to be an almost entirely enjoyable film. It is the story of Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist, and it is a testament to the writing and direction of Jason Reitman and the performance of Aaron Eckhart that our "hero" manages to be both charming and likeable, despite his holding a job that, in the words of Woody Allen, "is a notch below child molester." Naylor is the kind of guy who can talk his way out of anything, and there's a certain satisfaction in watching someone like that at work, perhaps because most of wish we could do that.

Reitman is clearly influenced by directors like Alexander Payne and the Coen Brothers. He employs lots of tricks like subtitles, freeze frames, and the like, which serve to hammer home the humor. I like this kind of stuff, because it makes a film richer. It doesn't work in all instances, but here it does. I also like the use of music, from the opening credits set to an old country number called "Smoke that Cigarette" to the closing credits with The Kingston Trio's "Greenback Dollar," which I've been humming all weekend.

I didn't even mind Katie Holmes performance. Boy, I used to think she was so adorable, but now, can anyone watch her on screen and not think, "She needs deprogramming"?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Easter? Bah, Humbug!



Easter is a holiday that barely registers on my radar. I'm only reminded it's coming up when we get a partial day-off on Good Friday.

When I was a kid, we celebrated Easter in the family the way most American kids do--easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, plastic grass in baskets, maybe a small gift. But reaching maturation, and ppphhh! Done. Now it is not an occasion for family get-togethers. I don't think I've shared an Easter with my family since I left home.

Part of this, of course, is our rather lax Christianity. I'm a non-believer, and since Easter doesn't have the secular appeal that Christmas does, it gets ignored. It does have nice connotations, though, conciding with the start of spring and notions of rebirth and all that jazz. But ultimately, it's just another Sunday for me. I'll probably end up watching some porn, drinking wine coolers on the porch (if it's nice out) and trying to inspire myself to clean the house.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lost



While working two jobs, my TV viewing schedule was shot to hell. Not that I watch too much TV. Before I got the second job I watched a few shows--Survivor and The Amazing Race were about it. Everybody Loves Raymond was a regular, but it just got too shrill before the end.

But one show I tried to keep up with was Lost. It was tough, I had to enlist the help of my friend Lora to tape a few episodes, and I have missed a couple, but it's worth the effort. It's an intriguing show with interesting characters, and the formula of using back-stories that somehow seem to link all the characters in coincidence (or is it?)

Now that I'm back to one job I'm back to comfortably watching Lost as it airs (and after the Amazing Race, which I'm back into!)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Reliving the Best of 2004



Over the last ten days I've looked at the DVDs for the Best Picture nominees of 2004. I'd seen each of them in the theater, of course, but since it had been at least a year since I'd seen them, I was interested to see how they would hold up. Upon the first viewing, I had liked all five pictures, which is probably unusual, if I took the time to look back and figure that out.

First was Ray. This film doesn't deviate far from the template for entertainer biopics: early struggles, success, huge success, battling demons stemming from success, conquering demons, peace. What makes Ray enjoyable is the music and the scenes with Ray Charles as a boy, living in poverty in rural Florida. I credit this to the remarkable performance by newcomer Sharon Warren as Ray's mother.

There is commentary by Taylor Hackford, who barely takes a breath. Much of it is interesting and instructive. The extras are pretty skimpy, though, and don't justify a second disc.

Next up was Finding Neverland. I like films that explore the creative process, which this film does. I think the director, Marc Forster, captures the fairy-tale aspect of the story nicely, and jeez, you don't have a heart if you don't get at least a lump in your throat during the last twenty minutes or so of the film, especially that last scene with Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore on the park bench. The film does have some cliches, such as the uh-oh moment when Kate Winslet first coughs.

The commentary by Forster, along with the screenwriter and producer, is kind of scattered, and someone's cell phone rings twice.

The Aviator was next. This is a rousing entertainment, but perhaps just a bit too sprawling. Howard Hughes life probably needs a miniseries to tackle it all. But I admired the verve and pluck of all involved, and Leonardo DiCaprio is impressive. The commentary, by Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and writer John Logan is well-done, and the second disc of extras is packed with info, including a History Channel documentary on Hughes.

Sideways was my personal choice for best film of 2004. I received the DVD for Christmas, and gave it a first look, listening to the commentary of actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. The film holds up for me. I just love the little touches that Alexander Payne gives it, like a scene where Giamatti, abandoned by his buddy for the day, buys a copy of Barely Legal, but specifies to the sales clerk which one is the new one. I love idiosynchratic films, and characters who have quirks but are not dominated by them. The commentary is jokey and not particularly insightful, but a kick to listen to.

Last night I watched Million Dollar Baby again. This film is almost operatic in its inevitable tragedy. When it came out, there was a "twist" that people weren't supposed to give away, but come on, when Maggie talks about her dog I think it's pretty obvious what her future is. Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman won Oscars, but on the second viewing I came away more impressed with Clint Eastwood. He manages to give the character a burden in the way he moves, his eyes, and his speech patterns. It is thought that Eastwood grabbed the Best Actor nomination that otherwise would have gone to Paul Giamatti, who I thought gave the best performance of the year.

There is no commentary for Million Dollar Baby. The extras are slight--a twenty minute chat with Eastwood, Swank, Freeman and professional ass-kisser James Hilton, and a couple of short featurettes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ray Charles



After renting the film of Ray (more on that tomorrow) it once again reminded me that I had no Ray Charles music in my collection. I set about correcting that by picking up a two-disc collection of his greatest hits, which I listened to twice over the weekend.

My record collection, much like the various suburbs I grew up in, is almost entirely white. Until a few years ago the only non-white artists in library were probably Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. For the past few years I've been trying to expand my horizons, adding discs by John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. But in the area of R&B, I am sorely lacking.

Of course, Ray Charles defies categorization. He touched on R&B, country, gospel and rock and roll. I am probably most fond of the obvious hits--What'd I Say, Hit the Road, Jack and The Nighttime is the Right Time. But I found a few that I hadn't heard before, or at least didn't know were his. One Mint Julep is an instrumental that sounds like something Esquivel could have recorded for a sixties go-go movie. Lonely Street is a classic, poor pity me blues number. And I'm fascinated by At the Club, which is about a man hitting on a woman only to discover that she's a cop's girlfriend. It's a lot of fun to listen to.

I'll never forget when Ray Charles died. My friend Bob and I had just landed in L.A. for a vacation that he won in a contest. While we were waiting for our rental car the news of his passing was on the TV. Later, during a tour of Hollywood Boulevard, we saw the requisite flowers on his star on the Walk of Fame. He was surely one of the great recording artists of all time.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What Hath Tarantino Wrought?



Sometimes you see a movie because of marketing, or because of the cast, or because of awards, or because of the subject matter. Sometimes you see a movie because you need to kill a couple of hours and it's the only film that's playing time fits your schedule.

That's the reason I saw Lucky Number Slevin. Any film that includes cute typographical work in the title (using an upside-down 7 instead of an "L" in the word Slevin) would ordinarily be a red-flag.

This movie is yet another in a long line of bad Tarantino rip-offs. We have the usual: glib gangsters, lots of pop-culture trivia (characters debate who the best James Bond was, and we actually hear the plot of North by Northwest, which reminds us how much better that movie is that this one), a big body-count, disaffected hit men, and lots of attitude. What this film is missing is a sense of wit and flair. Instead, it is merely depressing. I hated almost all of the characters, even the ones I'm supposed to root for. None of the characters seem to feel anything, and simply exist in a "cool" screenplay. Also, it's not funny, though it seems to think so. We hear a line, "Why is he called The Rabbi?" "Because he's a rabbi" more than once, and it wasn't funny the first time.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cell Phones



There's a scene in Inside Man, in which the bank robber has all the hostages turn over their cell phones. One man doesn't have one, and is roughed up, as the robber doesn't believe he left it at home. What would he have made of me, if I had told him I didn't own one? That was true until yesterday. I finally joined the 21st century and got a cell phone.

I never really needed one, and I still don't, not as long as there are pay phones. I can see that they are a comfort to have in the car in case of a breakdown, and are convenient if you're running late and stuck in traffic. But I probably won't give out the number to too many people, because I like the idea of not being able to be reached. I certainly hope I don't turn into one of those people who have long, intimate conversations with people that can be heard by an entire train full of people.

I played a little bit with my new gadget yesterday, calling my home phone, and then calling the cell phone to see what the ring sounded like. The user's guide is dense; I don't know whether I'll explore what else it does. I really just want to have it for emergencies.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Screenwriting



I've written a couple of screenplays. Of course, they are unproduced. I wrote my first one, The Black Mailbox, back in 1999, after I got canned by Penthouse. I quickly got a job as an office temp, but I figured this was my chance to get off my duff and do something about my aspiration, so I finished the screenplay I had been toying with for years.

I think it's pretty good. I got a list of agents and did a mass mailing as suggested by one of the books I read. I got a few nibbles, but nothing came of it. I had a company do coverage of it, and the reader gave me high marks. When she called me (which was included in the price) she gave me a few pointers. One was to move to California. Apparently those in the positions of power consider non-Californians to be hobbyists, and don't take them as seriously. Good advice, I'm sure, but I have yet to make the move.

I also entered the very first Project Greenlight competition. My script made it to the top 250, which I consider a worthy accomplishment. The next phase of the contest, though, was a little disheartening, as it involved making a video to introduce one's self. I don't even own a video camera, so with my friend Bob's help we made a video one December afternoon. I think it turned out fine, but god only knows what they were looking for. Probably star potential, since the winner would be featured on a TV show. What was disheartening was that the quality of the script had nothing to do with the next winnowing of the competition. I did not make it to the final ten.

I wrote another script, tentatively titled Venus on the Half-Shell, in a burst of creativity a few years ago. Since then I've started another one, but got bogged down a bit, and while working two jobs haven't written much of anything. I hope to get started again, and not worry about the commercial potential of the script. I'm just going to write to please myself.

I've read Robert McKee's Story, and he has some good pointers, but I'd like not to be shackled by the rules in his book. Listening to Robert Altman's commentary on his film 3 Women, it's apparent that McKee's dictums don't always work. Altman based this film on a dream, and had no idea where it was going when he started. Maybe McKee didn't like 3 Women.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Inside Man



Inside Man begins with the chugging, toe-tapping Bollywood number, Chaiya Chaiya. Though there are no major characters of Indian descent, it seems an appropriate choice, getting the viewer in the mood for a tightly-wound thriller that, though well-crafted and engagingly presented, ultimately lets down at the end.

Like the bank-robbery films that are its ancestors (I'm thinking mostly of Dog Day Afternoon and Quick Change) the film begins with the perpetrators walking into the door of the bank, with no backstory. In this case, the robbers are led by the cool Clive Owen. Denzel Washington play a cop who is under internal investigation for some missing money, but he picks up the case because the usual guy is on vacation. Soon it becomes apparent to him that it is not a simple robbery, and the owner of the bank, Christopher Plummer, seems far too interested in what is inside a safe-deposit box, and employs fixer Jodie Foster to make sure its contents don't fall into the wrong hands.

The chess game between Washington and Owen is very entertaining and well-directed, and there are some great lines of dialogue. I was enjoyably baffled as to what was really going on. But I was let down by the conclusion, which wasn't as socko as the set-up would have us believe. I also found Jodie Foster's performance odd. She's some sort of power-broker, but delivers her lines is a smirky tone.

This is probably the best Spike Lee movie in ages, ranking below Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X on my list.