Thursday, July 31, 2008

Netflix LIVE! presents Band from TV, August 9th

If you missed out on Comic-Con, you can catch up on all the goings-on with Rae over at Ramblings of a TV Whore or you can mosey on over to Celebritology to see what Liz Kelly and Jen Chaney had to say. But if that's still not enough of a consolation for not being able to rub elbows with your favorite stars live and in person, then you're in luck!

As long as you live in Los Angeles, that is....

Next Saturday, Netflix LIVE presents a special event featuring Band from TV in their largest-ever free public appearance. Who the heck is Band from TV? Well, as the name suggests, it's a band whose members play some of your favorite characters on TV. Not the most catchiest or original of names, but it gets the point across. Band from TV performers include: Greg Grunberg (Heroes), James Denton (Desperate Housewives), Jesse Spencer (House) and Bob Guiney of The Bachelor (Isn't his fifteen minutes up YET?!!!). The band will be joined by Desperate diva Teri Hatcher and a trio of Heroes: Hayden Panettiere, Adrian Pasdar and Kristen Bell for an event that celebrates TV on DVD.

Hooray for TV on DVD!

After the Band from TV concert, classic episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show, The Muppet Show, The George Lopez Show (just kidding about that last one!) will be screened.

Here's the 411:

Date: Saturday, August 9th
Time: 7 pm (Band from TV concert), 8 pm (Classic TV screening)
Place: The Autry National Center of the American West
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Visit Netflix for more info about the event.

Get yer free screenplays here!

Okay--this is not a way to get rid of my multiple copies of my unsold, unproduced (unloved--sob!) scripts, but rather a giveaway the Writers Store is doing this Saturday.

The scoop comes courtesy of Jeff Gund, so if you're a screenwriter living in L.A., mark your calendar and set your alarm to get there when the store opens at 10 am. It's first come, first serve and only ONE script per person!

Date: Saturday, August 2nd
Time: 10 am - 7 pm
Place: The Writers Store
2040 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(800) 272-8927

No purchase is necessary to get a free script, but if you mention InfoList you can get 10% off of everything in the store.

Here's the very long list of script titles to choose from:

8 MM
15 minutes
48 Hours
1942 Conquest of Paradise
2001: A Space Odyssey
Above the Law
Absolute Power
The Abyss
Ace Ventura
The Adams Family
Agnes of God
Alien 3
Alien Resurrection
American History X
The Anniversary party
The Apartment
Apollo 13
Apt Pupil
Army of Darkness
Bad Santa
Barry Lyndon
Barton Fink
Batman 2
Batman Forever
The Battle of Algiers
Beauty and the Beast
Being There
The Big Blue
The Big Easy
Blade Runner
Blood Simple
The Blues Brothers
Body of Evidence
The Body Snatcher
Boiler Room
Born on the Fourth of July
Boys on the Side
Bridges of Madison County
Broadcast News
Broken Arrow
Bruce Almighty
Bull Durham
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Cell
Cherry Falls
The Cider House Rules
The Client
A Clockwork Orange
Coal Miners Daughter
Crouching Tiger
The Crow
Cruel Intentions
Crying Game
The Curse
The Curse of the Cat People
Dark Angel
Deep Rising
Desperately Seeking Susan
The Devil and Daniel Webster
Die Hard
Double Indemnity
East Great Falls High
Earth Girls are Easy
Ed Wood
The Elephant Man
Elizabeth 1
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
First Blood 2
Five Easy Pieces
The French Connection
Freddy's Dead: Final Nightmare
Four Rooms
Freddy vs Jason
The Frequency
Friday the 13th 3
The Game
The Ghost and the Darkness
Gods and Monsters
Gone in 60 Seconds
The Graduate
The Green Mile
The Grifters
Grosse Point Blank
Halloween H2O
Hand the Rocks the Cradle
Hard Day's Night
Hard To Kill
Heavy Metal
Hollow Man
Honeymoon in Vegas
The Horse whisperer
Hotel Rwanda
House on Haunted Hill
The Ice Storm
Independence Day
The Iron Giant
Interview With the Vampire
Invaders From Mars
Jackie Brown
Jason X
The King Of Comedy
Law and Order
Leaving Las Vegas
Legends of the Fall
Little Monsters
Lost Boys
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Mad Max 2
The Majestic
Man on the Moon
Marathon Men
Married to Bob
Mars Attacks
The Messenger
Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Express
Midnight Run
Mississippi Burning
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
The Mummy
My Own Private Idaho
A Night at the Roxbury
A nightmare on Elm Street 3
A Nightmare Before Christmas
A Nightmare On Elm Street 1
Nurse Betty
Next Friday
O Brother Where Art Thou
Cuckoo's Nest
Only You
Panic Room
Passenger 57
Pearl Harbor
Peggy Sue Got Married
Pet Cemetery
The Piano Lesson
Pitch Black
Planet of the Apes
Poetic Justice
Rain Main
Raising Arizona
Rambling Rose
The Rock
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Romeo & Juliet
Runaway Bride
Rush Hour
The Santa Clause
Scream 2
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Shakespeare In Love
The Sixth Sense
Shallow Grave
Silence of the Lambs
Sleepy Hollow
Sling Blade
Snow Falling on Cedars
Star Trek The Motion Picture
star Trek 3
Star Trek 5
Star Trek 6
Star Trek 4
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
Star Trek: Generations
Star Trek: Nemesis
Star Trek: First Contact
Starship Troopers
Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones
Strange Days
Superman 2
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Terminator 2
Terms of Endearment
Texas Chainsaw 2
There's Something About Mary
Topsy Turvy
The Truman Show
Twelve Monkeys
True Lies
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
The Verdict
Wag the Dog
War Games
What Lies Beneath
White Christmas
Who Shot Roger Rabbit
Wild Things
The Witches of Eastwick
The Wizard Of Oz
The Women
Wonder Boys
The X-Men
You've Got Mail

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This post is gonna suck...

I had planned to do my almost monthly examination of keyword hits and misses. Did the research and everything yesterday, but since I had just posted a long-winded blog on books vs. movies, I thought I'd wait until today.

It's gonna have to wait until tomorrow.

This was my today: wake up, oh around 7ish. Maybe it was closer to 7:30ish. Usual morning routine. Get ready to go to the gym. Put baseball cap on head to protect my face from the sun as I head out the door. Check out self in mirror. Bad move. Is this side of my hair longer than that side? This necessitates about 30 more minutes in the bathroom snipping to get the sides of my head even. I know I said I wasn't going to do it anymore.

Sue me.

Then my cell phone rang. A recruiter who e-mailed me yesterday and then I called her back and now she's returning my call. She has an opening for a technical copywriter. Hmm--I'm not really a technical copywriter...Well, it's not really a technical copywriting position. They just need someone technical enough to be dangerous. Oh well--that does sound like me! She asks me to e-mail her the latest version of my resume.

Back to the bathroom to continue hacking at my hair. At this point, I may as well just pull a Britney and shave it off. At least it would all be even. I think I may have an OCD. Too bad I'm not into repetitive hand washing. I'd have cleaner hands. And longer hair.

At this point it's 10:46 am. I head to the gym. Do my workout and head back home. It's after 1 pm. Stop at OSH on the way home. Yesterday my landlord calls and leaves a message. My car is leaking fluids (it's fifteen years old for cripes sake!) and over the course of time (and because I hardly ever drive it) has left this goopy stain on the concrete. According to the landlord, his insurers won't renew his liability policy until it's removed and either I clean up or he'll hire someone to do it and charge me for it. I decide to do it myself. I buy a hose and nozzle at OSH for $10.

I get home. It's 2 pm. I gather up cleaning supplies: a scrub brush, baking soda, Pine-Sol, bleach and Ajax. I'm ready to roll. I move my car, hook up the hose and start to spray. About a half hour of scrubbing and spraying and the goop is gone. I call the landlord and tell him it's clean. I take a shower. It's harder get the goop off me than it was to get off the concrete.

It's 3:30 pm. My friend has sent me her resume to revise. It needs a lot of work. I get to work. Two hours later and I have a decent draft.

It's dinnertime. I don't feel like cooking. I walk to Vons and get a roast beef sandwich. On the way there, I try to cross the street but it's rush hour and a stupid MetroRapid bus--which is twice the size of a normal bus!!!--is blocking the intersection. Just before the light turns red, these behemoths always pull into the intersection. I see cars pull that @#$% all the time. It means I have to weave around them to get to the other sidewalk. But with a MetroRapid bus, there is no weaving. They block the ENTIRE intersection. Fucking morons.

I hate them...

Get back and eat dinner @ 6 pm. It's late. I'm tired. Will post long post tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Media meets Reality

A trio of stories in the Washington Post highlight the blurring media and reality.

In the first, Hank Stuever reports on an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition house in the suburbs of Atlanta that has gone into foreclosure because its owners used it as collateral for a $450k loan which went into arrears.

According to the article:

The mayor of Lake City, Willie Oswalt, who said he'd helped lift a beam into place in the Harper's living room, told the press that "it's aggravating. It just makes you mad. You do that much work, and they just squander it."

I have to agree with Willie. What idiots! I can only imagine if the loan defaulter was a participant of the original Extreme Makeover program. It'd been awful tough for the bank to repossess silicone implants and porcelain veneers...

If that little piece of schadenfreude isn't enough for you, check out Peter Marks' review of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Ah, yes--forget Wicked, we've got Springer and the epic tales of trailer trash and the morally and mentally challenged coming to an opera house near you:
Thus do sopranos and baritones, stripped down to bras and panties and, in a couple of cases, far kinkier outfits, sing coarse odes to misogyny, scatological perversion and pole-dancing. The rabidness of Springer's show is tailor-made for the emotional intensity of opera. In angelic-sounding arias, the guests spew torrents of profanity; in one inspired sequence, the enunciation of a monosyllabic barnyard epithet is stretched hilariously over several minutes of music.
And finally, police in Michigan arrested a man who they say tried to steal posters and other items related to the new Batman movie from a cinema lobby
while dressed up as the Joker
. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery--but the Joker as a petty thief? You'd think the guy could have come up with a cleverer caper than stealing movie posters while dressed up as the character who said, "This town deserves a better class of criminal...and I'm gonna give it to them!"

Soon all our lives will be one big reality show...

FIlter Magazine Barker Block Sunset Series, July 31st

Another edition of the Barker Block Sunset Series presented by Filter Magazine happens this Thursday. So take this opportunity to bid July good-bye and celebrate by sipping cocktails and listening to music before the dog days of August are upon us.

Sponsored by Write Bloody Publishing, ASCAP and Cardboard Robot, Thursday's event celebrates the release of WHAT IT IS: WHAT IT IS with words by Paul G. Maziar featuring Images by Matt Maust, Open Bar and Write Bloody guests Derrick Brown and Amber Tamblyn, Live Performance from The Antiques and Music by DJ Pants Off.

Here are the deets:

Date: Thursday, July 31st
Time: 6-10 pm
Place: 513 South Molino Street, Los Angeles 90013

Admission is FREE with RSVP--but you MUST RSVP for entrance!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Based on the Book

In a discussion about the upcoming movie adaptation for The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Hollie worried that something would be lost in the translation from book to screen. However eagerly we may anticipate a beloved novel coming to life on screen, we also dread that what we imagined while reading it will be mangled beyond recognition by the filmmakers.

Sometimes the opposite happens; I much preferred the Atom Egoyan version of The Sweet Hereafter to Russell Banks' book. Having seen a number of movies based on a book (And let's face it--Hollywood isn't one for reinventing the wheel when it comes to original ideas!), I think it often depends on which version you experience first. If you see and love the movie prior to reading a novel, chances are that the filmed version's imprint will stay with and affect your experience of the book. Reading the novel first means you have all sorts of preconceived ideas of how the characters look, act, talk. It's not always the case--although I enjoyed Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, I preferred the film version. Probably because each chapter of the book began with a recipe and non-cook and non-foodie that I am, I found it distracting. My sister, however, would have loved it!

I don't envy the writer and director who has the task of bringing a popular piece of fiction to the screen. First off, you need to condense 600 pages into a two hour script. There goes half a dozen subplots and dozens of surfeit characters. Then you have to cast your actors. Much as I love Tom Hanks, did anyone imagine the character of Dr. Robert Langdon that way? I sure didn't. And then there's the fact that novels tend to be wordy, descriptive and exceedingly interior. Charlie Kaufman's attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief turned into something else entirely in Adaptation--which hilariously chronicles Kaufman's impossible task of turning Orlean's beautiful prose into a movie.

An example of an adaptation gone awry would be Sahara. Author Clive Cussler was paid $20 million for the rights, no less than four screenwriters tried their hand at a translation that Cussler (who retained a significant amount of creative control) would approve of, the film cost $195 million to make, grossed only about $70 million domestic box office and then Cussler sues the producer for $40 million in breach of contract only to be countersued for $110 million for creating negative publicity for the project, lying about his book sales and being a general pain in the ass.

I was nonplussed by the movie version of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl which turned out not, as in Gregory's novel, to be about the OTHER Boleyn girl, but the same old Boleyn girl we've seen and read about for ages. I was completely disenchanted by the Disney destruction of one of my all-time favorite children's books, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle which was not only horribly miscast, but completely missed the climatic, emotional money scene--and the entire point of the book! The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is another example of a film made of beloved children's book of mine that lacked the charm and warmth of the original.

A review of the script for the upcoming movie version of Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh indicates the loss of a major character and subsequently a major plotline. (This makes me sad, since I enjoyed Wonder Boys so much--I had been looking forward to seeing another great movie based on a Chabon book. Guess I'll have to keep waiting until The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay...) John Irving's A Prayer for Own Meany was altered so much in the translation, that the character was renamed Simon Birch and instead of being "based on," it was credited as "suggested by" Irving's book.

On the other hand, I felt the adaptations of Irving's other books, The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, did justice to the source material. Irving's own adaptation of The Cider House Rules was a disappointment for me despite the fact that he won the Oscar for his screenplay. For me, the casting of Tobey Macguire as Homer Wells was a big mistake (Although Michael Caine as ether-addict Dr. Wilbur Larch was brilliant!) and admittedly it would have been difficult to do justice to a story that spanned 30 some years in a two hour movie. Tod Williams sidestepped that issue when he adapted Irving's A Widow for One Year into the movie The Door in the Floor by just including the first (and most interesting) portion of the book.

The time constraints can cause a great book to be just a so-so movie. I remember seeing the epic classic Gone with the Wind and while there is no-one else who could have portrayed Rhett and Scarlet other than Gable and Leigh, I think book deserved to be a mini-series even though the 3 hour and 40 minute run time is generous by any standards (even David Lynchian NINE HUNDRED freaking hours long Inland Empire standards!). But even with the marathon-length running time, the movie cuts and compresses the plot of the thousand-plus pages of the book.

Other adaptations that I've liked include:

The Color Purple - For me, Steven Spielberg managed to capture the strength and beauty of Celie's emotional journey--and Whoopie Goldberg deserved the Oscar for this role instead of for her portrayal of Oda Mae Brown in Ghost.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gregory Peck is the ultimate heroic character as Atticus Finch in this adaptation of the Harper Lee's Pulizter Prize-winning novel.

To Sir, with Love - I don't think you can read E. R. Braithwaite's semi-autobiographical novel about clashing with cynical teenagers in London's East End without imagining the majestic Sidney Poitier in the title role.

The Godfather - Mario, meet Francis. Francis Ford Coppola, meet Mario Puzo. What an awesome collaboration!

Schindler's List - This powerful Spielberg masterpiece is almost flawless. I am overwhelmed by the painstaking authenticity of the film--but I felt the characterization of Oskar Schindler was more complex and better drawn in Thomas Keneally's book. Spielberg chose to make this a tale of redemption and certainly any human being who saves another life much less the lives of almost 1,200 Jews is most definitely a hero. But Schindler was not "redeemed"--he did not overcome his flaws or weaknesses, nor did he succeed in spite of them. Instead Schindler was able to save the lives of so many BECAUSE of his flaws--his predisposition to play games, gamble, scheme and con and break rules.

I wish Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian had been able to embrace the anti-hero that was Oskar Schindler. The biggest weakness of the film was the very contrived, over-emotive "breakdown" scene performed by Liam Neeson towards the end of the film. Never happened in the book. Would have made for a much more powerful moment to have underplayed that scene--and a much more interesting character to have let the darkness shine through the whitewash.

Still, it's 99% perfection!

What adaptations have you loved? Or hated? Do you think it makes a difference if you see the movie BEFORE you read the book? Have there been any movies than you've liked better than the novel it was adapted from? (I'd offer up The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dr. Zhivago as examples--primarily because there's no way I'd ever be able to make it through the books!)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

I recently Netflixed the movie version of this and after watching the film was compelled to check out the book. After a recent discussion of books vs. the movie version, I thought it would be interesting to see how the adaptation differed from the source material.

The movie is better.

One reason I wanted to read the book was to get some more insight into the whole incest subplot--which is handled as some kind of Svengali seduction in the movie. The book depicts it much better than the film, but otherwise I thought the movie did a better job of conveying the story of a small town dealing with the tragic aftermath of a school bus accident. The book is divided into the narratives of four major characters, starting with the bus driver Dolores Driscoll; followed recent widower Billy Ansel who lost his twins in the accident; then Mitchell Stephens, the attorney who comes to town to organize a class lawsuit; then Nichole Burnett, a teenager who was paralyzed in the crash and finally the epilogue with Dolores Driscoll again.

(Warning: this book review contains SPOILERS for both the book AND the movie! If you haven't seen the movie or read the book and would like to, stop reading NOW!)

The narratives read sort of like depositions--except they are far more explicit and honest than actual depositions. I mean, how many eyewitnesses are going to testify about an accident saying, " the moment it occurred I was thinking about fucking Rita Walter." It's revelations such as this that give us insight into the characters. Egoyan's adaptation has to rely on showing us, rather than telling us. But Egoyan succeeds in giving the characters more depth and unique voices where Banks' characters aren't as delineated. Their voices tend to blend together and their dialogue is stiff and stilted. Such as this passage:

"Oh, I knew it, Billy," she told me after the accident, when finally we could speak of it to each other.
("When finally we could speak of it"? Who talks like that?!!!)
"I knew for the longest time, I knew that something terrible was coming down. When I heard the sirens and the alarm from the firehouse, nobody had to tell me that something terrible had happened, that something unimaginably awful had been visited on me and Wendell, and on you, too, and on the entire town. I knew it instantly, because I had known for months that it was coming. That was why all those months, all the time we were meeting each other, in fact,
(Oh yes, I always speak in parentheticals!)

...I was so unhappy and turbulent in my emotions."

("I was so unhappy and turbulent in my emotions"? WTF?!!!)

In addition to some stilted dialogue, there were several factual errors that really threw me for a loop. In Dolores' first narrative, she refers to Billy Ansel's children as identical twins. Mason and Jessica--one boy, one girl--are fraternal twins. The fact that one is male and the other female pretty much precludes the possibility of them being IDENTICAL. Later in the Billy Ansel chapter, he mentions that the twins are NOT identical. Well, of course they aren't. The fact that they are two different sexes pretty much rules that out! I can only surmise that some idiot editor somewhere completely missed this. Of course it would have been nice if Banks had done a bit of fact checking, but this is what editors and publishers do--they make sure the spelling and grammar is correct, clean up typos and check the freaking facts!

The most egregious factual error was another of the reasons that I had to read the book after watching the film. While viewing some of the DVD's extras, there was a Q&A with Egoyan that was preceded by Banks reading a portion of the novel. The selection he read was the story that Mitchell tells about his daughter Zoe, who suffers an allergic reaction from a spider bite at age two. During the reading, which I was only half focused on, I thought I heard Banks say the word "insulin." Having type one diabetes and needing to inject insulin on a daily basis, it made my ears prick up. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Banks would be using the word. I thought I must have misheard. And then I read the book and as part of Mitchell's phone conversation with the doctor, the doctor says to him:
"There is a good chance you can get her to me before her throat closes, and then we can control the swelling with insulin," he said.
You've got to be kidding me! No doctor--not even the lamebrains on Grey's Anatomy--would ever prescribe insulin to treat anaphylactic shock. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate blood glucose levels. Inject insulin into a toddler with a functioning pancreas and you'd probably kill her. If not due to the fact that insulin does not REDUCE SWELLING or treat anaphylaxis, then due to the fact that a surge of insulin reducing blood glucose levels drastically could induce a coma and death. Epinephrine is the appropriate treatment for severe allergic reactions. A good writer could have easily researched this; a good editor should have caught and corrected it.

Anyway, it's shoddiness like that which takes me out of the story and reduces my enjoyment level. I did, however, appreciate how the filmmakers were able to take the novel and elevate it to another level. There were alterations, however, but they didn't detract from the story and in most cases were choices that added value:

1. In the book, Bear Otto is an outgoing, husky teenager. In the movie, he's a small, quiet, young boy.

2. In the book, a number of children survive the accident--including Nichole Burnett's two brothers. In the movie, Nichole is the only survivor (other than Dolores the bus driver) and she has no brothers. Nichole in the book is a popular, outgoing, cheerleader type. In the movie, (as portrayed by Sarah Polley), she's nurturing, dependable and artistic. In the movie, the "Nichole as sole survivor" is used thematically with the story of the Pied Piper and the one lame child left behind serving as a recurring element.

3. In the book, Mitchell Stephens is quite self-aware when it comes to his motivations in pursuing personal injury lawsuits. He knows that he's attempting to find some sort of justice for the loss of his own daughter. In the movie, the Ian Holm character tentatively stumbles upon that conclusion in an emotional scene with Billy Ansel. In the book, that same scene is an example of Stephens' manipulations.

4. In the movie, the story revolves around Mitchell Stephens. In the book, the point-of-view is spread out over four different characters.

5. In the movie, Nichole's motivation for lying about the accident is presented as altruistic--as a result of Billy Ansel's pleas to her parents to drop the lawsuit that is tearing apart the town. In the book, her motivation is mainly to punish her father for sexually abusing her and his continued exploitation of her via the lawsuit. It is also her way of regaining control over herself and her life. In the book, Billy Ansel views her actions as a heroic one that saved the town, but it was in fact completely premeditated and punitive. Her decision not only harms her father, but Dolores as well, as she puts the blame on the bus driver for speeding.

6. The film manages to activate what is essentially a series of interior narratives. It succeeds quite well. But the ending of the book has a very visual and active scene of a demolition derby at the town fair which both manages to evokes a sense of catharsis and completion that the film does not. One reason that the filmmakers did not use it was probably because it did not feature the character of Mitchell Stephens who they made their protagonist. Also, by not using the sequence, they leave the viewer with a sense of ambiguity and non-resolution. I was OK with that.

So like I said--I preferred the movie. I think it's interesting to compare written work to how they translate on screen. I think I'll post about book to film adaptations next...

Overheard Today at Wilshire and Ocean

A guy and girl standing at the stoplight. The girl is babbling...

Girl: Oh yeah, I love Buffy...watched every episode! And Firefly...

Seems like maybe they're on their first date...exchanging basic likes and dislikes?

Guy: That didn't last long...

Girl: So what--did you play a vampire or something?

Aha! He's an actor and so to impress her he told he had a gig on Buffy...

Guy: No. I was a worm.

Doh! Not quite impressive...

Girl: (laughing) A worm?!!!

Should have told her about your extra gig as "guy in crowd" for Law and Order...

Guy: Well, I was a bad boyfriend and then I got turned into a worm. And then I got turned back. And then Spike stabbed me.

Season 7, episode 2 - Beneath You: A giant worm-like creature begins stalking a young girl. As the gang begin to investigate, they realize its appearance in Sunnydale may be linked to Anya.

Girl: I don't remember that one! Do you have a copy? You have to send it to me!

Hmm--I'd like to see that, too...

Guy: Yeah, sure.

Light turns green.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

I saw this at the Arclight Dome Cinema with a bunch of friends the other night. I had been planning on waiting until the crowds died down, but as it turned out the 5 pm Friday showing was less than half-filled. I'm glad I saw it with Rod, Ronson, Melanie and Bill (even though they had already seen it at least once prior to last night!), because the communal experience of watching the film definitely enhanced the experience.

There are tons of reviews dissecting the storyline and rating the portrayals, so I'll skip that. Instead I'll just post the random thoughts that popped into my mind as I watched the movie:

1. Heath Ledger hype? He totally delivers. The movie leaves it open for the Joker to return in future installments, but I find it hard to imagine how anyone could take on what Ledger created with his version of the Joker. Gleefully sadistic, Ledger completely disappears into the role of the psychotic clown. The makeup by John Caglione Jr. was perfect for evincing the distorted and disturbed anarchist.

2. Batman who? The thing about the Batman movies is that the character is pretty much a cipher--thus allowing so many different actors to portray the character over the years. Solid physique? Check. Chisled chin? Check. Bale's Batman could be anyone in a mask or cape and his hoarse, husky whisper voice gets cheesy quickly. He's much better at giving alter ego Bruce Wayne some dimensions, but in this movie Wayne is mostly relegated to playing Hardy Boy with Alfred and Lucius. The one thing we could usually look forward to was a scene with Bruce without a shirt. In this movie, that scene had Bale stitching up a wound on his arm. Ew! Thanks a lot, Nolan--my one chance to see Christian Bale shirtless and I have to look away due to squeamishness!

3. Maggie Gyllenhaal vs. Katie Holmes? I love Maggie Gyllenhaal. She's fabulous! But I kept thinking throughout the entire movie that she really needs to stand up straight. She looks like she has scoliosis or something. Dear Maggie, take a ballet class or yoga or something! Stop slouching! Gyllenhaal's character was supposed to be the love interest for Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent--but I just wasn't feeling chemistry with either.

4. Aaron Eckhardt has soft, fluffy hair. And a chiseled chin that could very well look good wearing a Batman mask...

5. Richard Alpert is the mayor of Gotham City! Or at least Nestor Carbonell of LOST fame was. Carbonell sported more guyliner in the flick than Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow! What was up with that?!!!

6. Too many subplots. One of which, the introduction of the next evil villian for the next Batman installment, would have been better left for the next movie.

7. As usual, the fight scenes were so frenetically shot and edited that they lost the power to create tension. If you're going to spend the time and effort to choreograph and film a fight scene, please let me as the viewer be able to discern what the @#$% is going on! There were a couple of terrific action sequences: the truck flipping over shown in the trailer was really nifty and the Joker blowing up a hospital was a visual feast.

8. A cast of thousands! Well, over a hundred anyway. In addition to the underutilized Gary Oldman as Bruce Gordon and Morgan Freeman as gadget guy Lucius Fox, William Fitchner (one of my favorite character actors...) appears briefly as a Mob Bank Manager, Cillian Murphy is back as The Scarecrow--this time a burlap sack covers his creepy eyes, Eric Roberts is a snarky Mob Boss and Anthony Michael Hall plays a TV interviewer.

9. The verdict? It's a high-octane energy rush--at times confusing and erratic--but definitely worth the price of admission if only to witness Heath Ledger's amazing performance. And @#$% getting blown up all over the place!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Song of the Day - Oblivious

If you asked me my favorite movie, I'd probably rattle off ten--and then another dozen or so after that. It would be hard to limit other favorites as well, but although my iTunes library has well over one thousand songs, there's one of which I never, ever grow tired. That would be Oblivious by Aztec Camera.

I stumbled across the band in a used record store in Morgantown, WV. Rifling through the vinyl albums (Ah yes, kiddies--remember vinyl? Of course you don't!), I came across this oddly named 80s band and thought, "Aztec Camera? What a strange name! I must buy this album." I was into bands with weird names back then--the weirder the better. Aztec Camera, Spandau Ballet, Scritti Politti, Haircut 100, Hoodoo Gurus. Turns out the album, High Land, Hard Rain was an awesome collection of poppy, punky new wave tunes. I love the entire album, but this track is my all-time favorite.


From the mountain tops
down to the sunny street,
a different drum is playing a different kind of beat.
It's like a mystery that never ends.
I see you crying
and I want to kill your friends.

I hear your footsteps in the street,
it won't be long before we meet,
it's obvious.
Just count me in and count me out
and I'll be waiting for the shout.

Met Mo and she's okay,
said no-one really changed,
got different badges,
but they wear them just the same.
But down by the ballroom
I recognized
that flaming fountain
in those kindered caring eyes.


I hope it haunts me 'til I'm hopeless,
I hope it hits you when you go,
And sometimes on the edge of sleeping,
it rises up to let me know
it's not so deep,
I'm not so slow.


They're calling all the shots,
they'll call and say they phoned,
They'll call us lonely
when were really just alone.
And like a funny film,
it's kinda cute
They've bought the bullets
and there's no-one left to shoot.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Netflix Quick Picks - Round Nine

It's been over a month since Round Eight, so it's about time for Round Nine! Fifteen flicks and most of them are highly rentable! So read on and get ready to update your Netflix queues:

1. The Missing - This Ron Howard western-thriller features a flinty Cate Blanchett, a grizzled Tommy Lee Jones and Eric Schweig as one of the creepiest villains ever. Possibly even more creepy than Javier Bardem's turn in No Country for Old Men...The film also features Ron's dad, Rance and brother Clint in small roles as well. I know a lot of people get irked seeing Clint Howard in yet another example of Hollywood nepotism, but it always warms the cockles of my heart to see his career limping along thanks to brother Ronnie. Anyway, the story of a frontier woman's search for her kidnapped daughter with the aid of her estranged father is beautifully directed and totally gripping. RENT IT!

2. The Sweet Hereafter - Based on my friend John's recommendation, I rented this Atom Egoyan adaptation of the Russell Banks novel about a small town dealing with the tragic aftermath of a school bus crash. Very compelling character studies with some amazing performances; notably the always precocious Sarah Polley and the understated and stalwart Ian Holm. Rent it.

3. True Romance - The last time my brother James was in town, we drove past the Safari Inn and he blurts out, "Hey--the Safari Inn! From True Romance!" Upon hearing that I had not seen the Quentin Tarantino classic, he insisted I rent it immediately. And so I did. What can I say? Tarantino is an awesome writer: sick, twisted, funny, dark, witty, violent. What more could you ask for in a movie? How about a cast that reads like a who's who of Hollywood: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Michael Rapaport, Val Kilmer, Bronson Pinchot, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Tom Sizemore, Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini, Saul Rubinek--whew! RENT IT!

4. The History Boys - The movie adaptation of the stage plays suffers mightily from the translation. It's way too verbose and static although it tries its damnedest to break out of its theatrical confines. It never quite manages to--particularly at the end when, instead of utilizing film's ability to flash forward and back in time, it sticks with the theatrical conventions that work fine on stage but seem oh so contrived on screen. Skip it.

5. Flags of Our Fathers - Clint Eastwood attempts to tell the story of the truth behind the famous photo and later even more famous memorial statue. Unfortunately, it's far too repetitive to be engrossing. The actors are great and it feels authentic enough, but it's too unfocused and rambling. It keeps switching story techniques and point-of-view until you're not really sure what the point of the whole thing is. I must say, I'm probably in the minority--but I much prefer Spaghetti-western Clint to Eastwood, the auteur. Skip it.

6. Letters from Iwo Jima - The companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is told in a much more straightforward fashion--despite being in Japanese with subtitles. It's an intriguing, albeit somewhat long, telling of the other side of the story. Very interesting. Rent it.

7. Away from Her - Sarah Polley's directorial debut netted her an Academy Award nomination for best writing adaptation as well as a Best Actress nomination for Julie Christie. It is a completely assured piece of work by Ms. Polley, save for the annoying tracking dolly shot at the end, and I look forward to seeing her future directing efforts. Julie Christie is completely incandescent as the Alzheimer's afflicted Fiona, but in my opinion it's Gordon Pinsent's portrayal of her husband that deserves acclamation. Rent it.

8. Batman Begins - I'd heard great things about the reboot of the Batman franchise. In anticipation of the release of The Dark Knight, I decided to rent Christopher Nolan's take on the caped crusader. I was underwhelmed. Christian Bale is a hottie and makes a great disaffected playboy in Bruce Wayne. His Batman, however, is relegated to speaking in a hoarse whisper. It's irritating. Michael Caine is great as Alfred, the butler and chameleon Gary Oldman is nearly unrecognizable as the future Commissioner Gordon. As much as I love Morgan Freeman, his role was just a contrivance to set Batman up with his awesome gear. Pretty lame if you ask me. My biggest complaint is the same as when I saw the first Batman with Michael Keaton--shooting the climatic fight scenes in the dark! WTF? What is up with that? How am I supposed to be on the edge of my seat when I can't even freaking make out what's happening on the screen? Anyway, unless you're a big comic book/superhero fan, Skip It.

9. This is England - This oddly affecting coming-of-age story of a young boy who's lost his father in the Falklands War and subsequently gets caught up with a gang of skinheads was based on the experiences of writer/director Shane Meadows. My biggest gripe is that it was hard to understand the dialogue between the accents and colloquiums and the DVD didn't provide subtitles in English. But overall it was a very intriguing story.

The initial gang of skinheads that take in the protagonist Shaun (played by Thomas Turgoose) were more about fashion and music than politics and racism. They were hooligans who engaged in juvenile delinquency by smashing up vacant buildings, rather than smashing heads. But later, Shaun is inducted into a more sinister gang--a band of thugs who indoctrinate him into more militant thinking and hate crime activities. The montages that open and close the film completely set the scene and provide a solid backdrop for the story. Compared to other movies about skinheads that I've seen lately (American History X and The Believer), this was the most insightful and realistic. Rent it.

10. Sunshine - Sci-fi story of the attempt to save Earth by reigniting the sun has its flaws: The characters are not properly introduced, so we've no idea who they are, what they do or why we should care when they eventually die one by one; implausible science and unlikely plot twists and the plain freaking weirdness of Cillian Murphy's eyes--but it's visually stunning with special efforts that look like a big budget Hollywood movie on a mere $50 million budget. Too bad they didn't spend more of that $50 mil on writing a more compelling script and creating more dimensional characters. I'm going to have to say Skip It!

11. No End in Sight - Although the title of Oscar nominated documentary refers to the Iraq War, it could very well be self-referential. Watch five minutes of this film--any five minutes--and you'll be convinced that the Iraq War was ill-conceived, poorly planned and badly mismanaged by the bungling, ineptitude of the Bush administration. Out of the 102 minutes of the running time, the message is gotten in only five. It reminded me of The Fog of War which was about Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War. I kept dozing off during that one as well. It's an important subject--I just wish the filmmakers had come up with a more engrossing way to keep my attention. Rent it, watch five minutes and that should do it!

12. Fracture - This cat-and-mouse game between Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling requires the viewer to suspend disbelief for a number of unlikely coincidences. If you can manage to do that, Fracture is a compelling little thriller. Hopkins channels creepy Hannibal Lecter in his role as accused murderer Ted Crawford--it's something he can do in his sleep. For Sir Anthony at his best, I recommend Shadowlands. God, he was awesome in that film! Gosling, on the other hand, delivers a nice performance as the deceptively drawling Willy Beachum, an ambitious trial attorney who wants one last notch on his D.A. belt before he bolts to private practice. I figured the twist out about midway through the film--and then was frustrated by the seemingly smart characters bumbled around for much longer. But it's a nice little lesson in how to raise the stakes for your protagonist--as well as a decent thriller. I enjoyed it. Rent it.

13. Shooter - Marky Mark, er, I mean Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a former Army sniper who is framed for the assassination of the archbishop of Ethiopia. Michael Pena (Crash) plays an FBI agent who becomes his unlikely ally and Danny Glover is the bad guy. It's Die Hard on the run or a lesser version of The Bourne Identity. Still, it's got action, chase scenes, people getting shot and shit getting blown up. And Marky--er, Mark Wahlberg shirtless. It's an entertaining microwave popcorn flick. Rent it.

14. F for Fake - Should be titled "B for Boring." This unwieldy documentary based on the Clifford Irving biography of Elmyr de Hory, notorious art forger, has plenty of interesting subjects: Elmyr de Hory, Irving--who perpetrated a notorious fraud of his own with a faked autobiography of Howard Hughes--and even Hughes himself. Where it suffers is from the insufferable and all-consuming inclusion of Welles himself. As writer, director and preening narrator, he somehow manages to make the movie all about him. Snore. Unfortunately, by 1975, Welles was not the boy wonder who convinced America they were being invaded by Martians, but the Paul Masson wine purveyor who unctuously uttered, "We will sell no wine before its time!" and this film shows it. Its "free-form" style looks more ADD-addled and I was over it in about ten minutes. SKIP IT!!!

15. Into the Wild - Sean Penn wrote the script and directed this film based on the Jon Krakauer book about Christopher McCandless, who abandoned his upper middle-class upbringing to live in the wilderness with tragic results. There are some moving performances--Emile Hirsch is heartbreakingly beautiful as the naive and idealistic Chris aka "Alexander Supertramp," Catherine Keener gives a lovely nuanced performance as an aging hippie earth mother, Vince Vaughn is engaging as always and Hal Holbrook offers a painfully affecting turn as a cranky geezer who is touched by his brief time with McCandless. But the real star of the film is the great outdoors which Penn, along with cinematographer Eric Gautier, captures in all its majesty and splendor. It even made this die-hard "room service is roughing it" type a bit wistful. Not enough to go crazy and go camping or anything like that, mind you--but a bit awed and wistful all the same. A little long, but beautifully done. Rent it!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Memos to Morons - part four

TO: Gas Station Owners

RE: Gas pricing

You probably think I'm going to rant about gas prices, right? No, it's gas PRICING that has me irked. The cheapest gas around is $4.30...AND 9/10. What the @#$%? Why not just make it $4.31 and be done with it? It's not like I can pump a gallon into my tank, hand over $4.31 and get 1/10 of a penny back. Once upon a time that 1/10 cent on ten gallons might have meant a piece or two of penny candy, but those days are long gone.

Yeah, I know the concept of .99--how items priced at $1.99, $2.99, $3.99 psychologically appear to be a much better deal than those priced at $2.00, $3.00 and $4.00. But given the prices of gas these days, do you really think you're fooling me into thinking I'm getting a bargain?

Enough with the bull$@#%! Just round it up to the nearest penny already....


Rob Walker coined the term blending the words "murky" and "marketing" to define the hedgy and edgy blurring of the lines of product advertising. In yesterday's edition of Slate, the concept was discussed in an article titled, Things are not what they stream which highlighted the infamous cell phone popcorn video.

The video turned out to be part of a viral marketing campaign for the manufacturer of wireless headsets. One part clever, one part fear-mongering equals marketing (or "murketing") brilliance in increased brand name recognition and sales. Mike at Ship's Biscuit categorizes viral marketing patterns in a fairly comprehensive list. The cell phone popcorn video seems to fall under number 8, "WTF? How do they do that?"

Then you have the marriage of viral video and product placement in this Sprint YouTube Payola campaign. Ah, remember the good ol' days when advertisers interrupted our programs with commercials? Now they're getting us to make the commercials for them! It's a trend that makes traditional product placement look quaint in comparison.

Take it one step further and instead of "real people" making ads, they BECOME ads ala this Chicago Tribune story about B.M.O.C. aka "Big Marketeer on Campus."

And I thought the GAP ads on the sides of buildings were a bit much...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Deal - Available on DVD July 29th

Fans of The Queen and Anglophiles everywhere will soon have a reason to cheer--The Deal, the historic docudrama about former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his friend, political rival and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is coming to DVD as part of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company's Miriam Collection. Originally airing on British TV in 2003, this Stephen Frears/Peter Morgan collaboration is a sort of prequel to their later work in The Queen.

The film revolves around the pivotal moment when Blair and Brown had to come to a decision and make "the deal" that would not only alter their personal and professional lives, but affect the future of British politics. It's a particularly timely story given the recent Democratic primary. Although I don't pretend to have more than a basic grasp of the political system of my own country, I found The Deal to be fairly engrossing, albeit lacking in emotional substance. It does, however, provide an insider look at the machinations of politics and public relations.

The Deal plays with a restrained, very British stiff-upper-lip quality, although it's very interesting to watch the development and the differences between the two main characters. Gordon Brown was the presumptive leader of the Labour Party. Reticent but brilliant, dour yet intense, Brown stood in sharp contrast to the affable and charming Tony Blair. David Morrissey gives Brown his awkward humanity while, as advertised, Michael Sheen IS Tony Blair. It's a fairly even-handed and balanced presentation of the events leading up to Blair's ascendancy to leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of England.

The plot loops around beginning with the scheduling of the fateful meeting where the decision of who would stand for the Labour Party and who would step aside would be made. Flashing back to when Brown and Blair first met and their subsequent rise in politics, the film spans 11 years in less than 90 minutes. Loosely based on the book The Rivals by James Naughtie, The Deal is also loosely based on actual events. It attempts to portray history as accurately as possible, but it even begins with a quote from William Goldman from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Much of what follows is true..."

The DVD is light on special features: a commentary by writer Peter Morgan, biographies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and a conversation with director Stephen Frears, but it's an insightful and fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the players of British politics. According to the interview with Frears, a third installment of the saga (part one being The Deal and part two being The Queen) may be in the works--this time focusing on the relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton. The Deal will be released on July 29th--if you liked The Queen, you should definitely check out The Deal.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Simple Shoes: Eco-Friendly Footwear

When I attended the Natural Products ExpoWest with Stevie, one of the exhibitors was Simple Shoes - a footwear company whose goal is 100% sustainability. With products constructed using organic cotton, hemp, bamboo and even recycled car tires and inner tubes, Simple strives to create alternative for their customers allowing them to "tread lightly on the planet without compromising comfort and style."

Although Simple Shoes likes to refer to themselves as "the nice little shoe company getting in touch with its inner hippie," their ecoSneaks and GreenToe sandals are casually stylish and completely comfortable. While at the Expo, Stevie and I had a chance to check out some of the cute kicks, espadrilles and boots in their collection. A pair of GreenToe Toe Foo sandals is made with high-quality sustainable materials like crepe, water-based glue, bamboo, organic cotton and hemp and will set you back about $45. Unless of course you're a savvy shopper like me--I scored the Toe Foo sandals pictured above at Ross Dress for Less for $9.99. Sweet! Being green and saving green--I love it!

During the month of August, Simple Shoes is teaming up with The Walking Company for the exclusive launch of their PlanetWalker Shoes:

PlanetWalkers, the most comfortable and eco-friendly shoes on the planet, maximize the use of environmentally sensitive materials while providing premium comfort benefits. All PlanetWalkers are made with leather from ISO14001 and British Leather Consortium (BLC) certified tanneries that have made a commitment to sustainable improvements in their processes. Removable footbeds with molded arch support are made with Ortholite™ and recycled ground car tire. Innovative use of eco-friendly materials like recycled car tires, bamboo fabric, cork, recycled compression molded EVA, and recycled metal alloys make PlanetWalkers the leader in sustainability in comfort footwear.

In addition to helping you get around in green footwear, Simple Shoes and The Walking Company are also giving you a way to get around in an eco-friendly vehicle as well: they partnered with smart USA and the Sierra Club to give customers a chance to win one of four smart fortwo vehicles during the month of August. No purchase is necessary, limit one (1) entry per person, per email address and per household for the duration of the Entry Period regardless of method of entry. You can enter by filling out the entry form on-line or in person at any one of The Walking Company stores nationwide.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

After reading Linz's review of this Cormac McCarthy novel and given how much I loved the Coen Brothers' adaptation of his book No Country for Old Men, I decided to make The Road the next selection for my reading list. How fitting that as I blog about it today, it is also Cormac McCarthy's 75th birthday! Happy Birthday, Cormac--you rock!

The Road is less than 250 pages long and I read it in about a week. Actually, I was kind of dragging it out. Partly because the story is so grim, I knew there couldn't be a happy ending (as it happens, the ending isn't as bad as I had imagined, although there's definitely some ambiguity...) and partly because it's so beautifully and starkly written, that I didn't want it to end.

The Road
is the story of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. It is dark and bleak and harsh. McCarthy doesn't give much background as to how the world ended up a scorched, barren wasteland, although it seems to be a self-inflicted wound rather than a natural disaster.

In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing take the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.
As the man and the young boy travel through the destruction and desolation, their journey follows a persistent pattern of finding food, finding shelter, keeping safe, keeping warm, punctuated by moments of extreme danger and terror with the occasional glimmer of hope and joy. While the man represents the will to survive, his son symbolizes innocence, compassion and empathy in a world that no longer can afford the luxury of goodness.
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant.
Although McCarthy paints an excruciatingly precise portrait of a horrific future, it's more of a tale of the will to live and the power of love and the bond between a father and his son:
Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Beyond the constant struggle to stay alive, find food, avoid "human" predators and keep moving to a warmer climate, there is the aching melancholy of the life the father once had that the boy will never know:
All much as he'd remembered it...The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace...He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter night when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see.
Throughout reading the novel, I could visualize the landscape and characters. I thought it would make a terrific, albeit dark, film. And sure enough, The Road is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen and is scheduled for a November release--just in time for awards season. Linz and I wondered where exactly the journey undertaken in the novel actually occurred. I had the feeling it was more of an east coast location, even though many of McCarthy's other novels are set in the south or southwest. It's not explicitly stated, but it turns out the locations used for the film are mostly in the western Pennsylvania area. Including Pittsburgh! Aha--Flicksburgh strikes again!

The book was amazing--I can't wait to see the movie!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Animating the Inanimate

It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed my mind, but after watching WALL*E the other day it struck me once again how filmmakers utilized the whole "humanized machine" concept (To say nothing of the recurring "schlubby guy ends up with hot chick" theme which, despite the usual sitcom casting, is more rare than the norm...). Whether it's Herbie the Love Bug or WALL*E the robot, imbuing the mechanical with personality attributes such as loyalty, courage and even love has been a source of fascination for ages. It probably started long before the dish ran away with the spoon in the nursery rhyme of yore, but now with technology that can "think" and "talk", it's no wonder that writers indulge in creative conjecture by endowing gadgets and gizmos with a bit of heart and soul.

WALL*E, like many robot depictions, is capable of evincing human characteristics--like loneliness and love. Why is we humans like to believe our appliances have feelings? Believe me, while you may miss your iPod and laptop, neither has any idea that you've been gone! But like the Lost in Space robot, who had a wicked and twisted sense of humor as well as an abiding protectiveness of young Will Robinson, or the Transformers, who were either good or evil, robots are portrayed as more than a computer chip on wheels.

The Terminator in part two of the franchise brought Sarah and John Connor to tears when he "terminated" himself at the end. Well, maybe that's not too far from reality--I know I get a pang of anxiety when I see my car up on a mechanic's rack...When automated wife Cherry 2000 expired, it sent her human husband on a quest to find an exact replacement. Of course, he learned the lesson that was missed in The Stepford Wives--perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Robots and computers can provide information--ala the Enterprise computer on Star Trek, comic relief--ala the Laurel and Hardy-esque antics of R2-D2 and C3Po in Star Wars or Hymie of Get Smart, or provide dramatic tension--as did HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess this isn't too far-fetched from real life either: I get info from Google and Wikipedia, comedy from YouTube and The Onion and my laptop has also provided some dramatic tension when it crashes.

One of the most basic human characteristics is the survival instinct. And this too has been incorporated into robot hardwiring. Number 5 of Short Circuit becomes sentient and escapes to avoid reprogramming, a group of Nexus-6 replicants fight for their lives in Blade Runner and it's robot run amok in both Westworld, Futureworld and I, Robot. I wish my gadgets had similar survival instincts. They seem set to expire right after the warranty does!

What is so odd isn't the attempts to make machines seem human, it's when the machines want TO BE human. Once upon a time, Pinocchio wished upon a star to become a real boy and The Velveteen Rabbit yearned to be real as well. Steven Spielberg adapted Brian Aldiss' short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, into the story of an android Pinocchio who longed to be a real boy. Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation was another android who longed for the human experience, as was Andrew Martin of Bicentennial Man.

But why would an android long to be human? Certainly, we are severely flawed creatures. And yet, even knowing our pettiness, our weakness, our frailties and foibles, we create characters who long to be us. Makes no sense to me whatsoever. The philosophy of Gigolo Joe in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence seems more realistic to me:

You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me.
I guess writers instill machines with humanity as part of the exploration of what it is to be human. Funny how many of those machines are far more humane than many humans are...

Friday, July 18, 2008


To celebrate my half birthday yesterday, I went to see this latest Pixar production. I wasn't enthralled when I saw the trailer, but WALL*E has gotten rave reviews and I had a free movie ticket. What the heck, huh?

It turns out the raves were well-deserved. To be sure, WALL*E does look an awful lot like Number 5 from Short Circuit, sounds a bit like R2-D2 and acts like my all time favorite alien, E.T., but the story crafted by writer/director Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter is both a sweet love story and a warning about our overconsumption and wastefulness.

The set-up is that 700 hundred years ago, after completely trashing our planet and the upper atmosphere surrounding it, humans abandoned Earth for an unending space cruise vacation while thousands of little Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robots clean up the mess. Years after his fellow trash compactors have worn out and died, WALL*E continues his task--day-in and day-out.

Until one day a spaceship leaves a Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (aka "EVE") probe on Earth, and our steadfast little hero falls in "love." Of course EVE looks an awful lot like an iPod or something designed by Apple with her sleek and smooth alabaster exterior. Actually, there's a lot of Apple "product placement" in the animation. It's pretty amusing...With a persona that's both graceful and deadly (coincidentally very much like Angelina Jolie's character in Wanted...), EVE captures WALL*E attention--and his heart. His mundane existence is forever changed as his love--or perhaps loneliness--leads him on the adventure of a lifetime.

The animation is--as always--first-rate. The attention to detail and small touches are sublime. For example, WALL*E's penchant for collecting things and bringing them back to his storage unit where he sorts them into categories. A "spork" confuses the little robot who's not sure whether to place it with the spoons? The forks? Until he finally settles on placing it in the middle. It's a nifty little moment that says volumes about the character. The creative team at Pixar manages to make the character and story seem new, despite pulling influences and inspiration from numerous other films. In addition to nods to E.T., Short Circuit and Star Wars, WALL*E is indebted to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and even a tip of the hat to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Unlike many Pixar movies, WALL*E is very light on dialogue and as such doesn't spotlight well-known actors like Eddie Murphy or Cameron Diaz doing the voiceover. Fred Willard appears in a non-animated cameo and John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy continue their character voice work and Sigourney Weaver's sonorous tones are heard as the ship's computer--but this movie isn't about witty, snappy banter like in previous Pixar movies like Toy Story. It's about creating a singularly enchanting character whose quirks and unwavering devotion capture our hearts and imagination.

Oddly enough, WALL*E is more human and humane than the biological beings portrayed in the film. We have an ongoing fascination with attributing human qualities to machines--whether it's naming our car and pleading with him/her to start up on a cold day, cursing our computer for its wicked attempts to ruin our life when it crashes or endowing socks, underwear or jewelry with the capacity to bring us luck. Animating the inanimate.

To be continued...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Taking Stock at the Halfway Mark

I'm at the halfway point between my last birthday and the next one and so I thought I'd review where I am vs. where I'd like to be. For my New Years "intentions", I made up a list of goals I wanted to work towards for 2008. I've still got six months to go, but let's take a look at how I'm doing so far:

1. Earn more money - As it stands now, I'm earning LESS money than when I wrote that. But give me another month or so and I'm sure I'll make good on that!

2. Find a new place to live - Apartment building issues still remain a problem. Some idiotic wenches were rapping at my door at 4:45 am a couple of weeks ago because they had my apartment (number 7) confused with the one next door (number 6).

Memo to Morons: If you're not sure which apartment you're going to, do NOT be knocking on a stranger's door at 4:45 am! This is just common sense and common courtesy, people!

Anyway, intention number two is contingent on completing intention number one...

3. Get out more and meet more people - Eh, I'd give myself a "C" on this one. Need to work harder!

4. Read more - This is the ONE intention I have actually been able to follow through on! Books I've read so far this year:

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Until I Find You by John Irving
The Sidewalk Artist by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

and I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Review to follow soon!)

That's ten books in about six months--not too shabby, although nowhere near as impressive as my blogging buddy Elisabeth.

My last "intention" was:

5. Eat plenty of peanut butter!

And I've succeeded in fulfilling that one as well.

To celebrate my half birthday, I:

picked up prescriptions at the drugstore, checked out a new book (The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks) from the library, washed my car, took my car in for an oil change--and went to see Wall*E, which was totally enchanting (Review to follow!).

Hmmm--I wonder if I should go to the store and look for some half birthday cake...