Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Got No Game

Here is a TV Watch highlight, courtesy of via Google homepage:

Wednesday, February 28

Friday Night Lights

What's happening on network TV's best drama? The Taylors have an uninvited guest, Smash's girlfriend goes off her meds, and Jason and Lyla are on the skids. But none of that really matters, because even if this were an episode about football drills, it'd still be the best-acted, most authentic hour out there. Still, you're not watching. What are you missing? Brilliant arcs on Alzheimer's, sexual betrayal, and racism, plus Emmy-worthy turns by series regulars Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, and Zach Gilford. It's time to get in the game, folks.

I'm glad they're plugging Friday Night Lights, but this is turning depressingly Arrested Development. I wish every mention of fantastic but ratings-troubled shows didn't have to mention how ratings-troubled they were. People want to join in if they feel like others are in on something and they're missing out if they don't watch. "The best show you're not watching" entices no one. "Well, at least I'm not the only one not watching," the viewer says, and subsequently doesn't feel so bad about ignoring it. To mix metaphors, no one wants to jump on a sinking bandwagon.

You would never do this if you were dating. Or if you did, you wouldn't get good results. "I'm such a great guy, really. I have such wonderful qualities. But you're not dating me, America. No one wants to date me. I don't understand what it is, it seems like people would enjoy dating me if they tried it, but I just don't seem to get many dates." Does that make you want to date someone more, or less?

EW, I appreciate the support, but stop making my favorite shows look so desperate. Let's play it cool. If we act like everyone loves them, carry it off with some confidence, maybe it'll come true.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Trashy Movies

Stephanie was away this weekend, so I seized the opportunity to rent some movies I know she would be uninterested in. Besides my usual rental--the next disc of The Shield, now starting season 4--I got three movies, which turned out to be too ambitious for one weekend.

Haven't even put in The Shield yet, but the movies I did watch were last year's Jason Statham movie Crank, and the 2004 disaster Taxi, about which I have long harbored a wholly unreasonable curiosity.

Crank is good. Statham plays Chev Chelios, a hitman who has been injected with a drug that will kill him unless he can keep his adrenaline up through any means necessary. It's not quite great, but if you decide that Crank is a movie that you want to see, it's exactly what you'd want. It has the hyper visual style of your Tony Scott movies like Domino, but it's so suited to the story that it doesn't feel gimmicky. The movie is intended as one protracted, exhausting adrenaline rush, and the visuals complement that. In fact, as the filmmakers explain in their "Crank'd Out Mode" picture-in-picture commentary, they reverse-engineered the story to suit their frenetic shooting style. The writing/directing duo behind Crank come of as an unpretentious enough pair, even if their banter is occasionally too self-satisfied and obnoxious. They were both camera operators who started working together when they realized they shared a love of getting shots in dangerous, risky ways, like getting pulled on rollerblades. One of them jokes that it was only natural to team up, since when you put their two 60 I.Q.s together, you get 40. "I'm good at math," he adds.

This gleeful embrace of mindless stupidity is all over Crank, which the auteurs report was written in four days. But damned if the thing doesn't have violent energy to spare and, befitting the premise, tremendous momentum. Statham and the filmmakers clearly have a lot of fun throwing it all together. Amy Smart's role is surprisingly small and thoroughly degrading--she's pretty much there just to have sex with Statham on a couple of occasions--but she debases herself so gamely that it's easy to enjoy. And it is funny that the girl Statham talks so much about being in love with is kind of an idiot and clearly not worth it.

Crank would be better if a higher budget had allowed staging certain stunts more practically--in particular, a car crash in a mall is brilliant in conception but is undercut by a sheen of fakeness. Still, it's an understandable, forgivable flaw--staging the stunt practically would probably push the thing into Bruckheimer territory.

On the other end of the spectrum is Taxi. It's easy to say that it fails at its goals; harder to say is what it's actually trying to do. Having seen the French version, and being obsessed with car movies, I was following this from way back. I found the alterations for the U.S. version both horrifying and hilarious. Re-casting the villains as supermodels for no logical reason was a masterstroke--transparent pandering at its best. Re-casting the speed-obsessed cabbie as Queen Latifah? Also hilarious, but far less promising. Shoehorning the sassy black woman stereotype into Taxi was a bizarre choice. It seems almost like a parody of bad Hollywood executive meddling with source material. Who is this movie for? Queen Latifah's audience is not interested in a movie whose hook is a tricked-out taxicab, and the action-comedy males who want to see car chases and bank robbing supermodels are not exactly Latifah's fanbase. It's a classic example of trying to broaden a movie's appeal and creating instead a movie for no one.

Still, while Latifah's stereotypical black lady sass is over the top and grating, and she never convinces as a tomboyish car junkie with NASCAR dreams (oddly enough, a description that also matches the protagonist of Herbie: Fully Loaded, also written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon), she does have some amount of presence and charisma, which is more than can be said for her co-star, Jimmy Fallon.

Fallon, whom I found tolerable enough in Fever Pitch, is an absolute disaster in Taxi. Latifah is not funny either, but I understand that where she's concerned we're supposed to accept sassiness as a legal tender substitute. Fallon has neither sass nor laughs. His desperation is palpable in an early scene where he does a Cuban accent for an interminable length of time, or in several scenes where he acts nerdy and neurotic all over the place. He's just throwing nervous energy into the atmosphere, but no jokes land and the whole thing is just an ordeal.

Meanwhile, the movie is meandering around, with a script as aimless as Fallon's performance. For a movie whose pretext is a cool car, it is content to go a long time without letting us see it. A long dry patch in the middle of the movie has the car impounded, and leaves us nothing to hang onto but Latifah and Fallon's sparkling comic banter, and not one but two on-the-nose scenes in which characters confess what they "always dreamed of" doing (NASCAR driver and cop, in case you were wondering--good thing they made speeches about it).

The cool cab itself is a preposterous affair that transforms according to the logic of the Gadgetmobile--one part slides out of sight, and another slides in, impossibly, from the same space. But that's okay; that's the one part of this that it's still possible to love. The driving scenes are staged well enough, but they're nothing spectacular and there aren't nearly enough of them.

That the character bits and comedy are awful shouldn't be a surprise, since the director is Tim Story of the equally unstylish and inept Fantastic 4. But Jimmy Fallon still brings his own unique comedy vacuum to bear. We see this in a featurette called Jimmy Fallon: Tour Guide, in which Fallon leads a camera around set, desperately riffing on things with the lamest results imaginable. Fallon, on a spare yellow hood, obviously from the taxi: "No, that's not part of a taxi. Why would you think that?" Fallon, on some pallets leaning against the wall: "These are from our big pallet scene." (They're not, they're just pallets. Fallon goes on to recite some fake dialogue in which a captain yells at him about pallets.) Fallon, on a video monitor with a shade around it: "What's that, a wood chipper? I demand a wood chipper on all of my sets." Fallon, on some dark utility area under a deck: "Hey, it's my dressing room! Stay out of my dressing room! Good place to smoke. Keep all my bongs in there." It's like watching a real-life David Brent or Michael Scott, but without the underlying self-awareness.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Little Car

Here's a little video I made a while back. It's not actually meant to play in slow motion, but it was originally shot and edited in-camera, which means I was taping over footage over and over again, which apparently is hell on DV tapes and time codes. My camera could barely play it back for capturing and that's why the footage is glitchy all over the place. But drop in some hacky Duel of of the Fates music, and the slow motion seems intentional and super-dramatic!


Snakes On A Chain

The trailer for Black Snake Moan is actually really good. It's not my kind of movie, but I kind of want to see it. Right now we're in the teaser season for summer movies, so too many trailers are 75% buildup, and 15% underwhelming payoff. But I like how this trailer grabs your interest in a simple, gradual way. There's a slow build as it introduces the characters and situation, and there's just enough to hold your attention, until halfway through, we get the twist: the chain. And then there's just enough that follows to suggest the dynamic that the rest of the movie will play with--two characters dead set against each other--and amazingly, it works. This is a movie about a man with a woman on a chain. How elegant is that? The idea is so basic, yet the trailer gives you all the pieces you need to convince you that there is a whole movie in it, and probably an interesting one.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Movie Trailers XXIV

Sorry about that last post. Honestly, I'm bored by it too. Let's just forget about it and get back on the horse. The blogging horse. The bloggy horse. Sounds like hobby horse? Get it? No? Not having it, I see. Fair enough. This could take a few tries.

Movie trailers? That's a comfortable topic.

The Simpsons Movie finally has a real trailer up, one that doesn't use the annoying CGI happy bunny fake-out that just feels like so much filler and which, as Steve has pointed out, was too similar to the old South Park movie teaser anyway. It's still basically a teaser, but it's got actual footage in it, so we can see what the movie will look like.

The jokes are fine. Not noticeably above and beyond what you'd see in the series, but not embarrassing and certainly funny enough. Smithers' silent reaction to Apu telling Burns to listen to his heart is a highlight, as are Homer's contorted air quotes.

What this teaser does get across is the look and scope of the movie. The animation looks great--extra fluid, with dramatic shading and lighting effects for good measure. Honestly, the high quality animation makes a bigger difference than I'd expect. Meanwhile, the story is still up in the air, but it certainly looks like something big is going down. Considering that one of the most glaring problems with the series for the past few years has been that there don't seem to be any stories left that matter to anyone--the characters, the viewers, or the creators--a Simpsons story with actual stakes would be a big deal indeed.

Some advance blurb I read claimed that the story had to do with Homer destroying Springfield, an idea that has been tossed off as a joke in a few episodes already. I'm thinking of the garbage man episode, in which the entire town must relocate, and the episode where Homer is an artist and floods the city as a work of art, and no one seems to mind. So even with an idea that big, they've got their work cut out for them trying to make us care. But it's all in the execution. For the past few seasons of the show, they haven't even been trying to make us invest in stories.

Again, though, there's some relatively spectacular visuals at work (for the Simpsons)--the house crumbling looks pretty cool. Don't slow down that sweeping shot through the townspeople with torches, though, or you'll actually see the pixels.

Anyway, it's nice to have a substantive teaser at last. I can say now that it looks like it'll at least be worth seeing.

Mr. Woodcock has the unfortunate honor of hanging its title on a name joke so lame it wore itself out in the pilot of 'Til Death, in which it was the name of Eddie Kaye Thomas' naive schoolteacher. (Luckily, who remembers that?) Here, though, the name is given to a hardass, not a patsy, and its naughty implications carry the thrust of masculine aggression rather than a vulnerable opening for humiliation. It's also stuck with Billy Bob Thornton being pretty much the same guy he was in Bad Santa, Bad News Bears, and especially School for Scoundrels. It's a credit to Thornton that he plays this character so effortlessly that you almost wish these were movies you wanted to see. Although, is it me, or does he look a little too Botox-y in this one?

And then there is Sean William Scott. Here is another way in which the comparison to School for Scoundrels is apt. Scott, like School's Jon Heder, is an actor who shot to fame in a distinctive role for which he will forever be typecast. He has since taken roles in a variety of movies unsuccessfully trying to establish a career that stands on its own. Like Heder, I find Scott likable, and I'm rooting for him, but with each film he does it becomes less and less likely that he's going to pull off the transformation he's hoping for. In fact, I thought Scott had already run out of chances, but lo, here he is again.

Unlike Scott's past characters, he is here cast in that increasingly popular archetype, the former fat loser turned cool successful person (see Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends; one of the characters in ABC's unwatched and unheard-of David Arquette sitcom In Case of Emergency--in which the character also becomes a self-help guru; or Courtney Cox in Friends--arguably the one that started it all). I find this character type pretty annoying, for a few reasons: It's usually just an excuse for an attractive skinny person to score cheap laughs by cavorting in a fat suit, and I just don't buy it--especially in the cases where the character's fat incarnation is especially morbidly obese, as they almost invariably are. How often does a transformation like this actually happen? Much more likely that a trim cool guy grows up to be a fat loser. It's also a hypocritical bid for sympathy from the audience--no one likes a good-looking winner, so let's say they used to be fat so we feel bad for them at the same time we're making fun of them for being fat.

Mr. Woodcock gets points for at least having the decency to not go the fat suit route. Young Scott is played by an actual kid, and he's not super fat, just pudgy and out of shape. And the former loser, as common a character as it is, remains one that Scott has not played before. It's an opportunity to play to his strength--comedy--without playing a character who's a walking punchline. We don't seem much of his performance in the trailer, but what we do get is promising. Ethan Suplee and Amy Poehler are pluses as well. The main problem is that ultimately, the whole movie is one big I'm-fucking-your-mom joke, and much like the scene where Scott is caught under the bed while Woodcock and his mom do it, it'll be hard for the movie to get out from under that.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Collegiate Funding Services

Because I'm carrying a bunch of student loan debt, I receive offers on a more or less daily basis urging me to consolidate my loans with a countless array of lending companies. Apparently, there is not a lot of information sharing in the industry, as no one seems to realize that I have already consolidated my loans. It's kind of like how Debbie from the Mortgage Branch calls us every day (in recorded form), when "she" could save herself the trouble if she knew we lived in an apartment.

I've gotten used to this sort of useless offer, but the latest mailing, from Collegiate Funding Services, managed to surprise me. This one is a letter:

Dear Mr / Ms. BYERLY,

Thank you for your interest in consolidating your federal student loans through Collegiate Funding Services. Based on the information you provided, we have determined that you are not eligible to consolidate your loans with our company...Although we would prefer to consolidate your student loans, we are prevented from doing so due to the following reasons:

You have previously consolidated your student loans and according to federal regulations, may not do so again.

Is this supposed to make them feel big or something? Rejecting me when I never applied? I applaud their initiative in researching me, but if they're going to look me up unsolicited, it kind of defeats the purpose if they're going to send the letter anyway.

Applying this logic to other situations:

"We're selling some great cars here. Too bad you've already got one."

"Big sale on clothes! Know who doesn't need new clothes? You."

"Bet you'd like to ask me to prom. Well, sucks for you, loser, 'cause you've got a date already."


Monday, February 05, 2007

Links Of Interest

First check out "Office Surfer," a catchy and fun music video for the Kung Fu Monkeys directed by my friend Crystal that I PA'ed on a few months back. If you watch closely you may even see me in it!

Then check out my photos from Guac Bowl, an annual guacamole-themed party that gives people something to talk about on Super Bowl Sunday besides football. It's thrown by my boss Adam, and over its eight years of existence has grown from a simple sharing of homemade guacamole into an incredibly elaborate, fiercely competitive event. The bar for clever guacamole puns and spectacular guacamole presentations gets higher every year. For more, see Adam's own Guac Bowl page, as well as some of the entries from last year.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Piece Of Shit Car

Another fixture of our neighborhood is a car that I'm pretty sure belongs to someone who lives downstairs. This is because, like the people who live downstairs, it looks awful, never goes anywhere during the day and generally appears to be useless. It does little besides take up valuable parking space near our building. The only time it moves is when it is required to by the street cleaning schedule.

That it can move even this much is a minor miracle. Because, you see, the car looks like this:

Besides the ugly stickers, note the perennially flat rear right tire, rendering the car unsuitable for driving any distance great enough to require an automobile. They never inflate the tire. They never change it. It's been flat forever. But then again, why should they fixate on a little thing like a flat tire when, after all, the car also has no fucking hood!

That's right. It doesn't even have a hood. The engine is just open, exposed to the elements. It gets rained on. Tree leaves and branches fall right in. Stephanie reports that she looked out the window one time and happened to spot a passerby doing a double-take at the sight of it.

Seriously, Guys Who Live Downstairs, does anyone ever intend to use this car? It's not in any shape to drive, and no one seems to be making any effort to change that. Is it worth hanging onto just for the pleasure of moving it every Thursday and Friday? Real cars could be using those plum parking spaces.

One of the happiest days in recent memory was when I came out and noticed that the car had not been moved for street sweeping--it was still where it had been the day before. I walked over for a closer look. Its windshield wiper held a familiar red-lettered envelope: a parking ticket. And I had a little celebration in my head. Is that wrong?


Friday, February 02, 2007

Neighbours, Part III

There is a deep, wide pothole at the end of our driveway. It is a swath where the gutter has somehow widened into a crevasse, a minor canyon across which you must drive to enter or exit. If you cross too quickly or too recklessly, you will be rewarded with a violent jolt and the sound of your car's chassis meeting the pavement in an unpleasant fashion.

Naturally, this enormous pothole does not drain all that well. When water runs down the block, it tends to collect in the ditch rather than continue on to the storm drain, and once it's in the ditch, it tends to stay there until it evaporates, which is never. So in a way, it's like having lakefront property.

There is also a Mongolian family in our building. They don't talk much when we see them. It is hard to tell how much English they know. Here is what we do know about them: They have a couple of young children, the husband drives around a big workman's equipment truck like contractors and gardeners use, and he refused to lend us his big ladder when the air conditioner installers forgot theirs last summer, forcing us to reschedule our air conditioner installation. That was annoying, but I can't really blame him. Nobody likes to lend things, and why should he trust a couple of A/C installers who can't even remember to bring their own ladder?

The other thing that we know about them is that they give us funny looks. Stephanie says that they are often shooting her suspicious, oddly accusatory glares for no reason.

A few nights ago, as I was walking from my car to our building, I found the Mongolian husband standing at the foot of the driveway, inexplicably patting down dirt into the massive puddle with a shovel. I smiled at him and nodded hello, as one does to greet a neighbor one recognizes but does not actually know. He returned my smile with a cold what-are-you-looking-at? stare.

The shovel and the dirt seemed a little weird, but I tried to ignore it. I am not sure what result he was hoping for, but here is the one that he got: Mud.

I don't know, maybe he thought that the dirt would cushion the bump for any cars that had to cross the gap. Maybe he thought the dirt would fill in the gap so that the water could flow onward freely, or soak up the water and make it magically disappear. Surely he did not intend to create a mud pit that would cake mud onto the tires of every car that parks behind our building, creating heavy mud tire tracks all they way up the driveway and criss-crossing the entire parking area. That couldn't have been what he wanted, could it?

Nevertheless, that is what we have now. A huge, huge muddy mess. Someone will have to seriously hose down the whole driveway and parking area, and even that will be pointless unless someone cleans up the mud in the pit. As I've mentioned before, there is no drainage, which means that the only way for the mud to go away is for somebody to actually go back with a shovel and physically remove it. We may be stuck with the mud for a while, since it's hard to imagine somebody actually doing that. Of course, it's also hard to imagine someone filling a huge puddle with mud, and someone did that, so what do I know?

Our landlord swung by yesterday on an unrelated matter. Dismayed, she asked what on earth had happened to the driveway.

"I don't know," I said, not wanting to be a tattletale (but secretly totally wanting to be a tattletale). "It looks like somebody filled the puddle with dirt. I don't know why they would do that. But someone must have put it there, because where else would all that dirt come from, right?"

"Who would do that?" she said.

"I don't know," I replied.