Friday, August 25, 2006

We're on VACAAAAATION

If you recognize the reference, throw it up in the comments section.

I'm going on a quick weekend getaway to the lurvely city of San Diego, so I won't be around to post as much as I would like to be.

Until then, you can puzzle over my thoughts about the Emmys at The House Next Door. Comment over there or comment here, I don't care.

When I return: What makes a good pilot and why?

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In the Deep: The Descent



The Descent is the scariest movie in years, an expertly crafted tension machine that tightens its grip on your arm throughout, masterfully blending scares, homages to other movies and moments of raw catharsis into a potent, blood-spattered blend.

If you have somehow managed to learn nothing of the plot of this film, go now, before it leaves theaters. All you need to know is that it's about some girls who descend into an uncharted cave (after some duplicity on the part of their leader). And then bad things happen.

I hate to give a warning like that, but this is the rare movie that rewards you not knowing very much going in. This is not to say that it's a twisty, turny narrative, but it IS a masterfully constructed nightmare, and what's truly horrifying about a nightmare is that you don't know how (or when) it will end.

If you have seen it, read on, for there are spoilers ahead.

The Descent works because director Neil Marshall (whose Dog Soldiers was a curiosity, but not quite a full-fledged horror masterwork like this is) effortlessly sketches in his six characters in a few short scenes. One girl, of course, has to overcome a personal trauma, but that personal trauma (the loss of a husband and daughter) is portrayed so wrenchingly, so palpably that it casts a pall of sorrow over the rest of the film. When the girls enter the cave, we feel more sadness than we do fear. There's a sense of leavetaking, of trying to hang on to something long after it's practical.

Marshall also hones in on everyone's latent claustrophobia. He sends his actresses through incredibly narrow tunnels, keeping the camera right in their faces, pinning audience members to their seats (the camera is so close in these scenes that it feels like the actresses are invading the audience's personal space). The spaces are so small, and the girls are so close that the feeling one gets when trapped in a crowded elevator is unavoidable. And Marshall doesn't quickly cut through these sequences. He draws them out. We don't see every girl struggle through every tunnel, but the sequences last long enough to have raised hackles efficiently enough.

And then things begin to go wrong.

Marshall is playing on a general sense of unease in the culture here, as brash, overconfident modern women find themselves utterly decimated by a cave-in, then an injury, then something they couldn't have possibly foreseen. None of the girls is "bad," per se. None of them "deserve" this punishment, as is the case in so many horror films. But Marshall believes that there's no such thing as deserving punishment -- people get punished or they don't, even if they don't think they should be. The Descent, like The Ruins, Scott Smith's recent horror novel, is about the situation the West finds itself in in the last five years -- that freewheeling, comic fear of death that has become a constant companion, making us jumpy, pushing us into bad situations.

Suffice it to say, there are monsters in the cave. Marshall sets this up expertly as well, sneaking them into a few early shots when we're not really looking for them, setting up the whole premise as a possible hallucination (indeed, the point-of-view character frequently hallucinates visions of her dead daughter -- one of the few things in the film that doesn't really pay off satisfactorily). Just when we're starting to become convinced these monsters (which are posited as human beings uniquely evolved to live underground and feast on meat) are real and not just hallucinations, Marshall unleashes them on us.

The first shot we see one of the monsters close-up in (look at it here) is one of the most expertly constructed "gotcha!" moments in recent cinema. The figure looms over the heroine, slightly obscured, looking like the giant devil in the Night on Bald Mountain segment in Fantasia more than anything. In addition, the image is captured in the infrared mode on a handheld camcorder, landed on purely by accident, so the framing is ever-so-slightly off. We can't see all of the monster's face. We want to, but we're not sure that's the best idea at the same time. And Marshall holds the shot for a split second longer than you think he would, giving the girls a moment to let the whole thing sink in before the action kicks in.

Marshall isn't content to let this be the final conflict either. He easily builds a rift in the small group, then exploits it for all it's worth, levelling the conflict up from man vs. environment to man vs. nature to man vs. man, all with seeming ease.

If there's a complaint to be levelled against this movie, it's that the action sequences are a little chaotic. In the limited light, the creatures and the girls tend to blend into each other, and the geography is so tight that we're lost from time to time. In some senses, this works with the movie, which is, after all, about man's loss of control when confronted with the elements, but it becomes a detriment in the later scenes when the girls start to fight back. These scenes also have a too-chaotic element to them (except for one beautifully constructed one-on-one showdown with a female monster), and that lessens the sense we have that the girls might have a shot after all, cutting down on a catharsis the movie sorely needs at this point.

Still, two of the girls in particular fight back, and these are some of the strongest female heroines in the cinema in some time. They're smart and cunning and good at improvising weapons. When they fight back, you buy it, even in the pitch black darkness.

The ending, famously, was changed for the American version (see the original one here). The original pays off a motif that sorely needed paying off and is probably more realistic, but I think I prefer the American ending, which doesn't return us to the cave definitively (though it's strongly hinted at). If the film is about the loss of control everyone in the world has felt recently, the American ending allows that control to be regained more definitively. There's a chance to cry, a chance to throw up and a reminder that no one can fully conquer malevolence. Granted, the original ending allows the heroine to regain control (the choice she makes, after all, is hers and hers alone), but it doesn't feel as definitive as the American version -- in some ways, it feels like nihilism for nihilism's sake.

Because The Descent, ultimately, is about overcoming trauma, about fighting it back to stay human. And whether we battle those demons with our vomit and tears or with caving gear turned into implements of death, we're all reeling in the dark, not quite sure of where our blows will land.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Who wants to be the NEXT damsel in distress?!

In light of the John Karr/Jon Benet media circus, I thought the Cable News Interest Index Survey on whitewomeninperil.com was highly relevant.
The bottomline: Do YOU have what it takes to become the next Jon Benet/Natalee/ Chandra/Jennifer?!

I wish all of you guys luck!

Hopefully, you'll score higher than me (I only got a 52 out of 100). *weeps*

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

And, lo, they did name the 25 best TV characters in history

First, James Gunn (screenwriter for the Dawn of the Dead remake and director of the excellent Troma throwback Slither) did it. Then Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) did it. And now, South Dakota Dark does it.

The best 25 characters in TV history -- no particular order.

The rules:

--No cartoon characters (otherwise, The Simpsons would be all over)
--No puppets (otherwise, the Muppets would be all over)
--No miniseries
--No reality shows
--Characters must be regulars
--No show you've worked on (ha!)
--One character per show (I added this rule, so don't feel you have to abide by it)
--You have to think it up as you go -- the first 25 that come to you.

So here we go.

1.) Jimmy James as portrayed by Stephen Root on Newsradio. This, pretty much, is who I want to be when I grow up -- rich, lonely and crazy as hell.

2.) Ted Baxter as portrayed by Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This man is pretty much the reason I became a journalist. Okay, not really, but his fatuousness and stupidity were so perfect that they've never been improved upon. Sidenote: I know it's popular to go with Lou Grant, since he was on two very different shows and all, but Ted was funnier. Nyah.

3.) Willow Rosenberg as portrayed by Alyson Hannigan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The original super-cool, geeky girl sidekick. The fact that she went from shy nerdling to super-powered lesbian witch (complete with dabble on the dark side) only makes it THAT MUCH BETTER.

4.) David Brent as portrayed by Ricky Gervais on The Office (UK). As much as I like the American remake, there's no one quite like Gervais, and there's never been anything quite as perfect as the original British series, cramming a lifetime of pathos and laughs into just eight hours of television.

5.) George Michael Bluth as portrayed by Michael Cera on Arrested Development. Okay. This is a crack ensemble, perfect in almost every way. But it really wouldn't work without Cera, the series' heart. He made the sheer, weird farce of the whole thing somehow bearable and believable.

6.) Don Knotts as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. I've seen only a handful of Andy Griffith episodes, but Knotts work in them has been perfect enough to garner a mention here. (Weird how sitcom heavy this list is so far for someone who prefers dramas!)

7.) Al Swearengen as portrayed by Ian McShane on Deadwood. What a performance! What a character! A ruthless, petty small-time tyrant who mellows over time into a consummate politician, wanting only what's best for the town. And, what's more, much of the time, he speaks in something approaching iambic pentameter.

8.) Jack Bauer as portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland on 24. Because who's gonna save the world? You?

9.) Reverend Jim Ignatowski as portrayed by Christopher Lloyd on Taxi. As you can probably tell, I watched a lot of Nick at Nite in junior high. But Reverend Jim took an already crackling ensemble and elevated it into one of the best in sitcom history. The character became the touchstone for burnouts all around the dial.

10.) Dana Scully as portrayed by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files. Always sensible. Always skeptical. Always caught up in the latest conspiracy or kidnapped by aliens or something.

11.) Tony Soprano as portrayed by James Gandolfini on The Sopranos. The Sopranos is surprisingly meditative for such a big hit. What made it a big hit was the central character, who's immediately recognizable and monstrous.

12.) John Locke as portrayed by Terry O'Quinn on Lost. No matter what avenues of oddness the show wanders down, no matter what terrible dialogue he is saddled with, Locke is the soul of Lost. Sometimes, the show only works because he wanders in and gives a creepy grin or something.

13.) Detective Frank Pembleton as portrayed by Andre Braugher on Homicide: Life on the Street. A volcanic personality that gave rise to a host of lead roles that just barely kept themselves in line. Vic Mackey has Frank to thank.

14.) Joel Fleischmann as portrayed by Rob Morrow on Northern Exposure. Sure, he got kind of tiresome as the actor wanted off the show, but he was the perfect fish out of water for so long on that show that I'm willing to overlook a lot.

15.) Bob Hartley/Dick Loudon as portrayed by Bob Newhart on The Bob Newhart Show/Newhart. If you've ever met me, you'll know that a lot of my sense of humor is just a stammer-y attempt to recreate how awesome Bob Newhart was/is.

16.) President Laura Roslin as portrayed by Mary McDonnell on Battlestar Galactica. Nerves of steel. If Hillary Clinton really wants to run, she should just watch this character on a constant loop.

17.) Lilith Crane as portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth on Cheers. Reading this list, you wonder about my taste in women, don't you?

18.) Joel Robinson as portrayed by Joel Hodgson on Mystery Science Theater 3000. No offense to Mike, who was great, but I am who I am because of Joel, who put it in my head that making random references to the most obscure things you could think of was a cool thing to do.

19.) Sydney Bristow as portrayed by Jennifer Garner on Alias. A show that went off the tracks, to be sure. But Sydney is the very definition of the woman you want to sleep with after she's done kicking your ass.

20.) Lorelai Gilmore as portrayed by Lauren Graham on Gilmore Girls. Scary smart, super hot AND a single mom? Sign me up!

21.) Sam Weir as portrayed by John Francis Daley on Freaks and Geeks. Meet me in high school.

22.) Jim Halpert as portrayed by John Krasinski on The Office (U.S.). Jim is the new embodiment of the working man for our generation.

23.) Edith Bunker as portrayed by Jean Stapleton on All in the Family. As with George Michael Bluth, this show wouldn't work without Edith.

24.) Wesley Wyndham-Price as portrayed by Alexis Denisof on Angel. Honestly, what I'm realizing is that characters I identify with in some way are all over this list. Wesley, the geek who first joins Angel, is who I probably am. Wesley, the suave British heartbreaker at the end of the show, is who I would prefer to be.

25.) Big Pete Wrigley as portrayed by Mike Maronna on The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Big? Check. Tall? Check. Gawky? Check. Narrates the life of himself and those around him? Check. Come to think of it, maybe I identify with HIM most of all.

I know I've forgotten a lot (how could I have left off someone from The Wire?!), but that's the nature of an exercise such as this.

Talk about what I missed or was stupid about in the comments.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Vanished: One long Without a Trace episode


I realize it's a little late now what with the show having aired and all, but here's the start of my review of Vanished for The House Next Door -- TV

Vanished, debuting tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox, is, if nothing else, a seminar on just how much of a role good casting plays in the success or failure of a modern television show. In the pilot, a sub-par premise and a pedestrian script that just might have worked with the right actors (see Prison Break, returning tonight) fall apart and expose themselves as laughable thanks to a mostly charisma-free cast. Fox, of course, invented the modern "one story told over a season" serial with 24, and as Prison Break felt like that show's less talented younger brother, Vanished feels like Prison Break's less-talented, even younger brother.

The problem starts with the central premise. The show feels a lot like an episode of a procedural (a show like CSI or Without a Trace, where one story is told per episode and the characters rarely, if ever, change) stretched out over a whole season, with the pilot being roughly the first five minutes of that procedural episode (when the crime is committed, etc.). We get to see fingerprints lifted and watch rudimentary policework and the like. It's all very CSI (in fact, creator Josh Berman wrote for CSI).The genius of the structure of a show like 24 or even Prison Break is that each hour has a single, definable goal -- in this episode, Jack Bauer is going to catch this informant and pry this piece of information from him. While that structure can grow tiresome (pick the middle eight episodes from any season of 24), it is something that looks like TV, as opposed to Vanished, which is an action movie trying to look like TV.

Want more? Read more here.

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Random Conversations with My Little Sister during the Teen Choice Awards

Moi*: That whole Pirates of the Caribbean 2 spoof clip is so long. Arghh. It makes me long for Billy Crystal. Or even Dave Letterman.
MLS**: Who's that guy?
Moi: Oh, that's Dane Cook. He's considered the "IT" comedian right now because he's supposedly hot. Word has it he's dating Jessica Simpson. And yeah, they're co-hosting the show together.
MLS: Wow, that must be so awkward. :pointing at Nick Lachey in the crowd:
Moi: Well, yeah. That's Hollywood for ya. They sleep with the same people.

______________________________

Moi: Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves should marry each other already.
MLS: :doublesigh: It's too bad Sandra's married to that big guy [she means Jesse James] and Keanu - hmmm... who's he married to?
Moi: Actually, he's not married.
MLS: Who is he dating then?
Moi: Hmmm... I actually don't know. He did date Diane Keaton. I don't know who he's dating right now.
MLS: He dated DIANE KEATON?!! @#$%^&*&
Moi: Remember, I told you a few months ago?
MLS: I guess I forgot. I do know that they were in that movie together [Something's Gotta Give]...
Moi: ... that's exactly how they met!
MLS: Ooooooooooh. That makes sense!
________________________________


MLS: Rachel Bilson is so skinny now.
Moi: Yeah, she IS?!
MLS: Being on a show with Mischa Barton must've done something to her.
Moi: Probably. It's probably Ally McBeal all over again.

________________________________

Moi: Why is Orlando Bloom [the recipient of the MALE HOTTIE award] talking about how sweaty he is?
MLS: :shrugs:
Moi: Like, I sweat, too. But I don't want to know that movie stars sweat. It's kinda TMI.
MLS: Maybe he's just weird.

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Moi: Ugh, that stupid boy with autism.
MLS: What boy?
Moi: That boy who shot six three-pointers in a row. I mean, no - the boy's not stupid. I mean, good for him. It's just that, the story has become overblown. It's now this cheesy made-for-Disney movie.
MLS: I don't like it when Ashton Kutcher [he's the presenter for the COURAGE award] tries to act all serious.
Moi: Me, neither.
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MLS: :pointing at Johnny Depp receiving an award: Ew. He dresses just like Joey Lawrence!
Moi: He's always dressed weird. Those teen girls in the audience sure are annoying.
MLS: I thought you liked Johnny Depp.
Moi: I still do. But his new fanbase is very annoying. :pointing to the TV screen: Ugh, I wanna wring their braids up and down.
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Moi: K-Fed! Wait, why is there only K-Fed's voice? Who is that boy who is lip-synching?
MLS: Oh no, no. It's just an act. I hate it whenever rappers do that.
Moi: Oh THERE he is! I see him now!
MLS: Man, does he suck!
Moi: Actually, K-Fed's not as bad as I thought.

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* Self-explanatory
** My Little Sister

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A New Deal

From now on, you're going to get on my case.

I've used all of the excuses in the book to not write (some of them good, some of them bad). And now I've come to a point where I HAVE to if I hope to make something of this life of mine.

So from now on, once a week or so, ask me how my writing's going in the comments section. I have a feeling my parents will be INSUFFERABLE about this.

If that's not the sort of thing you want to do, you can read this article, which somehow uses Steve Urkel to prove the nature of reality.

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