Sunday, January 20, 2008

If he helped split utilities, he'd become my most reliable roommate.

I came back from church this afternoon, and as I pulled in, a small cat jumped out and ran out to about twenty-five feet ahead of my car, where it stopped, sat, and stared me down. I eased to a stop and waited until it finally got up and stalked saucily away, then drove on and parked on the other side of the lot. I got out of the car and turned around to see the cat had sprinted across the lot to the parking spot, and, as I locked the car up, it darted over and began rubbing its head in an amicable fashion against my ankles. I am fond of animals in general but not particularly of cats, but I assumed that this was the friendly stray the apartment had been watching over for a few months and decided that it was probably just in need of a meal. Stray cats aren't particularly trusting animals, and so as I experimentally picked up the beast to transport it to my apartment, I expected it to leap terrified from my arms at any moment and flee; but the thing snuggled up against my chest and made no protest as I carried it upstairs to my apartment.

Leaving the front door open, I left the cat outside and went in to snag a can of tuna, assuming the cat was probably wild enough to feel uncomfortable entering a house. When I turned around from the kitchen counter, the cat was quietly exploring the living room like a buyer inspecting a home, experimentally nosing things and kneading its claws into the couch pillows. I put down the food and the cat sauntered over and started eating as if nothing was out of the ordinary. When it finished, it lay down next to me at the computer and began purring contentedly.

It was at this point that my brother Chris burst through the door and spotted the cat. The following conversation is printed verbatim:

Chris: "Awesome! We got a cat!"
Me: "It's not ours, it's just the neighborhood cat."

Chris: "No, it's not, I passed the neighborhood cat on my way up."

Me (peering out window): "You're right. Huh."

Chris: "We're keeping him, right?"

Me: "I dunno, I'm really allergic to cats..."

Chris (entranced): "We're definitely gonna keep him. You name him?"

Me: "What?"

Chris: "Did you name the cat?"

Me: "I hadn't thought about it."
Chris: "What about 'Kitty?'"

Me: "What? No."

Chris: "Why not?"

Me: "Because we're naming a cat 'Kitty.' That's idiotic."

Chris: "Britney
(Chris' girlfriend) has a dog named 'Puppy.'"
Me: "Well, that's uh... well... y'know, we don't even know if the cat is a boy or a girl. Check."

Chris (picking up cat): "It's a boy."

Me: "Are you sure?"

Chris (inspecting cat closer): "I think so. I think those are balls. Are those balls?"

Me (leaning in): "Yeah, those are balls."

So, the cat is ours, and the battle for naming the cat is still underway. Chris has also suggested "Bill," and rejected my first suggestion, "the captain." I've been leaning towards "McDermot," the name of the cat in Robert Lawson's Capt. Kidd's Cat, but remain torn, trying various names out on the cat to see if he responds to any. Unsurprisingly, he's failed to.

Still, in just a few hours, I've grown fond of the cat. He's taken to falling asleep on my chest while I watch television, which is charming and yet really bad for my health, as I have to try to shove him off once my eyes start to itch, at which point he starts trying to dig in with his claws. When I'm on the computer, he sits faithfully on the desk next to me and keeps me company, which is a skill that our dog Digger never mastered (not that he would have fit on the desk).

Sigh. Digger. The truth is that the reason that Chris and I want to keep the cat so much is that we miss Digger so terribly; and even if we haven't admitted as much to each other, we both know deep down that he's dead, and we both know the apartment is a depressing place with him gone. It's a code of silence neither one of us is comfortable breaking. Digger ran off from Britney's house while we were away over Christmas, and a month later, we still haven't had the heart to take down the stocking our mother made him. It still hangs joylessly in the living room, stuffed with bones and toys and who knows what else, and maybe will stay forever, as if whichever one of us that takes it down and empties it is the one that really ends the possibility that our dog is coming home.

And so the cat stays, for now, and we can keep pretending that we don't miss Digger as much as we really do. Though at leas this way, I'll have a good excuse for my eyes being puffy and bloodshot.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

And this is why I'd be a great TV exec

Focus Features decided to do a film based on the story of Anne Boleyn, and clearly had a casting meeting where someone said "could we simply cast the most attractive quality actors available for these roles without paying attention to any other details?" and everyone heartily agreed. Therefore, just as the fanboys have begged for it, we have movie starring both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson (as the world's most unlikely pair of sisters), along with Eric Bana as Henry VIII. This is a tack the History Channel has not tried yet, and I don't know why not, as even the vaguest possibility of a Scarlett Johansson sex scene would surely quintuple their numbers, but they keep futzing around with specials on WWII weaponry. Don't say I didn't tell you so, guys. Trailer is available here.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Sarah Connor Cronicles

I caught the first half of the pilot for "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" last night, and I have to admit I was impressed. "Terminator" seems built for the small screen - if the plot gets bogged down, just bring in another Terminator from the future - but I was more impressed how well the show was put together. Lena Headley's gotten a lot of press as the lead in the show, and she's just as good as everyone expected she would be. But my heart remains with the lovely Summer Glau, already adored by "Firefly" fans as the tortured government project capable of killing people with roundhouse kicks. Like Chuck Norris with amnesia after ten years of ballet. She's just as good here as John Connor's protective Terminator, adding indestructibility and, y'know, being a robot, to her arsenal of graceful kung-fu, but she hangs onto that cautious sincerity that sold millions of sci-fi fans on her years ago.

It's still up in the air if the show'll deliver on its promise as the weeks continue - people running away can get old quick, and so I'm still up in the air whether it'll be the 1963 version of "The Fugitive," or the 2000 version - but David Nutter directed a whiz-bang pilot. The creators keep throwing in a potpourri of different film stocks, up to and including Super-8 footage, and always keep the pace moving at an amphetamine-rush pace. It's not groundbreaking (but then, this is television), but it feels fresh and stays exciting and most importantly, fun. And it gives us the real possibility of a robot-human love story in the weeks ahead, which is worth turning your TV on for (at least, it is for me). The pilot's available at Fox if you want to check it out.

In other news, In The Name of the King has dropped to 3% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the Top 15 Worst Movies Of All Time. The sole good review for the film notes "Boll manages to hold this disaster in the making together by infusing it with unexpected energy." It is a bad sign when the single best review for your film calls it a disaster. A very bad sign.

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More Excitement!

The Globe and Mail - one of less than two dozen publications to review In The Name of the King so far - comments "Is this movie so god-awful bad that it's hilariously good? (We) can't be bothered deciding. Figure that's an answer in itself." The Globe and Mail - and by extension, all of
Canada - is nominated for today's award for general awesomeness. OC Weekly also has a slightly less fun review up, though it does put forth the likely correct theory that "Boll’s rather foolproof technique is to do all his casting at the very last minute, catching name actors between projects before they have a chance to think about things too much." That's almost certainly the case, and therefore OC Weekly snags a nomination as well.

But nothing tops today's winner, Sun Media's Jim Slotek, who notes "this is a different kind of bad than, say, the glossy, homogenous, boring Hollywood bad we get from a Michael Bay. This is an impassioned, feverish bad, the kind that is as pure of heart as it is innocent of style. Ed Wood bad." Bravo, Jim, you ridiculed the movie and got a shot in at Michael Bay! That's the sort of attitude I like to see from critics. Jim Slotek takes home the Awesomeness Award.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Someplace with really good food...

Just thought that I'd mention that Peracchio passed his oral assessment at the Federal Service Center in D.C. and is now in a queue of people waiting to be selected for overseas work at a U.S. Embassy, likely one in a French-speaking country. I'm rooting for one where I could vacation to easily, such as, um, France. Click over and congratulate him, he's earned it.

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The Reviews Flood In!

The Montreal Film Journal called In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale "not just awful, it's an insult to the art form that is cinema," and ends up so worked up they dropped two f-bombs right there in the review. How excited am I right now? Montreal Film Journal receives today's award for general awesomeness.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dance War: Bruno Vs. Carrie Ann

No, I have not watched the aforementioned show, though I've considered starting out of, I don't know, my love of ironic detachment. I just wanted to point out that this is, unquestionably the worst title for a television show since Farnsworth. Hands down.

I'm watching "Grey's Anatomy" for the first time to see this:

This show's not bad, it really is much better than the current version of "ER" (even without the presence of Linda Cardellini). They just played a Lifehouse song, and last year's theme was Mat Kearney's "Breathe In, Breathe Out." I wonder what the connection is between show and the Christian music industry. Something to check out later.

The Webb song just played, but deep in the background. Derek must be disappointed. I am. Still, I have seen several commercials promising "the thrill and ease of advanced microderm abrasion right in the home." The things I miss by watching the wrong shows.

Finally, Glenn Reynolds from Instapundit linked to a post tonight by my dad about a "Lord of the Flies" situation among Democrats these days. Go to the post and up the traffic to the site.

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Review: Juno (2007)

I only in the vaguest sense remember covering archetypes during my college years, whether it was during film school or Western Lit or a composition course, I don't recall. Something something Beowulf begat Lord of the Rings begat Star Wars begat Carl Jung droning on and on begat the Meyers-Briggs test begat this breathtakingly dull course, and so on. I wasn't particularly intrigued until it brought up Star Wars, and then only long enough to copy down someone else's notes befor falling asleep again (I slept a lot in college). But I did store the fact that an archetype (n., ar·che·type) is, as Jung put it, innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Or, less boorishly, a generic personality on whose framework we hang the basic themes of life.

It is certainly possible (and likely preferable) to talk about Juno and not address character archetypes, but I just don’t have any desire to. Juno is a sweet, delicate comedy about a girl named Juno (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant, keeps the baby, and makes plans to give it to a successful, beautiful couple who have no children. Hijinks do not ensue. There, I covered the plot, let’s talk about archetypes. Jung would be so proud, the pompous Swiss bastard.

A good portion of the reviews I’ve read of Juno focus on the fact that the film hands us characters we’ve seen before: popular best friends, geeky love interests, clueless parents, etc., then turns them on their head (though not literally, it’s not that sort of comedy), but I disagree. I don’t think the film (and by extension, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, whose efforts here I’ll address in a moment) are actively flipping these characters so that they do what we don’t expect, I think we’ve trained ourselves to believe that movie characters can only behave in certain patterns, and that whenever characters move in directions opposite of the ones which we have unconsciously charted for them, we read it as the creators playing with convention, without considering that the creators may have abandoned convention altogether.

There are only so many classic archetypes in literature - the Shadow, the Child, the Self, the Wisecracking Sidekick, Woody Allen, and the Top Hat all spring to mind as I recall my college notes - but we’ve adapted or created a large number for our film culture. Many are recognizable on sight; cinema is filled with the perfect girl who can’t see past her own feelings of inadequacy, the charismatic man who can’t learn to commit until the girl of his dreams is almost gone, the plucky underdog who needs to prove his worth to himself, and whatever the hell you'd call what Steve Zahn does. I don’t mean to dismiss archetypes in this column because archetypes are important, they help us relate to the story and to each other, which is why they’ve lasted so long. Luke Skywalker is an archetype, which is why so many people grow up believing, subconsciously (and sometimes consciously), that they’re just like him, a lonely kid with big dreams but even bigger, unrealized potential. God knows I believe it, and that’s without even getting into my deeply held belief that if I keep trying hard enough, I’ll discover I have the Force and won’t have to get up to grab the remote anymore.

The truth is that the characters of these movies don’t fit these molds because they’re real people. They're not actually real people, because this is not a documentary, not that anyone would see a documentary about a pregnant teenager, not even if it was filled with quaint indie acoustic songs, but my point is that they're like real people. They feel like real people. They don’t always act in absolute accordance to their beliefs, they get upset when they should be sympathetic, they have strange quirks that make us uncertain if we’d really want to spend a lot of time around them. Quirks are supposed to unequivocally draw you to or drive you from a character, so that their obsessive train-set hobby or love for abandoned parakeets tells you whether or not this is someone we should be rooting for, but Juno never lets you off that easy. The characters' interests are never metaphors for larger parts of their characters, they’re just pieces of who they are. Which makes it so much more moving when you see a character do the right thing, because there’s never any way to know, really, what they were going to do otherwise. We know, we always know, that Matthew McConaughey will get the girl at the end of the movie because he’s a charismatic man who can’t learn to commit, but he loves dogs and helps his autistic nephew win an archery competition, and so he’s bound to win her over a few minutes before her boat sails for the Galapagos. Here, we’re never quite certain.

Early in the movie, Juno treks to an abortion clinic and is accosted out front by a girl from her school who tells her that the baby inside of her has fingernails. We know, because we know what sort of movie this is, that Juno will not abort the baby, but to see her suddenly light up at the prospect that the fetus inside her has fingernails isn’t just a revelation to her, it’s a revelation to us. She leaves the clinic and we see, in that moment, another side of Juno; and the great part about this movie is that we get characters who have more than just two sides, so that we can continue discovering, the whole movie long, who these people are.

Juno – the character, not the movie – would probably be interpreted as part of the Skywalker mold in a traditional film critique, an adaptation of the plucky hero, but I think, if you had to put her into a box, she’s more like the perfect girl. Juno pretends to be clever and impulsive and unique and is too inadequate to realize that underneath she really is clever and impulsive and unique, and brave, and thoughtful, and wise. She never realizes it either, not even at the end, which is what makes her so attractive as a main character – we, too, would like to believe that we have brilliant qualities visible to everyone else but hidden eternally from us. Perhaps that’s Juno’s archetype, if such an archetype exists.

I’ve been reading Cluck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and there’s a section in it where he addresses, albeit briefly, the notion of archetypes in popular culture.

“The character of Angela on ABC’s short-lived drama My So-Called Life was Byzantine and unpredictable and emotionally complex, and all that well-crafted nuance made her seem like an individual. But Angela was so much an individual that she wasn’t like anyone but herself; she didn’t reflect any archetypes. She was real enough to be interesting, but too real to be important.

What’s interesting about the quote is that when Klosterman wrote it several years ago, it seemed truer than it is now. But My So-Called Life has stuck with popular culture better than Saved By The Bell (the show Klosterman was reviewing at the time), and is undergoing a bit of a revival right at the moment (a DVD box set was just released, and ABC is currently screening old episodes on their website). The show has proved to be more lasting not because it is better – though it certainly is – but because Angela was so real that it took us a long time to realize that she was important, and viewers related to her strongly because she was so much of an individual that it took us years to recognize that this made her just like us.

The wonder of Juno is that each character is so well-defined in their humanity that the decisions they make, both correct and incorrect, never seem out of place with who they really are, and yet each decision made moves the story speedily along. Diablo Cody, through Reitman’s direction and the stalwart performances of these actors, has made people so real that the smallest glance and hesitation explains volumes about who they really are, which is why these reviewers who spent the movie unconsciously filling in the gaps of their personalities with archetypes are so surprised at the end by the actions of the characters, when a closer observation would’ve revealed how true each action is the character we’ve seen developed the whole length of the film.

Indeed, I wondered if they managed to notice the characters at all. Most of the reviews heap praise on the film but – because every reviewer has to point out a flaw in every film in order to prove that they have liberal arts degree – they mention how the film is “fast-talking” or has “dialogue like a sugar rush,” or mentions an abundance of teen-speak and slang-heavy conversations, as if it's a good film held back by its desire to be too hip for the room. I make the opposite case, that the film is actually quite sparse in its use of dialogue. Truth be told, the exchanges sometimes move at a whip-fast pace, with Page in particular running her lines at a head-spinning rate. But the pace is never a stylistic choice, always a character one: Juno speaks so quickly to hide her uncertainty behind a solid wall of snark. But in the more delicate moments, Reitman and Cody know that the slightest hint will suffice.

There’s a part in the film where, upon meeting Juno, the adoptive mother (Jennifer Garner) says to her “Some people are born to be certain things; I was born to be a mother.” In that one line, with her tone and her smile and her posture, Garner conveys everything. Without another word, we understand that her whole life has been leading up to this moment, that the last five years have involved endless trying and fertility tests and nights spent lying awake and constant tension between her and her husband, yet Garner says the line with such hope that you understand that she really believes she was meant for this, that this has always been who she was meant to become. All with just one line.

Jason Reitman directs this film with the same effortless capability he showed in Thank You For Smoking, a movie he both wrote and directed. Tellingly, he focuses just as intently on what’s being said here as he did when it was his own words he was translating to screen. Reitman knows that this isn’t dialogue like a sugar rush; that every line matters, because he doesn’t have any archetypes for these people to hide behind. Here, the characters have to speak for themselves.

And the wonder of it is that, in a diluted world of lazy filmmaking, they actually do.

Four and a half stars out of five.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

The Iowa Caucus Makes Me Miss Josh Lyman

Watching the Iowa Caucus on TV - this is true - made me want to watch "The West Wing" again. I don't know what that says about me, that watching real-life political events makes me miss Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen starring in fake ones, but it can't be good. And yet I guarantee I'll be stopping by a Best Buy sometime this week to pick up the first season. The urge is just that strong.

Man, wait 'til New Hampshire, I'm gonna end up having long viewing marathons every night, like some sort of crazy binging addict. I bet I'll be finishing the third season by the time we get to Super Tuesday.

Excuse me, Super Duper Tuesday.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Welcome To The Captain

My new thrilling discovery is that Fran Kranz - the goofy kid who starred in Jake Kasdan's The TV Set as the terrible actor the studio loves who ruins David Duchovny's pilot - apparently did such a fine job ruining that pilot that CBS has cast him in an actual pilot. They're very different: The TV Set had a show called "The Wexford Chronicles" about a writer who comes home, whereas "Welcome To The Captain" is about a writer who thinks about coming home but, uh, doesn't. Here's the link.

In other news, I sent a fawning e-mail to ESPN's fantasy expert, Matthew Berry, which he then published. Most people would be embarrassed to link to this, but I am apparently pretty shameless. I'm down on the bottom.

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