Archive for June, 2008

EW’s New Classics List: Back to the Vault I

June 25, 2008

For those of you who have gazed upon Entertainment Weekly‘s New Classics list – i.e. their version of the best things to hit us in the last twenty-five years – have you, like me, felt nostalgia to the point of embarrassment at gazing upon some of the movie and television picks now available only by DVD or box set?

Particularly the TV list. I don’t know about you, but I can get invested in a television series to the point of clinical pathology. I know far more details, for example, about the life of Lorelei Gilmore from Gilmore Girls (no. 32 on the EW list) than I do about my closest female friends. Sad, but true. So when a series that I have given of my time – and my heart (sob) – ends its run, I grieve. To see so many of my departed friends on the EW “New Classics: TV” list makes me happy to see my friends again, while at the same time miss them all over again.

One of the series I miss most acutely is number 36 on the list, thirtysomething. This series, created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, ran from 1987 to 1991, and listed a small band of terrific writers including Paul Haggis and Jerry Stahl. What made the series so unique for the time, and therefore utterly addictive to me, was that this was a show not about doctors or police or private detectives – things I was never likely to see in my own personal adulthood – but about couples and families and kids and friendship. Their issues of work stress, faithfulness, illness, and disappointment in the daily minutiae were challenges I could either already relate to or envision myself addressing at some point in the near future.

Throughout its four seasons, though their hair stayed totally 80s, the characters all developed in engaging and surprising ways, except for Gary (Peter Horton), who basically stayed a likable pig, and Michael’s boss Miles Drentell (David Clennon), who also remained unrepentently amoral. [Random cross-reference: When Peter Horton showed up as Sophie’s wayward dad in In Treatment (not on EW‘s list, much to my horror), I praised the casting and resurrection of a character who was, essentially, Gary; the episode was, not to my surprise, directed by. . . Gary’s old girlfriend, Melissa (i.e. Melanie Mayron)] And they all got to say the best lines. A few that I was able to find on the Internet:

“Sorry we can’t answer the phone, ’cause Nancy has cancer.” Elliot (Timothy Busfield) on the answering machine

“I always try to get complimentary cookies. In fact, these cookies are downright obsequious.” Ellyn (Polly Draper) to a caterer

“Michael and I had just come out of this awful movie and were walking, we couldn’t find the car. It as just starting to get dark and we were laughing about it, but we were getting tired. All of a sudden I – leaned on this car and looked at at him and I didn’t see him, I just – heard him, like a pressure and a sound inside of me, in a a place so deep I didn’t think anyone could ever reach..And I knew I could listen to that sound for the rest of my life… Hope (Mel Harris)

Michael, Hope, and the gang, I (for one) still miss you. Congrats on making EW‘s list.

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List Heaven: EW’s Best of the Last 25 Years

June 23, 2008

Blue RibbonOh, Entertainment Weekly. Have you no shame? Must you toy with me so, publishing your “Best of” lists for movies, television, books, and music over the last twenty-five years? Do you not realize that I must now spend this week doing donuts down Memory Lane, writing about all the books, shows, and movies you’ve made me realize I must – MUST – write about on WordHappy or feel I have forever failed you all?

For today’s post, I will comment on their No. 1 picks. This does not, in my opinion, constitute a “spoiler,” since the lists are readily available for anyone to see on the EW website. But I did think about whether it was, so if anyone feels strongly about not seeing the number one picks, stop reading now.

No. 1 Movie: Pulp Fiction: Seen it. I’m sure there are other movies that I feel equally worthy of the number one title, but I can’t quibble too much. Particularly since the film, written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, has such a bonanza of quoteworthy dialogue (although strictly in an R-rated sense; trying to find a non-F-bomb quote for you all was rather a challenge):

Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros): I was looking at myself in the mirror.
Butch (Bruce Willis): Uh-huh?
Fabienne: I wish I had a pot.
Butch: You were lookin’ in the mirror and you wish you had some pot?
Fabienne: A pot. A pot belly. Pot bellies are sexy.
Butch: Well you should be happy, ’cause you do.
Fabienne: Shut up, Fatso! I don’t have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did “Lucky Star,” it’s not the same thing.
Butch: I didn’t realize there was a difference between a tummy and a pot belly.
Fabienne: The difference is huge.
Butch: You want me to have a pot?
Fabienne: No. Pot bellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I’d wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
Butch: You think guys would find that attractive?
Fabienne: I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.

No. 1 Television Show: The Simpsons. Seen it. Now again, I could quibble. My choice would have been The Wire, which EW has down ALL the way at number 11. But, having been a fan of Marge and Homer and the gang for most of the three million years the series has been on, I can’t be too upset at the pick. There is a list of writing credits for the show as long as my arm, but since IMdb reports that James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon each have 420 episodes to their name, I’ll give them the lion’s share of the credit. From phrases that have entered the American iconography – “Mmmm, donuts” and “D’oh!” to name just two, to longer pieces of dialogue that have left me weeping with laughter, the writing on this show has never been mediocre, and has often been great. It’s not often you can say that about a show.

Bart: [after they watch a foreign film] I was so bored I cut the pony tail off the guy in front of us. [holds pony tail to his head] Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
Marge: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.

Or. . .

Marge: Careful of that apple pie on the back seat…
Grampa: Uh-oh.
Marge: Grampa, are you sitting on the pie?
Grampa: I sure hope so.

No. 1 Book: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. As I just reviewed this book a couple months ago, I’m at peace with this choice as well. It’s brilliant and heartbreaking and accessible, and the upcoming movie will star Viggo Mortensen. Mmm, Viggo Mortensen.

Keep watching for further enlightening comments on the EW New Classics List. As I fall even further behind in real work that may pay me real money. Comme si, comme sa.

Fight or Flight: Southwest Airlines’ Satire on Added Fees

June 18, 2008

Flying ManAh, summer is here and the armchair traveler’s thoughts turn to fantasies of “anywhere but here.” Alas, the timing of summer just happens to coincide perfectly with the advent of the second mortgage tank of gas, the added charges for that second piece of checked baggage (you really didn’t want to go anywhere where the weather is variable, anyway), and the resultant birth of the “staycation” (I did not make that up, folks).

Which is why I was so tickled to see the latest Southwest Airlines commercial on tv. My better half and I had been joking about the baggage surcharge, wondering what could be next. He came up with the “oxygen surcharge” that would be collected once you were on the plane, as well as the fee imposed to get off the plane once you’ve reached your destination. He’s a funny guy when he’s disgusted, what can I say? When this commercial came on the air, it actually penetrated my husband’s “cone of silence” filter that allows him to ignore all advertising. So you know the ad had an impact.

See it for yourself:

The reason this ad works so well is that it takes a business decision that I would venture to guess most people feel is an egregious abuse of the airlines’ system of charging, and applies one of the primary principles of comedy to it – exaggeration.

As I have only flown Southwest once, many years ago, I can’t speak as to the airline itself. It may be a life-affirming experience. It may make you wish you were dead. I just don’t know. But the ad is terrific, and is perfectly in keeping with Southwest’s “average Joe” stylistic tone it uses on its website. My guess is Southwest will be gaining some travelers this summer.

Tops for Pops: Best Father’s Day Movie, Book, and Song

June 14, 2008

Field of DreamsFather’s Day snuck up on me this year like a cat in the dark. My cards got off late, the children did not draw a “too cute to live” picture in time, gifts only just got ordered. I do hope this is not proof that Father’s Day is the second-class citizen to Mother’s Day, as I’ve heard bandied about in some quarters. I would rather point to its date falling in the same week that school lets out as a possible defense for additional scatter-brained-ness.

Thus, as penance for my Father’s Day shortcomings, let me offer some bodaciously good Father’s Day offerings in multiple media.

My pick for all-time best movie for Father’s Day, guaran-darn-teed to make men of all ages and macho levels reach surreptitiously for the tissues, is Field of Dreams. Frankly, the Kevin Costner/Sports/Western movie genres (note: no Waterworld or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) could make up a Father’s Day movie bonanza all on their own. But Field of Dreams, based on the book by W.P. Kinsella and adapted for the screen by Phil Alden Robinson (who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for his efforts, by the way), is one of the very best. It involves baseball, the grown-up tensions between being “responsible” and following a dream, and the bond between fathers and sons. The final scene, where Ray (Costner) has realized the player John is his dad, and that he is about to walk away, is perfect in its simplicity:

John: Well, good night, Ray.
Ray: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away.]
Ray: Hey. . . Dad?
[John turns.]
Ray [choked up]: You wanna have a catch?
John: I’d like that.

I’m getting verklempt just typing it.

My second Father’s Day pick showcases the paragon of all good dads, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. While the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that I can think of, and while I can’t read the book without picturing Gregory Peck in those glasses as Atticus, I still contend that if you haven’t ever read the book, you should; and if you have read it, then you should re-read it, for the simple beauty of Lee’s prose. How perfect a character description is it to paint the pint-sized Dill as “a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.” Now, I can see as how Atticus might be an intimidating choice for a dad, because he’s so darn perfect. But most fathers I know have the same depth of love for their children that Lee’s writing depicts Atticus having for his children, so I would say he’s less of a role model than a tribute to fatherhood at its best.

Finally, for a song that is a gorgeous tribute to a father, take a listen to Ricky Skaggs‘ song, “My Father’s Son“, taken off his CD of the same name (1991). Skaggs has been playing bluegrass for more than 36 years, both as a singer and mandolin player, and his songwriting skills are prodigious. In “My Father’s Son,” Skaggs writes in the chorus:

Well a rich man writes the book of laws
a poor man must defend
But the highest laws are written on the
hearts of honest men
When that cup is passed to me to do what
must be done
Or a chunk of coal just carve these words
I was just my father’s son

So happy Father’s Day, guys! Enjoy the day, and know that you’re second to none.

A Panda with Po-tential: Kung Fu Panda

June 9, 2008

Kung Fu PandaOne of the best things about getting to see a movie when it opens is that it’s as close to a pure movie experience as you can get these days. No reviews, box office reports, spoiler alerts – it’s just a movie. And when it turns out to be good, or even great, you feel like you’re in on a juicy secret that’s just about to explode and go public. It’s exciting.

That’s why I’m so excited to be able to talk about Kung Fu Panda. Now, the movie made quite a nice bit of dosh over the weekend, bringing in $60 million, so obviously I was not the only person in on the ground floor of this movie’s success. But how fabulous is it when a movie is wildly successful and supremely crafted and written? No sequel riding on the coattails of an earlier movie, or based upon a successful sit-com. Nope – its success is predicated solely on the strength of the movie itself.

And lest you not believe me, this movie is extraordinarily well-crafted. The animation and scenery is stunning; the vocal talents of folks like Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman are finely tuned, and the story construction is wonderful. Black plays Po, a panda who works in a noodle house, but who dreams of kung fu. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, given freshness by the writing partnership of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris on the story, and King of the Hill alumni writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for the screenplay; FYI, there’s a terrific interview with Aibel and Berger over at Emanuel Levy‘s website that gives some insight into the various dynamics at play in the screenplay process. But, back to the movie. There is one scene involving steamed dumplings that reaches such perfection that it made me happier than any other scene has made me in years. Literally.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I desperately want viewers to go into the movie with as little advance knowledge as possible, in order to maximize the enjoyment. The movie works for any audience, whether kid or adult, kung fu aficionado or active pacifist. Because face it: who doesn’t love pandas?

Stephen King: The Writers’ Good Fairy

June 2, 2008

Stephen King press photo

Boy, do I love Stephen King. I have for decades, ever since I was filled with teen sturm und drang and sent him a fan letter praising Different Seasons in 1982 (to which he sent me a lovely reply postcard, thank you very much). I’ve followed his writing through his drug-addled days, post-recovery, dog-eared to death his writing advice/memoir On Writing, and drooled over many of his more recent works like Lisey’s Story. The man writes characters better than anyone out there. Period. No debate allowed.

But that’s not the sum total of why I love him, or why I’m writing about him today. The reason why I write about him now is because he has taken his Writers’ Good Fairy Magic Wand and touched it upon a writer’s work once again. King has been a columnist for Entertainment Weekly magazine for several years now, and has used his power not for evil, but for good. In 2003, he published a column praising Ron McLarty‘s then unpublished novel The Memory of Running, calling it the “best novel you won’t read this year.” Lo and behold, the novel subsequently was published by Viking for a boatload of money. Was King’s column a factor? Maybe, maybe not. Decide for yourself.

Just last year, King stepped up to bat once again, this time for thriller writer Meg Gardiner, whose novels had been published in Great Britain, but hadn’t yet been picked up in the U.S. What do you know? One month later, U.S. published Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, picked her up.

Now, King has done it again, bless his heart. In this week’s EW column (which isn’t up yet on their website, but probably will by next week), he’s chosen more of a known entity this time – Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. But I doubt that there are as many out there reserving his new book, The Garden of Last Days, at the library, as say, the newest Jack Reacher book by Lee Child. So King’s glowing imprimatur of Garden to the EW readership, which I imagine is pretty substantial, can only help the novel’s cause.

You know why I think Stephen King is so incredibly cool? Because he gets the WordHappy ethos: to find writing that excites and inspires you and then to shout it from the rooftops. If I were as gigundously famous as he is, would I still be championing the writing that moved me? I sure hope so. Am I happy that King does it for me? Dang skippy.

And Mr. King, if you ever happen upon this humble blog, don’t be a stranger.