Archive for July, 2008

Ridiculously Fun: The Ridiculous Race

July 29, 2008

There’s nothing like a loooong plane ride trapped in the middle seat between two sleeping seatmates to make you pray to the heavens that you have a good book to keep you occupied. Fortunately for me, I was reading The Ridiculous Race. Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran have written a travelogue that reads like the love child between Bill Bryson‘s work and the ouevre of Will Farrell.

[Random book-buying note: If you purchase this book, write down the name somewhere. I went to buy it at the nearest Barnes & Noble, armed with nothing but the memory of good reviews from Entertainment Weekly and People magazine. “It’s titled something like ‘The Amazing Race,’ except that it’s not that name, obviously,” I told the woman at the help desk, when I did not see it displayed in the new books display. She proceeded to type in “The Amazing Race” and unsurprisingly did not come up with the book.

“Try just typing ‘race’ in the Title filter,” I suggested. She gave me a withering look and told me that such a search would elicit about 1.75 million responses. “Even if you narrowed the search to the last two months?”

Ooooh. She hadn’t thought of that. She tried what I suggested and immediately the name of the book came up. Learn from my mistakes. Unless you want the Barnes & Noble lady to look at you like you too are a moron, remember the name of the book.]

The set-up is simple: Steve and Vali, in a drunken fit of brilliance, decided that they should race to see who could circumnavigate the globe first using any mode of transportation except airplanes. The fact that one of them brazenly cheats on this primary rule almost from the get-go detracts from none of the enjoyment of the book – it in fact makes it funnier. The boys (for it is not possible to write of them as anything but boys) have an impressive humor pedigree: Hely writes for the cartoon comedy American Dad! and Chandrasekaran writes for the oft-cartoonish My Name is Earl.

And the book is very, very funny. For example, Vali goes to see a show in Egypt whose headliner is the most famous belly dancer in Egypt. He writes:

Two cute Japanese girls on vacation sat nearby. I shifted the position of my chair to make sure they could see me.

VALI: WHAT I WAS AIMING FOR

I took a long drag off my cigarette before resting it on the edge of the ashtray. Then I swirled the cheapest scotch on the nightclub’s menu around in my tumbler before taking a contemplative sip. Ahh life, I thought.

“I notice you were sitting alone, writing in a notebook.” I looked up to find the cuter of the Japanese girls. She licked her lips and continued, “Do you have some sort of book deal?”

VALI: WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING

The Japanese girls giggled like Japanese girls in movies do as the Important Arab Guy, who by then had started drinking the most expensive scotch on the nightclub menu, charmingly teased them, then invited them to sit at his table.

I continued drinking alone.

There is also a scene with Steve in China that rivals anything the makers of South Park have ever come up with. I almost woke my seatmates up, I was laughing so hard.

But what takes the book to another level, and saves it from being a cute throwaway, is that often without your noticing it, the boys manage to have an insight about a place, or their experience, that is both grown-up and maybe even a little deep. Whether Vali is commenting on how his race has affected the race, or Steve is commenting on how the United States is like the prettiest girl in high school, you start thinking that there might have been something to this race other than an expensive prank, that maybe they have been changed. Then again, maybe not.

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Hits and Misses of the Emmy Noms: Clearly, They Don’t Read WordHappy

July 17, 2008

The Emmy nominations are out! The Emmy nominations are out! I can’t wait to see my favorite shows on here. But, wait. . . I see some, yet there seem to be some rather gaping holes – dare I say, abysses (abyssi?).

Let’s recount the television shows I have hailed this year:

30 Rock: Okay, the Emmy people love this show as much as I do. Included among their 17 (!!!) Emmy nominations: Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actor (Alec Baldwin) and Lead Actress (Tina Fey), and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (for TWO episodes).

Pushing Daisies: Despite its shortened season due to the writers’ strike, this show scored pretty well in the Emmy nominations, mostly scoring nods for acting and its arty look. But wait – what’s this I see? A writing nomination for the pilot episode. Hooray!!

In Treatment: BOO!! Bad Emmy people! Only four nominations, with a deserved three for acting (Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, and Glenn Turman) – where’s the love for Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), people??? And no writing nominations. For shame.

The Wire: I can barely write this. One. Lousy. Nomination. A show that virtually ALL television critics hailed as maybe the best, most intelligent series on television, EVER – and it scores one nomination. Granted, it’s for the writing in the series finale. But please. That’s an insult.

LOST: I’m still bitter about The Wire, frankly. Yeah, whatever. Outstanding Drama nomination. Big whoop. Where’s the writing nomination for “The Constant,” the brilliant and emotional time loop episode featuring Desmond? I’ll tell you where. In the crazy time warp that the island apparently went to, because it’s sure not here.

So. Some hits. Some misses. Some egregious errors. There’s always next year.

Aces: Carl Hiaasen’s The Downhill Lie

July 14, 2008

Carl Hiaasen is funnier than watching a herd of cows trying to sing “Feelings” a cappella.

I’ve been a huge fan of his novels for years, which manage to combine vivid description of the wilder parts of Florida (and by wild, I mean “natural,” as opposed to college girls on spring break) with world-weary heroes and absolutely loony, not-too-bright villains. For people who haven’t yet discovered Hiaasen, start with my personal favorites, Tourist Season (introducing one of my all-time favorite characters, Skink) and Skin Tight, which will have you looking at weed whackers in an entirely new light.

Still, Hiaasen’s most recent book is a memoir about his bipolar relationship with golf, entitled A Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport. Anyone who has ever taken up the game or been widowed by a significant other who has taken up the game is going to love this book because it’s all about golf and why we continue to play it even when we’re just not that good at it. But you don’t have to be all that conversant in the sport to enjoy the book. A Downhill Lie actually resonates with a lot of emotion, stemming around the relationship Hiaasen had with his father, the memories of his dad, and the relationship Hiaasen is now forging with his young son – and how golf acts as the fulcrum that supports these relationships.

Now, lest you think I’m going all Field of Dreams on you, let me remind you that Hiaasen is a funny funny man. He can out-simile the best of them, and does in this book:

My first major mistake was prematurely asking to join my father for nine holes, a brisk Sunday outing during which I unraveled like a crackhead at a Billy Graham crusade.

Hooking a new Pro VI [golf ball] into the drink is like totaling a Testarossa while pulling out of the sales lot. It makes you want to puke.

After finishing this read, no matter whether you’re a weekend golfer, gave up the sport, or have never wanted to hold a golf club in your life, you’ll come away with the same conclusion: you made the right decision.

Slings and Arrows: Right to the Heart of Good Writing

July 11, 2008

I had for a couple years now been hearing about a Canadian series about a Shakespeare Festival that had been shown on the Sundance Channel and had a mad cult following. The series was called Slings and Arrows, and people talked about it as if it were the best thing to come out of Canada since Anne Murray. So, obviously, I had to check it out.

All three seasons are available as a boxed DVD set, which I obtained under guise of an anniversary present, and my better half and I have been having a fine old time watching all the episodes. It has been such a joy to watch that it’s one of those times when you’re sad when you’ve reached the end.

In a nutshell, Slings and Arrows follows the misadventures of the New Burbage Theatre troupe of actors and administrators during three seasons of plays. Its main characters are Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, one of the handsomest men ever, second only to Ewan McGregor – and my better half. . . – dodged THAT bullet!), the new artistic director of the New Burbage who sees ghosts and may or may not be completely crazy; Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, formerly of Kids in the Hall), hapless manager who loves musicals more than the Bard; and Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), the reigning diva actress whose diva-ness masks deep insecurities. In each season, the subplots of the cast resonate with some of the same themes of the Shakespearean play being produced. The series, created and penned by Susan Coyne, Tecca Crosby, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, expertly weaves the stories in and around Shakespeare‘s plays, and manages in the interim, to bring the Shakespeare itself to life as well. The final season’s performance of King Lear is about the most gut-wrenchingly good acting I’ve ever seen.

And lest you think that a show about Shakespearean actors would be serious and dull, consider some of these random dialogue moments:

Guard: Are you a suicide risk? Geoffrey Tennant: Isn’t everybody?

Richard Smith-Jones: What the hell are we going to do? I mean, I know what I’m going to have to do. I’m going to have to go to the Minister of Culture and beg for money like some kind of blind hurdler.

Richard Smith-Jones: Darren, everybody cries when they get stabbed. There’s no shame in that.

Mull that over for a few, then run, don’t walk, to rent or buy this wonderful series. It will be time well spent.

TV’s The Middleman: The Big Cheese in Summer Fare

July 7, 2008

Hallelujah! My prayers have been answered and I can begin to set my DVR again. For WEEKS now, we have had nothing scheduled on it but RENO 911!, and a half hour of silliness is not enough to satisfy my inner couch-potato.

But a new, non-reality show(!) has emerged on, of all places, ABC Family, and it is cool and refreshing as watermelon. The Middleman, which airs Mondays on ABC Family at 10 pm, is a spoofy, self-referential superhero show based on the series of graphic novels by Javier Grillo-Marxuach. The Middleman himself (played by Matt Keeslar) is a milk-loving, crime-fighting, clean-mouthed, alien-busting hero who doesn’t know where his assignments or super-cool gadgets come from – he’s just the middleman. In the pilot, he recruits Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), a painter who doesn’t bat an eye when confronted with an alien, to join him in his justicey ways.

The pilot of The Middleman, “The Pilot Episode Sanction,” written by Grillo-Marxuach, contained references to no fewer than 15 classic television shows or movies, including The Jetsons, The Incredibles, Planet of the Apes, The Godfather, and The Avengers. It also had wicked clever dialogue like the following:

Wendy (describing her mom): She’s on me 24-7 to to quit painting, move back to Orlando, meet a good man, eat fried foods, swell up like a tick and start squeezing out calves like Elsie mainlining fertility drugs.

Wendy: Well who do you work for?
The Middleman: I got recruited, the exact same way you did. When the last Middleman hired me, he never said and I never asked. Ida was already there, so were all the weapons and gadgets and things. Sometimes a box comes in with more weapons and gadgets and things. I don’t know where they come from; they just do. Maybe Ida runs the show, maybe it’s the conspiracy. Maybe it’s God. I’m just The Middleman.

This show has much the same vibe as my beloved cartoon series The Tick, with the Middleman throwing off random bits of wisdom disguised in mangled metaphors, such as “Self-knowledge is the gateway to freedom” or “It’s bad apples like you that put Mr. Hoover in a dress.” It’s a hoot. Check it out.

Political Writing: Ghoulishly Good White House Ghosts

July 4, 2008

In honor of Independence Day, I was looking back at the Declaration of Independence, adopted on this date in 1776. I considered writing about that fine piece of work, the words that should be imprinted upon every American’s brain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It truly is gorgeous writing, meant to be uttered aloud, the words savored in the mouth like fine wine.

But then I thought about how, despite the primary authorship of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence is one of the first pieces of American political writing to emerge successfully from editing by committee (Jefferson might disagree as to its success). And that led me to thinking about an amazing book I just finished reading by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. This book covers the history of political speechwriters from FDR‘s administration up through the end of George W. Bush‘s first term. It’s WordHappy-worthy on two levels: first, Schlesinger himself does a beautiful job of laying out history in relation to a president’s relationship with his advisers and speechwriters. Secondly, the excerpts of the speeches themselves and some of the thoughts of the speechwriters quoted in the book make great reading as well.

As you read each chapter, it is fascinating to see how each president reacted differently to the challenge of communicating with the American people, whether it be on a campaign train, or via radio or television. Even more fascinating is how we learn that occasionally, being a good writer could be a detriment for a president. Jimmy Carter, for example, preferred to write his own speeches and did not use his speechwriters to their potential. But this proved to be his undoing – he did not have enough time to do his own speeches justice, and they were very badly received. [Note to Obama, who is alleged to write much of his own material: If you make it to the White House, sir, learn to delegate the writing.]

It is also fascinating to see how the process has evolved. In FDR’s tenure, he used a small stable of trusted advisers to write his speeches, that he then edited. The editing and clearance by committee apparently can be attributed to Gerald Ford‘s administration, specifically chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. [Please appreciate the strength of character it takes that I am not making any partisan comments about this dubious honor, nor about the writing of “shadow speeches” — speeches not written by the speechwriting department — by Ford’s second chief of staff Dick Cheney. Must. Bite. Tongue.] Schlesinger uses the words of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, to describe the process:

By Noonan’s estimate an insignificant speech would go to twenty people for approval, a major one to fifty. . . This process was “like sending a beautiful newborn fawn out into the jagged wilderness where the grosser animals would pierce its tender flesh and render mortal wounds,” Noonan wrote in her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution. “But perhaps I understate.”

This book is an absolute must-read in today’s political climate, for anyone who is interested in the leaders running our country and the extremely dedicated men and women trying to craft those leaders’ messages to the public.

Happy July 4th, everyone!

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

July 1, 2008

I’ve looked over Entertainment Weekly‘s New Classics: Movies list now several times, and something strikes me: I’ve seen probably 90% of the films listed, but there were only a handful when I read the title that I had a visceral reaction of a hand-pumping “Yes! I LOVE that movie!” I recall enjoying the vast majority of them, but very few of them were memorable enough that I consider them “repeater-worthy”, i.e. would want to watch them again on several (or even one) repeat viewings.

My showcase film today is a notable exception. It’s one where when I saw the title, I heaved a gigantic contented sigh, and said, “Oh, yes. They got that one right.” (And before you ask, I do talk to myself – all the time, in fact). It is No. 10 on the New Classics movie list: Moulin Rouge! (2001). This film, directed by Baz Luhrmann and written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, is pure melodrama injected with absinthe. It’s definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, and I can respectfully acknowledge those people who hated it with a deep and abiding passion. But you can’t be indifferent about it, and how many movies can you say that about?

The plot follows a classic romance formula: a naive writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), gets drawn into the world of the Moulin Rouge and falls in love with its star, Satine (Nicole Kidman). There’s a villain and, of course, a secret deadly illness, and lots of singing and dancing. Despite the fine acting by Kidman and McGregor [random digression: Ewan McGregor singing “Come What May” is perhaps the single most romantic scene in filmdom EVER. Is it warm in here? Pardon me while I fan myself a moment.], where the movie truly excels, and what lifts it into the realm of the “repeater-worthy” movie, is its use of style and tone. From the opening frames until the closing credits, Luhrmann maintains the frenetic, kinetic energy through the saturated colors, the camera angles and fast cuts, even the actors’ pacing of the dialogue. It takes what could have been a bland, formulaic disaster of a musical and makes it utterly brilliant and new.

What movies from the EW Movies list do you consider to be “repeater-worthy?”