My Vacation in “Ruins”

I just returned from San Juan, Puerto Rico where I spent the Valentine’s Day weekend lounging on the beach, reading and soaking up the sun. Unfortunately, one of the books I selected was Scott Smith’s “The Ruins,” and it pretty much ruined any chance I had of relaxing. Probably forever.

The book takes place in Mexico, around Cancun, and follows two couples as they journey to the interior with a friend searching for his brother, who’s gone off to find an archaeological site where a girl he met is working. Deep in the jungle they find a large hill entirely covered in vine, an area encircled by a large track of salted dirt; tiny blood red flowers pepper the lush greenery clinging to the mound. What follows, as our group becomes marooned atop that hill, is nothing short of absolute horror.

I was rattled by this novel like I’ve been by no other and captivated by the exceptional, clear, not entirely dispassionate voice of Smith’s writing. The characters, all on the precipice of adulthood, all indulging in one last fling before responsibilities set in, are helpless as grim mortality slowly closes in around them, ultimately leaving only the useless, awful “ruins” of childhood.

After nine hours of wonderful, excruciating suspense, I dropped the book in the communal basket of paperbacks out by where you’d pick up towels on the way to the beach.  Pick it up if you like great writing and aren’t afraid to go down into the dark.  Or if you just want to ruin your vacation.

Giant Upset

Last night in Nevada, the rag tag, underdog New York Giants spit in perfection’s eye and denied the New England Patriots football immortality by winning Superbowl XLII.  A thrilling and truly shocking championship game, probably the best ever, certainly the best I’ve ever seen.  One can hardly imagine a more dramatic four quarters of football, climaxing in what will go down in Giant’s history as “The Play.”  Facing third-and-five on their own 44-yard line with one minute and 15 seconds to play, Manning somehow escaped certain doom as two Patriots defenders failed to wrap up the sack, allowing Eli just enough daylight to fire a pass down the center of the field.  Giant’s receiver David Tyree leaped high and snatched the ball from the air as Patriots safety Rodney Harrison grabbed him from behind, pulling Tyree over backwards, frantically clawing at the ball.  Tyree pressed the ball against his helmet as he slammed to the ground and somehow maintained control of it for a 32-yard gain to give the Giants a first down at the 24-yard line with 59 seconds left.

“The Play” set up Manning’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to go, delivering  one of the greatest upsets in football history and making our New York Giants Superbowl champions.

MAD about it

AMC’s “Mad Men” wrapped up it’s first season last week and I finally had a chance to check it out via DVR last night. Thank the TV gods that there will be a second season, because this show is a masterpiece of the highest level, easily standing toe-to-toe with the best film, literature and the stage have to offer. The season ending episode, entitled “The Wheel,” managed to bring a number of plot lines to a head, but in a perfectly natural way, without any sense of forced conclusion. The episode, like many others, managed to weave together real period details pertaining to a big Kodak account, with character developments which have been building since episode one. In the episode’s penultimate scene, the Sterling/Cooper agency’s big pitch to Kodak, the production achieved a  level of sublime…almost poetry, which was moving in a way I’ve rarely encountered. The way that this drama skates between true details of 1960’s America, the randomness of life and the pleasing symmetry of fiction, is awe inducing.  I’m not big on synopsising, and I’d hate to spoil even a moment of what this truly brillant series has to offer, but trust me, this is one DVD box set you must own. I can not wait to watch it again. And probably again.

Losing It

“Superbad,” the latest release from the hot-streaking camp of producer Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up”), written by Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg and directed by Greg Mottola, is unquestionably hilarious. We are in the midst of a creative explosion from Apatow, one which recalls the career of Harold Ramis in the eighties. Ramis was at the heart of an absurd level of quality comedy during those years, everything from “Animal House” to “Meatballs” to “Caddyshack” and “Stripes.” Often working within low budgets, marked by casual staging and fairly artless cinematography, Ramis often infused these films with a quiet, everyman quality not seen before: the orgin of the schlub hero. Apatow clearly feels some kinship with him, even replicating a faux low budget look, and it seems no coincidence that he cast Ramis as Seth Rogan’s father in “Knocked Up,” which played almost like a warped remake of “Stripes,” with fatherhood standing in for the United States Army. Only somehow Bill Murray and Harold Ramis invading East Berlin in an armored RV seems more realistic than Katherine Heigel having sex with Seth Rogan. In fact, there are often moments of wish fulfillment like this undercutting the more “realistic” tone and questioning Apatow’s role as rightful heir to Ramis, and no, I’m not talking about the Age of Aquarius dance number which closes out “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” In the world of Apatow, “reality” is often overcome by fantasy.

Now comes “Superbad,” the filthy, tender tale of two best friends, Seth & Evan (Jonah Hill & Michael Cera), on the verge of high school graduation, going through separation anxiety and sexual panic over the course of one nutty night. The main character’s names are obviously not the only autobiographical elements in a film with a decidedly unromantic bent. Clearly inspired by the looking-to-shed-our-virginity subgenre of teen comedies popularized in the 80’s (“Going All the Way, The Last American Virgin, Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) , “Superbad” opens with a Columbia logo from that era (shades of “Grindhouse”) and promptly sets about deconstructing conventions dating back almost twenty-five years. You’ll find no Ferris Buellers here, just the kinds of guys usally reduced to sight gags often involving thick glasses, runny noses and pants pulled up way too high. I’ve read that Rogan & Goldberg began writing this back in high school, fueled by the wide gap between the idealized visions they were seeing on the big screen and the crap they were actually going through between english and gym. It’s revenge of the nerds.

The two boys at the center of the film are awkward and unpopular and ultimately (spoiler) fail to accomplish what they set out to do, which only serves to highlight their endearing humanity. We are truly living in the golden age of the geek, where every comic book collector (present company included) is a potential auteur and, onscreen anyway, the lower you rank on the social scale, the more likely you are to be OUR HERO. This is a reflection of the strong movement towards “realism” in pop culture these days, which is really nothing more than a result of shifting perspectives. History is written by the winners and right now the winners are the losers. However, “Superbad” has another storyline, one which directly contrasts “reality.”

Christopher Mintz Plasse plays Fogel, a geek’s geek, who is on first glance even more socially inept than the two main characters. He acquires a fake I.D. near the start of the movie and Seth and Evan press him into using it to buy liquor so they can get a couple of girls drunk in the hopes of getting laid. Fogel’s decision to use the one word moniker “McLovin” on his bogus Hawian driver’s license, a cooler-than-cool persona he aspires to, results in a self fulfilling prophecy. Caught up in a robbery at the local liquor store, Fogel encounters two cops, one played by co-writer Seth Rogan and the other by Bill Hader, a talented recent addition to the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” From this point on, Fogel is transformed into “McLovin,” and everything he touches turns to gold in a manner which would turn Ferris green with envy. This is where “reality” jumps out the window and we are treated to a succession of increasingly outlandish events as Fogel and the cops get sidetracked. These are two very unlikely peace officers, the type which do not occur in nature, drunkenly careening from place to place and bending over backwards for Fogel, who they seemingly hold in great esteem, for no real reason. And here is where the film’s understated, realistic tone falters, undercut by what feels like the most clichéd elements of those films which Rogan & Goldberg originally rebelled against. This is certainly the point, but it slows the film’s momentum and deeply undercuts the sweet relatability  of the rest of the film. This element is pushed to a head-scratching extreme which sees the cops setting fire to their own cruiser in order to cover up their night of incompetent debauchery. Here there is a real sense of trying to wed the fantasy of the 80’s sex comedies with the more mundane tone we’ve associated with Apatow since he emerged fully formed with his portrait of dork life on TV’s “Freaks & Geeks.” These elements don’t mesh well together, not anymore than Katherine Heigl would mesh with Seth Rogan, as “Knocked Up” would have us believe. Let’s face it, there is no woman in this universe who aspires to an on-air job with E! and also finds husband material in an unemployed, overweight pothead with a jewfro. And in “Superbad,” Rogan’s alter ego (Jonah Hill) is PURSUED by Jules (Emma Stone), a girl so out of his league that her attraction to him calls everything into question. At first, it seems that she is only interested in Seth as a means to aquiring booze, but we find (spoiler) that it is simply a way of getting close to him. This is the point at which all illusions of realism are shattered. Luckily, it is also pretty damn close to the conclusion.

I can’t help but catch a whiff of the geek’s unrequited desire to hang with the cool kids in this blatant wish fulfillment. Come on Apatow, I know you’re married to quite a dish (Leslie Mann, who was hilarious in both “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) but, no matter what Tom Petty says, losers hardly ever get lucky.

R(acism)OBOTS in disguise!

God help me, I saw Michael Bay’s “Transformers” on opening weekend. I don’t know that I have a good excuse. Except to mention that my own glorious (and ongoing) adolescence dawned during the golden era of the big, dumb action movie and, because of this now near Pavlovian conditioning, I am maybe weaker than I should be when it comes to summer blockbusters. I’ve been this unreasonably compelled since “Jaws” (which I didn’t see at the movies) and “Star Wars” (the memory of which often seems like my first) created the link between warm weather and big explosions. School would end, the sun would shine, action would erupt from the big screen and every year it would get bigger and bigger, if not better. Still, like all good thrills, I chased them, and continue (in my shame) to this very day.

In 1984, I was a year away from graduating high school, and more than a little too old for the original “Transformers” toys, or the subsequent cartoon series. Of course, I still read comics (still do) so I was well aware of the “robots in disguise,” but they sure didn’t resonate with me. I thought they were silly. Robots that turn into cars? What a demotion! Sure, they’re hiding out here on earth, but come on, who takes something cool like robots and morphs them into Hondas?

Okay so, let’s get this out of the way quick, the special effects are incredibly detailed and vividly realized, even if the design work is too busy by half. It isn’t easy to believe that all that elaborate robot gear could squeeze down into those vehicles, and the physics seem wonky as a result. Of course, this is a Michael Bay movie so more is always more and never enough. Honestly, “Transformers,” is hardly worth analyzing. It is a dumb movie, with dumb dialogue, redeemed only by Shia Laboeuf’s game performance and (to a lesser extent) Megan Fox’s shallow beauty and Josh Duhamel’s charisma.

What struck me with the most force was the neo-minstrel act forced on Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson. Sadly, these are two actors who I’ve grown to respect over the years. Anderson most recently distingushed himself on FX’s “The Shield,” as Antwon Mitchell, the entrepreneurial gang leader who went toe to toe with Michael Chiklis’ ferocious Vic Mackey. Anderson followed that up with a small role in “The Departed,” arguably the very definition of arriving as a serious actor. Bernie Mac’s self-titled Fox sitcom picked up on the anger and darkness evidenced in his stand up act and developed it into a bona fide work of art. A few years earlier, Mac bitterly complained in the concert film, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” that, in contrast to the milktoast Steve Harvey, the powers that be would never let a black man like him (angry? truthful?) have a sitcom, so the show’s critical and popular success carried a ring of true artistic vindication. When he pops up early in “Transformers,” as a shady used car salesman, it is a truly heartbreaking moment. After chasing off a co-worker, while flying through his obviously dishonest sales pitch, Mac points out his beloved “Mammy” sitting in the yard nearby, claiming he would never lie in front of her. She flips him off in response and he goes on to sell the main character a car (really a Transformer) which he doesn’t even own.

Anthony Anderson comes along later, playing a computer whiz, a move I’m sure the producers thought of as casting against type, but he hardly comes across as intelligent. As comic-relief, Anderson yuks it up as an opertunistic coward. When he and a female government agent are being held awaiting interrogation, he gravely instructs her to say nothing, extolling the virtues of their unbreakable solidarity. Then the authorities walk in and he instantly cracks, braying that it was all her fault and begging, shamelessly for mercy.

There is one other black character in the movie, a soldier played by Tyrese Gibson, but he is little more than a prop. The hardass who barks a few times, but doesn’t rate the character detail of a wife and child like Josh Duhamel’s character.

Because “Transformers” is a product pitched at a world audience and black faces are even less common on screens in the far and middle east than they are here, stereotypes tend to rule the day in these huge movies. They tend to translate (like the braindead dialogue) easier into cultures from India to China, where black people are still considered far less than equal. It could be argued that women face similar issues, but, aside from rote oversexualizing, American filmmakers do not bow to the majority view when it comes to portrayals of female characters. Let’s face it, there is a lot more money to be had in catching a glimpse of Megan Fox’s thong than in watching her take a turn in a snazzy new burka. In fact, America’s reputation as a depraved culture probably grants us quite a bit of leeway around the world when it comes to sexuality. I guess it all depends on your definition of “depraved.”

End of the Road

“The Sopranos” series finale aired last night, and reaction is decidedly split. Interestingly enough, I’m currently working at HBO, cutting a pilot for a late night series which may eventually see the light of day on sister network Cinemax. (In little more than a half hour, we’re scheduled to screen the work-in-progress for the first time, so it’s an interesting day.) Chatter around the water cooler has varied. My producer enjoyed it, with some reservations, almost talking himself into his positive review. A young guy across the hall was very disappointed and took the episode’s abrupt blackout as definitive evidence that Tony was killed. The woman in the office next door thought the finale was brilliant, but was worried by the negative response across the web. Based on my surfing, it looks mostly like a lot of snarky critics taking the opportunity to illustrate their unbelievable artistic standards. One woman wasn’t quite sure what to make of the episode, her otherwise high opinion derailed by the final moment, and another loved it without reservation.

Now, I’ve had my problems with “The Sopranos” over the years. The first rumblings of discord came with the sudden loss of Nancy Marchand’s Livea Soprano and the computer generated attempt to extend her “life.” I am not convinced that David Chase ever intended, or prepared for, a series without the central Mother/Son conflict. With this loss, the series begins to vamp and improvise as it struggles to find a new focus. This leads us into an unsatisfying extended visit from Ralph Ciffereto, lengthy, detailed portraits of fringe characters (Furio, David Scatino, Tony Blundetto) and eventually to last year’s epic tale of Vito the homosexual gangster. Over the course of the series, I felt real animosity towards the viewers: an almost sadistic refusal to dwell on any of the more “popular” elements and a mocking tone which briefly threatened to turn the whole enterprise into parody. This reached a zenith with season three’s endless fascination with Jackie Junior and kept going strong through the chaotic season four. It seemed to me that we were being punished for liking the show, and why not? Who were we to elevate this criminal scum to pop idol status?

David Chase and company excelled at drawing us in and then pushing us away. The moment we begin to truly feel for these colorful mobsters, the show smacks us in the face with the grim, hateful reality of who they really are. Like Ralph’s pregnant stripper girlfriend getting beat to death in a dingy parking lot or Sil dragging Adriana to her doom or Christopher spilling his guts and then executing his confessor. That balancing act was what made this show so special and in the end this refusal to compromise or pander (please?) stood as its final statement.

The finale was the perfect conclusion to a fine final season, one which represented a real return to form. I know we’ve grown to love these horrible people, but in the end, this was a portrait of mundane evil in triumph and a searing indictment of American society, as represented by us, the viewing public. The entire series is an allegory for our lives, our dysfunctional families and the coping mechanisms we construct to deny our essential flaws. Tony was truly “healed” by therapy (“I’m Free!”), he became a better gangster (sparing Paulie and icing Christopher), learned to express his emotions (hilariously, in front of a mortified Carmella), reconnected with family (sharing an evil laugh with Janice), moved on from his painful childhood (visiting Uncle Junior) and got his kids on the “right” path (Meadow into such a state of denial that she wants to be a lawyer to defend people like him and AJ heading away from the honorable and toward degradation/the movie business.

In the course of the finale, we are shown all the possible futures for Tony and his kind; forgotten like Uncle Junior (“You ran New Jersey”), worked-to-death like Paulie, really dead like Bobby (his funeral just another excuse to chow down) or shot down in the street like Phil Leotardo. We’ve been told time and again that there is no way out of the life. All that remains is now. Tony plays out his final moments in a surreal landscape, clever cutting making it seem as if he catches sight of himself already seated when he enters the diner. Then events unfold in time to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” as oddly familiar faces enter one after another. The feeling of dread mounts as the rest of the Sopranos arrive, and tension continues to build until we feel poised on the very precipice of certain tragedy. Just as we all are every moment of our own lives. And at the center of this final moment, is the fragile family, eating onion rings as AJ reminds his father that he taught him to cherish the good times. What else is there? So, as Journey urges us to “…hold on to that feeling,” and as dark forces swirl, be they a guy going into the john or the threat of terrorism, we are, with the sudden blackout, like Tony, suspended between life and death forever, doing our damnedest as we face an uncertain future.

Brilliant.

 

EPILOGUE: Check out this thoughtful review from New York Times’ critic Matt Zoller Seitz:

Uncatagorized

We’re off to Chicago in a few hours. My sister is graduating from college and the ceremony takes place this weekend. Next week I’m starting a new job at HBO.  Should be interesting.

S3

“Spider-Man 3” is a sprawling, goofy mix of frenetic CGI and earnest melodrama, more squarely focused on characterization than either of the previous films. Story development takes a backseat to the emotional problems of Harry, the career (?) setbacks of Mary Jane and Peter’s near descent into dickishness. This is very much in keeping with the original source material, and Sam Rami’s devotion to the tone of those early comics is the most endearing element of the franchise: he is that “true believer” Stan was always calling out to from his soapbox. And yes, we are very lucky to have Rami steering the ship, but this approach crowds out too much in this already busy (Sandman, Venom AND Goblin Jr?) narrative. So, while we get plenty of well realized moments depicting the subtle inner workings of the MJ/Peter relationship, we have to make due with clunky plot devices like Venom falling to earth in a meteor convienently near where the lovebirds are stargazing. Even worse is the moment when the bad guys team up, a scene which falls almost immediately after Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock initally becomes the shape-changing Venom. With a rushed explanation that he knows everything about the Sandman, that he’s been looking for him and that he shares his hatred of Spider-Man, the villians unite. How he knows anything about the Sandman is not covered, although, in the comics it was always true that Venom, being a symbiotic creature, had total knowledge of Peter and his life, as it was literally a part of him. It is a systemic problem, this blundering rush to set up the final act; Harry’s blood vendetta with Peter is dismissed after a few kind words from his butler and Peter’s quest to bring his Uncle’s murderer the Sandman (retcon!) to justice is abandoned after a brief conversation with the guy. Flaws aside, “Spider-Man 3” is a charming picture, idiosyncratic and full of heart, bursting with action and humor. And if logic takes a hit because of it? Well, that’s the way the web tangles. Tiger.

What?

It is hard to imagine now, I know, but there was a time, not so long ago really, when loners didn’t methodically mow down chunks of their fellow classmates with twin nine millimeters and maniacal laughter.

I’m sitting here listening to the convocation on the radio and wondering when it became so…ordinary. I was struck by the poise of these kids, the survivors. They seemed so prepared for the tragedy. With a camera phone ever ready to provide eyehole views of the siege underway, live, as it happens.

Now I’m listening to the loud, bad, sad band playing a woozy funeral march over national public radio. The low bit rate warble conjures up FM images of a perverse anti-pep rally. And I’m struck again by the orderliness of this sad event.

“Thank you for coming,” says the lady on the internet. And then the coverage moves on; a parade of My Space entries and Facebook ghosts to mark the awful way.