Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Merry!

I'm going off the grid until after New Years. While the jungle resort where I'll be staying has WiFi (!), I will be too busy drinking things involving rum and bananas and trading Indiana Jones quotes with The Boyfriend to keep the hell fresh.

In the meantime, watch some holiday movies, hug your loved ones, pick up a major award. Play some games, even the kind that don't beep or give Jack Thompson agita. Write if you feel like it and don't if you don't.

I leave you with a piece I wrote during my three-year stint as a columnist on classic movies for Girls on Film, which is not the kind of website you think it is. Years ago the site was bought by Bolt and then by Oxygen (yes, Oprah's internet play) and then closed down, so I have no idea who owns the rights to my columns but I know it's not me. Please don't sue.

Anyway, enjoy. I've kept the dated refences intact partially for your amusement (Shasta McNasty! VCRs!) and mostly because I am lazy.

Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, Chrismukkah, and all the very best wishes for the new year!

A Classic Christmas

Heaven help us, Ricky Martin has a Christmas special. Amidst the seasonal faves "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (starring Heat-Miser and his chilly bro), TV this time of year chokes on Very Special Episodes of shows that were dreck even before getting dunked in eggnog. Me, I'm headed straight for the video store. Come along before the cast of "Shasta McNasty" goes caroling.

The undisputed champeen of holiday flicks, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) stands up just fine under the ritual yearly viewing. For both of you who haven't seen it yet, LIFE is about Everyguy George Bailey (James Stewart) on the worst night of his life. Sent to save him is Clarence (Henry Travers) an angel who not only hasn't earned his wings yet, but has by all accounts "the I.Q. of a rabbit."

George's story is one of kindness and self-sacrifice, starting from saving his brother's life as a kid. Putting aside his own grand dreams, George grows up to see everyone around move on to apparently bigger and better things. Pal Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) makes a fortune in plastics. Brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college and becomes a decorated Navy pilot. For his part, George quietly but surely becomes a pillar of his town, marrying the radiant Mary (Donna Reed) and starting a family.

Missing money, threat of arrest, and a string of other indignities drive George to the brink of suicide. Clarence counters by showing George what life would be like had he not been born: not a pretty picture. The town teems with sleazy bars and pawn shops. People are mean and hard. Harry and all the men he would've saved as a pilot are dead. George sees the light and runs home to a triumphant Christmas Eve, the community he served for so long now coming joyfully to his aid.

If you think LIFE is just a goody-goody holiday tale, think again. It zings with humor and stellar performances, stuffed with more terrific lines than a fruitcake has nuts. It's a wonderful film (pardon the pun), from the charming walk home that George and Mary share after their first date to their magical wedding night. More than just about Christmas or angels, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is about the often-forgotten fact that each of us touches many other lives, a sentiment well worth remembering this time of year.

Check out WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) if you want to score big with your Great Aunt Marge. Bing Crosby, musical numbers, Vermont through Hollywood eyes... it's 1950s eye candy with a yuletide twist that'll have Aunt Marge swooning into her Pink Lady.

Bob Wallace (Crosby), a well-known crooner, and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), a wannabe entertainer, first meet as soldiers in WWII. After the war, Phil joins Bob in his act, the pair becoming hugely successful. A businesslike look-see at the singing Haynes Sisters -- Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera Ellen) -- turns into more as the gents join the gals at a Vermont inn for their holiday gig.

Who should be running the inn but their old General, now retired and finding business dangerously slow. Our heroes decide to give the General a whopper of a Christmas gift, and pull all kinds of strings to move their sellout Broadway show up to the mountains. Naturally, love blooms among the fir trees for one and all.

Make no mistake, WHITE CHRISTMAS is a musical. Aside from the numbers sensibly staged in clubs and rehearsals, these folks break into song at the drop of a top hat, from musing about snow on the train to serenading each other over liverwurst sandwiches. And break out the Benadryl if you're allergic to huge production numbers-- this is old-style Hollywood, with the dancers and spangles to prove it. WHITE CHRISTMAS is also trademark post-war fare, with appropriate respect for the veterans of World War II. The soldier element might be enough to keep Uncle Mort awake, but don't bet on it.

So don't let holiday TV turn you into a Scrooge. Your VCR can be your window on Christmases Past. Grab some vids, mull the cider and snuggle close to the ones you love. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Doc Doc Goose

One nice thing about the holiday TV hiatus is that it gives us all a chance to catch up on DVDs. A number of documentaries bubbled to the top of my Netflix queue:

  • MAD HOT BALLROOM - Delightful. When I heard about this movie, I figured it'd be one of those heavy-handed deals about kids lifting themselves up from poverty through dance. Or growing up and learning how to deal with their identities and the *gasp!* opposite sex. Or coping with a high-pressure competitive situation.

    While MHB touches on all these, it's with a light, deft hand. The filmmakers don't have any obvious agenda, except that of showing the joy these young dancers express as they merengue and rhumba.

  • MARCH OF THE PENGUINS - Amazing story, amazingly filmed. Really just a National Geographic special writ large, it's nonetheless an astonishing tale, full of sweetness, perserverance, loss, and hot penguin-on-penguin action. It's not afraid to make you choose sides (seals are mean!) and goes to some lengths to anthropomorphize the penguins, who already look like a scrum of maitre d's.

    Although the making-of doc behind the doc tends to the overwrought ("Do I darken the purity of the White Continent with words?"), it provides more birdy footage plus context for the filming, which included a near-fatal whiteout that sidelined production for a month.

  • MURDERBALL - Apparently audiences found quadriplegic rugby players less cuddly than penguins. Too bad. This story is far more gripping and immediate. Lively and lecture-free, MURDERBALL zings with the energy and personality of its stars. Yeah, these guys are in wheelchairs, but they're just as ornery, proud, horny, independent, and occasionally juvenile as anyone else.

    At its heart a sports movie, MURDERBALL follows Team USA and their Canadian rivals, and the drama runs high. A parallel story thread about a newly rehabbed young man trying to come to terms with the shifted definitions of his life provides both bitter and hopeful moments.

    The most heartbreaking scene for me, though, came at the very end, where the team demos quad rugby for future players among Iraq War veterans, all of who look about fourteen years old.

  • MONDOVINO - Not as well-shaped as these others, MONDOVINO zips from vineyard to vineyard around the world, painting a sobering (har!) picture of the impact on the wine industry of globalization, technology, and high-profile consultants.

    One year, an Orellaia red sells for 35 Euros. The winery partners up with American juggernaut Mondavi, and the next year the wine's at 110 Euros and named the best in the world. Not, importers and retailers note, because the wine got better, but because it was made more palatable to the market and critics. Kinda makes me feel like a slob for buying my wines from the bottom shelf at Vons.

  • Goose! WINGED MIGRATION - Okay, I saw this ages ago in the theater, but it was top of mind because:

    (1) It's another incredible story about the natural world.
    (2) Even more than MARCH OF THE PENGUINS makes you gasp, "How did they film that?!"
    (3) Though narration-free (Morgan Freeman must've been booked), it contains myriad mini-narratives, some funny, some sad (crabs are mean!).
    (4) It's the DVD selection of the month in the cat area of the kennel some friends are using to board their feline over the holidays. Yes, in LA even the cats have screening rooms.
  • Saturday, December 17, 2005

    Happy Horrordays

    I'm pretty sure Sartre came up with that "hell is other people" bon mot after coming off a 10-hour shift working retail during Christmas. It's well-known among the dramaturgical cognoscenti that the first drafts of NO EXIT were about three retail clerks doomed to work the Friday after Thanksgiving for all eternity.

    That day's alternate moniker, Black Friday, was not coined by the media or by merchants, mind you, but by cash register slaves and stock jockeys. I know -- I used to be one at a Borders Books.

    We're rounding the bend to December 25th, which is when they come out of the woodwork, those people who've waited until the last minute to shop and as such are full to the eyeballs with panic and guilt in addition to whatever intrinsic assholery they may bring to the party.

    So, I'd like to extend a holiday wish.

    Please have a kind word for the folks at Candles R Us or Trendy But Generic Clothing or Ottomans! Ottomans! Ottomans!.

    Their feet hurt.

    They make crap money.

    They've been asked to find a book for a customer who can only say that it's pink. Title, author, genre? "No, but it's pink! Jesus, are you some kind of goddamn idiot? Fine, I'll just get it online."

    Knock yourself out. You think I get paid on commission, bitch?

    Retail workers get sick more often than those in other industries, because you bring in your germs and leave them all over the merchandise.

    You mess up their sections and then complain that you can't find anything.

    You decide you want to charge your purchase instead of using cash only after the clerk has finished your transaction, which as any retail survivor (and David Sedaris in his brilliant SANTALAND DIARIES) can tell you is a gauntlet of calling over the manager, initialing this, filing that, and starting all over.

    Don't assume this is the only job they can get or that they're stupid.

    Your mileage may vary, but in my store many of us were working to save some money for grad school. One guy was headed to Georgetown for his MBA. I was between Stanford and NYU. We even had one woman who had been a lawyer for years and just decided she wanted to do something different.

    Retail is different from the law. When you're a lawyer, you can put the bad people in prison. In retail, you smile and give them a complimentary bookmark and mentally record them for when you have a private hitman at your disposal. I'm looking at you, Pink Book.

    As I used to say, any day in retail you can walk away from is a good day.

    So ask your clerk how they're doing. Listen, smile, wish them well. They're worthy and needful of any kindness right about now.

    Except for the clerks at Barnes and Noble. Those guys are freakin' morons.

    Friday, December 16, 2005


    Things all we delinquent writers should pen one hundred times, if only that didn't keep us from actual writing:

    Only writing is writing.

    Reading about writing is not writing.

    Rereading something you've already written is not writing.

    Rewriting is writing, but the obsessive polish and re-polish and re-re-polish of the same eight pages for the last year and half is not.

    Outlining is writing.

    Taking a walk to think about writing is not writing if it ends in a latte and two pairs of new shoes.

    Blogging about writing is not writing.

    Blogging about bad haircuts is certainly not writ--

    Ahem. Gotta go.

    You too!

    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005

    I Look Worse in Hats

    For some reason, the very nice but misguided folks who've cut my hair of late think I can pull off the choppy, layered look. The kind that says, "Are you READY TO RAAAWWWK, DETROIT?!"

    I'm not Joan Jett, people. I'm not even Joan Lunden. I'm edgy as a bagel.

    The conversations with the stylist (lordy, call them hairdressers at your peril) typically go like this:

    STYLIST: I think some more layers in here will be fun!

    ME: It won't be too severe, right?

    STYLIST: No, no. Wispy. Sweet. Fun!

    ME: That "fun" is scaring me.

    STYLIST: Just some architectural chunks in there.

    (Pause while I blink and try to parse this. Stylists love to use words like "architectural" that have a different meaning in the parallel reality of chairs that can go up and down via a foot pedal)

    ME: Okayyyy... Will it be subtle?

    STYLIST: Oh, yeah. Subtle. But fun!

    And I end up with a haircut that makes me look like I should be holding Courtney Love's purse as she yarfs into a Vegas toilet somewhere.

    I'm in meetings where I want to be taken seriously as a Credible Creative Person and I'm now rockin' a 'do that says Off Her Meds and possibly Flight Risk.


    Wednesday Web

  • Guess what? When you change the fundamentals of your online game and jettison characters -- and their associated relationships -- that took your audience years to build, players don't like it very much. At all.

  • A Feast for Crows, George R. R. Martin's new book, is, duh, doing well. Even though The Boyfriend says it suffers from incipient Robert Jordan Disease, which involves taking 300 pages to tell 40 pages of story, I'm looking forward to it.

    Martin, a former story editor and producer for "The Twilight Zone," knows how to give his characters layers and complex motivations. While ostensibly fantasy, the Song of Ice and Fire books (particularly the first couple), tend to the Shakespearean in scope and theme. They feature messy, violent politics, Tudor vs. Plantagenet-style, rather than twee fairytaling around the countryside. Oh, and there's a lot of sex.

  • How is DIE HARD like SIDEWAYS, and how can that info help us make better games? MMOGuru Raph Koster thinks gamemakers need to improve as filmmakers in order to help the medium realize its potential, including getting smart about hiring actual writers to work on games (naturally, I agree).

    At the heart of this is what Raph calls the Pixar lesson, namely that story deserves respect, as does the audience. Amen.
  • Monday, December 12, 2005

    O Holy Crap

    I'm at a Christmas party and no one I know is there.

    For the shy (INFJ in my case, if you're into all that Meyers-Briggs stuff), this is a pretty solid definition of hell.

    I attended a couple of earlier festivities with The Boyfriend, and the poor bastard was as usual stuck talking to me all night, but he's not at this shindig.

    This is an alumni thingie for my college. Those functions tend to hit me where I live because everyone there was valedictorian and is clever and poised. This particular alumni thingie is in Los Angeles, so not only was everyone there valedictorian, but also homecoming queen or king. The ones that weren't now run record labels.

    In such situations I can't even take refuge by tucking into the free pinot because I don't want to be That Girl, you know, the one who after midnight turned into Tara Reid and fell into the pool.

    So I'm stone-cold sober, socially paralyzed, and wishing I was home watching Christmas movies.

    Speaking of! The real reason for this post, some of my seasonal movie faves. In no particular order:

    IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Darker and funnier than you remember.

    HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS - WARNING! VERY IMPORTANT!! I mean the ANIMATED version, with charming Chuck Jones art and plummy voice work by Boris Karloff. Not the Jim Carrey redundancy, for the love of Fah who for-aze.

    WHEN HARRY MET SALLY - Not strictly speaking a Christmas movie, but many of the story's key moments happen at the holidays. The season of groveling, revelatory Mallomars.

    MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL - I'm serious. Michael Caine gives excellent deadpan as Scrooge in the face of adorableness (Fozziwig!) and catchy songs, but the movie gets scary and sad right when it's supposed to. All that and mini Miss Piggies. Get over yourself and rent it.

    THE THIN MAN - Another not-quite-Christmas movie, but who cares when you have William Powell shooting ornaments off the tree with a BB gun while Myrna Loy watches, amused, in a new fur coat? In a movie that glimmers with champagne dialogue, this wordless moment is a standout.

    THE GODFATHER - Okay, okay, I'll stop cheating, but the Godfather saga is framed around moments rich with ritual and family significance: weddings, baptisms, the holidays. I love Al Pacino's tense and terrifying vigil at the creepy, Christmas-quiet hospital.

    A CHRISTMAS STORY - Some time ago I came across a rant against this movie, which I just don't get. So it's faux nostalgic. Nostalgia is false almost by definition. A CHRISTMAS STORY is funny, sweet, just arch enough, and yes, authentic, capturing the tribulations and joy of being a kid at yuletide. Plus Peter Billingsley now is poker buddies with Vince Vaughn, so there's that.

    What about you? Any other holiday flicks you find yourself watching year after year?

    Saturday, December 10, 2005

    Another County Heard From

    TV writers both aspiring and ascended (erm, that came out more Operating Thetan VI than intended) take note: another pro writer has tossed his official SIMPSONS staff baseball cap into the scribosphere ring.

    Ken Levine's freshly-minted blog takes on the writerly life, including what exactly it means when you get a coffee mug from your showrunner for Christmas (shorthand for "pack up your desk, we're getting canceled"), internecine squabbles between LA's West and East sides, and divers newsbits and musings.

    One choice item: "Mariah Carey nabbed eight Grammy nominations thus continuing her stunning comeback and pushing back her Magic Mountain concert at Spilikin Corners until October."

    We can only hope, Ken, we can only hope.

    Friday, December 09, 2005

    Game On, Gray Lady, Game On

    While it's always amusing to see the New York Times catch up with the more leading edge press -- What's this? People pay monthly fees for some sort of electronic game? Over the internets? What next, miniature phones you can put in your pocket? -- a front page story there is undeniably a benchmark that the subject has hit the mainstream.

    This time, it's gold farmers (visit if you don't have a account). Stale news to many of us, but surely a novel head-scratcher to those outside the dev or player community.

    For a fictional take on this phenomenon, read Cory Doctorow's short story Anda's Game. It deals with gold farming in MMOGs, but also the medium's larger questions of identity, community, and achievement both true and illusory.

    Monday, December 05, 2005

    Extra Dry

    I stumbled across Martini Shot, TV writer Rob Long's weekly commentary on Hollywood, while driving home the other night. For you Southland locals, it airs on KCRW 89.9, but is also available on Teh Intarweb in podcast format.

    Entertaining insider stuff, from hosting stargazers in denial to a new take on Scientologists to more nifty TV show lingo. Though successful and experienced, Long's just as neurotic as the rest of us, be it calling up for the network overnights in a cold sweat or trying (and failing) to reassure a doubtful friend that he Really Is Happy for the friend's lush studio deal.

    I think a debate is in the offing between Josh Friedman and Long, who in one piece calls us monkeys to task for our poor sartorial sense. Sweatpants deathmatch!

    Thursday, December 01, 2005

    CSI: San Fernando Valley

    What is up with that terrible Jeff Kent pornstar mustache lately sprouted on otherwise toothsome Nick Stokes (George Eads)?