Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dee Wallace (Stone): An Appreciation

For the entirety of my life, Dee Wallace had been one thing and one thing only: the mother in E.T. I'd never seen her in anything else. As far as I knew, she was an actress whose career began and ended with that one movie. Then, when I was 16, I saw The Frighteners.

I knew almost nothing about The Frighteners before I saw it. All I knew was that it was about ghosts, it starred Michael J. Fox (who I always liked), and it was produced by Robert Zemeckis (who I always liked). That's all I needed to get me to the theater... well, that and my mom's parental guidance, since I was one year too young to see an R-rated movie on my own. (The theaters were strengthening their admittance policies following the recent institution of the NC-17 rating.)

The Frighteners absolutely blew me away. I'd never seen anything like it; the squishiness of the CG effects, the vertiginous rolling landscapes, the antic logic of the narrative, it was all new to me. And the way the movie started out as an almost slapstick comedy but grew into one of the tensest showdowns I'd ever seen... I was carried away by the whole thing. And there in the middle of it all was the sweet but burdened mom from E.T. delivering a remarkable performance as a batty, disturbed, henpecked daughter. How did they decide on Dee Wallace-Stone, of all people, for this part? I didn't know, but after seeing her giddily dark performance in the movie, I couldn't imagine anyone else playing that part.

I was soon to learn more about the movie's co-writer and director, Peter Jackson. (Weren't we all?) I was given a crash course by my good friend Paul, a horror movie enthusiast. Jackson was already well known in horror circles thanks to delightfully disgusting splatter films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. He was from, and usually shot in, New Zealand, which explained why I'd never seen towns and landscapes quite like that before. And he had gotten worldwide mainstream attention (and simultaneously introduced the world to Kate Winslet) with the brilliant coming of age drama Heavenly Creatures. After the latter film, Hollywood wanted a piece of him. The fact that he was able to slip The Frighteners through the mainstream studio system when they were no doubt looking for the next Heavenly Creatures made him a hero to me.

Ultimately, I credit The Frighteners with singlehandedly raising my interest in horror films. Up to that point, it had been a cinematic blind spot for me. Through some combination of parental forbiddance, my acceptance of the cultural propaganda that horror movies are worthless garbage, and my own immature fear of being corrupted in some way, I'd just never partaken of the horror genre the way most of my friends had. The Frighteners, followed soon after by film school, kicked that barricade down. I learned what was great about horror films. I came to understand them, appreciate them, and finally love them. (The good ones, of course.)

But by then, I was already so far behind. I had a lot of ground to cover just to get caught up on the horror films that most of my friends had grown up with - your Elm Streets, your Halloweens, your Texas Chainsaws, your Living Deads. Fortunately, Paul was a veritable one-man video store of horror. And not long after college, Netflix arrived on the scene, which made it simple to get my hands on all the horror I needed. Every October is now dedicated to watching as many horror films as I possibly can.

Which brings us back to Dee Wallace-Stone. While getting caught up on horror film history, I began to notice a familiar face popping up over and over again. Dee Wallace had apparently been making a career as a scream queen. That's why I'd never seen her in anything other than E.T. She had been populating the exact movies that I had been neglecting. There she was in the original The Hills Have Eyes. There she was in The Howling. There she was in Cujo and Critters.

I now realized that by the time Peter Jackson had gotten around to casting her in The Frighteners he wasn't merely casting the right person for the role, he was casting someone with horror cachet.

Later, Rob Zombie would pull the same stunt by casting her in his remake of Halloween. And in an amusing twist on the same concept, she was cast in a 2009 horror film that's set in the '80s (where the bulk of her horror work resides), The House of the Devil.

So, to Dee Wallace-Stone: I apologize for only recently becoming versed in your work. Thanks for all the screams.

To everyone else, I hope you're enjoying some great horror movies this season. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Garfield Holiday Specials

Every year, the television networks treat us to a new crop of holiday specials. These shows used to be built to last, with memorable characters and stories that families would tune in to see year after year. These days, holiday specials seem pretty much disposable, running for two or three years and then decomposing into the mulch used to fertilize the next year's crop.

I've found it distressing that over the last decade or so, the Garfield holiday specials seem to have slipped into the disposable category. As far as I can tell, the networks have pretty much stopped airing them altogether; even the upper-numbered cable channels whose sole purpose is to recycle old stuff.

This is a mistake. The Garfield holiday specials were not only built to last, they are -- prepare yourself for controversy -- every bit as good as the Charlie Brown holiday specials. Different, certainly, but just as good. When I was a kid, the networks used to air the Charlie Brown and Garfield holiday specials back-to-back, so I've always associated the two; they were together in the newspapers, and they were together on TV. But while Charlie Brown (rightly) remains a stalwart perennial, Garfield has apparently been chewed up and spit out by Father Time's cruelly insatiable appetite for The New.

Garfield's specials contain everything a classic holiday special needs: a good story, funny jokes, catchy songs, and a lesson learned at the end. In "Garfield's Halloween Adventure," Garfield schemes to take Odie's share of the trick-or-treating candy. But when the two have an encounter with pirate ghosts, Garfield realizes that friendship is more important than candy. And by the way, those pirate ghosts are genuinely creepy!!

"Garfield's Thanksgiving," like Charlie Brown's, is the weakest of the three holiday entries, but still enjoyable. Jon invites Liz, the veterinarian, to Thanksgiving dinner at his place. Liz has just put Garfield on a diet, and Garfield is none too pleased. When Jon ruins the meal he was cooking, Garfield clues him into the best way to solve the problem: call Grandma over to make a new meal. Liz, impressed with the meal, loosens the strictness of Garfield's diet and gives Jon a kiss on the cheek.

"A Garfield Christmas Special" is loaded with classic moments. Garfield eating his way to the Christmas tree via a stack of "Christmas lasagnas" Jon has prepared for him. "The gift that keeps on giving." Dad's dramatic reading of "Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas." Jon and Doc Boy arguing the semantics of when Christmas Day begins, so they can open their gifts sooner. But most importantly, this special has a lot of heart, mostly centering around the relationship that forms between Garfield and Grandma.

Garfield's holiday specials were great when I was a kid, and I'm happy to report that they've aged well. So as the holidays approach, I recommend that everyone rent or buy these classics. The TV networks may have stopped airing them, but they can still be a valuable addition to your holiday entertainment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Road Stories

Genre: Comedy

What It's About: Comedians recounting some of the most interesting and outrageous things that have happened to them as they've traveled the country (or the world) doing their shows, interspersed with general interest conversations.

Why You Should Care: Because it puts you in a privileged position. The road story is a thing of myth; a time honored show-business tradition where entertainers earn their stripes and encounter some of the most bizarre people and situations imaginable. Their awkward situations are your gain. Needless to say, with some of the top comedians participating in the podcast, the stories are excellently told and hilarious to hear.

Frequency: Posts very infrequently; so far, there have only been three episodes in 2010

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best Game Show of All Time

There will never be a quiz show better than "Jeopardy!"

Now in its 27th season, the show perfected its formula a very long time ago and has sustained its success by never deviating. The most radical change in the show's history was host Alex Trebek's decision to shave off his signature mustache at the start of the 18th season.

All quiz shows are required to do the same thing: ask questions and give rewards for correct answers. The creators and producers of these shows work hard to come up with clever ways of doing so. Unfortunately, all that does is create lard that fills up show, taking time away from what we, the audience, really want: more questions.

Let's take a look at some recent successes in TV quiz shows.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (no question mark)": Egregious time-waster. The host reads the questions and the multiple choice options very slowly. The contestants are encouraged to hem-and-haw, verbalize their thought process, utilize "lifelines," and then finally select their answer. And after all that, still more time is wasted when the host stops to verify whether or not this is, indeed, the final answer the contestant would like to give. (Has any contestant ever taken that moment to say, "You know what, I'm changing my answer"?) The maximum number of questions a contestant can be asked is 14. The only way to get a decent number of questions asked in a single episode is to hope the contestants get eliminated quickly.

"The Weakest Link": Significant time-waster. When questions are actually being asked, this show rivals "Jeopardy!" in the quantity department. Unfortunately, the longest round is only three minutes, with each successive round reduced in time. Far too much time is filled between question rounds with host banter and contestant-elimination voting.

"Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (question mark kindly included)": Biggest time-waster. Only six questions per contestant, with a typical maximum of two contestants per episode. In other words, maximum lard.

Look, these shows can be enjoyable I suppose. But you have to be really into host banter and hope that the contestants they get are remotely interesting. Me? I don't care how funny the hosts think they are, and I rarely find the contestants interesting. I watch quiz shows for one reason: to answer the questions myself.

The genius of "Jeopardy!" is in its gimmick -- the host gives the "answers" and contestants give the "questions." They don't have to waste time justifying the presence of 9-year-olds or gussying up the question rounds with needless frills. This allows a maximum number of questions to be asked in a fast-paced half hour format.

When it comes to question volume, memory recall speed, and overall challenge, I doubt anything will ever top "Jeopardy!"

Bonus: recording "Jeopardy!" on your DVR and skipping past the contestant interview segment. Because CONTESTANTS ARE BORING (see above)!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yield Signs

[ Originally posted July 12, 2006 ]

Why do we have Stop signs AND Yield signs? Is it really necessary to draw that distinction? When it comes to driving, shouldn't things be kept as simple and straight forward as possible? Stop or don't stop.

I bring this up because I was nearly hit yesterday by someone who wasn't quite on top of the whole "yield" concept. Maybe a Stop sign would have been a little more clear to him. In an age when coffee cups are required to warn people that their contents might be a bit on the toasty side, perhaps the Yield sign is a little too vague for the average driver.

But if they're going to do both, why did they quit there? I, for one, would like to see more variety in the "don't drive for a few seconds" road sign department. And I've gone the extra mile of coming up with a few new ideas.

*The Cede sign. I'd imagine it could be some sort of rectangle, probably colored blue.

*The Forgo sign would be a good one. I think it should shaped as some manner of circle or oval, and should probably be colored fuchsia. I don't even know what color fuchsia is, but fuchsia and Forgo just sound like they should be placed together.

*My absolute favorite of the new signs would definitely be the Acquiesce sign, which I imagine would be on some sort of pentagram shape. Magenta. Definitely magenta.

If the preceding sign ideas were implemented, I'm convinced the roads would be a safer place. We're going to have to do this thing on a state-by-state basis. Write your congressman.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: NPR Pop Culture

Genre: Pop culture, surprisingly

What It's About: A compendium of pop culture stories culled from the full roster of NPR programming.

Why You Should Care: While NPR doesn't dip into pop culture reporting too often, when it does it's worth a listen. Unfortunately, such reporting is typically a drop in the bucket relative to the many hours of reporting NPR does per week. This podcast does the hard work for you, rounding up the pop culture stories from all those different programs and assembling them into one simple digest.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 18 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.