Thursday, June 24, 2010

Daria - one of the great underappreciated cartoons

Daria is like the Frazier of the animated world. It's the show that was spun off from a super popular show but ended up far outshining it's originator. Sadly, Frazier outstripped Cheers in both quality and popularity (arguable in the latter case, I suppose), while Daria was much better than its predecessor but was not (and honestly couldn't have been) the cultural milestone that Beavis and Butthead was. Daria is smarter, funnier, and infinitely more interesting than most shows on TV. The animation itself is nothing special, but I'm not sure it could work any other way. Our monotonous heroine might not be as effective if we had to watch some actress playing for the cameras. The chemistry between Daria and her best friend Jane couldn't be recreated, the ridiculous side characters simply would not be believable in any way except animation. So yet again animation has proven itself to be a versatile medium not meant for just kiddie movies, but I digress.

I have been watching and re-watching the entire series with my wife, and I haven't yet gotten tired of it. The episodes are funny, of course, it's a comedy show, but they also reveal depths to the writing and the characters the closer you look. There's an episode I particularly love where an old high school football star dies, leaving everyone to think he was a great guy, even though he was a major asshole to both Daria and Jane. Everyone starts coming up to Daria wanting to talk to her because she's the "depressing girl" or "the girl who must think about death a lot" and it starts angering Daria that people see her that way. In a sense it's her getting angry about her image, which just makes her even angrier that she now cares what people think of her. I also like the dynamic event of the coming of Jane's boyfriend Tom, who begins to have a thing for Daria, challenging the relationship between the two best friends.
One of the best things about the show is the abundance of great side characters. Daria and Jane are great and infinitely watchable, but I think Daria's dad Jake may be my favorite character, with his low self esteem and anger outbursts. I think he may say "dammit" in every single episode. Daria's self-involved sister Quinn and their mother Helen offer up their fair share of laughs, as do the abundance of students and teachers at the school. Whether it's the double airheaded duo of head cheerleader Britney and her quarterbacking boyfriend Kevin, or Mr. DeMartino, who must be perpetually seconds away from a blood-pressure induced heart attack. All add a lot to the comedic fabric of the show, even if the occasional character building kinda moments get saved for Daria or Jane.

So it's a terrifically underrated show, and like I said in the opening paragraph, it's further proof that animation isn't just for kids. So if any of you get a chance to catch up with Daria on DVD as I have, I would highly recommend doing so.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

So, in my ongoing effort to read classic novels, I recently picked up John le Carré's seminal 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It's the story of Alec Leamas, an MI6 (British intelligence) officer during the Cold War who defects and begins giving secrets to the East Germans, or does he? He may be on his final mission before retirement ("coming in from the cold" being when he's able to step out of the cold of spy work and into the warmth of regular life). Apparently the only books in the spy genre up until that point had been along the lines of James Bond kinda stuff. John le Carré had worked (and when he wrote this book, was working) as an intelligence officer with MI6, he would retire after the international success of the novel. His approach was of the more realistic spy variety and not of the outlandish adventure type and this sort of turned the entire genre on its head and changed what was expected of a spy novel. Time magazine named this book one of its all-time top 100.

I admire Le Carré's dedication to keeping his story realistic, but I didn't exactly have a great time reading it. It starts off brilliantly, in the first chapter Leamas watches one of his contacts get murdered trying to cross from East back into West Berlin, and I just knew I was in the hands of a master writer who would take me on the ride of a lifetime. Well, that's not Le Carré's style. He slows it down and gives us a kind of portrait of a hard drinking, seen it all, kind of guy in Leamas. The problem I had with this was that we're not always privy to the knowledge that Leamas has, so we're not always sure where he's coming from, not sure what he's hiding from the other characters (as well as us), so it's not as dramatically interesting as it possibly could've been. I've heard great things about the movie directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton as Leamas. I want to check it out, and may amend this review once I've seen it. I think the slow-ish nature of the book might be sped up in the truncated time of a movie. We'll see.

So one more classic book down, a million to go. Not sure what's up next, but I'm always up for more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Top Chef

This Wednesday marks the return of the best reality show to ever be on TV, and one of the flat out best shows around period, Bravo's Top Chef. I only started watching this past season (season 6) when they were in Las Vegas, but I've since caught up with the majority of seasons 1 (San Francisco), 4 (Chicago), and 5 (New York), as well as rewatching a good bit of season 6. Top Chef is made up of some of the best up and coming chefs in the country competing against one another in a variety of challenges served up to them by head judge Tom Colicchio, host Padma Lakshmi, and a variety of guest judges and critics. One of the most interesting aspects of Top Chef is the elimination system, which depends totally on what happened during this weeks episode. That may not sound revolutionary, but it makes for nail-biting watching, since the most talented chef may have an off day at the wrong time and get kicked off. This has happened multiple times, when the favorite to win makes something the judges don't like, and they get no mercy for their screw-up.

Top Chef is the essential show for anyone interested (even if only slightly) in food. The guest judges have ranged from faces familiar to the common person like Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Wolfgang Puck, Tyler Florence, and Emeril Lagasse, to legendary chefs like Lidia Bastianich, Wylie Dufresne, Jacques Pepin, and Thomas Keller. The competition has ramped up as the show has gone on. Many of the contestants in season 1 were not even executive chefs at their own restaurants, while in this past season there were competitors like Michael Voltaggio who'd already been awarded a rare Michelin star for his restaurant, Kevin who'd already been nominated for a James Beard award (it's like a culinary Academy Award, in case you were wondering), and Jennifer who was executive chef at a restaurant owned by food giant Eric Ripert.

Of course, a big factor of the shows success comes from head judge Tom Colicchio (pronounced Co-leek-ee-o). In fact, when I saw a Tony Bourdain speaking engagement this weekend, he talked at length about why Top Chef was the only great cooking show around anymore, and a big reason was because of Tom. Tony said that Tom added gravitas, combined with his credentials as a renowned NYC chef and restaurateur, and winner of a ridiculous 5 James Beard awards. Bourdain, one of my two favorite food personalities (alongside his friend Mario Batali), has appeared on the show multiple times, and even served as fill-in head judge while Tom was away at a charity event once. Tony said that he loves appearing on the show because he's a big fan of the show, and if it's got Tony Bourdain's approval, you know it's gotta be great, right? Another big reason it's great is because of model and cookbook author, the beautiful Padma Lakshmi. Padma has hosted the show since season 2, after taking over for the personality-less Katie Lee Joel. Padma adds a wonderful presence onscreen, along with some definite culinary knowledge, and the same sort of gravitas that makes Tom so amazing. They work together terrifically, and their comments at the end of each episode, during the Judge's Table deliberation, are always the most interesting.

So I could go on and on about the show, it really is that great. I don't know why, but I never had an inkling to watch it in previous seasons, I think because of my general dislike of reality shows. But my wonderful wife insisted that I should give it a try (she'd been a fan since the beginning) and we didn't have to watch it together if I didn't like it. As it turns out, the only thing I didn't like was having to wait a week between episodes. She got me hooked, and you won't be able to keep me away from season 7 in D.C. if you tried. It's one of the 3 or 5 best shows on TV, and everyone with the slightest interest in chefs or food owes it to themselves to get exposed to the greatness of Top Chef. I may even write a bit each week after seeing the episodes, since I find my thoughts changing over time, some chefs endear themselves to me and others do not, I may end up keeping a bit of a Top Chef log.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bad Lieutenant - Herzog style

I've written about mad genius director Werner Herzog many times before. I wrote about his brilliant documentary Encounters at the End of the World, where Herzog traveled to the strange and beautiful world in, around, and under the ice in Antarctica (it ended up in my top ten of 2008). I also more recently wrote about his haunting magnum opus Aguirre, the Wrath of God when I was recounting the movies that just missed out on my all-time top ten. Herzog's volatile relationship with his Aguirre star Klaus Kinski (father of Natasha) is the stuff of legend. Kinski alienated the whole Aguirre crew and when he threatened to quit the production, while in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, Herzog told him he had a rifle and Kinski wasn't going anywhere. Kinski finished the film. Later, in another of their movies (yes, both were crazy enough to work together again, 5 times in fact), Kinski again alienated the crew working in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, and a native offered to kill Kinski if Herzog wanted him to. Herzog declined on the grounds that he hadn't finished filming and didn't want to re-shoot the movie. With those kinds of things in his past, it's no surprise when he decided to "remake" 1992's Harvey Kietel showcase Bad Lieutenant despite having never seen it, moving the action away from New York City, changing the plot completely, and not really considering it a remake at all. So that's how we got the terrific, but ridiculously titled, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Nicolas Cage plays the titular Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh. In the opening scenes, Terence injures his back saving an inmate from the rising water rushing in after Hurricane Katrina. That may sound like a noble way to get injured in the line of duty, but just minutes previously Terence had been making bets with his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) about when the guy would drown in his cell from the quickly rising water. Months after the injury and Terence is addicted to the vicodin he was prescribed for his back pain, and has graduated his addictions to include cocaine, heroin, crack, gambling, and trading sexual favors for letting a woman out of a ticket (while making her boyfriend watch at gunpoint). McDonagh also spends time with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), his bookie Ned (Brad Dourif, for once not the craziest actor in his cast), and occasionally goes to visit his dad, who's successfully trying to beat his alcoholism with AA meetings. What Herzog concerns himself with plot-wise isn't really significant, this is another of his many looks at a man nearing on madness. Usually his heroes descend further into madness than they were in the beginning of the movie, and Terence looks to be on the same arc, but maybe things turn out differently for him. I think Herzog might even be giving us his version of a happy ending, who knows.

One thing that is for certain though, is that Cage and Herzog were born to work together. I sometimes forget just how brilliant Cage can be when he works with the right people and material. He, for sure, has done more than his fair share of crap over the years, but he can also be one of our finest actors when put in the correct circumstances. Working with Herzog allowed Cage to be as unhinged as he's ever been, and he hasn't been this brilliant since 2002's Adaptation. He can somehow deliver a (now classic) line like "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" and make it sound not like a crazy line, but like a line delivered by a crazy man. And fellow crazy man that he is, Herzog actually shows us the soul that Terence still sees dancing. He also gives us extended shots into the eyes of an alligator and multiple times into the cold staring eyes of a pair of iguanas that Terence continues to hallucinate. They're odd, strangely poetic, and completely fitting in a way that can only be described as Herzog-ian.

There's a performance in the movie even more surprising than Cage's and that's the one of Terence's step-mother Genevieve, played by Jennifer Coolidge, a.k.a. Stifler's Mom. She's constantly drunk on beer, but objects when she finds cocaine in Frankie's purse, yet doesn't object when she catches Terence snorting in the house, saying that they both just have their vices. It's a tremendously real performance next to Cage's wild man performance. There's also rapper Xzibit playing a drug kingpin and holding his own against some serious acting talent. And there are nice little cameos by Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon. Shannon, despite his recent Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road, appears in only two scenes for the chance to work with Herzog. Shannon would go on to star in Herzog's next movie.

So Herzog has created his latest great movie, one containing one of the best performances of '09, by Nicholas Cage at his most unrestrained and brilliant in years. He's a filmmaker that continues to intrigue me, always coming up with something interesting, keeping him on a different level than many of his peers. A Herzog movie is incapable of being boring or uninventive, and Bad Lieutenant is no exception.