Monday, April 30, 2007

Someone's been tampering with Hank's Memories...

Before The Office, before Curb Your Enthusiasm, before Alan Partridge, before, uh... the upcoming Geico caveman sitcom (?), there was The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling's acidic, impeccably acted talk show satire that revitalized HBO's original programming and set a new standard for edgy tv comedy. Or at least that's what I remember reading and hearing secondhand during my HBO-less teenage years, when I could only dream of one day being a big shot w/ premium cable, just like Biggie Smalls in "Juicy," (and if you don't know, now ya know... fella). I've caught up with the show in bits and pieces since then, mostly through edited, syndicated reruns; I recall a long stretch a few years ago where I was staying up til 2:30 to watch it, nurturing a Wallace Langham-like bitterness while my clueless fellow collegians were out drinking and having fun. Poor clods.

Unfortunately, the show hasn't thrived on dvd either. The first season - released before either the tv-on-dvd market or popularity of the name "Larry" took off - didn't sell well, precluding the release of subsequent volumes until now. The new (Not Just the) Best of the Larry Sanders Show collects 23 uniformly great episodes in peculiar fashion. It's packaged with a plethora of special features that delve deep into Shandling's weird headspace, as he seeks to catch up and/or make up with many of the show's big name guest stars (emphasis on big name -- maybe Garry isn't as interested in reconnecting with, say, Robert Hays). The result is a series of what Garry calls "intimate, personal conversations" w/ the likes of Alec Baldwin, Sharon Stone, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Petty, Ellen DeGeneres, David Duchovny, Carol Burnett and Larry's fictional late night rival Jon Stewart (what, no Elvis Costello?). Some of these segments, especially Garry's oddly competitive boxing match with Baldwin and a Botox breakfast with apparent ex-flame Sharon Stone, are awkward and weird enough to make this set recommendable even if you're pissed about the whole seasons remaining in limbo (although the first season has been rereleased and Shandling says the rest are coming eventually).

Among the other highlights:
- Seeing again just how many rising actors and comedians passed through the cast: Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Thompson, Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven. Dave Chappelle and Norm MacDonald also make memorable guest appearances.
- The Seinfeld interview demonstrates how shrewd he is, particularly when he and Garry discuss ending their respective shows on top (at least critically, in Garry's case). It also somewhat unflatteringly shows him using a Bluetooth or something to track the progress of a lost jacket.
- Bruno Kirby's final bit of acting, putting in a funny cameo at the end of the "Making of Larry Sanders" doc
- Garofalo admitting her "naturalistic" acting was the result of putting in minimal effort, as she was more focused on stand-up and drinking at the time.
- A completely nerdy argument between Shandling and Judd Apatow (later of Freaks and Geeks and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) over a scrapped joke involving a child on a leash.

But what distinguishes Larry Sanders from its imitators most of all is the high level of acting. The performances by Rip Torn as bulldog producer Artie and Jeffrey Tambor as Larry's talentless, tacky sidekick Hank Kingsley are unparalled. Torn steals plenty of scenes, but Hank is my pick for THE GREATEST TV CHARACTER OF ALL TIME; an angry, self-loathing imbecile trapped in the nightmare of being a poor man's Ed McMahon. Just look at the character's range in the episode "Hank's Night in the Sun," where he fills in for Larry as host and morphs from endearingly nervous schlub to raging asshole literally overnight. Someone on the dvd comments that Tambor basically played the character as Greek tragedy, and by the time of his scary meltdown in the series' amazing final episode Hank has become an epic portrayl of showbiz despair. As far as I'm concerned, you can throw Archie Bunker and his chair out of the Smithsonian and onto the street to make way for Hank Kingsley sitting uncomfortably on the couch.

Ricky Gervais in particular has acknowledged how much his career owes to Larry Sanders. If you haven't seen his faux-awkward interview with Shandling from a couple of years ago, these highlghts were carefully chosen by the YouTube poster to make Gervais look hopelessly outmatched and omit the barbs he gets off in the full version (or at least the portions I actually watched).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Consarn it, get me Avon Barksdale on the horn.

Television Without Pity has recently started recapping The Wire beginning with season one. Considering how badly BET is supposedly chopping up season two in reruns, that site might be your best bet if you don't have HBO and have been too busy watching all your old Airwolf tapes to make the leap to dvd in the last ten years. As you'll immediately notice upon first visit, TWOP uses little cartoon icons next to the title of each show. Some of them are more closely related to the show's actual contents than others. The one they're using for The Wire, however, leaves me a tad mystified:

I get that this humorous, crotchety caricature is "listening in" on someone or something, in keeping with the crack investigative skills of some of (damn you, Herc) the Major Crimes unit, yet I'm struck by how completely he fails to embody anyone on the show. I guess he might vaguely resemble the Greek, but then again I don't recall the Greek hoisting any unwieldy ear horn thingies while conducting his nefarious dealings (that's what flunkies are for). Granted, this antique hearing device does resemble some of the Baltimore PD's moldering surveillance equipment, but even Valchek makes a more sightly specimen than TWOP's cartoon codger. Personally, I might have doodled McNulty and Bunk puking outside an Irish bar, or maybe Stringer Bell scribbling away in a community college business class; or perhaps even Bubbles visiting Space Camp and spilling crack vials while floating in the zero gravity chamber (now that was a Very Special Episode). Now that the damage is done though, I hope David Simon still has time to incorporate this mysterious character into season five; perhaps as Lovable Lou, a quick-tempered, cantankerous ex-colonel who speaks to Prez's math class about the dangers of both improper ear horn insertion and B-more's latest street drugs. Which reminds me, in keeping w/ past topical drug names such as "WMD's", I predict next season's corner kids will be slinging "Global Warnings"* and "Of Montreal Sex Tapes" (that last one's just a hunch).

*with apologies to Philly Boy Roy

UPDATE: I can't believe I actually wrote about this today. Could the topics of this blog be any more pointless? What happened?!?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Roy Orbison sits impassively like a monochrome Buddha."

WFMU's Bronwyn C alerts the world that some of the greatest stories I've ever read on the internet, Ulli Haarb├╝rste's tales of wrapping Roy Orbison in clingfilm (or plastic wrap, in U.S. parlance), have been compiled and expanded in novel form. You can still read the original stories here, and at the risk of hyperbolizing, if you don't enjoy them at least a little then I don't want to know you. Or if you don't enjoy them and I already know you, then it's too bad I can't undo the circumstances that led to our acquaintance :(

Saturday, April 14, 2007

My Big Fat Greek WHAT?!? (cue "surprise" take; cue "BoOoOIiing" sound effect; cue eternal shame)

Last night I forwent my usual, lascivous, Dov Charney-like Friday night plans ("Who are you kidding, hermit boy, you were probably building a model monorail and posting L.A. Law clips on YouTube, as usual." "Shut up. A lot of Larry Drake fans watch those clips.") to attend a gala cinematic event in DC. Earlier that afternoon, whilst browsing the "Weekend Picks" on DCist - as I often do, in case a hot new indie band like Milk Was a Bad Choice or The Willie Aimes Dysphoria are in town - I saw a listing for a free, ultra-obscure, "Greek exploitation" film called Death Kiss playing that evening at the Library of Congress. The description on the theater's website included the following passage:

Gigolo Jim Preston, disenchanted during the anniversary of his marriage to his wealthy, older, alcoholic, shrill of a wife, Ellen, concocts a plan to rid the planet of her presence and enjoy the breadth of her fortune with many a young plaything. In his plight, Jim calls upon his seemingly normal friend Mike to drop the axe. Unbeknownst to Jim, Mike is a heroin-addicted psychopath with hobbies that include kidnaping, rape, addicting others to heroin, storing live people in coffins, etc. and is considering taking up necrophilia.

As I mentioned earlier in my Grindhouse post, it's easy to get burned with these movies that promise almost-surreal levels of outrageousness but either don't deliver or quickly get boring - or are otherwise just plain unwatchable. Maybe Quentin Tarantino has been a worse influence on me than I thought though, as the description sounded so wacky I wondered if the Greeks had anything new to offer the world of sordid, grade-z movies... besides maybe foustanellas. So I decided to hoof it over there after work ("'Hoof it over there?' What are you, a Montana survivalist or something?" "Haven't you done enough damage already, parenthesis?").

There were a couple dozen others in the audience as our gregarious host gave a brief introduction. He confirmed the screening was more or less a fluke, as they happened to have a rare Greek exploitation film (a micro-genre I'm going to offensively and not-so-catchily dub "Unilowbrow") and decided to schedule it for an open date. They had also promised trailers beforehand with titles like Black Samurai and The People Who Owned the Dark, but instead the first thing that appeared on screen was... a 70's porn flick. After what felt like a looong few minutes of graphic on-screen fucking, the host ran into the projectionist booth to shut the thing off, then came back and apologized, saying the wrong film was in the canister. "That was supposed to be a Pasolini trailer," he pleaded. Yeah, right.

So anyway, then it was on to the main course; the souvlaki, if you will. Hey, remember how the description of the movie sounded potentially fun? Well, would you believe it turned out to be... misleading *gasp*? First, this print of the film was actually called The Rape Killer, not Death Kiss. Second, the psychopath wasn't nearly as outrageous as he was made out to be. He was just a sweaty little Polanski lookalike who liked to rape women, slap them in the face OVER and OVER and then strangle them. Whoops! Oh, and the wife wasn't "shrill" or "alcoholic," she was just the usual brainless female victim. The heroin vacuum who played the mistress was a non-entity as well. The audience sporadically laughed at the usual inane dialogue, horrific clothes and implausible plot points (not to mention an undending succession of compact cars), but the rape stuff stopped everybody cold.

So overall it was a disappointing couple of hours, but at least it was free, aside from the metro fare. Plus, now I'll be able to say I watched some hardcore porn at the Library of Congress. I feel just like a Congressional page! For a much classier cinematic antidote, here's a link to a wild, 8-minute car chase from the French* action movie Blazing Magnum.

*EDIT: At first thought it was an Italian movie, I think because some music from this was on that Beretta 70 soundtrack comp. So at first I wrote - get this -"Italian? Now, uh... that's-a spicy meatball." Ha ha ha! Get it? 'Cuz... that old commercial... ("Do you comprehend how much you deserve to die for that?" "...Yes. Yes I do.")

Friday, April 13, 2007

Regret #57,432

I should've read more Vonnegut.

Now I feel like an

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Grindhouse Report (in which I'm too lazy to italicize anything)

I couldn't care less about many of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's obsessions (e.g. the careers of B-movie veterans like Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey and Danny Trejo), and until now I've flat-out hated every Rodriguez movie I've seen, with the exception of certain aspects of Sin City (and a case can be made that major credit for that lies elsewhere). However, I found the bulk of Grindhouse to be entertaining anyway, and Planet Terror's (Rodriguez's section) over-the-top, over-the-moon onslaught can probably be appreciated either as genre parody or tribute. Not so with Tarantino's film, Death Proof; I think they released this at Easter because Tarantino inflicts Christ-like suffering on bored audiences waiting for the payoff.

Give Rodriguez credit for making a film that turns his weaknesses (storytelling, trashiness, allegedly breaking up his marriage to bang Rose McGowan) into strengths. There probably wasn't any need for ANOTHER zombie movie, but the combination of McGowan eye candy, "missing reels," ridiculous violence/explosions and Texas freakiness made me laugh out loud probably more than I did at Shaun of the Dead. So if that's what you're looking for, it delivers.

But I wouldn't have bothered w/ Planet Terror at all if it weren't for the Tarantino double feature. I don't know if there's anyone whose movies I have enjoyed, or at least found interesting, against greater odds. About 70% of Death Proof is SO! FUCKING! BORING though! Dear GOD! If you thought listening to David Carradine in Kill Bill was tedious, get ready! Most of this film consists of a bunch of "tough chicks" sitting around bullshitting while we wait for Kurt Russell (good here, especially at the end) to do something. Now I for one would be a happy moviegoer if more films ditched their usual routine plot machinations to focus on fascinating conversations and odd tangents; Plus, making a second film as over the top as Planet Terror would've been just as tedious. But Tarantino seems to be locked in a contest with Kevin Smith to see who can write the most interminable, artificial dialogue imaginable. I found Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros engaging to listen to in Pulp Fiction, and I liked Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, but the women in this film don't resemble anyone you or I know (women, I'm... uh, looking at you here). They reek of the seedy confines of Tarantino's head and come solely adorned with his obsessions. Yuck. Plus, there's more of his awkward, allegedly good-natured racial banter on display. In a way Death Proof IS an interesting oddity; it could never stand on its own as a feature release but it contains one well-executed middle sequence; a crazy, extended car chase ending; and one of the best "The End" title cards I've ever seen. None of that redeems the preceeding tedium though.

Finally, the fake trailers at the beginning and "intermission" are easily the highlight of this thing; similar to how the amusing trailers to those old exploitation films are usually more entertaining than the features themselves. Maybe 2-3 minutes is the ideal length for these kinds of films.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Perhaps the creepiest scene in all of "Twin Peaks"

And no, it's not the quaint, charming BOB appearance that immediately follows it. It's this song (or as the YouTube user labeled it: "song"). Watching the new season 2 dvds reminded me of it. I don't know whose voice that's supposed to be, where the other instrumentation is coming from, or what Lara Flynn Boyle is actually thinking when her character has to gaze longingly at ├╝ber-doofus James Hurley. You know how Boogie Nights permanently recontexualized "You Got the Touch" from the Transformers movie? If someone ever gives me a motion picture green light I'm gonna find a way to re-imagine this.