That was the challenge set before young writer Brandon Sanderson when he was called upon to complete The Wheel of Time, a series of doorstop-sized fantasy novels published from 1990 to 2005 by Robert Jordan, a pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., that have sold 44 million copies worldwide. Jordan’s death in 2007 while working on the planned 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time caused an uproar among those seeking to know the fate of hero Rand al’Thor and the other characters.
Enter Sanderson, the prolific young writer of the acclaimed Mistborn series. A longtime fan of The Wheel of Time, Sanderson was tasked with turning Jordan’s partially-finished manuscript, pre-written ending and extensive notes into something that would successfully conclude the series, which eventually was split into three novels. (Jordan had once said the last book could run 2,000 pages; the finale trilogy collectively ran more than 2,500). That last book, A Memory of Light, was published in January to rave reviews and a spot on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Sanderson will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet McDougal on Feb. 20 to promote Light and answer questions about the series. We got him on the phone to ask what it was like to finally bring the series he loved to an end.
Today, millions will celebrate Valentine’s Day with their spouses, significant others and loved ones. Millions more will celebrate it alone, and some will wonder why their lives aren’t like those of Audrey Hepburn, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or (in my case) John Cusack, at least the characters they play on screen.
Though Hollywood has provided many pairs of rose-colored glasses when it comes to relationships, there’s a number of lesser-known films that are perfect for those finding themselves lonely and/or bitter on Feb. 14, that depict everything from the complexities of commitment to what becomes of the broken-hearted. Here’s five of our favorite picks.
If you’ve ever just not been that into him (or her), we recommend last year’s Save the Date (available on demand and through streaming services on YouTube, Amazon and elsehwere), which takes a number of ideas seen in countless indy films—uncertain 20-somethings, sisters with different takes on love, impulsive relationships—and finds a take that’s darker, more honest, yet still funny.
Co-written by the cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, whose autobiographical cartoons often deal with the small, sometimes biting moments of relationships, it casts Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a woman who’s so uncertain about moving in with her musician boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) that she doesn’t even bother washing the dried food off her plates before they go into her moving boxes.
Kevin is in a band with Andrew (Caplan’s Party Down costar Martin Starr), himself the fiancé of Sarah’s more grounded sister Beth (Alison Brie from TV’s Community), who’s perfectly happy planning her own wedding and a future of double-dating amongst the two couples. When Andrew gives Kevin the idea to publicly propose to the already-wavering Sarah, their relationship has a public meltdown.
This is the grist for many a rom-com, but co-writer/ director Michael Mohan gets as much mileage out of Kevin’s raw pain and humiliation from the breakup as Sarah’s rebound fling with Jonathan (Mark Webber), an overly-nice guy with a crush on Sarah from her day job at a bookstore. He claims he isn’t into marriage or being overly serious (every other character sees through this right away). The film pushes things to a moment where both Sarah and Beth’s relationships are in crisis, and Andrew’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it never loses sympathy and understanding for its characters.
Sarah herself is somewhere between sympathetic and monstrous as she commits such social faux pas as drunkenly showing up at her shared residence with Kevin while he’s still vulnerable over the breakup, or in an amorous moment pushing an uncertain Jonathan to reveal some flaw from his past ("There's GOT to be something wrong with you, you're so nice”). Caplan’s very good at conveying that this doesn’t come from a place of malice or manipulation but rather youthful uncertainty, a fear of the ecstasy of a romantic fling curdling as it becomes something more permanent.
A confession: I never totally understood the "classic" status of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I remember watching it for the first time in seventh grade at my friend’s house, and I remember how bewildered I was as she howled and quoted every line. I mean, it was amusing, but was it one of the funniest movies of all time? That seemed doubtful. It was so dumb and old-fashioned and low-budget and … British. I had the feeling I was missing the joke.
So, as a confirmed outsider to the phenomenon, I will report that Spamalot, the musical adaptation of The Holy Grail featuring a book and lyrics written by original Python Eric Idle, currently playing at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, is hysterical and silly and had my mouth hurting from smiling so much by the end of it. It makes sense that a campy and over-the-top film would be perfectly suited for the campy and over-the-top world that is musical theater. Disjointed sketches, farcical gags and a constant bombardment of cultural references fit the stage even better than the screen, and Idle’s updated script speaks to my more contemporary sensibilities while still preserving the spirit of the original film.
Like The Holy Grail, which employed low-budget props and terrible animation to satirize both modern cinema and the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Spamalot doubles as a medieval tale and a broad parody of Broadway tropes. The plot is relatively simple: King Arthur (Arthur Rowan), with the aid of buxom diva The Lady of the Lake (Abigail Raye), rallies up a ragtag team of men to become his knights, and together they set out on the quest for the mythical holy grail (as instructed by God, portrayed as a giant pair of cartoon legs descending from the sky, and voiced by Idle himself). That’s pretty much all that happens. Along the way, our heroes run into some obstacles—lewd Frenchmen, an enchanter named Tim, knights who demand the production of a Broadway show in order to gain passage through the “very expensive” forest—but eventually, King Arthur and his knights sing and dance their way to the grail and everyone lives happily ever after. Or something like that.
It doesn’t always look that way, I know. But critics usually don’t go to a show for the purpose of basking in their own smugness and perceived superiority over the material, the genre, the company or the audience. (At least, they shouldn’t. When one does—and occasionally it happens, even here—little more is served than their own ego.)
But what do we make of a performance in which the performer appears to be doing this instead? That is the riddle posed by one Melissa Madden Gray, whose caburlesque performance under the stage name Meow Meow, Beyond Glamour, closes this evening in PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council.
By themselves, the 15 songs in this cabaret-concert-with-a-twist take us on a willfully eclectic trip. After an opening out of the American songbook, Gray quickly goes continental, mixing multiple selections by Edith Piaf and Astor Piazzolla with works by Bertolt Brecht and Monique Serf, best known during the 1960s as the single-name French songstress, Barbara. (Over half of the songs sung in this performance are in their original tongues; translations are provided for some, but not all.) These are interspersed with fashionably downbeat numbers by Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin (with an ostensible cameo by John Cage in the midst).
But, as Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it’s all in the delivery. Unfortunately, Gray’s renditions of these works evokes more question marks at times than exclamation points.
Supercop John McClane wants everybody to know he’s on vacation. So when he gets hit by a car or shot at by a helicopter or finds himself running from the fire of 10 machine guns, he screams at his attackers “I’m on vacation!”
There’s a lot of gunfire and crashing cars in A Good Day to Die Hard. Accordingly, McClane (Bruce Willis, of course) gets to shout his catch phrase a few times. He probably does it three times. It feels like 10.
McClane is in Moscow to get his estranged son out of a sticky situation with the Russian government. He’s not planning on hitting any gift shops, and his son—a CIA agent who’s got his whole situation figured out just fine, thank you—doesn’t even want him there. McClane’s refrain is confusing because he is not, in any sense, on vacation.
But he’s not going to utter a self-aware “Yippee-ki-yay” until the last act, and he’s got to say something snarky in the meantime, as he and his son jump from buildings and shoot up baddies, so “I’m on vacation” it is. This gives Willis and the movie a chance to announce that they’re not taking any of this very seriously. They know it’s the fifth movie in the series, they know that you think the only way this movie is going to be any good is if it’s transcendently terrible, and they are perfectly aware that there are better ways to spend your money.
But let’s not get carried away. From the way director John Moore opens onto a black screen with sounds of chaos to the first ludicrous cars-driving-over-cars car chase (which received numerous cheers at the screening I attended), to the burning inferno of the finale, there’s an idiot brute logic in the way this Die Hard gets through its admirably slender 97 minutes of deafening mayhem.
Chatter is kept to a minimum, and as the plot aims too big—reviving a Cold War-era disaster to propel the story into Major Significance—Moore’s direction maintains a simple precision, a clarity and immediacy that makes A Good Day to Die Hard seem almost visionary in context. I would venture to guess that this is one of the best fifth installment franchise movies ever made.
DAVID GATTEN FILM SCREENING AND DISCUSSION
N.C. State University
Caldwell Hall G107, 2221 Hillsborough St.
Fri., Feb. 15, 5-7:30 p.m.
This is the true story of how the ocean made a movie.
To be more precise, filmmaker David Gatten collaborated on a movie with the Atlantic Ocean, where the Edisto River empties its freshwater into the ocean’s salt along the South Carolina coast. Gatten put unexposed 16mm film stock into a crab trap, tied the ends of a 50-foot rope to the trap and his ankle, and dropped it into the water.
“The ocean made the movie,” Gatten says. “The exposure, the processing, the chemistry, the physical interaction—everything—was entirely the ocean. I didn’t do anything other than decide how long it should be in the water, at high tide, ebb tide, low tide. And how much film I was going to put in. The ocean and crabs decided how much film I was going to get back. They did the editing. They did the sound. I was the producer.”
Gatten made three such films in 1998, returning to the South Carolina coast in 2007 to make three more. This more recent set, along with five other 16-mm films from his acclaimed career, will be screened in a mini-retrospective on Friday evening at N.C. State.
It’s a rare chance to see the work of one of the country’s foremost experimental filmmakers with Gatten at the projector’s controls. In his omnipresent overalls, he’ll introduce the films, something he doesn’t often get to do but considers an integral part of the screening. Neither dramatic nor scripted nor off-the-cuff, he nonetheless sets the films up with a precise, evocative monologue before bringing the screen to life an exact beat after he stops talking. A screening is a performance, to his mind.
In the days before DVD/VHS, Netflix and endless online options — back when we had a little sanity left — TV binge watching was confined to weekend basic cable marathons. If you wanted to see all the episodes of a particular show in sequence, this was your sole option. Only the most dedicated souls braved those 24- and 48-hour endurance trials.
I tried it once, years ago, with David Lynch's serial freakout Twin Peaks. Like an idiot I went in without a game plan or any training regimen at all. Amateur move. By Episode 15, "Drive with a Dead Girl," I'd lost feeling below the waist and hadn't blinked in eight hours.
Thanks to DVRs, DVD series collections and Netflix's roster of quality on-demand shows (Arrested Development, Breaking Bad), we have a lot more control over when and what we watch. "Time shifting" is what the media pros call it. For many busy adults, controlled binge watching has become the preferred method of assimilating all the great TV out there.
In fact, I haven't watched a TV series during original broadcast since ABC's Lost wrapped up in 2010. That show left a bad taste when, after four seasons of twisty intrigue, the writers ran out of ideas and started resolving everything with gunfights. Remember when there was exactly one gun on that island, and it was a commodity, and Sawyer used it to shoot that polar bear?
But I digress. I'm here to recommend two recent binge-watching opportunities and another big one on the horizon.
NBC's impossibly reliable comedy 30 Rock wrapped up with its series finale late last month. It was a rather underwhelming end to the series, but it stayed true to creator Tina Fey's singular comic vision. The Season 7 DVD collection won't arrive until March, but meanwhile you can see all previous episodes from seasons one through six by way of Netflix's online video streaming.
The touring production of the stage musical version of Disney's Mary Poppins, co-created by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera hitmaker Cameron Mackintosh and appearing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17, is an odd experience, depending on which version of Mary Poppins you know. If you're mostly familiar with the 1964 film with Julie Andrews, this version jettisons many of the songs, scenes and plot points, creates a completely different conflict for the second act and adds a handful of new characters, including a nemesis for the titular magic nanny. If you're familiar with the movie version's source material though, the stage show is a mixed but sometimes fascinating attempt to find a middle ground between the fantastic-but-deadpan tone of the original Mary Poppins books and the more sweetness-filled film.
A history lesson: As a kid, I had all the Mary Poppins books by Pamela "P.L." Travers, in which the children Jane and Michael Banks are naughty and incorrigible, and Mary Poppins herself is a satire of a stereotypical uptight British nanny, guiding her charges on fantastic adventures without betraying a moment of excitement or interest with the wonders they encounter. (When they meet the Man in the Moon, Mary Poppins is mostly irate he's planning to make some cocoa and take a nap instead of doing his job.) Though Walt Disney himself campaigned mightily to make a film of Travers' work (soon to be the subject of its own film, Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers), Travers herself was deeply disappointed with the resulting film, even though its success brought renewed interest to her work. (The full story is chronicled in this fascinating New Yorker article from a few years back.)
All this backstory is important because the stage version of Mary Poppins takes most of its cues from the original book. The settings (a combination of physical sets and rear-projection) are designed heavily in the style of Mary Rogers' illustrations of the original books, with the Banks household first appearing as a flat picture that folds out to reveal its interior like a pop-up book. The play also borrows from other books in the series, incorporating the character of a living statue of the Greek demigod Neleus (Leeds Hill) and Mary Poppins' (Madeline Trumble's) various methods of arrival and departure from the different books.
Journalist Jonathan M. Katz, who currently resides in Durham, was the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. His experiences, not just during the immediate aftermath of the quake but over the next few years of relief efforts, are recounted in his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.00), which he'll read tonight at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. The book has received widespread acclaim for its insight into post-earthquake Haiti, and during its writing it received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities.
We got on the phone with Katz at his Durham residence for an in-depth discussion of the problems with Haiti relief efforts, the lack of understanding and need for accountability regarding the international community's involvement with Haiti and much more.
INDY WEEK: Obviously you have strong opinions on the issue, but I’m curious if your thoughts or perspective on Haiti have changed from when you first wrote the book.
JONATHAN M. KATZ: Most of what I’m describing in the book is what happened, so if something significant happened in the future, I’d want to write a Part Two. But, nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the clock hasn’t stopped, and people are still living in Haiti, and the problems they are facing are still going on.
But I wanted to focus on the aftermath of the disaster, and then the coverage of this a year after, and then two years after, because those are the problems that carry into the future. These problems didn’t end, and they aren’t going to end unless things are done.
For a movie that’s billed as a comedy, Identity Thief certainly leaves you with an empty feeling. Then again, the movie is about a con artist who steals from a dude who doesn’t even know he’s being jacked.
That’s what happens to Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a Denver company/family man who foolishly gives his personal info away on the phone to “Diana” (Melissa McCarthy), a Florida gal who spends her days making up phony IDs and credit cards and cleaning out the bank accounts of poor schmucks like him.
Once his credit cards begin getting declined and the cops start showing up to take him downtown, he eventually heads to Florida to track down this woman and bring her to Denver so she can clear up everything. The movie turns into an oh-so-obvious, buddy comedy road trip mashup, where the two protagonists end up learning more about each other and all that bullshit.
Identity Thief is directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Four Christmases), whom I starting to think is trying to outdo Todd Phillips for the title of World’s Lousiest Comedy Director. As with most of Phillips’ work, Identity Thief is tonally deranged. (Most of the blame should be attributed to screenwriter Craig Mazin, who co-wrote Phillips’ The Hangover Part II, as well as the third installment coming out this May.)
The film's first half is just a barrage of ugly, soulless humor, as Bateman’s character is surrounded by assholes who can’t seem to comprehend that someone could have stolen his identity (that is, when they’re not also mocking his unisex name). Those dicks soon become no match for McCarthy’s obnoxious sociopath, who greets our boy with everything from punches to the throat to insults about his man parts once he gets to the Sunshine State.
Perhaps the creators of this film realized midway through the production that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for McCarthy’s character as well, which would explain the movie’s weirdly sentimental second half. McCarthy immerses herself here, even shedding actual tears in a couple of scenes.
As darling and promising the pairing of Bateman and McCarthy is, their extemporaneous talents are sadly wasted in this film. Identity Thief is supposed be a fun time, but robs you of it the whole 111 minutes you’re sitting there watching it.