Friday, February 26, 2010

RetroMusic: Nik Kershaw's "Save the Whale"

Over two decades later, still one of the most moving, powerful songs I've ever heard.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Terrific animated short from Mesai: ALARM

check out more about Mesai here

RetroTV: "Andy Griffith Show" Grapenuts commercial

Swimming pools ... movie stars ...

I didn't even realize the irony, on the eve before leaving Austin and finally relocating back to the city I've been thinking about since I left it a decade earlier, that I chose to watch the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Departures (Okuribito, in its native language). From Japan, this brilliant, humane, and indescribably touching film had my eyes watering long after it ended, and is such an affirmation of not only life but the solemn reverence of death and those it touches (or leaves behind) ... well, let's just say I've never seen a film like it, and can't stress enough that I think everyone should see it. On my film review blog I gave it the highest rating of any film I've ever written about there, and I hope anyone who reads that review will take the time to seek out the film and view it ... and yes, even with subtitles. What a moving, lyrical masterpiece.

This is my third day back in the land of (to quote "The Beverly Hillbillies") "swimming pools - movie stars" - and while I have yet to see either a swimming pool OR a movie star, I have gotten my job transfer set up, and even ventured into Hollywood yesterday.

Hollywood and Highland to be exact, which was a disaster area of construction and snarled traffic when I last left this town ten years ago. The snarled traffic is still there - but WOW, what a difference a decade can make! From the huge parking structure climbing up Orange Drive (the street I once lived on) , to the Kodak Theatre and all the shops and such at the Highland end, this was all new and fairly shocking to me. Kind of sad, in a way, to see Grauman's Chinese Theatre - once the sole highlight of the block - now sort of fading into the distance, seemingly swallowed up and the glitz and glam of tourist-oriented (no pun intended) retail shops and glittering escalators that seem to go up to heaven. I wandered over some stars on the Walk of Fame, checked out some of the newer footprints preserved in concrete forever (the Harry Potter trio, the Star Trek cast, etc.), and even took a couple of photos ... but that area is even more insane than I remember, and within fifteen minutes the absolute throng of tourists and tour buses - clogging the sidewalks and streets, respectively - drove me batty enough, I had to flee. The dude walking around in the Heath Ledger-as-the-Joker costume, though, was chilling enough that I wish I could have gotten a pic of him (though I'm sure he would have charged for the privilege); his costumer, makeup, and even the leer were pretty spot-on.

The entire shopping plaza, featuring Super Target, wasn't even a gleam in some planning commissioner's eye when I last visited La Brea and Santa Monica Boulevard. I wrote most of my first novel at the Carl's Jr. at that intersection, and remember looking out the window at the car wash across the street - now replaced by another huge mall, which is cool but I sort of miss the unobstructed simplicity of watching a bunch of young Hispanic guys working their butts off, getting those cars polished until they gleamed. But that's progress, I guess ...

The offices my company has on Wilshire are on the 36th floor, and have this amazing view of "the hill" that separates L.A. from the valley. You know you are in Los Angeles when you can glance out your office window and see the Hollywood sign in the distance, and for that reason alone I am looking forward to starting work this weekend.

My new roommate's a great guy. Night before last he took me out to dinner in Koreatown (the area of L.A. we live in), for my first authentic taste of Korean food (barbecue, no less). I loved it, down to the black raspberry wine (even the cod roe was good!), and as I am in the neighborhood plan to see much more of the area (though all of that aside, let's just say I am glad the roommate didn't order the "milt" for dinner - after learning what it was). Those who know me know that I've been hooked on "K-dramas" since first seeing "The Bizarre Bunch" maybe 5-6 years ago, and when we found this store called Movie World, complete with a ton of DVD boxed sets of K-dramas (not to mention other brilliant-looking Korean-language films), I about went nuts with grief that I couldn't buy them all. OH yeah, this is definitely a part of the city I'm glad to be living in!

Still trying to catch up on sleep, as well as from being stressed of all of last week, during the moving process. Am hoping the writing career will take off even more that I am here - and that I can finally meet and have coffee with some of the people I've met online, trying to network with; there's a whole lot of talent in this town, and I'm just trying to wade through all the egos to get to know it.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interview: BEE VANG

At the age of seventeen (as of this writing, originally on 23 September 2009), Bee Vang has already put behind him the kind of break that many actors spend the majority of their careers trying to land - a co-starring role in a prestigious Hollywood film, directed by and starring an icon of American cinema.

Such was Gran Torino, a 2008 release starring and directed by Clint Eastwood that proved to be one of the most critically-praised films of Eastwood's career. And Bee Vang, who played Thao Vang Lor in the film - the next-door-neighbor who would turn out to be the biggest pain in Clint Eastwood's character's behind ... and, ultimately, his best friend. Vang's performance was praised by critics and fans alike, as well, and has already earned the teen from Minnesota a core group of fans.

Not bad for a guy who had no previous acting experience (or, for that matter, ambitions) going into it all.

Born in Fresno, California, Bee Vang grew up in a big, quite extended family; his Hmong (an ethnic group originating in the mountainous regions of southeast Asia forced, years ago, to flee their homeland in search of political asylum) parents had emigrated to the United States just a few years before his birth, and Bee remembers his childhood as being constantly surrounded by family - literally, with sometimes as many as fifteen people sharing the same home. "It was always cramped, and sometimes tough," Bee says, "but I was so young, it was okay."

When Vang and his immediate family - which includes four brothers and one sister - relocated to Minnesota, it was there that Bee met "Miss D," a teacher who would nurture his artistic side. "I fell in love with the piano and viola," he remembers, "and Miss D always encouraged me; she found me a piano to play on, and bought me a viola." When Miss D passed a few years ago, Vang even played one of her favorite songs at the funeral - and in fact, in an otherwise completely professional yet personable demeanor, it's in talking about Miss D that Bee Vang's voice hints at the emotional bond he still has with his inspirational teacher: "Remember the part in Gran Torino, when I go to help that lady across the street with her groceries?" he asks. "Well, if you listen close, you can hear me call her 'Miss D' in the movie."

It's this kind of honor and respect that led Bee to originally pursue classical music; he was playing by 7th grade, and listening to classical music to sleep. "I found out, though, that I wasn't disciplined enough to be that good," he adds. "That, and I was never really encouraged much by my parents, who wanted me to pursue a more stable career. So after Miss D died (from brain cancer), I was inspired to go into neuroscience and medicine. I volunteered at local hospitals, and even got my CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant certification) through an internship."

But Bee's love for the arts - and, in particular, for film - was rekindled via an apprenticeship with a local Hmong filmmaker. Soon Bee learned, however, that his own ideas and work were a bit too controversial for that market, and by 9th grade he'd left the apprenticeship when there were too many compromises and changes requested of him. Even by this time, Bee had never had any desire or interest in acting ... but then received an email that changed his life.

An ad in the Hmong Times newspaper stated that a film company was seeking local Hmong actors for a feature film. Not expecting anything, Bee sent in his information and a photo - and, to his surprise, was called about an audition. "They called me, and sent me a side (a portion of a film script containing only the lines the actor is to read for his/her audition) to read," Bee recalls. "I prepared and went to the audition, while still juggling school and everything, and six weeks later got the callback. Several more weeks, and they told me I had the role."

And when asked his reaction to landing a major role in a film co-starring and directed by the one and only Clint Eastwood? Bee stifles a chuckle before replying. "I know girls are supposedly more emotional, but I realize maybe guys can be; looking back, I felt like this would give my artistic side a chance again; the opportunity for me to really push myself. I jumped up, screamed - even cried a bit. It was a real life-changing moment. Being Hmong, my parents have always pushed me into a stable career - professor, teacher, doctor - so this was an emotional experience for me." Vang mentions a lack of Eastwood star power at the auditions, "but for me that was good; less intimidating. I was less nervous because of it, and didn't meet Mr. Eastwood until my first day of shooting, three months later."

And for sure, meeting Clint Eastwood that day was something Bee Vang will never forget. "I was scared, but kept looking for him that day. I really wanted to make a good impression, didn't want to go overboard, but just shake his hand - and when I did, I think I said something like 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Callahan'. So much for a good impression!

"Until then I'd seen him as the intimidating, scary guy from the Dirty Harry movies. But he's just a regular person; another human being. He's not a 'star,' he's just ... Clint Eastwood - and I realized he's a very down-to-earth, serious guy."

Vang expands on his impressions of Eastwood further, when asked what working with him was like. "We never really talked on-set, other than our scenes together. He has his own style, and when you're on set he lets you know you're fine and will be taken care of. He's very quiet; I tried to ask him about his career and the industry, ask his advice, but only usually got, like, five minutes with him on set at a time, so it was hard to talk with him - but he told me that he kept that distance on purpose, to keep the same feel of the relationship that Thao and Walt had going on on-screen . So I learned all I could, for as long as I was with him, and also applaud Mr. Eastwood for giving Hmong people a chance to be seen and heard. He (Mr. Eastwood) works way too much, though - acting, directing, post-production; I heard that Gran Torino was going to be his last job as an actor, and I'm proud to have been a part of that."

Because of his outstanding, very realistic performance as Thao, it was natural to ask Bee about similarities he and his character have (warning: a few Gran Torino spoilers here!). "I think I'm smarter than Thao. Smarter, and maybe more aggressive. Thao is passive-aggressive, not as professional in his conversation. But there are similarities. Thao got the car - I got the piano from Miss D. My sister is a wonderful influence in my life, like Thao's. I've been greatly influenced by the women in my life, supported by women - there are many similarities to me and Thao, only if you gave Thao more of a chance to come out of his shell." Bee even remembers a time, like Thao helping his neighbors with the groceries in the film, when Bee himself spotted a blind man once, during the winter, whose path was blocked where he was about to walk. Like Thao, Bee jumped out of the car to help the man.

And that same guy still seems to reside in Bee Vang, even with all the attention the film has brought him. "I'm still very self-conscious. I'd never even given speeches in school. And when the premiere was coming, suddenly I had to give school speeches, interviews, speak in front of forums; I hadn't even prepared what to wear to the premiere! It still seems like a dream, that someone like me could even step up to such heights to work with Clint Eastwood in a film like this - and I remember I even screamed in the car on the way to the premiere. I'm trying, though, to be a better public speaker, and am proud to be a representative of the Hmong people. I like to feel like I helped pave the way in Hollywood a like - like maybe what happened to me was a stepping stone for other Asian and minority actors."

And while he's currently back in school in Minnesota, don't think for a moment that Bee Vang is a one-shot wonder - or going back to medicine. "I'm learning - reading - trying to become better with theater and acting in film. I've starred in a local Hmong filmmaker's film, Fallen City, that's due out in December, and had a small role in another independent film, Anatomically Incorrect. Right now, I'm just trying to study and learn, before eventually leaving for California or New York City." And Vang has good influences for his career goals, as well - favorite actors include Peter O'Toole, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tony Leung, and Leslie Cheung, and Bee cites directors like Chan-wook Park, Wong Kar-wai, Korean arthouse director Kim Ki-duk, Sean Penn, and of course Eastwood himself as his inspirations.

"I'd like to get a degree in acting and filmmaking - to become more known internationally, and work everywhere with directors all over the world. I need to finish college first, then get into film - more movie and acting opportunities. Maybe even directing," he adds with a small sigh.

And with a film Gran Torino as his debut, it seems like Bee Vang may already be well on his way.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Blue-Tail Fly" cover art

Releasing Monday, 8 February is my first short story for FIDO Publishing, "Blue-Tail Fly" - a horror/suspense story I wrote some time ago, and only recently really tried to get accepted for publication.

It's the story of a young video store clerk in Chicago named Randy who, while going home on a bus late one evening, spots a strange, balding little gremlin of a man who sings and hums and giggles to himself in the most annoying and creepy way. The Thing (as our hero has come to think of him) begins to harass Randy that very night ... and soon shows off the fact that he knows a horrifying secret from Randy's past - one he's not prepared to necessarily let Randy off the hook for.

Click on the link for FIDO above, and order on Monday (or after) if you'd like to read more. Meanwhile, I thought the cover art was so groovy, I had to share.

Always keep reading!


Scar Wars: A New Hope

Okay, so after minor pressure and much contemplation, I've jumped in on the idea of starting a blog about my life. I have a few blogs going already - one for film reviews, another of film trailers for movies you should see if you haven't already (among others) - but this is the one where I hope to loop together my life in general ... and my life as a writer in particular.

It's called "my life in a nutcase" because that's pretty much what my life's been for me,
especially the last several years; an adventure with (often times) more valleys than peaks, but I always try to stay afloat (that's the Scorpio in me, I guess; I'm on the Libra-Scorpio cusp, though supposedly more Libra - though I don't know for sure, as astrology AIN'T my thing).

So a little about me: as a writer, I was weaned on Agatha Christie (still my #1 favorite writer, to this day) and other mystery writers, who shap
ed my love for the genre. Soon Stephen King came along, however ('Salem's Lot scared the CRAP out of me!), and I soon expanded my reading to horror. To this day, I read and write fiction almost exclusively (outside of the reviews I do), but my authors list of favorites has expanded to everyone from Dickens and Conan Doyle to Robert B. Parker and J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, to Jackie Collins and the late Sidney Sheldon and E. Lynn Harris (among many others - am always up for trying a new writer).

I also used to be an actor and even dabbled in stand-up comedy - so be warned, my humor leans decidedly toward the sarcastic. I'm much more a fan of vintage (i.e.
reruns) TV than I am current TV; though I do have some favorites today, to me many of the sitcoms in particular just don't compare to what I grew up with as a kid (but isn't that ALWAYS the way?). Shows like "I Love Lucy" - "The Andy Griffith Show" - "Bewitched" - "The Golden Girls" - "The Avengers" - "Batman" - "Roseanne" - "Are You Being Served?" - "Fawlty Towers" - "Gilligan's Island" - "All in the Family" - "The Carol Burnett Show" - "Mama's Family" - "Good Times" - and so many more hold many great memories for me.

Same with film - from current to classic, foreign to domestic, anime to indie, I love film
with all my heart, and could never in my lifetime make enough time to see all the films I'd love to see. Favorite actors range from Bogart to Bette Davis, Meryl Streep to Tom Cruise (yeah, he's a nut, but I still think he has major talent), and actors you've probably never heard of, like Tatsuya Fujiwara and Ken'ichi Matsuyama from the film Death Note (one of my favorites of ALL time) and its sequels. But check out my film review blog mentioned above; that will give you a real idea of how varied my tastes in film are.

Here you'll find news on what's going on with me in my life and work - to classic clips and such of favorite TV shows, films, film trailers, music, etc. I've lived a very wacky and vagabond sort of life, with the scars to show for it - but wouldn't trade most of what I've experienced or done for anything in the world. Life is an adventure to be lived, not endured, and even with the scars you have to have hope. Hope for yourself, those you love, and the world at large to get bigger and better.

Hope is, after all, what keeps us humans going.