Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dear Sally

(Written for the "Deeply Superficial" Blog-a-Thon at South Dakota Dark)


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"We take full responsibility for the idea of cutting her hair." -JJ Abrams (NY Times, 12/4/00)


It's amazing what a cable outage can do. Last week my cable was out and since I was busy with an acting job I didn't have time to call for service for a few days. The time without TV - which I didn't miss due to the dearth of new episodes - prompted me to dig into my DVD collection. It's amazing how many episodes of The O.C. or The West Wing you can fly through while you're cleaning your apartment.

But the forgotten treasure that I enjoyed reconnecting with was, of all things, the second season of Felicity. A quick review: Felicity (Keri Russell) comes to college in New York on a whim in pursuit of her crush Ben (Scott Speedman). The first season is a protracted dance between Felicity, Ben, and Felicity's RA Noel (Scott Foley). Felicity becomes involved with Noel but eventually decides to spend the summer on a road trip with Ben rather than going to Berlin with Noel.

But of course, season 2 is about the haircut. In a media firestorm that probably wouldn't last more than 24 hours today, Keri Russell's haircut ignited fan controversy and actually dropped the shows ratings for a time. Russell is beautiful no matter what the length of her hair is, but it's easy to see why fans might have been disappointed by the tonsorial move. Viewed from a creative angle, can the haircut be defended?

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I think it can. The best teen (and I'm extending that to cover early-20s) series, no matter how long their ratings-driven life span, are the ones that come the closest to getting the emotional nuances right. Consider: Veronica Mars was set in a town and a school divided along economic lines and V's personality and attitude in the first season was in large part about resentment (and of course the murder of her friend). The O.C. played with class and status in a much splashier and more general way but at its best succeeded thanks to humor and the fantastically awkward Adam Brody. The great, forgotten, Once and Again got plenty of mileage out of stories involving the teen characters' maturation. A plot about Jessie's (Evan Rachel Wood) lesbianism got the most attention, but I maintain that Julia Whelan's Grace is one of the most underrated TV teens of all time. Whelan could convey amazing amounts of self-consciousness with just a look.

By contrast, the (until this season) teens on the ridiculous One Tree Hill have never laughed, told a joke, or had a moment where their lives didn't feel as weighty or predetermined as the those of the members of the House of Atreus. By this standard I think Felicity's haircut is perfectly defensible. She returns to school, a deeply indecisive Ben, and an angry Noel in the season 2 premiere. By then end of the second episode, Ben and Felicity have fluttered around their (unconsumated) realtionship to the point that Felicity has realized she'll have to change herself to a ridiculous point to be the kind of girl that a not-ready-for-something-serious Ben will want. This watershed moment comes after one of Felicity's advisees uses a magazine article's tips in an unsuccessfull effort to keep a boyfriend.


So when Felicity walks into that hair salon and asks for the works, the result is a woman shorn both of her most arresting feature and the emotional immaturity of a young girl. I don't think it's an accident that the cut made Russell look older. Of course Ben and Noel still are major players in Felicity's life, but I'd argue that there's a self-assuredness and outlook in Felicity post-trim. Felicty's reaction to a kiss with Noel during a calamitous Thanksgiving a few episodes later is played much more subtly than it would have been a season earlier.

Obviously the hair grew back and the rest of the series features plenty of social and romantic turmoil for Felicity. But it was those early episodes of Season 2 where Felicity stopped being the girl who followed Ben to New York and became someone much more worthy of our attention.

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Let's do the numbers

Delegates:

GOP - McCain 97, Romney 74, Huckabee 29, Paul 6 (1191 needed)

Dems. - Clinton 232, Obama 158, Edwards (out of race) 64 (2025 needed)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Award talk

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I haven't written much about the Oscar nominations yet, because of the death of Heath Ledger and other things. But this post at the Carpetbagger about a Juno backlash (and the Carpetbagger is a little late to the party on that if you ask me) has me thinking about the Best Picture race, which I'd say is the most diffcult to predict in recent memory.

Could Juno ride to victory as the heavy dramas split the vote? It's possible, and it certainly has some things in its favor. It's a box office hit, the only one of the films that deals in a direct way with how people actually live, and (as is mentioned in the post's comments thread) has the most significant female presence in the cast. But is it "important" enough? There's an unanswerable question. Will the fact that the screenplay is the heart of the movie - as opposed to Jason Reitman's nominated direction - hurt because of bias against writers in the voting community due to the strike? It makes one wish for exit polling.

The one nominee that really doesn't belong is Michael Clayton, a film that hasn't worn well with me. Clooney is as good as he's ever been, but the film seems to be to be a slightly above-average John Grisham adaptation. The behavior of the corporation is so selectively malevolent - they shadow the Tom Wilkinson character but somehow miss him getting the key document copied and bound - and the Tilda Swinton character so out of her depth that I wasn't as moved as I should have been by her downfall. Clayton's moral arc isn't connected to anything else going on in the film in any satisfying way. Let's hope the strike gets settled and we can all enjoy the suspense.

Zooey Deschanel & M Ward...

...are making an album. (Pitchfork)

Giuliani to drop out...

...or so it says here. Have supposed first-tier candidates ever been less relevant that Giuliani and Thompson were this year? (Huffington Post)

Pics from ...

Photobucket....Sundance, like this one of Mischa Barton and Reece Thompson from Assassination of a High School President. (VF Daily, photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Edwards drops out

John Edwards ends Presidential campaign. I have to say that as a supporter I'm disappointed but not surprised. Coming the day after McCain's victory in Florida I think this news is especially troubling, since I think he is by far the most dangerous GOP candidate, but also the only one I could stomach as President. As Democrats we must find a way to reconcile the paralyzing arrogance of Clinton and vague promise of Obama into a vision that appeals to more than just the old base. (NY Times)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Any rhymes for "Walla?"

I'm just giving a listen to Field Manual, the new solo CD from Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. Hearing songs about something other than the singer's own personal life is always a turn-on for me, and Walla has got several tracks here that are obviously political without being heavy-handed. DCFC fans will be at home with the sound - melodic, but almost apologetically so, as if no one wanted to bother you. Read about how Homeland Security got involved in the CD's release in this Harp magazine Q&A.

Kingsley Amis...

...wrote a James Bond novel. That and more on the literary roots of the next Bond, apparently called Quantum of Solace. (James Wolcott)

Seen Scene

A key moment from The Royal Tenenbaums is deconstructed. (Quiet Bubble)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Hornby/Rouse

A hour-long video of Nick Hornby and musician Josh Rouse from an NYC reading. (I Am Fuel, You Are Friends)

Monday Music: The Bad Plus

I think I'm going to get to see this group in March. Jazz trio The Bad Plus perform the Rush classic "Tom Sawyer."

Neko Case...

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...shows another side of her talent. Don't watch at work. (Stereogum)

Forty years on...

...from the publication of Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema. I've never embraced the auteur theory; it's always seemed to me that too many hands go in to the making of a film to consider it the work of any one person. But I did learn to look for stylistic quirks and patterns in directors' work from Sarris. Even allowing that there were auteurs in 1968, I think we'd all agree there are a lot fewer today. (Chicago Reader)

Wrong song

"Falling Slowly," the Oscar-nominated song from Once, may have its nomination removed because it appeared on two albums prior to the film's release. Couldn't someone have checked that earlier? (NY Times)

Teddy....

...endorses Obama (Breitbart)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Not Cannes, but still....

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NP's The Other Boleyn Girl at Berlin Film Festival. (IFMagazine)

Look for the label

A blogging union? (Columbia Journalism Review)

But blogs aren’t just part of the proverbial marketplace of ideas; they’re also part of the plain old marketplace—and site viewership, of course, translates into ad sales. (Profits add up quickly: A single, week-long, premium-slot ad run on Daily Kos, according to Blogads, sells for $9,000.) As top-tier blogs, in particular, become increasingly profitable, it will be fair to ask just how much of their proceeds are going to the writers who, ultimately, make it all possible.

Portland story

How Gus Van Sant transferred Paranoid Park from page to screen. (Bookforum)

Bond, James Bond

Cinematical has news on the new James Bond, including a title. Mathieu Amalric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has signed on to play the villain.

For the moment...

...Ron Paul is getting more votes than Giuliani. (Politico)

Festival news

A Sundance review of Sugar, the next film from the Half Nelson team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. (IFC)

Let's outsource dancing

Armond White thinks How She Move flattens the world. (NY Press)

Through Wesley’s humanity—not the Flashdance-meets-You Got Served plot—this movie represents the curious intersection of pop exploitation, postmodern style and global politics. How She Moves’ heroine doesn’t belong to a recognizable environment, but an extrapolation of the hip-hop world where people live to dance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Delegate derby

Delegate counts as the Dems. SC Primary approaches:

Democrats - Clinton 210, Obama 122, Edwards 52 (2025 needed)

Republicans - Romney 72, McCain 38, Huckabee 29, Thompson 8, Paul 6 (1191 needed)

What a tragedy

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I'll have to admit than when I saw Heath Ledger for the first time in 10 Things I Hate About You I never thought that brooding guy slowly falling for Julia Stiles would go on to become an Oscar nominated leading man set to rise to the level of summer blockbuster star with this summer's The Dark Knight. Much is already being written about possible causes of death and Ledger's mood in recent days. I don't have much to add other than there's at least one report that he was having trouble with the drug Ambien.

Almost every article about Ledger mentioned his determination to avoid being pigeonholed as a hunk after his initial success. I'm sure Ledger could have worked more if he'd wanted to, but after having another success with the fluffy A Knight's Tale he seemed to seek out roles where leading man qualities weren't required. A reunion with Knight's Tale director Brian Helgeland in The Order yielded one of the worst films I've ever seen, and The Brothers Grimm seemed to get lost in all the process stories that surround any Terry Gilliam project.

Ledger's performances in Lords of Dogtown and Monster's Ball point to an actor too good looking for his talent, someone inherently more comfortable with character roles. I'm still not sure that he shouldn't have won for the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but the Academy preferred the more outwardly visible transformation of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I have my issues with Brokeback (I still think Michelle Williams' is the only character who comes off a real person and not a literary creation), but Ledger magnetism and quiet power are undeniable. We'll never know just how The Dark Knight might have changed things, but I think Ledger could easily have had a career like that of his ex Michelle Williams, doing good work in indie productions with maybe the occasional dip into blockbuster territory. We'll most likely never know what really happened, but sadly Ledger's life and career now belong to our need to create martyrs, pontificate, and exhume every last detail.

Next week on....

The future of episodic television blogging. (The American Scene)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Another word on Juno

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Recently I read a year-end post on the well-read and highly respected film blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, written by Dennis Cozzalio. The post is quite lengthy, and I was skimming along nicely until I got to the section where Mr. Cozzalio names his "worst" film of the year, Jason Reitman's Juno. Cozzalio raises a number of points about the film, two of which caught my attention. The first was the scene in which an ultrasound technician asks a number of highly personal and judgmental questions about what Juno plans to do with her baby. Juno and her stepmother shout the technician down. Cozzalio used the word "reasonable" to describe the ultrasound tech's behavior. I wrote:

"The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs. "


Cozzalio replied:

Simon, perhaps you could substitute "sensible" (the word I used) for "reasonable," or maybe you could just say "concerned," which is what I think the ultrasound technician shows in the scene, unsolicited, inappropriate or not.


The blog The Man From Porlock, which inspired me to return this subject today, reports this exchange and segues (taking off from something Cozzalio says later in the comments) into a interesting but tangential discussion of how secondary or one-scene characters are used to either reflect or challenge the opinions of leads in various films.

Very quickly, I also took exception to Cozzalio's description of Juno as part of the MySpace/Facebook generation. While its true that Juno is of the generation that came of age with these sites, I'd argue that both MySpace and Facebook are now so large as to make the description (which I've read in multiple reviews) virtually meaningless. It's about as useful to compare two MySpace/Facebook pages as to compare snowflakes. Indeed, we're seeing a rise in the ages of those who use these sites.

However, the thrust of what I want to say here is that I stand 100% behind my comments on Cozzalio's site with the exception of my reference to his "personal beliefs." It was inappropriate of me to imply he couldn't separate his own views from his critical judgment and even more inappropriate to comment on something I know nothing about. I hope Mr. Cozzalio will forgive my overenthusiastic turn of phrase.

Much of the negative blog reaction I've read about Juno at various sites has to do with the script by the now-celebrated Diablo Cody. Cody's fast, witty, allusive lines just don't seem right coming out of the mouth of someone in Juno's situation, or so the argument goes. I'm reading a small book called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by a French academic named Pierre Bayard which has influenced my thinking on this point. To vastly oversimplify, Bayard argues that out "non-reading" lives are just as important as the books we actually read and that the collective influence of books unread and read changes over time due to cultural bias, skimming books, forgetting, etc.

I wonder if the same thing isn't true to some extent in film. We come to a film with a teenage girl at its center with certain expectations. In an off-the-rack Hollywood teen comedy we often find a main character struggling to understand the dense high school code of boys, body image, and status. There's generally an antagonist, the leader of a pack, representing someone who has mastered all these things. For examples I refer you to Mean Girls (a film whose dialogue is every bit as post-teen as Juno) or the decidedly less entertaining John Tucker Must Die (2006, Betty Thomas). Juno is interested in one boy in particular, though it's refreshing to see that despite their awkward encounter Juno's feelings for Paulie aren't defined by lust and aren't really understood for much of the film. But the social whirl of high school is almost entirely absent. Juno is happy with her friends, her music, and her Dario Argento DVD's.

It's an arguable point as to what the long term effects of Juno's giving up the baby might be on her and her child, but debating what happens to characters after a film ends is a zero-sum game. (No one's writing about what happens to Plainview after "I'm finished" in There Will Be Blood) But I do think a significant portion of the negative blogosphere response to Juno is because the character doesn't fit our received ideas of teen girls in film and there's a tendency to think that someone who's so smart and funny would never have gotten themselves into this situation anyway. To find Juno an implausible or irritating character is to tacitly ask for a dumber movie. I do think Diablo Cody knows a good deal more about teenage girls than most of the people writing about Juno (including me), a fact that as a critical community we're not ready to deal with. No one was blogging about movies when the male equivalent of the 'I don't know what kind of girl I am' moment happened, but we all love Lloyd Dobler now, right?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Still don't want to be Bob Dylan...

Get ready for a new Counting Crows album....(I Am Fuel, You Are Friends)

Film Critic Dance Fight!

Mix an Indonesian avant-garde film, a catty New York Times review, and Mr. Jonathan Rosenbaum and what do you get? That's right, critic-on-critic action. All relevant links here. (Chicago Reader)

Rosenbaum:

Back in the days of Crowther, you could treat a knock of his as a recommendation -- at least that's what I often did when I was a freshman at NYU, and the gamble usually paid off. It would be nice to think that some readers today use Catsoulis the same way, but frankly I doubt that many will rush off to the Museum of Modern Art to see Opera Jawa after reading her short review, buried at the bottom of the fifth page of the arts section. And I'm even more depressed when I think that the odds of this film making it to Chicago may be reduced because it's now possible for a potential programmer to shrug and say, "The Times says it stinks."

"Dangerous Liaisons" - Cashmere Mafia, episode 1.3

PhotobucketLast week I wrote about the "spreadsheet" - the ladies' methodical search for a "revenge lover" for Juliet after her discovery that husband Davis had been having an affair with Cilla Grey (Noelle Beck). To me, the spreadsheet was just the sort of plot we don't need from Cashmere Mafia; that is, one that makes them look like man-hungry, control-freaky harpies. So I'm happy to report that Juliet's search for a get-even fling is resolved this week....

Davis is pulling out all the stop in attempt to get back in Juliet's good graces. He organizes a family trip to the theater, surprises Juliet at work, and even suggests a return trip to a favorite resort. Although Juliet is still planning a rendezvous with old business school chum Bobby (Bill Sage, unconvincing as a corporate titan), she's beginning to wonder if her time wouldn't be better spent working on her marriage.

There's a heartbreaker of a twist at the end of this episode. It appears that Juliet has vanquished Cilla by promising to put in a good word with the co-op board regarding the penthouse Cilla was after in the pilot in exchange for Cilla's shutting down an anonymous blog that has outed Caitlin as a lesbian. But what if Cilla was more than just a fling to her husband? That's what Juliet has to face
going forward. I think anything that complicates the emotional terrain of these ladies' lives and stays away from a kind of "Sex and the City"-ness ("Hey, it's Manhattan! It's crazy! I'll sleep with him if you sleep with her!") is a good direction for the show.

But there's much more fertile storytelling ground over with Zoe, who travels to Boston with her annoying subordinate Katherine (Kate Levering) and a male colleague to close a deal. The conflict between two generations of professional women is something we haven't seen explored much on TV. Zoe is horrified to discover that Katherine is sleeping with the guy on the business trip; the relationship leads to Katherine giving away a piece of the firm's profits in order to close the deal. Zoe orders the guy to end the affair. When Katherine threatens a lawsuit she winds up with a barely deserved promotion. We don't see enough of Katherine to know how aggressively she pushed the relationship, it could of course be argued she's the victim. But I did like the way this part of the episode ended (Zoe jumps into bed with her husband); the takeaway from Zoe this week is that women can be fulfilled keeping personal and professional separate, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, Mia must decide whether to approve a splashy magazine cover (which shows a man being "eaten for breakfast" by a woman) that was the last project of her ex-fiance Jack before he quit and called off their wedding. We know Jack returns next week, so I'll have more to say on Mia next week. All I can say for now is that this episode seemed designed to show Mia's vulnerability, and that high-powered corporate women really do want to "have it all." Nothing new there, but we'll see where it goes. Caitlin spent most of the episode worrying about being outed and dealing with an untimely zit on her forehead, but she did have a sweet moment with would-be girlfriend Alicia. Next week a man appears, and Caitlin's new relationship is threatened.

All in all an improvement on episode 2, and I now like all these women a good bit more.

The weather outside is....

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...is this. The view behind my apartment this morning.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One eighty

A critic reverses himself on Children of Men. (The American Scene)

What a mess

There's a column in the Washington Post today that manages to tacitly recycle some of the same tired Obama/Farrakhan/Muslim smears that have been going around. Read responses by Daily Kos and by Michael Chabon at Huffington Post.

How relevant is Farrakhan exactly? This whole thing seems about as important as criticizing John Edwards for eating in the same restaurant as Ross Perot or Hillary for owning a Barry Bonds baseball card. Still, we had better see a dialing back of rhetoric or Democrats will have a fissure that won't go away anytime soon.

Academy snubs

Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days are not among the finalists for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. (Indiewire)

Brad Renfro

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Actor Brad Renfro (The Client) found dead in L.A.. He was 25. (LA Times)

Delegate derby

No delegates awarded for Democrats in Michigan; here are the new GOP numbers according to Time.com:

Romney 42, Huckabee 21, McCain 19, Thompson 6 (1191 needed)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stephin Merritt...

...dressed in brown. New Magnetic Fields album out today. (NY Times)

He started dressing in brown about five years ago. “It’s going really well,” he said. “I had a green shirt that looked brown when I bought it, but I recently got rid of it.” All his pants are khakis. His homes — he has an apartment in New York and house and studio in Los Angeles — are decorated in brown and bright red. “If I didn’t make these decisions ahead of time, because my tastes tend to be sort of eclectic, I would have disasters,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is not an O.C.D. thing. This is a way of warding off what other people regard as horrendous, egregious errors in taste.”

See the campaign...

...like nowhere else. C-SPAN covers Election'08. (Slate)

Buyers market?

Most of the films at the forthcoming Sundance Festival are still up for grabs as far as U.S. distribution. Indiewire notes that the recent perception that there were 'too many' films out last fall could scare buyers off.

3 out of 4 writers agree.....

John Sellers takes issue with Goose Gossage's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think Gossage belongs; he was one of the dominant players of his era on a great team and frequently came into games in the 7th or 8th inning. Gossage pitched about twice as many innings in his career as Mariano Rivera has pitched so far, but Rivera has around 150 more saves. (I saw these stats on ESPN and am quoting from memory) This is a case of the role of relief pitcher changing and numbers not being comparable. Here's hoping Jim Rice gets in next year and what about Jack Morris?

Why I'm voting for Edwards

David Brooks sees identity politics collapsing in on itself in the Clinton-Obama battle. At the Daily Dish, the possibility of a black backlash against Clinton in the fall is raised.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Open means open

I'm not a huge fan of open primaries; those efforts to flood the voting with people from another party always get a lot of attention but never accomplish very much. Nevertheless, they're the law. That means this Michigan attempt to bring the state AG's office to bear on Daily Kos won't fly.

"I’ll trade the opening weekend for a movie that can stand scrutiny five or ten years down the road."

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David Fincher on Zodiac and why he does things his way. (LA Weekly)

I’m unaware of being obsessed about the work. I just look at it as: I’ve taken tens of millions of dollars of somebody’s money and I owe it to make the best possible movie that I can muster on any given day. That’s my responsibility. That’s my oath of office.

Wire sounds

Sasha Frere-Jones on two compilations of music from The Wire. Frere-Jones's post leads to this interview with Nick Hornby and Wire creator David Simon at The Believer.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Not coming soon

Yet-to-shoot movies delayed by the strike: Angels & Demons, new work from Rob Marshall and Oliver Stone, and the Mira Nair/Johnny Depp epic Shantaram. (LA Times)

Strike stuff

The Directors Guild and AMPTP began contract negotiations this weekend. Note speculation on whether a quick deal between the two could be used to leverage striking writers to accept less than their demands. Lots of diverse opinions in the comments section. (LA Weekly)

What were writers doing?

From the NY Times:

In the Westwood district of Los Angeles, meanwhile, members of the Writers Guild of America and their families were invited to spend Sunday at a Union Solidarity Film Festival. The scheduled screenings were to include “Newsies,” “Network,” “Harlan County U.S.A.” and “Norma Rae,” all about labor struggles or the perfidy of corporate types.

Reaction

The Carpetbagger has some first thoughts from Jeremy Piven and Brad Bird on their Globes. More commentary from Variety's Award Central....

Sunday Music: Belle & Sebastian



Belle & Sebastian - "Another Sunny Day" - 2006

Pretty pictures

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There's a palpable sexuality and tension to the early scenes of Atonement that makes it something far more interesting than just another Merchant-Ivory movie. Director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (an ASC nominee) have a gift for making the English countryside not just pretty but sensuous (just as they did in Pride & Prejudice); the air is so thick in the movie's first act its almost like a Tennessee Williams play. Wright presents scenes from multiple points of view, flashbacks, and a fantasy sequence during the typing of Robbie's letter.

At the Chicago Reader film blog, Pat Graham disagrees. With all due respect I think Graham's take is a bit superficial, though I do agree with the comments about the "Dunkirk shot." Wright and his team get at, I think, what McEwan does in the novel; playing the powerful sexual attraction of Cecilia and Robbie against the slow, stultifying English country summer and then seeing it through the misunderstanding eyes of Briony. I don't think the book's ending works on film,but that's another post.

It's Globe Day!

Behind-the-scenes Golden Globe craziness....(NY Times)

The fight over the Golden Globes on Sunday night has left the once glamorous awards show in a confusing state: a news conference announcing the winners will still be broadcast on NBC, but not exclusively; the striking writers will not picket the event as threatened but it is unclear how many nominees or other celebrities will show up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

WGA nominations

The Writers Guild nominations, and what they mean for the Oscars. (Variety)

This tells us that Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are moving full steam ahead in the Oscar best picture race. Zodiac's inclusion today is a surprise. (Oscar ballots are due Saturday.)

It is highly unusual for three women to be nominated, all for original screenplay. So kudos to Nancy Oliver (Lars and the real Girl), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Diablo Cody (Juno).

Leung love

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Just saw In the Mood for Love for the first time; here's a tribute to that film's star Tony Leung. (The Age)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Conference Call" - Cashmere Mafia, episode 1.2

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I'll come clean. I have a weakness for shows in which good looking women wear incredible clothes and navigate the social byways of Manhattan. That's why I was glad no one else wanted to write on Cashmere Mafia; I was all set to have one great big guilty pleasure of a time writing about a series diametrically opposed to Life, the other (sorely missed) series I've been working on. But then....

...a comment I received about my post on the pilot has stuck with me. Yes, the Cashmere Mafia ladies are strong and assertive professional women. But (the commenter said) they're punished for trying to have it all. Let's consider: Mia (Lucy Liu) loses her fiance when she lands a huge promotion at her magazine publishing firm. Juliet (Miranda Otto) learns her husband is sleeping with someone in their social circle. Zoe (Frances O'Connor) finds her job incompatible with parenting, and Caitlin (Bonnie Somerville) realizes her own sexuality has been subsumed by career.

It was the spreadsheet that really got to me. Early on in "Conference Call" the ladies huddle over a spreadsheet listing revenge lovers available to Juliet, who at the close of the pilot had vowed to get even with cheating husband Davis (Peter Hermann). Since it has already been established how hard all these ladies work, this scene of four women searching for a non-threatening sex partner for one of them felt not only reductive but wildly implausible. The eventual winner is an ex-business school classmate (Bill Sage) who offers Juliet a no-strings attached affair, but will stepping out on Davis really heal Juliet's hurt? "There's no such thing as getting even," as Kathryn Erbe observed in the Law & Order I watched right before flipping to ABC.

The other married Mafiosa is Zoe, who tonight feels the heat not at work but from her other flank: a stay-at-home Mom. Zoe's husband Eric (Julian Ovenden) is an devoted and agreeable architect, but clearly feeling the strain of doing most of the parenting. The Queen Bee Mom (a well-cast Krista Allen) at the school Zoe's kids go too wastes no chance to make Zoe feel inferior for working. The highlight of the episode was the scene in which Zoe opens the "Working Mom" bear that her children have made while on a playdate with Allen's kids. I thought the bear - which chirps "I'm on a conference call - was a softer way of reminding Zoe how much she has to fight for than having Eric get hit on by the rival Mom (of course, this happens anyway). Zoe wins by finding a way not only to accompany her kids on a field trip but including all the other parents in the class as well.

On her first day at her new job Mia is ordered to fire her mentor, a plotline that would have carried more weight if said mentor hadn't played so indifferently by Damian Young. (Next week promises a parting shot from Mia's ex-fiance, that should be better). Caitlin bungles her date with Alicia when they run into an ex of Caitlin's who boorishly comments on her dancing with a woman. Things are happily resolved with a kiss; Caitlin gets outed next week in a plotline that should have more substance. (Mia fires her director of marketing, Caitilin is a director of marketing. Just a thought.)

I don't know if ready to say that Cashmere Mafia punishes its heroines, but it does spend a good deal of time putting them in dilemmas that a man would never face. How about showing them demonstrating the skills that got them their jobs in the first place?

Why Ron Paul....

...isn't that important. (The American Scene)

2008 Music

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Stereogum has a preview of 2008 albums. Winter highlights include new work from Bob Mould (above), Nada Surf, Drive By Truckers, Cat Power, and (certain to excite this blogger) Robert Pollard. April brings a new R.E.M. disc.

The Top 10...

..Criterion DVDs of Juno writer Diablo Cody. (Criterion)

10. The Royal Tenenbaums

This entire movie could have been about the friction between Danny Glover and Gene Hackman and it still would have been amazing. Look past the production design and darling costumes if you can; the story is oak solid behind those oxblood walls.

Lost talk

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!! Matthew Fox talks Season 4 of Lost. (Entertainment Weekly)

Wednesday Numbers

Latest delegate counts, courtesy of Time:

Democrats: Clinton 183, Obama 78, Edwards 52, Richardson 19 (2025 needed)

Republicans: Romney 30, Huckabee 21, McCain 10, Thompson 6 (1191 needed)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Finally Arrived: Juno

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(What's up, big-city film bloggers? "Finally Arrived" denotes the fact that South Carolina isn't exactly the first place to get those award-magnet movies every year. We're very much a wide release kind of state. But now that these films are starting to roll out, I'm ready to weigh in!)


The best thing about of-the-moment Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody isn't that she's a former stripper or has a blog (Diablo, Juno would never be on MySpace). Hey, she can write. I was fully prepared for Juno to be an overhyped disaster, 96 minutes of one-liners dryly delivered by Ellen Page and the artful stammering of Michael Cera with a dollop of Jennifer Garner for good measure. So I'm delighted to report that Juno is a triumph, a near-perfect combination of writing, directing, and acting that is certainly the most human film of 2007.

Whether or not the "indieness" of Juno is being misused as a marketing ploy is just blog fodder. When something is this good, does its corporate provenance really matter? Juno is something new in movies - a smart, self-respecting teen who isn't a miniature adult and knows it. (The details help. Two words: Hamburger phone) Juno mentions at several points that she's not ready to be a mother, and all evidence would seem to indicate that she's right. Can anyone imagine Juno keeping the baby? I can think of no way in which the scene which would have been inevitably required in which the stepmother (Allison Janney) reverses course and tells Juno that everything is going to be OK and they'll work it out somehow would not have been terrible. There's the hint of sexual tension between Juno and Mark (Jason Bateman), the prospective adoptive dad of Juno's baby. But because someone decided to cast the movie based on a desire for reality as opposed to studio wishes or appeal to some perceived demographic, the idea of Juno and Mark isn't just wildly implausible but also more than a little disgusting. (This very quietly is the best performance of Bateman's career) All the cultural name dropping that Juno does (Patti Smith, Dario Argento) is to some extent bluster; she's exactly as vulnerable, self-absorbed, and intermittently annoying as she needs to be.

A word about Jennifer Garner. Needy would-be Mom Vanessa is the one character that could have easily devolved into caricature. The compulsive buying of baby products and fawning over Juno's belly might have been played for cheap laughs, but Garner pulls it off and usual somehow manages to look her best when she's sad. As movie audiences we tend to unconsciously think that people with who are incredibly physically attractive don't have any real problems; Garner's beauty works in her favor here; in some superficial way that I don't really want to think about it makes Vanessa's situation more poignant.

I know at least one person who saw Juno because of its presence in the op-ed columns. Juno considers having an abortion but decides against it after the lone protester outside a women's clinic (which looks so seedy it could double as an adult video store) tells her that Juno's unborn child has fingernails. To assign Juno a place in the abortion debate is to disrespect the individuality of its heroine. The real reason that Juno doesn't have an abortion is of course that the movie would only be 20 minutes long, but the collection of behavior, attitudes, jokes, and choices Juno makes adds up to a character perfectly capable of being freaked out by fingernails and asserting her right not to be a pawn in anyone's political agenda. There are teens as bright and full of potential as Juno out there blogging and forming bands right now, but that doesn't mean they don't need a little help sometimes. At least there's finally a movie for them.

You're a part-time...

A review of the soundtrack for Juno.....(Houston Chronicle)

Lens awards

Nominees for the Directors Guild and Cinematographer awards....(IFC)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"Pilot" - Cashmere Mafia. episode 1.1

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So here we are. Take 4 female friends, New York City, and a helping of workplace politics and other gender issues and we have "Cashmere Mafia," a new ABC series from executive producer Darren Star of "Sex and the City" fame. I doubt they'll be turning "Cashmere Mafia" into a feature film, but the pilot has its charms....

The Cashmere Mafia are four business school friends who have each risen to prominence in New York business and social circles. I wish the pilot had been a little more specific about what each of the women did. Only Mia Mason (Lucy Liu) gets sufficient exposition. She's up for the publisher of a major media conglomerate, but the central story arc of the pilot concerns the fact that she's competing against Jack Cutting (Tom Everett Scott). Jack is aggressive, talented, and (after the opening scene) Mia's fiance. The two are pitted against each other to sell the most ad pages in a week; the winner gets the job and the loser is out on the street. The Mia-Jack storyline sets up a central theme of the show. Mia keeps a client that the two are competing for out so late he cancels a meeting with Jack the next day. When he complains she points out that she wasn't invited when men made the rules, so she's got to fend for herself. Even if Mia and her friends are just as capable and driven, sometimes they've still got to do something extra.

Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Somerville, whose credits include roles on "Friends," "The O.C.," and "NYPD Blue") is the "head of marketing" somewhere, but we're never told more about what this means. I was pleasantly surprised to discover - when Caitlin locks eyes with a cute female business contact named Alicia (Lourdes Benedicto) - that she's a budding lesbian. Caitlin immediately runs to confess her sexual confusion to her brother, who turns out to be an incredibly open-minded Catholic priest. Somerville's reaction after getting a kiss from Alicia is the most touching moment of the episode.

Less well developed is Zoe (Frances O'Connor), who has child care issues and a husband who travels for business. When a nanny they've hired turns out to be a ninny, we get a monologue about how the women entering the work force now have a sense of entitlement while women of the Cashmere Mafia's generation were forced to kick, scratch, and sometimes be grateful for what they could get at work. The final Mafiosa is Juliet (elegant Miranda Otto), whose husband breaks their tacit understanding by sleeping with someone in the ladies' social circle. The pilot ends with Juliet and her friends trying to decide who she should take as a revenge lover.

All four actresses look fabulous and are tremendously appealing. I was particularly happy to see Liu get to show a lighter side and some vulnerability, she hasn't had much chance since making her bones with hard-ass characters on "Ally McBeal" and in "Charlie's Angels." My worry is that each lady will be saddled with one "thing" (career, mommy, gay, sex) that defines them and makes their interactions with each other predictable or cliched. I'm not going to pretend "Cashmere Mafia" isn't mostly light entertainment, but a smart show about women fighting on both the work and home front (including against younger women) has a chance. "Cashmere Mafia" returns Wednesday at 10; since "Life" on NBC has disappeared for the moment I'll be following the fortunes of Mia and the ladies.

(also posted at South Dakota Dark)

Uh-oh (and good news)

GOP delegate count after Mitt Romney's win in Wyoming caucuses. The article explains why Iowa results don't impact delegate count yet. (NY Times)

Romney - 8
Thompson - 3
Hunter - 1

BETTER NEWS - John Edwards said today he'll stay in the race through the convention. The Times Caucus blog has a report; note by-the-numbers cynicism in the comments about the media's portrayal of Edwards campaign. He is at a financial disadvantage, no matter what motives are ascribed to the Times, CNN, etc. It's unlikely to happen, but imagine an Edwards-Obama race for the nomination with Clinton out of the way. My state of South Carolina, for one (where I'll be voting for Edwards), would be hard to predict.

There Will Be Awards

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood takes top prizes at National Society of Film Critics awards. In perhaps the most surprising choice of the night, Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) beats Anderson for Best Screenplay. (Indiewire)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sunday music (early): Sufjan Stevens



Sufjan Stevens performs "Casmir Pulaski Day."

Would you like tofu with that?

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Natalie Portman designs vegan footwear.....(E! Online)

There's a lady who's.....

A report from the Led Zeppelin reunion gig...(New Yorker)

My affection for Led Zeppelin is limitless and somewhat irrational. I often say that my respect for the band’s music is mathematical: there are fewer bad songs on its eight studio albums than on anyone else’s. But such shaky calculations mask what is an involuntary response to the music. John Bonham played the drums as if the fate of the universe depended on how hard he could hit them; he could both dissolve a song and send it rocketing forward. Bonham played rope-a-dope with the clock: sometimes his accents arrive a tiny bit behind the beat; at others, they land a split second ahead. (If you can isolate Bonham’s placement of the hi-hat, kick drum, and cowbell on “Good Times, Bad Times”—never mind the tomtom rolls, themselves a prizeworthy achievement—you’ll have heard proof that 4/4 time is limiting only if you believe it is.)

And the winner is....hello?

SAG to members: don't cross picket lines to get or give Golden Globes. (Carpetbagger)

A voice in the wilderness

Here's one blog picking Into the Wild as Best Picture. Though I don't think my choice (so far) of the year's best film will win, it's good to see it get some recognition. (In Contention)

Friday, January 04, 2008

I've got to watch Magnolia again

A liveblog of the collected works of Mr. Paul Thomas Anderson, with some shots at one of my all-time can't miss actresses.....(The Reeler)

2:37 -- Michael Murphy does all he can to put up with Julianne Moore. It's perhaps the worst performance of her career, and certainly the worst of any Anderson film: a shrill, mouth-breathing banshee imposing her gold-digger guilt on anyone who will stand in her eyeline long enough to run out the take. Anderson is unusually inhumane here, leaving less room to sympathize with these characters than to pity them.

And the loser is....

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Worst-of lists generally take one of two paths: ambitious failure vs. inept filmmaking. This list from The Onion falls on the inept side, though I must take issue with its choice of Lindsay Lohan vehicle. I Know Who Killed Me is much worse than Georgia Rule, though the latter film's juxtaposition of a buried sexual abuse plotline with intergenerational bonding comedy is one of the more unusual tonal choices of the year. One of my biggest disappointments of the year is here, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and I can't argue with its inclusion.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Fincher fracas

Slate's movie club debates the past year in film....

By way of instigating a polemic, I want one, or all, of you to make a case for Zodiac as a film that will stand "after most of 2007's supposed 'best' pictures have been consigned to the historical dustbin"(that's your list speaking, Scott), and for the career of David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) in general. I notice all three of you have Zodiac on your 10-best list for the year, and, much as I admired Fincher's muscular storytelling (and Mark Ruffalo's muscular, er, Mark Ruffalo), there was something rushed and truncated about the movie, even at two and a half hours.

More Best Of

You can link to a large collection of Best of '07 lists here. Everything from Paranoid Park to Juno is chosen as the year's best film, pointing up just how broad the spectrum of filmmakers doing great work around the world is - and what a cinematic backwater I'm living in. (Greencine)

Cannes - Will he keep it in the divorce?

Sean Penn named to head 2008 Cannes jury. (Indiewire)

The War At Home

A great post about the dumbing down of torture in recent Iraq-themed films. (Thanks 24!) Spoilers for Rendition and Elah, if anyone cares. (Serious Popcorn)

The sickest part, though, is the public response to In the Valley of Elah. Ten years ago, a movie showing an American soldier torturing a prisoner for kicks would have raised a hue and cry. Today it occasions barely a murmur. What has changed? In the realm of popular culture, the most obvious change is that scenes of torture, including vivid on-camera ones, are now standard fare. The best known example is 24, the Fox TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, America's favorite anti-terrorist. Jack Bauer does not torture prisoners for kicks, but he does torture them frequently: 67 times in the first five seasons, by one count. And these scenes are a wonder to behold. Jack Bauer can maul a captive and get actionable intelligence faster than I can put a dollar in a vending machine and get a Diet Coke

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

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Charlie Wilson's War is certainly the most entertaining of this fall's slate of political movies. "Entertaining" may seem like an odd standard to apply given the dire geopolitical situation, but people haven't exactly been flocking to In The Valley of Elah or Lions for Lambs. I should mention at this point that I am a full-fledged Aaron Sorkin nut, and even belong to a Facebook group called "I Speak Sorkinese." Even Sorkin would have a hard time fitting his trademark dialogue into a present-day Iraq War drama, although I would be interested in Sorkin's depiction of our troops in battle. Elah and Lambs were very different movies, but both go out of their way to condescend to our men in battle; Elah paints an especially broad picture of the troops, every one of the comrades of Tommy Lee Jones' late son is portrayed as one cold cup of coffee away from a psychotic break. I have a feeling Sorkin could do better.

Charlie Wilson's War isn't set during our current conflict, but it does comment on it loudly. Just like on The West Wing, smart and well-meaning people work very hard to run the United States. But unlike on TV, they mess it up here. Rep. Charlie Wilson (a broad Tom Hanks) is in a hot tub when he catches a news report about underpowered Afghans fighting the Russian invaders. Full of anti-Communist fervor, Wilson uses his position on a subcommittee to raise more money for the Afghans. But it's the involvement of a neocon Texas socialite (Julia Roberts) and a loner CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose opening monologue should sew up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) who really get the bucks flowing. Soon, jubilant Afghans are shooting down Russian helicopters with shoulder fired rockets.

Although billions are allocated to help defeat the Russians and "end the Cold War" (didn't Gorbachev have something to do with that?), a closing scene depicts Wilson unable to get $1 million to rebuild Afghan schools. I just read Rory Stewart's book Prince of the Marshes, a memoir of his time working for the coalition on post-invasion Iraq. Stewart, away from the bureaucratic mess in Bagdhad, gets redevelopment projects done with money, time, and open ears. Afghanistan in the '80s and early '90s could have used that approach. Countries aren't won over to our way of life by military might, they're just flattened by it. Just as Hoffman's CIA agent predicts, after the U.S. withdraws the forces of religious fundamentalism move in and Hello, Taliban.

The pure pleasure of the film can't be ignored, the dialogue crackles and Mike Nichols keeps things moving along. The three leads (not to mention Amy Adams and Ned Beatty) all appear to be enjoying themselves immensely. But it's the U.S. confusion and halting action in the face of Muslim culture - a theme Sorkin also dealt with on The West Wing - that lingers in the mind. Could the best political movie of '07 also be the funniest?

Critics strike back

Film critics are making documentaries...(Filmmaker)

My Best of 2007 (provisional)

This seems a good place (maybe a little late) to list my faves of the past year, but this isn't a final list because I live in South Carolina and will maybe have seen all the Oscar contenders by the end of January. As of now, in no particular order, my favorite films of 2007 were:

  • Into The Wild
  • No Country For Old Men
  • Once
  • Charlie Wilson's War

    I'll make some more definitive comments as we draw closer to awards time. Feel free to weigh in.....
  • What's a turkey?

    An unranked best-of list from L.A. Weekly. At least one commenter sticks up for Into the Wild.

    "I still get one idea at a time." - John Sayles

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    John Sayles on his new film (Honeydripper) and what the future holds. (IFC)

    Q: What interests you now as a filmmaker and how has that changed?

    A: I still get one idea at a time. [laughs] And I don't have anything I'm working on now. I'm on strike, as a matter of fact, so I'm working on a novel that's set in 1898 that I've been working on for a while, but "Eight Men Out" took 11 years from when I wrote the first draft until I got to make it. 11 years from now, I'll be 68 years old, so although there are a lot of things that interest me, I'm trying to steer myself away from historical epics. I've got a couple of those on the shelf that I don't think I'll ever raise the money to make, which is too bad because they're good. Now when I have ideas, if it's something that's just way too expensive, I say, "Well, don't you have another idea?" And that's changed. When I was younger, I was probably more ambitious.

    Who's playing Donna

    Hot development rumor: Spielberg to direct The Trial of the Chicago 7 from an Aaron Sorkin script with Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. (Variety, BoingBoing)