Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I won't grow up...well

NP, currently filming the much-hyped Black Swan, took the role to explore adulthood. Here's a translated interview with NP in which she discusses a number of upcoming projects. (MTV/

"I'm trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person," she said of her reasons for joining "Black Swan," which is currently filming in New York City. "I'm a really late bloomer. In my own life, it's only been the last couple of years where I'm like, I'm an adult."

Sunday morning coming down

Tired of all those pols and members of the professional pundit class recycling talking points on Meet The Press? A worthy proposal for fixing Sunday morning talk shows. By the way, ESPN's Pardon The Interruption already does a version of this. (Jay Rosen)

But in fact the whole Sunday format has to be re-thought, or junked so the news divisions can start over with a new premise. Of course the problem is that the people who would have to make that decision are the same people whose entire knowledge base and skill set lies in producing the "old" style of political television. That is what they know, so that is what they continue to do. I guess it's not hard to understand complacency of this kind. But do they really think we don't notice the growing absurdity of bringing to a common table people who agree on nothing?

I think the situation calls for cynicism. But I have to admit that is not much of a call. So instead I propose this modest little fix, first floated on Twitter in a post I sent out to Betsy Fischer, Executive Producer of Meet the Press, who never replies to anything I say. "Sadly, you're a one-way medium," I said to Fischer, "but here's an idea for ya: Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

32 for '10

32 books/films/CDs/games to look forward to next year; note the ranking of the next Don DeLillo novel ahead of the last season of Lost. (AV Club)

Don DeLillo has proved time and time again that he’s one of the few contemporary authors whose every release is cause for excitement. His next book, Point Omega, will be released next year, and while it’s terribly slight (just over 150 pages), DeLillo is certainly capable of doing a lot with a little. Describing the plot of any book by one of the most intricate of postmodernists is generally an exercise in futility; this one involves an experimental film about a legendary weapons designer which is interrupted by the arrival of his estranged daughter, but what actually happens will likely take a back seat to explorations of language, relationship, and human connection. Point Omega’s publishers also hint that there’s some kind of link between the book and DeLillo’s masterful Underworld, which is all the more reason to look forward to it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Road

I haven't read the Cormac McCarthy novel upon which The Road is based and I think that's probably for the best. While I'm a fan of McCarthy's writing, in retrospect I wouldn't have wanted to come to John Hillcoat's moving and handsomely made adaptation with too many preconceptions. The concerns of The Road are so elemental and the filmmaking so assured and, yes, graceful, that having read the book would have kept me in my head for far too much of the film. As the Man (Viggo Mortensen in his best performance) and the Boy (guileless Kodi Smit-McPhee) head south across a ruined America in hopes of reaching the coast we watch nothing less than a supreme act of love by a parent for his child. After the unspecified global disaster and suffering abandonment by his suicidal wife (Charlize Theron), the Man becomes the repository for humanity. His sense of decency and discomfort with violence (an early encounter with a marauder played by Garret Dillahunt shows just how untested the Man's moral limits are) set him and the Boy apart from most of the rest of the world, which is engaged in a not so slow descent towards utter savagery. Mortensen maps his character's gradual physical and emotional decline with great restraint and attention to detail. Even in the midst of desolation Mortensen still captures how much the Man enjoyed a glass of whiskey and the degree to which he's haunted by the memories of his wife. It's a revelatory performance and full of unbelievable tenderness.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy performs with a lack of actorly mannerism that was probably essential for this material. The Boy, with his insistence on being one of the "good guys" and his horror at his father's growing anger and paranoia, is our way into the story. Who exactly are the good guys and how far can they go and still be "good"? While Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall don't answer that we do feel we know what kind of man the Boy will become by the time The Road is over. (The Boy is the one who pushes the pair towards some human contact, most importantly with an elderly traveler played by Robert Duvall) McCarthy's image of "carrying the fire" isn't belabored but is central; it's the transmission of everything good, soulful, and human between people and most importantly between generations. I can talk about the ingredients that make up The Road but it's difficult to capture the feeling of watching it, I think because so few overtly "cinematic choices" have been made. What horrors there are come delivered in mostly glancing strokes rather than full-on. We only get a hint of the barbarity of a gang of cannibals whose house the Man and Boy stumble through and the capture of a woman and boy by another gang is delivered in wide shot. The Man isn't blameless; a roadside encounter with thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film. The Road may be too bleak and too small to register in awards season, but I believe it has a shot at being regarded as a classic. Carrying its fire will have to do for now.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

ECM at 40

Those austere-looking CD's by Keith Jarrett and others that you see in the jazz section are from ECM Records. 40 years in founder Manfred Eicher is still asking "What's next?" (NYT)

Mr. Eicher’s instincts run contrary to common practice in some ways. At Mr. Fellner’s request Mr. Eicher recently recorded him in Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano. “I have no intention to go deeper into it,” Mr. Eicher said. “But if a musician really wants to do it, and it makes sense to me, I’m ready to go for it as long as he also introduces the contemporary side now and then. That’s very important.”

As for what might draw a seasoned artist to Mr. Eicher’s stable, Mr. Schiff, a veteran who spent 5 years with Teldec and 12 with Decca, echoes Mr. Jarrett’s view. “You must know the old joke,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “ ‘What’s a camel? A horse designed by a committee.’ Manfred Eicher is alone responsible for all decisions. He doesn’t have to consider corporate judgment. To me ECM is like the best publishing house, representing quality, artistic integrity, without compromises.”

Sunday Music: Vic Chesnutt - "Flirted With You All My Life"

From earlier this year in Cleveland. The song is almost too haunting to post in light of Chesnutt's suicide, but what can we do except appreciate that Chesnutt was with us for so long?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

$40 Million for....what, exactly?

Stop for a moment to consider the staggering financial cost and lack of return to the Oakland Raiders from their drafting of QB JaMarcus Russell. (National Football Post)

The Raiders -- enamored with Russell’s remarkable arm strength and decent Wonderlic score of 24 – chose him over other top prospects that year, including Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis and quarterback Brady Quinn (a story for another day).

The selection of Russell brought a massive financial obligation, enhanced by the acknowledged “quarterback premium.” Possessing one of the top picks in the draft has become a financial albatross, a punishment for on-field transgressions the previous season. This might be remedied in collective bargaining, but for now, picking at the top has become a millstone around the necks of NFL teams.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Up In The Air

Does it matter that director Jason Reitman uses actual fired workers as laid off corporate drones in Up In The Air for a dash of "relevance"? The idea that Up In The Air has much to do with the current economic climate is a canard that needs doing away with before considering the adult pleasures on offer, and while I like the film a good deal more than my blogfriend I'm not ready to cover it in awards season glory. Up In The Air, loosely adapted from Walter Kirn's novel, features George Clooney doing his thing as Ryan Bingham. Bingham is the Omaha-based star of a company that fires workers for other companies; he's on the road constantly and loves the elite status and steadily accumulating frequent flier miles. Bingham's life is negation. He ends careers at the head offices of his company's clients and has divested his life of all personal trappings and attachments. Clooney could coast through this role on easy charm but he (and the film) benefit greatly from his having to play off Anna Kendrick as Natalie, a young hotshot who wants Bingham's company to start firing people over the Internet. Kendrick is the water to Clooney's gin and the movie loses energy when she disappears. Both Natalie and Ryan are attracted (in different ways) to Alex (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior that Ryan crosses paths with in a hotel bar.

The second act of Up In The Air follows Ryan and Alex to the wedding of Ryan's sister (Melanie Lynskey) in Wisconsin. Things get all gauzy and montage-driven as Ryan rediscovers the pleasures of family life, but why must his awakening have nothing to do with his job? Lynskey's sister and the other relatives (not to mention Danny McBride as the brother-in-law) might as well be aliens for all they feel related to Ryan, but I longed to see Ryan show up his boss (Jason Bateman) and adapt his pat motivational speech into a tool to help the people he's firing. After he's forced to improvise when Natalie gratuitously insults a downsized worker (JK Simmons), Bingham's professionalism is awakened just as he's pulled off the road. Reitman's conception is that Bingham can either be personally or professionally fulfilled but not both, and that the decision was in fact made some time ago. Up In The Air is less profound than it thinks it is, but in how many movies can you imagine a second, phantom film based around a relationship between two supporting characters? Farmiga is underused, Kendrick is a dynamo, and there's no greater pleasure in first-tier Holywood movies than George Clooney at his ease. Up In The Air conceals its shallowness and its conservatism behind the wattage its three stars generate.

Merry Christmas.....

My favorite Christmas hymn back when I still sang Christmas hymns....

Vic Chesnutt

UPDATE - The NYT reported Chesnutt's death about 2 hours ago.

Conflicting reports abounded, but it now seems that singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt is not dead but rather in a coma following a suicide attempt. I discovered Chesnutt's first album years ago when I was in the throes of liking all things REM-endorsed and though I can't say I've followed his career consistently since then I've admired him as an artist's artist. I wish the sound were better on this clip from 2003 but I love the performance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Messenger/The Damned United

Oren Moverman's The Messenger has a restlessness and a anarchic spirit that most other films related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lacked; in fact, it's closer in feel to a 1970's-made drama or an independent film from the 1990's than to a Big Message picture like In The Valley of Elah. The success of The Messenger is mostly due to the performance of Ben Foster as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, back from Iraq and being hailed as a "hero" for saving some of his men during a firefight. Foster is an actor I've never really paid much attention to (except maybe on Six Feet Under), but he announces his presence as a leading man here with understated work full of a barely sublimated confusion. Montgomery, who doesn't consider himself a hero, is assigned to spend the last few months of his enlistment on a Casualty Notification Detail with the weathered Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson, Golden Globe and Spirit Award nominee). Stone is a recovering alcoholic and a stickler for procedure, but there's a side to him that obviously needs Montgomery's company and Harrelson gets to play some great, angry variations on his natural folksiness. Is this the role that announces Harrelson as a major character actor?

The scenes where Montgomery and Stone inform family memebers that their sons and daughters have been killed in combat are naturally wrenching though filmed with more interest on how the two soldiers struggle to remain rooted in their assigned roles. As the job begins to wear on the two men they react in different ways, as Montgomery is drawn to a widow (Samantha Morton) he meets while making a notification and Stone begins to drink again. While the relationship between Montgomery and Morton's character is a touch underbaked the point isn't what happens so much as what doesn't. Not trying to solve the problem of what's going to happen to Stone and Montgomery stateside is the best decision Moverman could have made. The Messenger doesn't impose a solution for the crises our returning soldiers are facing, and that makes it one of the best films of the year.

I'm pretty sure The Damned United will never be remade in the U.S. unless it's discovered that Bill Belichick was entirely dependent on Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. In 1974, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) becomes manager of soccer powerhouse Leeds United after turning a smaller club into a champion. Clough's assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) doesn't come along and Leeds has their worst start in years. Peter Morgan's script doesn't shy away from depicting Clough as a super-ambitious heel and is clear that Taylor was the real talent. Sheen's rollicking performance carries the day, and the film is the better for depicting sport as just as much a ground for human folly as is the rest of life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who Did It? Who?

"Classic Crime Short Stories" from Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus. Some of these are new to me but there are also classics like "The Cask of Amontillado." (Do The Math)

The original master remains delightfully re-readable. Oh, so many good ones to choose from! But “The Cask of Amontillado” shocked the hell out of me as a kid. Frankly, it still does.

“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”

“And I to your long life.”

He again took my arm, and we proceeded.

“These vaults,” he said, “are extensive.”

“The Montresors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”

“I forget your arms.”

“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.”

“And the motto?”

“Nemo me impune lacessit.”

“Good!” he said.

2009 Dance Fight!

A review of the best critic-on-critic controversies of the year. Anything involving Armond White is a sure bet. (IFC)

This seemed to be a watershed year for the contrarian New York Press critic, whose New York magazine profile in February and anointment as the chief of the New York Film Critics Circle served as kindling to the blaze that erupted when White wrote a scathing review for "District 9" entitled "From Mothership to Bullship" that prompted several months' worth of comments that were passionate rebukes from both angry fanboys and cinephiles. (It didn't help he gave a positive notice to the widely reviled "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" the same week.) And yet, for one shining moment, White found a defender in Roger Ebert, who wrote that White's opinion was "often valuable because it is outside the mainstream" and chided the fanboys for becoming fans of the film before they had even seen it, as White had.

Of course, White's reviews are always reliable for entertaining comment threads, but Ebert's defense of White proved to be more so -- and the commenters were influential, as well. Ebert decided to change his mind the next day -- the headline of his article "Not in defense of Armond White" after a reader supplied him a chart of movies that White had liked versus ones he didn't. After discovering that White preferred "Transformers 2" to "Synecdoche, New York," Ebert concluded that White is a "troll."

Wilco (the silliness)

I usually prefer to be full of holiday cheer days before Christmas but I woke this morning to a post by a snobbish, self-limiting, musical aesthete attempting to tell me that Wilco didn't belong "in THIS community." (The community of No Depression readers) Thankfully the commenters possessed more sense and there still seems to be a good bit of love for Jeff Tweedy & Co. at the ND site. Wilco (the album) finished #6 on the No Depression year-end readers' poll and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born, and Sky Blue Sky were voted #'s 2, 19, and 20 respectively in the end-of-decade poll. Dear Mr. Alden: I stopped deciding what bands I liked by whether they were "alternative" or not in about 10th grade.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen..

...Jeff Bridges. (Shiela Variations)

He's a star. Yes. But before that, he is an actor. He approaches his career the way my friends do who are actors on a regional-theatre level, awesome actors all of them, none of them famous on a wide scale, although very well-known in their own communities. They get cast as Puck, or Nora in A Doll's House, or the Red Queen, or Eliza Doolittle - and they work their asses off, in a very specific and focused way, to do that particular play in that particular time. If the play calls for singing, they work like hell on the songs. If the play calls for an accent, they get a coach and work on the accent. These are the actors, true passionate and committed, that make up the industry. To find that same level of workmanship and selflessness in a movie star is amazing. People who are giant stars tend to get cautious. It makes sense. They have way more to lose than when they were young and hungry and eager to make their name. That much attention can make people clamp down, and try to just hold on to what they already have. Jeff Bridges, who never reached a kind of critical mass, never had an "iconic" part, that tapped into the zeitgeist, or was culturally explosive, avoided those issues. So he is hugely successful, yet he STILL doesn't have that much to lose. You can feel it in his work. He is not protective. He is not clamped-down. He is fearless. Even more so now. What happened to other actors is in reverse with him. The more successful and visible he has become, the more risks he has taken.

Brittany #2

We never knew what to do with Brittany Murphy, an actress who won't get the chance to give us her best. (IFC)

Murphy always came alive on screen with a vitality few can muster, from her first major role in "Clueless" as the goofy but knowing makeover project Tai. She remade herself over the course of several indies in the late '90s into one of the premier scene-stealing actresses, usually taking what should've been forgettable sidekick roles or underwritten female parts in films like "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and the noirish "Phoenix" and injecting them with her off-center charms, culminating in a heartbreaking turn in "Girl, Interrupted" as the fragile Daisy Randone.

Few filmmakers seemed to know what to do with her -- Murphy's run of romantic comedies in the early part of the Naughts were an ill fit for an actress too curious to play stupid, single-minded manhunters -- but when someone was able to tap into her wavelength, they were rewarded with the mischief she brought to a rudimentary thriller like "Don't Say a Word" or the touching humanity of her turn as a desperate mother in Karen Moncrieff's "The Dead Girl," an ensemble drama seem by far too few. Without a mic in "8 Mile," she proved to be a force of nature and the only one who could stand toe-to-toe with Eminem at the height of his powers.

Blogger v. Blogger

Andrew Sullivan defends the "collaborative" nature of his blog, Isaac Butler disagrees. I'm with Butler on this one for a number of reasons, especially after reading this from Sullivan:

But the content and counter-argument are generated by the collective mind of the readers, under-bloggers and the rest of the blogosphere.

That's pretty well saying that there's stuff on Sullivan's blog that wouldn't be there if it weren't for the "under-bloggers" and that means those people should be credited for their work.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy

What the crap? Brittany Murphy has died at age 32...(NY Daily News)

It's on Mr. Douthat...

I missed NYT political blogger Ross Douthat taking a swing at NP's acting ability a couple of weeks ago, just about when Brothers is hitting theaters. If you read some comments you'll note that NP has her defenders and for the record I think Closer (which I need to watch again), Garden State, V For Vendetta (a movie I don't like that much), and the too-smart young neighbor in Beautiful Girls are her best performances. Though she's arguably too young for the part I think NP is better in Brothers than she's getting credit for, and to buttress my argument the Chicago Film Critics have handed NP a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work. Douthat:

I think Portman was wonderful as a teenage actress — in “The Professional,” of course (her breakout, and still her best role), but also in “Beautiful Girls” and “Heat” as well. But she’s had the same problem that Leonardo DiCaprio had (and still has, despite his permanent stubble, and Martin Scorsese’s best efforts) making the transition to grown-up parts. Like Leo, she looks younger than she is, and the qualities that made her appealing in teenage roles (a kind of luminous transparency, above all) make her hard to take seriously when she plays a stripper, or a terrorist, or a scheming Ann Boleyn — or, in this case, an army wife and mother of two. As Stevens says, she may technically strike the right notes, but you never quite believe in the adult emotions that are supposed to be roiling her inside.

Sunday Music: Thom Yorke - "All For The Best"

From the Mark Mulcahy tribute album I wrote about here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Apologize.....well, actually....

Former Husker Du drummer Grant Hart on ex-bandmates and why his band won't wind up like the Pixies. (Blurt)

When people compare us to the Pixies, I say we never needed to be influenced by the Pixies. We influenced the Pixies. If they chose to celebrate their midlife crisis by milking the cash cow, that's fine. Should Husker Du make that decision, and I recognize that's a slim chance, I'd like to think we'd do it for a cause greater than financial remuneration.

And remember, if we were to take the reunion route, it would have to be three of us for it to be valid. Pairing me and Bob would be easiest. I don't think either of us would be interested in playing with Greg [Norton].

Why not?

Greg was never our peer. One of worst things that ever happened to the band was when someone told him he should write songs too. He wasn't a songwriter, but how do you tell a guy that? How do you tell someone "Your songs suck." That was one of the frustrations that led to the band being devalued in our hearts. And once it ceases to be fun, it's merely lucrative.

Angry by design

Frank Gehry brings it on budget, and don't you forget it. (Independent)

Despite his modesty being offended by my use of the "star" word, Gehry, the most talked-about architect since Frank Lloyd Wright, is quick to ensure there is no uncertainty about which of the two categories he falls into. With no prompting, the statistics come thick and fast.

"My building in Bilbao cost $300 a square foot with a budget of $100m. I finished it on time and on budget and it doesn't leak. After 11 years it's still there. Last year it earned the city of Bilbao €320m – that's the custom generated by the museum for the city through the visitors it attracted. Walt Disney Hall was built for $215m and the budget was $207m and it doesn't leak and people love it and it works, and people identify Los Angeles with the building the way people identify Bilbao with the other building."

What A Wonderful World?

A contrarian take on Teachout's Louis Armstrong biography, which I will still probably read anyway. (Las Vegas Weekly)

Curiously, too, Teachout omits the entertainer’s refusal to gig at the Nixon White House in 1969. For that, turn to an earlier Armstrong biographer, the jazz critic Gary Giddins in the 1988 Satchmo, who relates how the musician truly felt about the invite: “Fuck that shit. Why didn’t they do it before? The only reason he would want me to play there now is to make some niggers happy.”

Furthermore, Teachout’s attempts to pigeonhole Armstrong as an up-by-the-bootstraps figure for the Right are painful. “The raw note of contempt is unmistakable,” the author insists, over the trumpeter’s reminiscences of the poor and black shooting dice in an alley in New Orleans, which seem to me spoken more in sorrow than in anger: “They did that in place of going to work … trying to win … gambling off the money … to feed their starving children.”

Maybe these anonymous men tried and were defeated by circumstance, but Teachout couldn’t and wouldn’t know that. The “unmistakable contempt” is entirely his projection.

Friday, December 18, 2009

One Hundred Years From...

Books that deserve to be remembered in 2110. Jon Fasman on Ishiguro's The Unconsoled: (Second Pass)

And so, for his fourth novel, Ishiguro went nuts. The Unconsoled is part horror, part thriller, part comedy of manners. Ryder, a British pianist, is plonked down in a central European city, where he is due to give a recital, and where he finds he knows everything and nothing, everyone and no one. From the opening sentence—“The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one—not even a clerk behind the reception desk—waiting to welcome me”—everything becomes slippery. In short order, Ryder comes to form a bond with a child who appears to be his own; he comes to fulfill every expectation of a town council and a dowager who are either insistent and lunatic or familiar and rightly annoyed; he finds himself embroiled in an adventure at once dull, ordinary, and entirely insane. The novel is indigestible, uncanny, unsettling, laughable, and a masterpiece.

Remaindered no more

Walter Kirn (Up In The Air) on his novel's cinematic resurrection. (Daily Beast)

Then, two years later, Reitman’s script arrived. I read it in one sitting. And though I texted him to say I liked it—which I really did, in large part for the liberties it took to open up Ryan’s story for the screen and to allow Reitman to inject his own concerns into a tale that was amply stuffed with mine—I still felt the material was cursed and suspected that the project would end there. I was wrong. Some months later, just over a year ago, I rolled over in bed, naked, and switched on my BlackBerry to punish a girlfriend who’d switched on hers just moments after sex (the first time I’d ever suffered this modern impertinence but far from the last). My newest message beat hers, as it turned out. According to an article in Variety forwarded to me by a friend, George Clooney was engaged in serious talks to breathe big-screen life into Ryan Bingham’s cadaver.

Avatar/New Moon

Seeing the two most anticipated movies of 2009 on consecutive days is an instructive experience for anyone thinking about where movies are as the decade closes. One is a tested property engineered to appeal to a built-in audience and the other a massive investment of personal reputation, ego, and imagination in which perhaps the most unusual feature is its not being based on something familiar. To boil it down to a sentence that most harried Hollywood executive would understand: One sucks, the other doesn't.

While saying that I "liked" last year's first installment of the Twilight series implies a level of engagement with the material I just can't muster, I did think Catherine Hardwicke's film had enough personality to earn her a shot at New Moon. The rainy Pacific Northwest mood and sense of barely controlled teenage emotion gave Twilight some stakes that were (I strongly suspect) not present in the source material. Hardwicke has been replaced on New Moon by the from-a-kit sensibility of Chris Weitz, who has drained any spontaneity and fun to be had in a chapter of the story that's mostly setup anyway. You know it by know: Edward (Robert Pattinson) leaves Bella (Kristen Stewart), who pals around with Jacob (Taylor Lautner, most discussed abs of the year?) who is actually a werewolf. Everyone goes to Italy. What is saddest about New Moon isn't the fact that all the vampires are effete instead of scary (with the exception of a cameo from Dakota Fanning in the final act) but rather that Kristen Stewart's Bella has been reduced to a mopey and fretful dullard. Bella doesn't exist in this movie except as a satellite of Edward and Jacob, and Stewart's attempts to look wan and lovelorn play as boredom.

It's difficult to admit when a film or filmmaker lives up to the hype, but James Cameron's Avatar is there. Is it the next Star Wars? Maybe, if you're the right age. Do the characters talk like they're in Star Wars? Yes, there's no room for irony or subtext in Cameron's vision of a predatory human race bent on obtaining a mineral that will somehow make up for the fact that Earth is out of oil. It doesn't matter that much, because Avatar is the first movie I've ever seen where technology didn't distance me from what was going on but rather invited me in. Cameron succeeds brilliantly in giving us new things to look at, most prominently the scrupulously motion-captured Na'vi. The Na'vi are the natives of the moon where the human mining operation is based, and their integration into the action is perfect. We're in this world in a way we aren't in films involving, say, giant robots and Michael Bay. The kiss between Jake (Sam Worthington) in his "avatar" body and his Na'vi love Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) may just herald whatever the next century of movies are going to look like; it's the first emotionally involving love scene between digitally created characters. Thank God Jar Jar Binks didn't have a girlfriend. Avatar has messages to bluntly deliver about the environment, preemptive war, colonialism, and the treatment of indigenous peoples by an occupying power which should thoroughly annoy Fox News, but the film's greatest pleasure and surprise is Cameron's willingness to let the toys serve the story. Is reasonable to hope that Avatar may bring a new ascendance of the imagination (albeit on regular-sized budgets) in Hollywood? If there's room for more dreams like Avatar, then I hope so.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Looking Back at TV

A summing up of the last decade's television, ten years of "exhilarating craftsmanship." (NY Mag)

You could easily memorialize the aughts as the Decade of Reality TV, that wild baby genre conceived in some orgy of soap opera, documentary, game shows, and vaudeville—it was reality, after all, that upended the industry’s economic model and rewrote the nature of fame. Or you could mark this as the era of the legal procedural, or the age of Hulu and DVRs and TWOP. But for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies to movies, the aughts—which produced the best and worst shows in history—were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).

Monday, December 14, 2009

I want to read...

...(almost) all of the books on this list of the 20 best science fiction books of the decade. The only one I've read so far is Pattern Recognition (and one of the Harry Potter books)

Gibson reinvented himself in the 2000s as a writer of technothrillers that feel like science fiction despite being set in the present - or, in the case of Pattern Recognition, one year before the book's publication. An enthralling mix of Gibson's favorite obsessions - branding, computer technologies, and artisanal smuggling networks - the book is also a moving portrait of the emotional ties forged between fans of an obscure set of viral videos online.

An end-of-decade bow

I love The New World, but here's someone who really loves it. I'd like to think Yi Yi will stand alongside it as the decade's best. (Guardian)

To complete the list of things that The New World is not, it isn't a brother-movie of Black Robe or The Last of the Mohicans. Its siblings are to be found throughout movie history and across all national and stylistic boundaries, from the silents to Jean-Luc Godard, James Benning and Stan Brakhage, or in Winstanley and Barry Lyndon. Its cultural hinterland is made up not just of other movies, but of Buddhism, ethnography and naturalism, Wagner, Mozart and the structural forms of classical music, Malick's enthusiasm for bird-watching, and a helping of Heidegger and Kant. The New World could be called the first western, it could equally be called the last. We know that it was conceived during the Vietnam war (around the time of the American Indian Movement's occupation of the Wounded Knee massacre site, and during the heyday of the great revisionist 70s westerns) and only bore fruit three decades later, as America stumbled into another, similarly pointless and evil neo-colonialist expedition, all of which hums quietly within the movie like an engine. But whatever it is politically, cinematically it offers a tantalising vision of alternative cinema's roads into the future, with its huge $50m budget and total creative freedom afforded its maker.

Score Rules

Guidelines for young composers, with an emphasis on not respecting authority. (Opinionator/Adam Szymkowicz)

-Make sure you’re always doing some work that is yours and yours alone — not composed for the approval of teachers or colleagues.

There’s a chasm between writing in school and writing in the real world. Regardless of what you’re doing in school, you should always write something that’s not subject to grades. You may learn a lot comparing what you write for yourself to write for others. Guidance can be helpful at times, but I have never found authority to inspire creativity. When I was studying composition at U.S.C., I would sneak into the Arnold Schoenberg Institute after hours to rehearse. It gave me access to a stage and a P.A. without having to run my music past my teachers, so I could experiment with my own band and work with other improvisers. It was a very conservative environment, so it was especially fun to sneak around, another great motivating factor that got me started as a composer/performer/improviser.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Second generation

Hallie Foote: actress, grieving daughter, and curator of her father's legacy. (NY Times)

Theater critics have long credited Ms. Foote as the foremost interpreter of her father’s plays, praising her buttoned-down and unsentimental performances of matriarchs, wives and widows full of frustration and longing. “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” is, of course, an altogether different experience for Ms. Foote. No longer can she look out from the stage and see her father in the audience, his finger pressed to his lips, his eyes often closed, as if listening to the spirits from his Texas childhood — as he once described his experience in the theater to me. Now he is one of the spirits in the Signature Theater, and Ms. Foote is grieving her father through his work.

Sunday Music: Dave Rawlings Machine - "The Weight"

Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and part of Old Crow Medicine Show cover The Band. Rawlings's new CD is Friend Of A Friend

Saturday, December 12, 2009


There is a great man at the center of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, but he's far removed from the reluctant killer of Unforgiven or the racist widower of Gran Torino. Invictus isn't a movie about violence in the sense that Eastwood's films often are, but rather a movie about a country inflicting violence on itself. The great man who must heal a nation's wounds is of course Nelson Mandela, played with sly calculation and a dry wit by Eastwood's frequent collaborator Morgan Freeman. Adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book, Invictus is the story of Mandela's shepherding of the South African rugby team to an improbable win in the 1995 World Cup. Mandela views rugby as chance for the nation's distrustful black and white halves to come together, and that's just one of the points upon which Invictus touches lightly before moving on to something else. An opening scene shows white children playing rugby across the road from black children playing soccer on the day Mandela is released from prison. It's implied at several points that many blacks aren't particularly interested in rugby and in some cases (like a member of Mandela's security detail) they don't even understand the rules. There's one scene in which the team conducts a rugby clinic in the townships, but that takes place before the World Cup matches start. Once the team starts winning though it doesn't matter, since the South African population is reduced to a cheering throng.

Mandela is given several chances to use the power of the presidency to score points against the whites and revenge his decades of imprisonment, but each time he eschews personal satisfaction in favor of nationhood and selflessness. He could summarily dismiss everyone in the President's office left over from the last administration but offers them all a chance to stay instead. (We never learn how many accept the offer) Mandela quashes a move to change the national rugby team's name and colors when the team is performing poorly, but at least gets to explain himself. Changing the colors would alienate too may distrustful older whites whom Mandela knows he'll need to put at their ease if his administration is to survive. The divisions within the country are mirrored too neatly in the initial distrust between Mandela's white and black bodyguards. While his attitudes make sense on a political level, there's little drama in watching a man always make the smart and upright choice. The tumultuous end of Mandela's marriage to Winnie Madikizela isn't mentioned; we're told only that the couple is estranged and that Mandela's children rarely visit. Eastwood also glosses over repuation of Mandela's political party, the African National Congress, for violence and filling its coffers through corrupt practices. Even granting Mandela's personal power, South African politics can't have been this tidy.

The other major character in Invictus is Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of a rugby team on the brink of becoming a national joke. Damon is believably dogged in the role; he's far from the biggest physically on the team but exudes an authority which his teammates respect. How does the team stun the world? We're never told exactly but it's suggested that the Springboks (as the team is known) simply outwork everyone else. I didn't feel coming out of Invictus that I'd learned anything about the strategy or sucessful execution of the game of rugby, and Eastwood badly mishandles the final game versus New Zealand. The final moments are attenuated almost to the point of absurdity thanks to liberal use of slow-motion. Clint Eastwood has one thing on his mind in Invictus: to tell the story of how Mandela and the rugby team united their country through hard work. Mandela refers to his politcization of rugby as a "human calculation," and Invictus should have depicted more of its subjects calculation (and darker moments) in telling its admittedly remarkable story.

Do the Shuffle #44

  • REM - New Test Leper (live)
  • Hayes Carll - It's A Shame
  • Maria McKee - Has He Got A Friend For Me?
  • Joe Henry - Trampoline
  • Poi Dog Pondering - U Li La Lu
  • Sonic Youth - Self-Obsessed and Sexxee
  • Decemberists - The Rake's Song
  • Silver Jews - Suffering Jukebox
  • Feist - Sea Lion Woman
  • Whiskeytown - Theme For A Trucker
  • Superchunk - Revelations

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.): 11/44
    Miscellaneous Fact: I've been listening to REM's New Adventures in Hi-Fi (song #1)recently and I really can't remember why I failed to absorb it upon its release. There is no obvious hit a la "Stand" or "Shiny Happy People." If an REM album can ever said to be "about" anything then it's their wrestling-with-fame work; but as the band's new live CD suggests even Michael Stipe can't remember what every song is about.
  • Friday, December 11, 2009

    Dept. of Bad Heirs

    What's wrong with the "new" Vladimir Nabokov novel. (Wall St. Journal)

    "Nabokov would have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock," Dmitri says, in a typically hamfisted reference to the figure who intruded on Coleridge's great poem "Kubla Khan" before it was finished. But his preface lacks an appropriately chastened quality (after all, he defied his father's wishes). Instead, Dmitri airs old grievances. He complains of a customs inspector stealing a flask of cognac from the family (in 1940) and then of his own personal loss (in 1948) of an inscribed first edition of "Lolita." He guiltily attacks those who would fault his decision to publish "The Original of Laura" as "half-literate journalists" and "lesser minds" and "individuals of limited imagination."

    Another NP project!

    NP will star in and co-produce a film version of the book Pride & Predjudice and Zombies with Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko and The Box also producing. (No word on a director) Portman will play Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennett. (Cinematical)

    Look At Me, Think About This

    Lady Gaga, feminist provocateur. (LA Times)

    Her new songs address serious themes like women's shame about their bodies and the need for open communication in relationships; her often physically distorting costumes show that the pursuit of the feminine ideal is far from natural. Her commitment to confront the changing notion of what's "natural" puts Gaga on the same road traveled by artists she admires, such as the photographer Cindy Sherman. Her frank talk about how female artists aren't expected to write their own songs or about how young women are afraid to ask for what they need from their sexual partners inches her toward a new articulation of feminism.

    "If you ask somebody where you see sexism in your life, all they think of is the old stuff," said Nona Willis Aronowitz, co-author of the new book "Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism," by phone. "Equal pay, that's not really on their radar. Domestic violence and rape aren't necessarily in the forefront. But you ask about double standards or restrictive gender roles, they don't think of that as sexism; they think of that as the way it is. That's kind of like what Lady Gaga is talking about."

    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    My Top 10 CD's of 2009

    I feel very good about this Top 10 list because for the first time I pretty much achieved a goal that I've had for the past several years, that of keeping a record throughout the year of the music I purchased and listened to. I have iTunes to thank for making this so easy, but before you abandon this post because of my shilling I'll add that while buying CD's is still my primary source of acquiring music I probably spend less time listening to whole albums because of the ease of iTunes and my iPod. What's lost and gained with this convenience is the subject of a different essay. On with the show.

    1. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs: The top three selections on this year's list could easily have changed places with each other. All three took a hold on my imagination and my car's CD player that was hard to break, and when the music is this good then who wants to? Yo La Tengo gets the nod for #1 in part because I've been a fan of theirs the longest but really because I'm thrilled to see them making the most relaxed, confident and beautiful music of their career. The short, poppier songs like "Nothing To Hide" seems to have fallen through a time warp from some garage-band centered alternate universe while the longer "The Fireside" (one of three tracks that take up 35 minutes of running time) will make you reconsider your opinion of the word "soundscape." "Here To Fall," which lands in yet another category, also featured one of my favorite videos of the year. YLT was also responsible for the music for Greg Mottola's Adventureland in '09.

    2. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca: Readers of certain websites may have already heard of this album in the context of it being The Greatest Thing Ever, a collision of sunny female harmonies, Afro-pop guitar sounds, and the Ivy League/Downtown NYC sensibilities of group leader Dave Longstreth - a man so dedicated to his own muse that I had never heard of him until this year. It's hard not to develop a crush on "Stillness is the Move" (imagine a Fred Schneider-less B-52's singing art songs), but my favorite is "No Intention." Longstreth's first words here: "The renegade, feeling satisfied....". How appropriate.

    3. M. Ward - Hold Time: No other album I heard this year had such a wonderful handmade sound; Hold Time sounds like a collection of curios from another generation's pop music. My tendency to come up with elaborate similes to describe music works perfectly in this instance, since I think Ward goes out of his way here to be just a few inches off from earning the "singer-songwriter" tag with everything he does, including his work with Monsters of Folk on his other release of the year. My favorite song of the year was probably "Epistemology" from this album; it's the autobiography of a holy fool and the most emotionally direct song I've ever heard Ward do.

    4. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone: Case always seems to be at or near the top of my list, whether for her own work or her stuff with The New Pornographers. I'm not exactly sure what's going on with "This Tornado Loves You," but it doesn't matter since the title song and "Magpie To The Morning" are some of her best songwriting yet. There is definitely something to the idea of getting your band together and recording in a barn.

    5. Wilco - Wilco (the album): Sky Blue Sky was my favorite of 2007; this effort only makes it to #5 because it feels more like a collection of songs than an Album for a little too long. Yes, Nels Cline is underused on guitar but the 3-pack of "Country Disappeared," "Solitaire," and "I'll Fight" makes up for it. W(ta) is the after- after-rehab album for Jeff Tweedy, who is looking around and seeing an America not quite sure where it's headed at the moment. The most outward-looking lyrics of Tweedy's career and the sound of a band that could go anywhere.

    6. Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready For The Flood: The two former Jayhawks reconvene for a disc that reminded just how much I'd missed their harmonies and their easy way with a melody. Slightly more acoustic-based than their Jayhawks work, this is music for adults by adults that points the way to a long and happy future for two voices who might need each other more than we ever knew.

    7. Sonic Youth - The Eternal: In a less fragmented musical world there are tracks on The Eternal that might have gained a foothold in the same way that some SY early-'90s songs did. (I'm thinking of "Leaky Lifeboat" and "Sacred Trickster") I don't know that this band had anything else to prove and maybe that's part of what makes The Eternal sound like their freest record in years. That fact that SY not only appeared on Gossip Girl but that Kim Gordon married Rufus and Lily feels like either the beginning or the end of something. Sonic Youth is a part of our lives now like pollen or the public health care option (we can hope); more than any other band on this list I think they have the potential to produce something still that will make us shake our heads and take a second look.

    8. Various Artists - Dark Was The Night: A compilation double-CD full of new stuff from assorted alterna-superstars was full of unexpected pleasures. I first encountered the Dirty Projectors here (with David Byrne on "Knotty Pine") and fell in love with The National's "So Far Around The Bend" at first listen. Even artists I was a little shaky on (Ben Gibbard, Grizzly Bear) stepped up and if you like that sort of thing there's even a 10-minute Sufjan Stevens track.

    9. REM - Live At The Olympia: I freely admit that this is something of a "for old times sake" pick, but how great to hear Stipe, Buck, and Mills charging through their deep back catalog with a sense of purpose you thought they'd lost around the turn of the last century. REM never stopped being good (except on Around The Sun) and we're just now catching up.

    10. The Dead Weather - Horehound and Them Crooked Vultures (self-titled): Side projects from big names with nothing to do (Jack White, Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones) proved that guys with loud guitars are still making music worth hearing. No matter how much "alt-country" or "Americana" I cram down, I can't forget the pleasure of raw rock and roll when it's being played with as much energy and lack of pretense as it is here.

    So there we are. I may address favorite songs and why I didn't pick a couple of CD's in another post, but these were my favorites of the year. If you know me you won't be surprised by most of this, but I still hope to be surprised every time I open a new CD.

    Tuesday, December 08, 2009

    Method Madness

    David Thomson thinks capital-M Method acting is over; I'd guess he has never seen the inside of an acting class. Any acting teacher (or director worthy of the job) knows a trained actor will pull from different techniques as the situation arises.

    There were excesses or mannerisms in the Method, things like your not being able to hear what was being said; and its concomitant, the habit of the actors in forsaking the original "text" for the improvisations that came into their earnest heads and which were beyond reproach just because they had become their characters.

    It's hard to exaggerate the impact of the Method. It was full of good work, but it was above all, sincere, American, robust and manly. Writing shifted to accommodate the search for a "true self." Thus, in "On the Waterfront," Mr. Brando wants to recover the crushed spirit in Terry Malloy the failed boxer, while in "East of Eden" the "bad boy" Cal Trask yearns to gain the paternal love he deserves. These models were imitated not just in movies, but in countless television dramas or episodes in which the story turned on so-and-so's rediscovery of his damaged human nature. It was quite close to psychotherapy and the Method, soul-searching and getting at your "process" all worked in harness. Almost as a matter of course, would-be actors went into therapy.

    Monday, December 07, 2009

    More falafel?

    So that whole NP as vegan thing seems to be for real. (Marie Claire)

    Portman has been a vegetarian since she was 9, but her veganhood comes and goes. Right now, she's dairy-free because she's just read her friend Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals, and has been inspired to be especially careful about sourcing her food. When she was shooting her latest movie, Brothers, a Jim Sheridan—directed drama about the effects of the war in Afghanistan on an American soldier's family, she ate vegan because her costar Tobey Maguire brought his own vegan chef to the set. "I was like, 'Um, could you make two of those?'" She grins. "And I'd make a cute face, and they'd roll their eyes and give me another falafel."

    Blurb blab

    A first-time novelist on getting a bad review from the NYT. (Nervous Breakdown)

    I’d left my cell phone in the room all day. I had a message from my editor. It was a little late on the East Coast, but I decided to return the call. In a couple of hours, I had to attend a book signing. The truism is indeed true: Hindsight is 20/20.

    My editor Sarah—adorable, intelligent, and seasoned—told me the review had come in.

    “It’s disappointing,” she said.

    “Disappointing? You mean there’s not even a pull quote?”

    Silence. Or maybe there wasn’t. I think I blacked out. She didn’t read it aloud and I didn’t ask her to. Somehow, we ended the conversation. Disappointing. Code for something worse, I was sure.

    Then I called my West Coast agent for the calm she gave me, which came from the sound of her voice. Jandy had already received an e-mail with the review. She assured me everything was going to be okay.

    “Nobody reads the Chronicle anyway,” she said.

    “I thought you told me everyone reads NYT reviews.”

    Sunday, December 06, 2009

    Sunday Music: Laura Izibor - "From My Heart To Yours"

    Why? Just because. This wasn't even the best performance of this song I found ("Embedding disabled"? Seriously?)

    Friday, December 04, 2009

    NBR winners

    The National Board of Review has named Jason Reitman's Up In The Air the Best Picture of 2009. Full list of winners here. (Cinematical)

    Best Film: Up In The Air

    Best Director: Clint Eastwood, Invictus

    Best Actor: Morgan Freeman, Invictus and George Clooney, Up In The Air (tie)

    Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education

    Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

    Best Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick, Up In The Air

    Ten Best Films
    (in alphabetical order)
    (500) DAYS OF SUMMER


    I haven't seen the 2004 Danish film upon which Jim Sheridan's Brothers is based, so I have no idea how closely Sheridan's version (scripted by David Benioff) follows its source material. Does it really matter? The Americanized Brothers arrives at a time when most Americans regard the War on Terror as at best a tragic necessity and the film is permeated with the fatigue of a nation tired of seeing its sons and daughters deployed. Yet to discuss politics is to lump Brothers in with the parade of Iraq-themed films that have largely underperformed at the box office. Sheridan and Benioff have concerned themselves with small moments of deep sadness and the terror of not knowing how to handle the stresses that war puts our loved ones.

    Just days before another deployment to Afghanistan, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) welcome home Sam's paroled brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). The details of Tommy's crime are never spelled out, but we learn enough to know the victim is still traumatized three years later. While Sam and Tommy still share a strong if slightly strained fraternal bond, the boys' ex-military father (Sam Shepard) regards Tommy as a loser and Tommy's welcome home dinner ends abruptly. After Sam's deployment Tommy seems prone to continue his errant ways (Grace is called at 3 am to pay his bar tab), but spending time with Grace and her two young daughters (well played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) after Sam is declared dead brings out a previously untapped sensitive side.

    One criticism leveled at the new Brothers in Film Comment among other places is that Maguire, Portman, and Gyllenhaal are all too young for their roles. (Portman's role in the original was played by Connie Nielsen, known to American audiences from Gladiator and One Hour Photo) While one can argue whether Portman looks like she could have given birth to two children, I'd argue that the ages feel right considering the number of American soldiers in their 20's (and younger) lost to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So many of our soldiers aren't fully formed adults, even the ones with spouses and children. The casting of younger actors, albeit very good looking ones, is at least a nod to this reality. Maguire is saddled with the most melodramatic character arc; it's not giving much away to reveal that Sam is not in fact killed in combat but taken prisoner along with young Pvt. Willis (Patrick Flueger). It is the choices Sam must make while in captivity that cause the psychic trauma he experiences after coming home, and while Maguire is credible enough as a military officer I didn't quite buy the moment of decision that directly motivates his waving a gun around in his front yard in the film's climax. That's too bad, because there are individual scenes with Portman and Gyllenhaal that are as good as anything Maguire has ever done on screen.

    Jake Gyllenhaal gives a fine, easy performance as a man genuinely surprised to discover how much he needs the domesticity of his brother's household and how well he fits into it. I was surprised at the turns Grace and Tommy's relationship took; the easy choice would have been to amp up the sexuality but Tommy is genuinely happy at being able to be of service to his sister-in-law and terrified that he'll screw it up. In a just world Brothers should turn Jake Gyllenhaal into a leading man of the first order. Now we come to Natalie Portman, the reason this post is so long and the co-lead with the least to do. There are plenty of scenes of Grace lying in bed or standing off to one side looking worried, but when called upon for her big moments Portman ably steps up. Sharing a joint with Tommy brings up all kinds of possibilities for Grace, and her final declaration of love for Sam is a great moment of unaffected honesty. Portman uses her expressive eyes to great advantage in Brothers; we're with Grace in the bereft, quiet moments the way we never quite are with Sam. I wish the movie had given Portman a bit more business, but Brothers is finally more concerned with how Sam and Tommy complement each other and ultimately switch places for a time. One other note on the cast: Carey Mulligan of An Education has a small role as Willis's wife and absolutely nails both her character's desperation and resolve to carry on. It's a beautifully etched cameo that supplements her claim to an Oscar nomination this year.

    In the end Brothers may be slightly too on the nose concerning PTSD and the military's inability to confront psychiatric issues in our soldiers. Sheridan's direction (he lets the drama bubble up rather than hitting us in the face with moments) and the cast's strong work make this wrenching "war film" a qualified success worthy of a viewing.

    Thursday, December 03, 2009


    A few words on the subject of John McPhee, the man who makes geology worth reading about. (Anecdotal Evidence)

    At its best, McPhee’s prose is poetic -- that is, notable for precision and concision -- but there’s nothing ornamental or prettified about it. So many much-touted prose styles resemble strings of Christmas lights on a shotgun shack, contributing nothing and emphasizing the squalor and emptiness. McPhee admires competence and problem-solving in his subjects, qualities embodied in his prose. Among American writers he most resembles the Thoreau of the journal, not in “philosophy” (a dreaded word in this context) but in his regard for craft.

    I've Made Up My Mind

    The genius of "Papa Don't Preach". (Freaky Trigger/HTV)

    “About” is a false friend to pop music. The idea that a song is “about” some bigger, grander thing than itself can ennoble some records. But it also works to reduce them. If the most important thing about “Papa Don’t Preach” is that it’s ‘about’ unplanned pregnancy then all sorts of temptations creep in. The temptation to look for a message in the song – the girl in “Papa Don’t Preach” is keeping a baby, therefore Madonna thinks girls should keep babies. The temptation to generalise – her decision is agonising, therefore this decision is always agonising. And above all the temptation to use “about” as a way to cushion the record’s directness, the feeling that something is at stake not in the wider world but here and now in this song and the moment it makes you live.

    Wednesday, December 02, 2009

    Brothers: Jim Sheridan

    Brothers director Jim Sheridan (In The Name Of The Father) on "war" films, the movie marketplace, and his hot cast. (The Wrap)

    Q: You’ve built your career on character-driven dramas. How hard it is to get this type of movie made in the current market?

    A: I think it’s kind of a natural problem of the weekend movie and the logic of moviemaking now moving into the marketing division. I think that movies are just where real estate was, y’know. So there’s a lot of movies made that probably wouldn’t have been made with hedge fund money and too much money in the system. So they start cannibalizing each other and people probably got fed up seeing them, y’know. And I think what comes around goes around. I mean, “Precious” is a dark, deep movie. I went to see it last night and the cinema was full at 7 o’clock on a Saturday. You can’t say that’s not a strong character-driven movie.

    Dept. of ...and here we go

    Your Indie Spirit Award Nominations:

    Best Feature
    "(500) Days of Summer"
    "Sin Nombre"
    "The Last Station"

    Best Director
    Ethan and Joel Coen, "A Serious Man"
    Lee Daniels, "Precious"
    Cary Fukunaga, "Sin Nombre"
    James Gray, "Two Lovers"
    Michael Hoffman, "The Last Station"

    Best First Feature
    "A Single Man"
    "Crazy Heart"
    "Easier With Practice"
    "The Messenger"
    "Paranormal Activity"

    Best Lead Female
    Maria Bello, "Downloading Nancy"
    Nisreen Faour, "Amreeka"
    Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"
    Gwyneth Paltrow, "Two Lovers"
    Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious"

    Best Lead Male
    Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
    Colin Firth, "A Single Man"
    Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "(500) Days of Summer"
    Souleymane Sy Savane, "Goodbye Solo"
    Adam Scott, "The Vicious Kind"

    Best Supporting Female
    Mo'Nique, "Precious"
    Dina Korzun, "Cold Souls"
    Samantha Morton, "The Messenger"
    Natalie Press, "Fifty Dead Men Walking"
    Mia Wasikowska, "That Evening Sun"

    Best Supporting Male
    Jemaine Clement, "Gentlemen Broncos"
    Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"
    Christian McKay, "Me and Orson Welles"
    Ray McKinnon, "That Evening Sun"
    Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"

    12012009_themessenger.jpgBest Screenplay
    Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, "The Messenger"
    Michael Hoffman, "The Last Station"
    Lee Toland Krieger, "The Vicious Kind"
    Greg Mottola, "Adventureland"
    Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, "(500) Days of Summer"

    Best First Screenplay
    Sophie Barthes, "Cold Souls"
    Scott Cooper, "Crazy Heart"
    Cherien Dabis, "Amreeka"
    Geoffrey Fletcher, "Precious"
    Tom Ford, "A Single Man"

    Best Foreign Film
    "A Prophet"
    "An Education"
    "Everlasting Moments"
    "The Maid"

    Best Documentary Feature
    "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"
    "Food, Inc"
    "More Than A Game"
    "October Country"
    "Which Way Home"

    Best Cinematography
    Roger Deakins , "A Serious Man"
    Adriano Goldman, "Sin Nombre"
    Anne Misawa, "Treeless Mountain"
    Andrij Parekh, "Cold Souls"
    Peter Zeitlinger, "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"

    John Cassavetes Award
    "Big Fan"
    "The New Year Parade"
    "Treeless Mountain"
    "Zero Bridge"

    Robert Altman Award
    "A Serious Man"

    Acura Someone to Watch Award
    Kyle Patrick Alvarez, "Easier With Practice"
    Tariq Tapa, "Zero Bridge"
    Asiel Norton, "Redland"

    Piaget Producers Award
    Karin Chien, "Santa Mesa" and "The Exploding Girl"
    Larry Fessenden, "I Sell the Dead" and "House of the Devil"
    Dia Sokol, "Beeswax," "Nights and Weekends"

    Truer than Fiction Award
    Natalia Almada, "El General"
    Bill and Turner Ross, "45365"
    Jessica Oreck, "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo"

    Better late...

    A late but ringing defense of Funny People, which I think is one of the year's best big budget mainstream releases. Watching Judd Apatow grow up (sort of) was an unexpected pleasure. (Punitive Superego)

    Like Cameron Crow's Almost Famous, Funny People is a comedy about those who exist alongside the rich and famous, exploiting the wealth and access of their glamorous buddies so long as they never overstep their role and judge the demonstrably flawed celebrity they're joined at the hip with. Ira idolizes Sandler's George Simmons, having grown up watching such terrible-looking (yet oddly plausible) films as "Merman" and "Redo." In Ira, George has a walking cheering section who will validate his puerile behavior, weather his emasculating insults, chuckle at his lame jokes and more than anything desperately aspire to be like George. It's only when Ira tries to relate to George as a contemporary and friend, refusing to look the other way at the older man's selfish tendencies, does George bristle.

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Brothers: Susanne Bier

    Here's a slightly dated but still worthwhile interview with Susanne Bier, director of the 2004 film upon which NP's Brothers is based. Bier also directed 2007's Things We Lost In The Fire with Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro. I didn't know Bier had directed a "Dogma" film. (Future Movies)

    FM: What attracted you to the mixture of political and domestic in Brothers?

    Susanne Bier: I am quite fascinated by the way we live in the West. Scandinavia is fairly small and fairly privileged, and we have this notion that we are protected and that nothing can happen to us. Since September 11, that sense of security isn’t so strong anymore – the big wide world is creeping in on us, for better or for worse – I don’t necessarily think it just bad. That sense of being protected also acts like a wall between us and the rest of the world, that I think is kind of unhealthy. I am fascinated by the way that we are being influenced by fear.

    Dept. of Because I Can

    An appreciation of Sonic Youth's Murray Street. (Aquarium Drunkard)

    Recorded in post 9/11 vérité, Murray Street once again found Jim O’Rourke manning the boards, but now also as a full-time member. Sonic Youth were now five. Something was in the air during those sessions; the world had changed, both psychologically and physically (literally, ground zero laid just beyond the studio door). Rooted in the collective consciousness of that time, Murray Street is an album that feels solid yet impermanent, a quiet, private dystopia that somehow says ‘welcome to the 21st century.’ And by that I don’t mean to infer it is a depressing record, yet merely an aware record. A fitting soundtrack to changing times, it is the sound of a new millennium. Listening to it now, spinning on my turntable, it still sounds like that tonight.

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    Out in the streets

    Obama-era gay activists: young, motivated, and more than a little angry. (The Nation)

    Until late last year, LGBT activism had been dominated for more than a decade by a handful of established national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, along with a network of statewide groups. These gay organizations saw scattered progress in the waning days of the Clinton administration and then fought vainly against a tide of state referendums banning gay marriage. But with Obama's election and the anger that grew out of Prop 8's unexpected passage, a host of twentysomethings have jumped into the fray with a new set of national strategies, often starting or joining new grassroots organizations that bypass the old guard.

    Sunday Music: Sinead O'Connor - "She Moved Through The Fair"

    I'm reading Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist; this video (or a video of Sinead singing this song at any rate) has great importance for the blocked poet at the novel's center.

    Brothers: How To Make a Remake

    NP's new film Brothers opens Friday, and I'll be posting reviews and relevant links this week. From today's Times, here's a look at the challenges and choices faced by director Jim Sheridan and writer David Benioff in adapting Susanne Bier's 2004 film Brodre.

    With a plot virtually identical to Mr. Sheridan’s film, “Brodre” was critically acclaimed but made only a small impact in the United States. “If the critics had paid their way in,” Mr. Sheridan said, “it would have made $350,000 instead of $250,000.”

    “I said, this could be remade in America, and if there are stars in it, I can get more people to see it,” he continued. “I can rant about this, but first Hollywood kills European cinema, and now it’s eating away at American independent cinema, so we’re in a time when these movies are very hard to get to the public. I think, for me, part of my brief was to get Susanne’s movie to the American public.”

    The rights to “Brodre” were being sought simultaneously by the Hollywood producer Michael De Luca and Sigurjon Sighvatsson of Iceland, who eventually partnered and took their project to Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media. “We showed Susanne’s film to crowds before we shot one frame of ours,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. “We wanted to see what audiences took away from it, what their feelings would be, and what we could learn from that.”

    From the mouth of Jarmusch

    You can't walk up to one of those Blockbuster kiosks in a Publix in Greenville, SC and rent Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, so I'll have to find another way to watch the latest effort of the auteur whose "Golden Rules" deserve their own poster. Wasn't Jarmusch hilarious on Bored To Death? (Moviemaker/via @jrichardkelly)

    Rule #5: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    Where is my mind?

    Seeing the Pixies. (Muzzle of Bees)

    Lights finally brightened the stage, animation on the back screen kicked up, and the audience went insane as a familiar bass line, permanently engraved into any Pixies fan’s subliminal conscious strummed like magic. Guitars thrashed, percussion joined and Black got the crowd movin’ and groovin’ to the kickoff of Doolittle with the opening “Debaser.” From here on out, the Pixies played their thirty-eight minute, 15 track groundbreaking album as promised, consecutively and seamlessly. Without even realizing or caring if the album was being played in order (it was), I was transported into my personal music heaven, leaping and shrieking alongside several fans of different varieties, both screaming and singing along to every word and bark. While the Aragon may not boast the best sound quality, and vocals can sometimes be distorted in delivery, I think last night’s set still succeeded with its message. As a crowd, we bled, were carried on waves of mutilation, professed our love—both in general and to our man, shook our butts (but not too hard), went to heaven, got tattooed tits and were gouged away. It was a perfect set and I feel like I can finally mark a legendary task off my life-long to-do list. The only thing missing was a cameo from Christian Slater from the days of “Pump up the Volume,” when the Pixies played the slower soundtrack version of “Wave of Mutilation.”

    Click Trick

    Nicholson Baker on the small, annoying foundations of Google's omnipotence. (NY Times)

    But think — when was the last time you clicked on a three-line text ad? Almost never? Me neither. And yet, in 2008, Google had $21.8 billion in revenue, about 95 percent of which flowed from AdWords/AdSense. (A trickle came from banner and video ads sold by Google’s new subsidiary, DoubleClick, and from other products and services.) These unartful, hard-sell irritants — which have none of the beauty or the humor of TV, magazine, radio or newspaper advertising — are the foundation of Google’s financial empire, if you can believe it. It’s an empire built on tiny grains of keyword-searchable sand.

    Friday, November 27, 2009


    I think there is far too much discussion of trailers on film blogs. I rarely talk about them for the same reason that I don't review books after reading 10 random pages. Trailers are marketing tools and should be treated as such....that said, I've followed Noah Baumbach since Kicking and Screaming and here's the trailer for his next film Greenberg. Out in April of next year, Greenberg was co-written by Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (who really wears those glasses). It's great to see Ben Stiller working in a lower key for once, but doesn't Greenberg look like it's poised on the threshold of preciousness? Decide for yourself, but remember it's just a 2 1/2 minute ad.

    The Fantastic Mr. Fox

    A wonderful and effortless pleasure. I've read some reports that Wes Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach only used about 1/3 of Roald Dahl's plot and grafted quite a bit of their own invention onto this gorgeous stop-motion animated film. Anderson's fans will certainly find the director's familiar theme of father-son relationships at the forefront of Mr. Fox, a major storyline concerns the efforts of young Ash (Jason Schwartzman) to impress his father Mr. Fox (George Clooney) with athletic prowess. Mr. Fox is a less irascible version of Gene Hackman's Royl Tenenbaum, a good natured rogue who must attempt to reign in his mischievous ways before his family is destroyed. In this case Fox's vice is stealing chickens; his meticulously described plans to rob three farmers are some of the film's funniest moments. As Mrs. Fox, Meryl Streep has less to do but does get to call her husband on his BS in the type of scenes that past Anderson females have never gotten to play. There is a lightness to the film I haven't felt in Anderson's work since some of the Murray-Schwartzman stuff in Rushmore, and to think it took making foxes have facial expressions to bring it out in him. I'm worried that Mr. Fox might too easily be dismissed as a goof by those who have written Anderson off as a one trick pony, in fact it's proof that the director can work in a lighter key while still bringing personal concerns to his films.

    Do the Shuffle #43

  • National- Looking for Astronauts
  • Patti Smith - Going Under
  • Throwing Muses - Green
  • Bap Kennedy - Vampire
  • Wilco - Dash 7
  • Iron & Wine - Kingdom of the Animals
  • Pearl Jam - Got Some
  • Poi Dog Pondering - Pulling Touch (live)
  • Wilco - War On War
  • Dead Weather - Hang You From The Heavens
  • Beyonce - Single Ladies

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11/43
    Miscellaneous Facts: Beyonce? Yep. Anyway, it's Black Friday and I'm not at work.....
  • Thursday, November 26, 2009

    For the Day

    Somehow I find myself far out of line
    from the ones I had drawn
    Wasn't the best of paths, you could attest to that,
    but I'm keeping on.
    Would our paths cross if every great loss
    had turned out our gain?
    Would our paths cross if the pain it had cost us
    was paid in vain?

    There was no pot of gold, hardly a rainbow
    lighting my way
    But I will be true to the red, black and blues
    that colored those days.

    I owe my soul to each fork in the road,
    each misleading sign.
    'Cause even in solitude, no bitter attitude
    can dissolve my sweetest find

    Thanksgiving for every wrong move that made it right

    --Poi Dog Pondering, "Thanksgiving" (How is this not on YouTube?)

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    So I did see The Blind Side....

    ...and it was about what I expected, an entertaining if sometimes bland telling of the story of Michael Oher. The essentially orphaned Oher (Quinton Aaron) was taken in by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw), whose children attended the same private Christian high school in Memphis, and eventually became a sought after recruit at offensive lineman and now a starter for the Baltimore Ravens. The film details how Leigh Anne's influence gave Michael the toughness necessary for success on the field and a GPA high enough to win a scholarship at Ole Miss. Aaron gives a believably recessive performance but The Blind Side is Sandra Bullock's show. Sacrificing cuteness for a furrowed brow and flinty comebacks, Bullock sinks into her role and gives probably the best performance of her career as Leigh Anne. The filmmakers are so awed by Leigh Anne's sweet tea with vinegar personality that they forget to provide much drama (Was Oher really such a docile kid?) and the movie is flatter than it should be given the real-life complications. I enjoyed The Blind Side, but Oher's blocks on the field hit harder than any of the scenes depicting how this special young man grew up.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    The year of seeing Sandra

    I've sat through a few Sandra Bullock vehicles that were frankly pretty bad because I've always had a low-grade crush on Ms. B.; for my money she doesn't have the looks crossed with the Ivy League hauteur of Natalie Portman but she's genuinely beautiful and charming in an unfussy and very winning way. It's a good year for Bullock thanks to the success of The Proposal and The Blind Side, and now there's a mention of a possible Oscar nomination for Bullock's role as a Type-A Southern do-gooder who takes a disadvantaged young man with an uncanny talent for football into her family. A nomination seems unlikely to me and I don't think Bullock is on the general Oscar-prediction radar at the moment (the crowd pleaser nomination slot is occupied by Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia), but I'm pleased to see an adult actress getting box office love who's willing to try to stretch it out occasionally. Bullock has 5 projects "in development" at the moment according to IMDB, and even if I don't make it to The Blind Side I'm sure I'll be catching up with her down the road. (Notes on a Season)