Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kristen Stewart in The Cake Eaters

There's something dark and interesting lurking in Mary Stuart Masterson's The Cake Eaters, out on DVD and playing On Demand and on various cable outlets. Kristen Stewart plays Georgia, a young woman with a terminal illness whose mother (Talia Balsam) has achieved some critical cachet as a photographer by taking semi-erotic shots of her daughter. (The name of Sally Mann is invoked for comparison) An award for the photos comes at the same time Georgia begins to pull away; she develops an attraction to Beagle (Aaron Stanford), an aimless early-20's man whom she meets at a fair and decides to give her virginity to. The question of the mother's careerism vs. Georgia's grasp at a normal teenage experience is brushed aside in favor of the tale of Beagle and his Dad (Bruce Dern, underplaying) getting past the shared grief over the death of Beagle's mother. By choosing the wrong protagonist The Cake Eaters wastes its most surprising character and ends up being a very thin slice of life.

Good Hair

The ostensible jumping-off point for Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair was a question from one of Rock's young daughters about why she didn't have "good hair," which in the context of the film means a straight or European look as opposed to an Afro. While Rock, who serves as narrator and onscreen host, leavens Good Hair with plenty of jokes the film (Jeff Stilson directed, Rock cowrote and produced) is an unexpectedly pointed look at the economic and social effects of the quest for "Good Hair" on the African-American community. Rock has three central points: a. The $9 billion dollar a year African-American hair business is largely controlled by Asians and whites, b. The chemicals used on women and young girls (Rock shows a 6- year old getting a perm) in "relaxer" and other products are corrosive and dangerous, and c. (and the weakest point) The money spent on "weaves" by women who want their hair to look fuller drives a wedge between men and women in the African-American community. Interviews with celebs like Eve and Ice-T are interwoven with documentary segments both funny (men in a barbershop detail the obstacles a weave presents to good sex) and Michael Moore-style stagey (Rock attempts to sell black hair on the streets of LA to dealers who only want to sell weaves made from Indian hair). A side trip to India produces disturbing footage of temple goers (babies included) having their heads shaved in a religious ceremony. Untold millions are made when that hair is sold to the States, but the question of who exactly pockets the money is never answered. If Rock lets a few interesting points lapse, he still succeeds in shining a light on a portion of African-American culture that a fiction film couldn't without some kind of heavy-handed metaphor. Good Hair extends the length and breadth of Rock's social commentary to impressive new heights.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dear Natalie...

How are you? It has been awhile and today's posts have been unusually serious and unillustrated. Just wanted to say hello....

Print v. Cyber

Bloggers v. Journalists, and the role of "passion." Good comments too. (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Incredible journalism is like incredible baby-making--it starts with passion. The guy combing through the city budgets because it's his job, isn't the same as the guy combing through them because it keeps him up at night, because he thinks about it when he shouldn't be. Institutions support that passion--but they don't create it. When my old Howard buddy was killed by the cops, it was all I could think about, and it was all I wanted to write about. And I did it almost for free, because it helped me sleep at night. I was burning to get it down. I deeply suspect that the bloggers you love, and the reporters you love, are similarly on fire inside.

I don't have a strict allegiance to "journalism," as much as I have one to the written word. Perhaps there's no difference. But my point is that to the extent blogging makes it possible for more people who are "on fire" to employ the written word, than it's good for the written word. It's true that it creates a situation in which anyone, for $15 a month, can say their piece. But I have more faith in the market of ideas, than in a brain-trust of editors, to separate the wheat from the chafe.

Maybe Jenny McCarthy will pay your kids medical bills

How the anti-science, anti-vaccine crowd is endangering children. A must-read. (Wired)

Consider: In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitively, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

That may not sound like much, but a recent study by the Los Angeles Times indicates that the impact can be devastating. The Times found that even though only about 2 percent of California’s kindergartners are unvaccinated (10,000 kids, or about twice the number as in 1997), they tend to be clustered, disproportionately increasing the risk of an outbreak of such largely eradicated diseases as measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough). The clustering means almost 10 percent of elementary schools statewide may already be at risk.

A tale well told

Why stories won't die. (Wash Post/Tomorrow Museum)

To understand the magic of narrative, you have to ponder the rise in Japan of "mobile phone novels." These are novels written on a cellphone keypad. The reader uploads the novel one cellphone screen at a time. The Japanese, always technophiles, find themselves reading their phones the way Westerners used to read the daily newspaper.

There are two ways to look at this situation: One is to make the electronic gadget the star of a heroic tale called The Changing Media. New gadgets can do anything! They can not only put you in touch with friends, they can store your photo album, tell you your longitude and latitude, and write fabulous novels. But another way of describing the situation is to say that you can't keep a good story down. The story, not the gadget, is what's irrepressible. So powerful is the story as a way of communicating that it will even sprout in a cellphone.

My literary inbox

Although I really don't have time to spend a month reading Herman Melville, I can identify with the feelings expressed in this post about how Internet use changes one's reading habits. At the moment I'm working on books by Ian Rankin and Peter Carey and according to Goodreads I'm reading a book about digital music by Greg Kot that I haven't even started yet. (About Last Night)

It's the observation that the Internet for all its virtues -- and let me interject here and say that I love the Internet, some of my best friends are the Internet, etc. -- has given me an overly inflated sense of my own ability to learn and appreciate new things. I've always liked to read several books at once (do you want to read a book about volcanoes tonight, or a novel? Who knows? Better have them both with you!), but this weekend I counted and I had some twenty books in different stages of being read around the house, ones I felt I couldn't bear to return to the library or put back on their proper shelves because "I'm reading it." I've fallen into the habit of bringing a stack of three to four into bed with me at night -- picking them up from around the house as I turn off lights like a grocery shopper ambling through the produce section picking whatever pretty fruit strikes the fancy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We're here, but otherwise...

Christopher Hitchens is a secularist and will tell you why. (Slate/Kottke)

Thanks to the foolishness of the "intelligent design" faction, which has tried with ignominious un-success to smuggle the teaching of creationism into our schools under a name that is plainly stupid rather than intelligent, and thanks to the ceaseless preaching of hatred and violence against our society by the fanatics of another faith, as well as other related behavior, such as the mad attempt by messianic Jews to steal the land of other people, the secular movement in the United States is acquiring a confidence that it has not known in years, while many of those who put their faith in revelation and prophecy and prayer are feeling the need to give an account of themselves. This is a wholly good development, and it is part of the pluralism and polycentrism that distinguish the sort of society that we have to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Star Bright

Hey, someone else likes Bright Star as much as I do. The phrase "tough-minded" is very well chosen and there's a costume-centered video clip at the end as well. (About Last Night)

Ever since I saw Bright Star, I've been wanting to go back and see it again. It's a gorgeous and tough-minded film; I've seen it praised in a couple places for its "restraint" and while that feels like an appropriate description, it might, used in the context of a movie about John Keat's love affair with Fanny Brawne, leave a reader with the impression that Bright Star is a soft or quiet film, which it most definitely isn't. I think the restraint being praised is actually rigor; as if Campion had a bolt of silk and shot it through every yard or so with whalebone. Yes, it's beautiful, but it also stands up straight.

Monday, October 26, 2009

It Might Get Loud

Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud brings Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge together for some jamming and chat about the art of the electric guitar with autobiographical segments about each musician's rise to rock prominence. White is the backward-looking classicist, extolling the virtues of his favorite Son House record and making a guitar out of boards and a coke bottle. The Edge strolls through the school that hosted rehearsals by a teenage U2 and plays four-tracks of an early "Where The Streets Have No Name" run through. Page is as inscrutable as a hieroglyph; we get a few anecdotes about Led Zeppelin recording sessions but no answer to the question of what exactly he's been up to since Zep broke up. (Seriously, the discography is pretty thin) The central jam session/"summit" scenes have the feel of eavesdropping on an exclusive club where one doesn't quite speak the language. Had these three really never met before and were they really this nervous? You won't come out of It Might Get Loud knowing how to become a guitar God, and maybe that's the point. When the Page, White, and The Edge get together on "Whole Lotta Love," it's obvious all three still consider themselves open to a few more lessons. I didn't get the closing performance of "The Weight," (The Band weren't exactly centered around soloing) but that's a small point. Guitar Heroes don't play plastic axes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The directing credit

From an NYT profile of Lee Daniels, director of likely Oscar nominee Precious:

After producing two films, Daniels quickly became frustrated with not having complete control of his movies. “I kind of co-directed ‘Monster’s Ball,’ ” Daniels told me as he ordered another drink (the actual director was Marc Forster). “I gave Halle her line readings. I knew how to do that: you tap into people’s souls.” Daniels leaned forward. “I was tired of producing because, at the end of the day, I was tired of creating monster movie-star directors. I was stuck with, How am I going to find my next $2 million to make my next movie and they’re walking away to jobs that pay them $2 million. I thought, How do I get my voice across? I wanted to direct.”

Daniels is essentially saying he should get part of Berry's Oscar and maybe a kiss from Adrien Brody. 24-hour controversies are easy to come by in the world of film blogging but this is a case of gratuitous credit hogging I'd be surprised if Berry or at least Forster doesn't weigh in on.

Sunday Music: The Minus 5 (w/ Mike Mills & Bill Berry) - "The Ballad of John & Yoko"/"Hang On Sloopy"

Good natured fun from 3/4 of R.E.M., Scott McCaughey, and some others in Athens, GA. R.E.M. has a new and career spanning live set coming out this week.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rap Battle

Sasha Frere-Jones says rap is pretty much dead and two guys I've never heard of don't so much take issue with Jones as attack his presumption and his motives. Verdict: A draw. It is presumptuous to assume an art form will yield no further innovation. On the other hand, while self-promotion has always been part of the show with rap there was a certain point (the rise of Jay-Z?) where it seemed to all become about class and status. What's Young MC doing these days anyway? (New Yorker/Flavorwire)


A mildly entertaining patchwork of styles, anchored by lots of guest singers and rappers, “The Blueprint 3” is only tenuously connected to Jay-Z’s best work, and a patient listener will have to accept that. Gone are the autumnal poise and the tightly nested meanings, verses delivered with the bravado of someone who knows he could go all night but will bow out early to appear deceptively human. The new Jay-Z is a relaxed impresario, a Macher with A-list friends making safe choices. On the single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” Jay-Z mentions rappers that he previously overshadowed, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of a shift in hierarchy: “This shit need a verse from Jeezy, I might send this to the mixtape Weezy.” The latter is a reference to Lil Wayne, who publicly claimed the title of “greatest rapper alive,” while also stipulating that it used to belong to Jay-Z. Wayne was right, for a while, and then went weirdly silent, save for a few odd rock tracks. Wayne’s 2008 release, “Tha Carter III,” which included “A Milli,” a thick, psychedelic ramble tied to a thin, metronomic canter, was the year’s biggest-selling album—and probably the last moment when hip-hop was both popular and improbably weird.

Do the Shuffle #40

  • Robyn Hitchcock - Up To Our Nex
  • Avett Brothers - Distraction #74
  • Neko Case - Prison Girls
  • R.E.M. - Losing My Religion
  • Bob Dylan - Simple Twist of Fate
  • Dan Auerbach - Keep It Hid
  • Bruce Springsteen - Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
  • Throwing Muses - Colder
  • Madeleine Peyroux - You Can't Do Me
  • Jorma Kaukonen - There's A Table Sitting In Heaven

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 10/42
    Miscellaneous Fact: The Roots are playing a show in Greenville on Halloween night which is a benefit for some sort of charity. Tickets are $50 and the theme for the (not required) costumes is "Mad Men." Is it just me or this a classic case of misunderstanding your audience?
  • Now I'm part of Web 2.0

    I just uploaded my first ever YouTube video, a brief (9 sec.) clip of a very unfortunately named children's ride. Let the interactivity begin!

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Blossom Greenie

    I'll confess that I momentarily confused ("TV's Blossom") Mayim Bialik with Soleil Moon Frye (who can be followed on Twitter). No specific acting roles are mentioned here but Bialik is looking to have a second act to her career while playing a long-running role as Mom and environmental activist. I don't know about the whole "elimination communication" thing. (HuffPo)

    Music, Pictures, Books

  • I had never heard of the photographer Mike Disfarmer until I picked up guitarist Bill Frisell's new CD of the same name(review here). Disfarmer (1884-1959) was born Mike Meyers but changed his name because he didn't want to be associated with his family's agrarian background. Disfarmer was self-taught and worked out of a studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas from the '30s until his death but his meticulously lit portraits didn't become widely known until the 1970's. There is much more to see here. As for the music, Frisell (working with Jenny Scheinman on violin, Greg Liesz on steel guitar/mandolin, and Victor Krauss on bass) has come up with yet another album that belies his location in the jazz section of the record store. Airy, atmospheric, and suggestive, the music is neither jazz nor country but something in between that's entirely a beast of Frisell's own creation. I'd suggest downloading the track "Little Girl" for a start, and if you're unfamiliar with Frisell start here. (photo by Mike Disfarmer)

  • A reclusive artist is also at the center of Nick Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked; this time it's a fictional musician named Tucker Crowe. Tucker's music and the reasons he stopped making it twenty years ago are the main topics of conversation between long term partners Duncan and Annie, with Duncan being the Tucker obsessive and Annie the girlfriend whose patience is starting to fray. When album full of acoustic versions of Tucker's most famous songs turns up Annie's online review takes the book into Hornby's well-worked territory of the pop-culture obsessed getting their lives in order. This time it's not Duncan (who's a spiritual cousin to the main character of High Fidelity) but Annie who comes out the other side after reaching a crisis point with Duncan's inattention and her own unfulfilled needs. Hornby's concerns have matured with each book; Juliet, Naked touches on the desire for parenthood, absent fathers, sexual desire among the middle aged, and the oppressive feeling life can have as one's choices close in. The book isn't a radical departure but rather a variation on Hornby's past work and contains enough to please fans and new readers alike.

  • If a writer can hit the bestseller list by repeating the same formula how seriously should his books be reviewed? I'm not suggesting anyone read Now & Then or Rough Weather, two of the more recent entries in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, unless they've read a few of the almost 40 others. Spenser is still as noble, romantic (with longtime girlfriend Dr. Susan Silverman), and deadpan witty as ever but Parker is so fixated on atmosphere and wisecracks that he can't bother to carry a plot through to the end. If you have to pick one I'd go with Now & Then, in which Spenser is stirred to an unusual level of activity after a routine cheating wife case turns into something else. The 77-year old Parker (who also writes two other series) shows no signs of slowing down.
  • Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Dept. of Agreeing

    What kind of weird place have we reached when it’s news that a guy, being peppered with the most difficult questions a roomful of smart people can muster, once during a session displays a moment of discomfort? I’ll tell you what kind. We’ve reached a place where a stunning number of folks you see commenting on television or other public venues care so little about the substance of what they’re saying that even when they and everyone else knows their words are utter idiocy, they still refrain from displaying actual discomfort, because to them it’s all a game, unconnected to any sense that words have consequences, or that integrity is partly a matter of challenging one’s own own ideas out of a lingering sense that commenting on public affairs confers some responsibility, and that it is shameful to frivolously and lightly proffer arguments that one isn’t able to defend.

    --Today's Top Story: A Pundit Is Reflective! (TAS)

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Life List

    A friend who's a Metallica fan wants to hear the band play every song in their catalog live (and by his account he's fairly close). My goals regarding Wilco aren't quite as lofty but seeing them live is definitely a must; I'm reminded why after reading this post. (The video of "Jesus, etc." that's linked to in the post would be much better if the guy filming wasn't singing along) (Muzzle of Bees)

    Wild Things redux

    A critic sees Where The Wild Things Are a second time and doesn't like it any better. I disagree and offer Kenny's post as further evidence that part of the negative reaction to the film is motivated by a completely irrational hatred of Dave Eggers. (Auteurs)

    When Eggers' McSweeney's periodical first began appearing, various critics noted its antic, iconoclastic, often snarky tone, and in some cases came to the horrified conclusion that Eggers and his claque didn't believe in anything. The thing is, he/they actually believed in plenty, that plenty often having something to do with childlike "wonder" and an eschewal of critical thinking. And when they did choose to tell you about something they believed in, they wanted to make sure that you understood that their sincerity in this regard was in fact almost painful. And what were YOU going to counter that with, huh?

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Sunday Music: The Swell Season - "Into The Mystic" (w/ obligatory "Balloon Boy" reference! )

    Yes, it's the two from Once doing Van Morrison. Big profile in the Times today; Hansard and Irglova are no longer together but about to release their second album with some help from Hansard's colleagues from The Frames. The love between them may not be romantic but it seems to be much more genuine than anything going on here.

    Last month Mr. Hansard and Ms. Irglova stopped in New York to showcase the record sans band at the 92YTriBeCa. Whatever has passed between them only seemed to add texture to their collaboration. While some of the new songs clearly trace the wages of love and loss — “In These Arms,” “Feeling the Pull” and “I Have Loved You Wrong” — there was no awkwardness or hesitation, just a palpable warmth. After a few songs Mr. Hansard began playing solo, and Ms. Irglova, instead of heading backstage, stepped down from the stage, sitting rapt as he played.

    “I think they are still together,” someone nearby leaned in and said.

    They are, just not in that way. The best of their duets leaven drama with a kind of grace, a balance that weaves loss with hope. They seem made to sing together.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009

    Where The Wild Things Are

    The first few minutes of Spike Jonze's eccentric and moving Where The Wild Things Are are the equal of WALL-E in their creation of a world with a population of one. We follow young Max (Max Records) as he roughhouses with the family dog and builds an impressive igloo outside which will soon be destroyed by the teenage friends of his older sister. Max has a bedroom that looks like that of any young American boy his age but he really lives in the crevices of his too-quiet house. Max is at home under the table where his Mom (Catherine Keener) tries to catch up on work at a job that is bringing in neither satisfaction nor enough money. He builds an elaborate fort with blankets and stuffed animals but can't get his mother or anyone else to come inside.

    If you've read Maurice Sendak's iconic book then you know what happens next. Max will run away after having a tantrum (which in the film involves biting his mother) and sail to a land inhabited by huge creatures whose height and vaguely threatening appearance are belied by their tamped down emotions. There was ample opportunity for digital tomfoolery here, but Jonze chose to have the monsters played by actors in suits and use CGI only to enhance their facial expressions. The result is a family of rumpled, mossy creatures whose uncute appearance fits in with the visual scheme Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord have designed for the rest of the movie. The world of the Wild Things is brown, dry, and blasted out. Forests have the feel of oncoming autumn and the sun-drenched desert is a wasteland. It's no wonder that Max is named King by head Wild Thing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and the others; this world needs a ruler with the "special powers" Max claims to possess.

    The bulk of the movie is of course Max among the Wild Things and Jonze allows plenty of time for the book's "wild rumpus" as well as a dirt clod fight which ends badly. (I loved the seemingly improbable shots of the monsters jumping) Carol and his friends, including a great Lauren Ambrose as KW and Chris Cooper as Douglas, are passive almost to the point of being irritating. They can't get it together - KW and Carol are locked in some sort of dysfunctional relationship and Alexander (Paul Dano) feels ignored - because like Max they have no one to teach them or show them any affection. When Max reveals he isn't really a King Carol's reaction is as furious as Max's fury at his mother for favoring a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over her son. There appears to be no pressing reason for Max to return to civilization but after Carol falls apart Max realizes there is a chance he'd wind up as lonely with the Wild Things as he was back home. Max admits to the monsters and himself that he's just like them, and that's the most important moment in a movie that eschews sentimentality and even a conventional resolution. The eddies of childhood have taken Max to a point where he can accept his mother's love while beginning to realize (as she falls asleep beside him) that his life's journey is finally undertaken alone. Jonze and Eggers have made a movie both heartfelt and sober that honors children by not condescending to them.

    FOR FURTHER READING - There's a discussion here about the movie's ending. I'm with the commenters over the blogger, but I also think the shot of Catherine Keener falling asleep is significant.

    Do the Shuffle #39

  • Radiohead - All I Need
  • Jerry Garcia Band - The Harder They Come (live)
  • Ryan Adams - Rip Off
  • Madeleine Peyroux - Instead
  • Luna - This Time Around
  • Cowboy Junkies - Still Lost
  • Feist - Brandy Alexander
  • Gillian Welch - Orphan Girl
  • Mark Olson - Salvation Blues

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.): 9/45
    Miscellaneous Fact: One of my favorite tracks on the Mark Mulcahy covers album I discussed here is Thom Yorke's version of a song called "All For The Best." As the Pitchfork review (which I really didn't agree with overall) pointed out, the tension between Mulcahy's imagery and the usual iciness associated with anything Yorke/Radiohead is genuinely unusual.
  • Friday, October 16, 2009

    Wild sounds

    I'll have plenty to say about Where The Wild Things Are later in the weekend but for now this review answers the question of whether I should pick up Karen O's soundtrack or not. (Pretty Much Amazing)

    Ever since the first Arcade Fire scored trailer for Where The Wild Things Are hit the internet, it has been clear that this movie would be driven in no small part by the music accompanying it. In reality, I see no other way to successfully adapt a book that has no more than a few paragraphs of plot, maximum. Karen O and the Kids (a group that includes members of Liars, Deerhunter, The Dead Weather, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Raconteurs) manage to do more than simply fill the space between words, though, creating a fun record that is chock full of unbridled energy and un-tampered with innocence. The triumph of this album is not its ability to capture the emotions of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book, it is in its ability to bring those emotions to a different medium without losing a drop, adding some fright and joy of its own.

    Sufjan speaks

    He's starting to get "sick of his conceptual ideas" and wondering what it's all about. Was that "album for every state" idea conceived in a bar? (Vish Khanna)

    I really work on a very microscopic level. I really think in terms of the song or folk song, and I work within a very conservative frame of melody, accompaniment, and narrative. So really basic, simple forms, and they just end up becoming hybrids or amended or expanded to form greater, epic, set pieces.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    Whip It

    The most effortlessly charming and confidently made big studio release I've seen in some time just might be Drew Barrymore's Whip It, the story (based on a book by Shauna Cross) of a teenage girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) coming into adulthood through joining a roller derby team. The well received drama has seems to have failed to catch fire at the box office but offers yards more genuine female bonding than artificially made contraptions like the Traveling Pants series and another 2009 Barrymore effort.

    Whip It takes place in a small Texas town where there is even less to do than in the fictional burgh where Friday Night Lights is set. Bliss's mother (Marcia Gay Harden) uses children's pageants as her main source of amusement and while her younger sister (Eulala Scheel) brings home trophies on a regular basis Bliss manages to turn up for her events with hair recently dyed blue. Marcia Gay Harden is the first of the many things that are right with Whip It; it may be obvious that her steely and disappointed-with-life character turns out to have a softer underbelly but Harden never milks the numerous confrontational scenes she shares with an equally good Ellen Page. Page plays a young woman whose doesn't have the flinty self-confidence she was asked to show in Juno or the underrated Smart People. Bliss feels genuinely trapped by her life and a little frightened; only has friendship with the more together Pash (strong Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development) for comfort. A chance encounter with a flyer leads to a tryout and eventual acceptance into an Austin-based roller derby league; the travel requires lying to her mother and father (Daniel Stern, where has he been?) by telling them she is taking an SAT class.

    Maybe it isn't surprising that someone who has acted as long as Barrymore should be able to get such good performances in her directorial debut, but even the small roles in Whip It are well filled out. Kristen Wiig (as a teammate) has a scene the likes of which I've never quite seen before in which she calls Bliss on her selfishness and reminds her of the sacrifices Mom and Dad have made for her. Barrymore has great fun playing the most violent skater and Juliette Lewis reminds us why she never stopped being worthy of our attention with a sassy performance as Page's chief rival. Among the gentlemen, I liked the light comic touch of Andrew Wilson (yes, one of those Wilsons) as Page's coach. Landon Pigg plays Page's indie rocker love interest and while their underwater love scene was strikingly filmed the courtship feels well acted but familiar until a very satisfying resolution.

    The most radical thing about this well-made and heartfelt empowerment story is that while Bliss has moved on to the next phase of her life by the closing credits her future hangs unresolved. Sure, she's got roller derby and the girls but what about college? Or high school for that matter; Bliss tells her mother she wants to move to Austin. While her friend Pash gets accepted into Columbia I can see Bliss following a much more winding path. Whip It will be forgotten at awards time but Barrymore and Page succeed at telling an honest growing-up story that stops at a few familiar places along the way.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    I'm inclined to think not

    Is this important? At a film festival panel on criticism recently the always controversial Armond White had a few words about bloggers and internet critics and may (or may not) have taken out after one absent blogger in particular.What was meant and said is in some dispute. The 'sphere has been talking about this for the past couple of days, but it really seems to be as much a question of professional standards as journalistic merit. Judge for yourself. (/Hammer To Nail)

    UPDATE - Armond White speaks. (IndieWire)

    “As NYFCC Chairman, I am representing a organization of professional film critics,” Armond White told me today, when I asked him to clarify his remarks via email. “With the advent of the internet, ‘professionalism’ has been disregarded for the purposes of a speciously-defined ‘democracy’. Without professionalism, journalism is left with amateurism, gossip, cliques. It is destructive to the culture when these things replace education, expertise, experience. It’s never enough to simply ‘love movies’. As I said at the panel, professionals put themseIves on the line regularly and for these reasons, I defend my profession against amateur attacks that never rise to the level of intelligent discussion.”

    Dept. of How Did I Miss This?

    Ghostface Killah's new album is dedicated to NP. (The Frisky)

    What Happened Was...

    An impassioned recap/tribute to a film I've never seen but would very much like to, Tom Noonan's What Happened Was.... Noonan is the character actor best known for his role in Michael Mann's Manhunter and Sillas (who has no credits since 2005 according to IMDB) distinguished herself in the Hal Hartley films Trust and Simple Men. I'm guessing the scene above doesn't do the movie justice. (Sheila Variations)

    It's brutal. Claustrophobic. Occasionally funny, in a rather awful way, with stellar performances by the two leads. It is a pleasure to watch both of them work. This is not kitchen-sink realism. This is not cautious "realistic" work. They are characters, first and foremost, with some theatricality to them, some underlying issues and subtext, and all of that stuff which is so often left out of films such as this one. The poster for the film, while understandable from a marketing perspective, completely misrepresents the dark stifling relentless journey you are about to go on. You think you are watching one thing (an awkward first date), and you are, you are correct on that score, but then by the end, you realize you have been watching quite another kind of event. Something much deeper, the two characters straddling the abyss of their own lives.

    Kushner for Nobel

    A few well-stated reasons why Tony Kushner is just the man to break the American slump in the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Marissabidilla)

    He's GAY! Evidently, winning the Nobel has become, in part, a question of a writer's subject matter and political correctness. Many laureates write from the perspective of an outsider or one who has experienced oppression: African-Americans (Toni Morrison), feminists (Doris Lessing), citizens of totalitarian states (Solzhenitsyn, Müller), etc. Conspicuously un-awarded, thus far, are authors who write from a gay or lesbian perspective. (At least one gay man, André Gide, has won the prize--but that was in 1947, long before the gay rights movement existed!)

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Sunday Music (Early Edition): Mark Mulcahy - "You're My Blessing"

    Mulcahy was singer for Miracle Legion, a band I admired in my college days. There's a "tribute" album called Ciao My Shining Star full of his songs out now with covers by Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe among others. The genesis of the project was the death of Mulcahy's wife and subsequent financial difficulties of the singer and two young children. I'm not going to link to the rather snide Pitchfork review, which is actually sort of an apology for the record being made at all. I recommend picking up the CD and point you to tracks by The National, Yorke, Juliana Hatfield, and Autumn Defense.

    Talk Talk

    I didn't realize that Jon Stewart's anti-Crossfire tirade five years ago is actually credited with (or blamed for) the cancellation of assorted cable news shows that featured debates between those of competing ideologies. Those shows were replaced with "ideologically pure" programming from the likes of Glenn Beck (on the right) and Keith Olbermann (on the left) that has contributed (this post argues) to the further political polarization of American life. I'm not entirely in agreement with this theory; for example, can one say the investigative work that Rachel Maddow does on the staged disruptions of health care town halls carries a political bias?

    My father is an Olbermann and Maddow watcher, and while I sympathize with most of the views expressed on those shows I wish Dad could see that he's watching a sort of political performance art in which members of the Beltway Talking Heads Union repeat standard talking points ad nauseam in order to keep paychecks coming from various news outlets and think tanks. I prefer to get my hard news from a variety of sources and keep the "analysis" to a minimum. (Foreign Policy)

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    5 things about Bright Star

    1. It's unabashedly romantic but never sentimental - The affair between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) was carried out in letters, glances, touches, conversations, and a few stolen kisses. It's the kind of story that could easily have descended into period piece corsetted fluffery but is kept honest by the two lead performances and the fact that Campion...

    2. fills the movie with details about how these people lived. - Keats didn't make enough money from his writing to allow him to marry Fanny, who (the movie suggests) was capable of making money through her skill in sewing and design. Money (Keats can't afford a winter coat), living arrangements, and what was or wasn't socially appropriate are at the forefront of everyone's mind in Bright Star and ground the movie by setting the love against a social order working to keep Keats and Brawne apart.

    3. Bright Star is in part a movie about making things - Movies about writers always run the risk of either literalizing or sentimentalizing the creative process, but Bright Star is honest about the false starts and tedium of the writer's life. Keats and his friend and patron Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) spend quite a bit of time seemingly not doing very much and yet the work gets done. Fanny, who as previously mentioned has a marketable skill, aspires to the poet's life but Keats correctly tells her that the craft of poetry is something that can't be learned. Bright Star wisely doesn't look for the source of Keats's genius, but instead highlights the slow march towards the finished product.

    4. Paul Schneider as Charles Brown is weird casting - Schneider is the actor I wrote about here who got started thanks to being a film school classmate of David Gordon Green. I can't remember another American actor having this high profile a role in a British period piece; the closest I can come is Canadian Donald Sutherland in Pride & Prejudice. Nevertheless Schneider pulls off both the Scottish accent and Brown's arrogance, which he uses as a cover for the fact he can't touch Keats as a writer.

    5. The two leads are both excellent - Ben Whishaw had better watch out; as Keats he adds another performance as a dying romantic to his role in Brideshead Revisited. Whishaw is believably boyish and ungenius-like but it's Abbie Cornish who gives Bright Star its erotic fire. I'd only known Cornish from Stop Loss, she couldn't be more different here and puts Fanny's rage at the forces keeping her and Keats apart on equal footing with her ardor for him. It's the kind of performance that should be remembered at awards time.

    Thursday, October 08, 2009

    Do the Shuffle #38

  • Uncle Tupelo - Fall Down Easy
  • John Mellencamp - Lafayette
  • Bon Iver - Brackett, W9
  • Sonic Youth - Dr. Benway's House
  • Jeff Tweedy/Jay Bennett - Pecan Pie (live)
  • Sufjan Stevens - You Are The Blood
  • Mark Kozelek - Blue Orchids (live)
  • Jerry Garcia Band - Stop That Train (live)
  • B-52's - Deadbeat Club
  • Johnny Cash - Delia's Gone

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 10/45
    Miscellaneous Fact - I can't remember where I downloaded about 5 Tweedy/Bennett live cuts from some acoustic show. This one is a playful guitar & piano take on a song that I believe first appeared on a Golden Smog album. At one point one of them can be heard saying "I'm not soloing" during the song; the other replies "I'm not either." We'll never really know what happened between Tweedy and Bennett during Wilco but that doesn't make it any less sad.
  • Wednesday, October 07, 2009


    Here's an MP3 of the first track from Vampire Weekend's Contra, out in January. (Stereogum)

    False Promise '10

    Politics are the last thing I feel like writing about in these public option-centric times, but this post which folds in several links is worth a look. How will the GOP fare in the elections next year (probably pretty well) and will that success necessarily help in 2012? (The Agenda)

    It's possible that 2008 saw an unusually high level of youth turnout that won't be replicated any time soon. If unemployment surpasses 10 percent and stays there for a prolonged period, youth unemployment will presumably be somewhat higher. These voters might not be inclined to actively and energetically support the party in power at that point.

    Sunday, October 04, 2009

    Dept. of Kindle Underwhelm

    Ivy Leaguers are given Kindles, but prefer their reading "analog." (Daily Princetonian/Orange Crate Art)

    Wilson School professor Stan Katz, who teaches Horvath’s class, said he is interested in whether he “can teach as effectively in using this as in using books and E-Reserve material and in whether students can use this effectively,” adding that “the only way to find out is to try it.”

    One of Katz’ main concerns is whether students can do close reading of the texts with the new device, he said.

    “I require a very close reading of texts. I encourage students to mark up texts, and … I expect them to underline and to highlight texts,” Katz explained. “The question is whether you can do them as effectively with a Kindle as with paper.”

    Katz added that had to confront the issue early when he transitioned from using familiar texts for teaching.

    “I have all of my books marked up,” Katz said. “Either I use my own annotations, or I take the time, an immense amount of time” to annotate with the Kindle.

    Katz also said he has little incentive to move his annotations to the Kindle, explaining that he heard the University won’t use the Kindle next year and adding that he finds the device “hard to use.”

    Sunday Music: Conor Oberst - "Get Well Cards"

    My favorite song from his self-titled album

    Thursday, October 01, 2009

    "The adverb police"

    I'm a sucker for anything about goings-on at The New Yorker. Here's an interview with one of the magazine's most experienced copy editors. (Red Room/Kottke)

    Andy: I have always imagined that most of the real workers at the magazine, the guys who don't do the featured stories, are writers in their other lives. Probably pretty good writers. Is that true? Is TNY a good gig for a writer? Connections and all that stuff? Entrée to parties at the Hamptons?

    Mary: You’re right there. Many of the people on the editorial staff have the will to write: they’re poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, journalists. I have a novel in my bottom drawer, if you’d like to take a look at it. I guess what we have is access: I can e-mail the editor-in-chief, or talk to an editor if I have an idea. But, obviously, the staff writers are given preference, and you are competing with them just like anyone else. Sometimes people leave The New Yorker to take writing jobs elsewhere.

    I have never been invited to a party in the Hamptons, but maybe I’m just not working the connections assiduously enough. One of the perks is grabbing books off the book bench—review copies that get sent to the magazine (there’s no way we can review all the books that get sent here). Recently I asked Roger Angell to sign a copy of his 2008 Christmas poem for my second cousin Dennis Kucinich (rhymes with “spinach”), whom I met at a family reunion. Another perk is getting to hobnob with the cartoonists. When a copy of the magazine lands on my desk on Monday morning, the first thing I do is still to flip through it looking at the cartoons.

    An artist grows in Brooklyn

    How singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten made it to the big city. (Microphone Memory Emotion)

    Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten may be an example–to paraphrase Maya Angelou’s book—of why the caged bird sings. When she was living in Tennessee a couple of years ago, an old boyfriend wasn’t supportive of her musical endeavors. As a result Van Etten would have to perform her music when he was away.

    “It was kind of a rough time in my life,” Van Etten remembers. “I would go to a bar and get whiskey drunk and get enough courage to play [the open mikes].”

    Fast forward to today. Van Etten lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is now comfortable front and center as an indie folk songwriter and performer. This past summer she released her full-length debut album, the haunting and ethereal-sounding Because I Was In Love.