Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dept. of On The Nightstand

So I need to get down to reading The Pale King. This review is the first I've seen that doesn't celebrate it's own perception of what Wallace was trying to do but rather examines the (sad) truth that "unfinished novel" may be a generous description of what we have here. (TLS)

Pietsch says that “given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn’t have a second’s hesitation”. There is no doubt that his labours have been heartfelt; but I think he may have misjudged Wallace’s readers. They have always read with at least as much attention and interest as scholars; and there has already been a report from the David Foster Wallace archive by one of them ( There are passages here which display the masterful comic touches and moving ethical probing that Wallace’s readers admire; and the more developed characters, especially the possibly sociopathic Toni Ware, are gripping, if inconsistently drawn. But, as a novel, The Pale King is nowhere near to being a finished work. From the internal evidence, it is clear why David Foster Wallace was having insuperable difficulties in making it one.

Hayden's Hair

Hayden Panettiere was the most entertaining thing about Scream 4, and I'm glad to see her haircut getting its due in the annals of short cuts on women. (Guardian)

Short hair on female characters is rarely permitted to exist in its own right. It's a statement, a sign of playing men at their own game: for Keira Knightley, when she swaps modelling for bounty hunting in Domino; for Moore, with her military buzz-cut in GI Jane. Getting chopped is seldom something female characters do of their own volition. It deprives them of a formidable weapon, and, instead of giving them masculine strength, only emphasises their helplessness. Even in Rosemary's Baby, when Mia Farrow announces, "I've been to Vidal Sassoon" (her husband's sarky reply: "Don't tell me you paid for that"), she's unwittingly adding the finishing touch to her own martyrdom.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Never take sides....

I missed the minor uproar surrounding Jennifer Egan's post-Pulitzer comments to women writers, they've been seized upon (by the always vigilant Jennifer Weiner and others) as an attack on "Chick Lit". As this defense points out, there is sexism in the publishing world but expecting women writers to avoid criticizing other women writers is sexist too. If the above unrelated clip echoes the actual tone of Egan's remarks then I'd say she expects more from all her fellow writers. (Millions)

This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Artists at Work

I admit to being too unfamiliar with her catalogue, but I'll always have a soft spot for tales of the idiosyncratic artist at work. PJ Harvey doesn't give much away. (Guardian)

She already has several competing ideas for her next album, but you probably shouldn't hold your breath waiting for it. Let England Shake was the product of "hundreds of pieces of writing: entirely finished poems and songs, entirely recorded songs". Getting a record right has become more important to her than being prolific. "If it takes 10 years then I would rather wait and know that I felt each piece was strong than feel that it was time to put something out but five pieces are a bit weak."

The industry standard cycle of album-tour-album-tour doesn't apply. "There wouldn't be any point in me trying to persuade her to take the steps that I thought were necessary to get her into football stadiums," says Paul McGuinness. "She's not, quite honestly, that interested in success. She's not driven in any way by commercial imperatives. Really she's working to satisfy herself."

Win Win

At some point in the last few weeks of Game of Thrones-mania I read with great surprise that the original pilot episode (later scrapped and reshot) was directed by Tom McCarthy. The naked ambition and lusty behavior on display in Westeros feel pretty far removed from the small sadnesses and quiet moments of McCarthy's The Station Agent and The Visitor. McCarthy's new Win Win expands on his previous work with a dose of bustling family life, some c. 2011 economic issues, and a wonderful central performance. Small-town lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) defrauds the state in an effort to prop up his ailing practice; the unintended consequences of Mike's actions bring a sullen teenager named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) into the home of Mike and his wife (a tart Amy Ryan).

There's a sports movie inside of Win Win; Mike is a high school wrestling coach and Kyle's talents invigorate Mike's sad-sack team. McCarthy also has great fun with the way middle-aged men use teenage boys to relive their own youth. (Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale play Mike's assistant coaches.) Alex Shaffer finds some surprising notes inside Kyle's inarticulateness, but Win Win of course belongs to Paul Giamatti. As Mike discovers - for better and worse - what he's capable of as a father and a coach Giamatti's expressive eyes betray the hope that he can stay one step ahead of life just a little while longer than he thought. The scenes between Giamatti and Amy Ryan add a wonderful note of rumpled marital comedy. The plot of Win Win resolves itself with messy detail, there are fights, lawyers, and uncomfortable confessions. Tom McCarthy doesn't let melodrama trump what's best about Win Win; for both Kyle and Mike there is another season just around the corner.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dept. of Voices We Need...

As a major new production of his play The Normal Heart approaches, playwright/activist Larry Kramer has a few things to say. (Salon)

Q: I saw a preview of the play last night with a friend. I think many of the ideas in the play will seem exotic and a little dated to a lot of young gay men.

A: Like what?

Q: Like the idea of promiscuity as a political statement and that it would be treasonous or controversial for gay men to tell other gay men not to have sex, or to have sex with a condom. What do you think young people should take away from the play?

A: It's our history. We're gay. This was part of our history. This was the most horrible thing the gay population ever lived through. And yet it also represented -- later on, with ACT UP, and the getting of AIDS drugs -- the most spectacular achievement the gay population ever had. We gays did that.

I don't know why so many gay men don't want to know their history. I don't know why they turned their back on the older generation as if they don't want to have anything to do with them. I would like us to get beyond that.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Music: Landon Pigg & Mae Whitman - "Darling I Do"

I normally wouldn't post a video with this much ambient noise, but after this week's Parenthood season finale I'm going to need a Mae Whitman fix to tide me over until learning the show's fate for next year. From Todd's review (he was cool on the episode as a whole):

Mae Whitman is fantastic in this episode, even if it seems like all she has to do is cry, but the episode’s greatest failing is that it largely loses track of her after the heartwrenching teaser. A finale set entirely in that hospital waiting room could have been great TV. Hell, a finale built around Amber’s slow recovery, showing how her gradual healing parallels everybody else’s situations, might have worked too. (It almost seems like the episode tries to do this, but the timeline’s all wonky, as we’ll see in a bit.) Set this episode firmly from Amber’s point of view, and you just might have an all-time classic, instead of whatever this was.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Scream 4

The brief film culture moment for Your Highness is almost over; there's only so much derision that a thin stoner comedy can take anyway. Before it recedes I'll offer an assertion that may sound startling but that I think bears scrutiny. Scream 4 is a much more toxic effort, one made by people who took no pleasure in their work. Writer/producer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven (Does this film mean anything more to Craven than a retirement plan?)offer up a puzzle box, but one that's no fun to explore and that doesn't lead anywhere new. If you remember the anarchic fun of the original Scream then you'll feel most sorry for an almost visibly unhappy Neve Campbell, back in Woodsboro as her Sidney Prescott hawks a book detailing her triumphs over the traumas of the original trilogy. The killings begin again with Sidney's arrival, and there's the usual meta-prologue that invokes horror genre tropes. Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin, and Aimee Teegarden all pop in for a visit during these scenes, which feel bloated when put up against the lean ruthlessness of Drew Barrymore's scenes way back when. Williamson means the prologue to be a "critique" of post-Scream horror, from torture porn to The Ring, but the insight is about as thin as a first season Dawson's Creek monologue about Spielberg. There's a difference between critiquing something and talking about it that Williamson hasn't learned yet.

Scream 4 branches off to follow a large teenage cast, even as fellow original cast members Courteney Cox (who isn't allowed to be funny) and David Arquette huff and puff while trying to solve the murders. I've never seen Kevin Williamson's show The Vampire Diaries, but if Scream 4 is any indication then his view of teenagers has soured since the 1990's. The teens in this Scream iteration are receptacles for content and nothing more, incapable of perceiving anything that happens to them as something that can't be bent through the prism of movie cliche or live web streams. There is, of course, a character who's broadcasting his life on the web thanks to a ridiculous looking headset. To what degree all this is accurate is another conversation, but it certainly isn't interesting to watch. Emma Roberts (as Sindey's cousin) gets to do most of the screaming but Williamson's heart belongs to the film geek (Rory Culkin) who keeps explaining the "rules" to the audience. The only fun in the movie is Hayden Panettiere as a female horror buff who fancies herself a step ahead of the killer. Panettiere plays her character as aroused by everything that happens to her and is the most lively and expressive of the younger cast. With the exception of Alison Brie as a publicist, no one else but Panettiere appears to be in on the joke that is Scream 4.

The joke is on us, since the laziness of Williamson and Craven is glossed over with a seductive succession of well-timed frights and creepy jokes (an iPhone app allows the user to talk like Ghostface). The ending, when it finally comes, is full of banalities about fame and our fragmented media culture. We can lap it up or look for something better. As old franchises fade and "reboots" come and go, horror films need something bigger and smarter than condescension and irony.

A Seat at the Table

Actress Nancy Allen (pictured here in Out of Sight) talks Blow Out and remembers some years of friendship and collaboration that would make any film fan jealous. (AV Club)

I look back now and go, “Amazing, absolutely amazing.” But at the time? Everybody was so young. Steven was only a few years older than me, and living in a very funky house in Laurel Canyon. In Brian’s apartment in New York, I think he had two dishes, a fork, and a glass, and that was it. Steven had the success of Jaws and was preparing Close Encounters, but it was all very casual. We were all always together. And Scorsese too, when he was in town.

I remember when Brian and myself and Steven and Jay Cocks and I think a few other people all flew up to San Francisco to see a rough cut of Star Wars. This was when I had first started seeing Brian. I didn’t even know what a rough cut was. We watched this movie and I’m looking at a picture with arrows going across the screen and thinking, “This is a mess. What is this? This is boring.” And we go to lunch and I’m sitting there and they’re saying it’s fabulous and they’re collaborating, saying, “This is what you need to do.” Jay and Brian started writing things for the crawl at the beginning. And then I saw the movie at the MGM screening, I was like, “Oh my God, this is a really great film!” We stayed at George and Marsha Lucas’ house and everybody was writing in an envelope, predicting how much money the movie would make. Nobody even came close. [Laughs.] I think Steven said something like $15 million in rentals.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bloggers, Elite Division

This profile of Andrew Sulivan hits most of the familiar high spots - his intellectual precociousness, renunciation of neoconservatism, and his challenging of Sarah Palin's pregnancy - while touching on the too rarely discussed physical costs of heavy blogging.

Shortly after the week of Tucson, the Internet’s Iron Man faltered—exhaustion and an unusually cold winter created so much bronchial distress that his doctor ordered him to take to his bed. During his unprecedented two-week silence, governments toppled in the Middle East. While his assistants did great work, friends teased Sullivan: “Andrew, you’re missing an entire revolution.”

Sullivan's recent ill-considered stumping for the Paul Ryan budget gets put into some context.

David Bradley, owner and publisher of the Atlantic, courted Andrew Sullivan for six years. When Sullivan signed on, had 200,000 unique visitors a month—“less than accidental visits to the New York Times,” Bradley says. On the Dish’s first morning, the publisher had his laptop open: “Our traffic grew sixfold in a moment. It was like Hoover Dam had broken—we were awash with traffic.”

Bradley and Sullivan talked frequently and intimately, and in one of those conversations, Sullivan shared a deep truth about himself. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been disappointed by powerful men.” Bradley took that to heart. “I made a private vow that, whatever happens, I’m not going to be his next disappointment.”

A blogfriend weighs in...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Your Highness

The truth about Your Highness isn't that it's the "worst movie ever made" (though it is very, very bad) or that it's proof that David Gordon Green was just kidding with his early indie films George Washington and All The Real Girls. Your Highness is quite simply the answer to a question. Given the chance to co-write, executive produce, and work with director he wants who's also a friend, just what is Danny McBride capable of? Well, now we know and it's a anachronistic medieval comedy that takes time to make light of rape, pedophilia, drug use, and the manhood of a small, effete British man named Julie (Toby Jones). Judging by the disinterested performances of McBride, James Franco (whose work here explains his Oscar hosting), Zooey Deschanel, and everyone else I can only assume that Green and McBride though saying the lines was all they had to do and that there was something inherently hilarious about sending up sword-and-sorcery stereotypes. There's nothing wrong with being lowbrow on occasion but there's no movie here, just a giant joke that McBride and Green expected us all to be in on. Natalie Portman shows up late as a warrior who won't put up with McBride's nonsense. To her credit Portman tries to act, but even though she looks great in female Robin Hood attire and doesn't shudder on the laugh lines she can't do more than be a diversion. Green and McBride can't even stop giggling at themselves long enough to make hay out of Portman stripping down to go swimming; the camera is so respectful I thought I was watching a French movie. Your Highness is too unambitious to go down as one of the great flops, but it does serve as a reminder of the perils of expecting too much from your friends.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Secret to a Happy Ending

When I saw the Drive-By Truckers (for the second time) a week ago I was struck by how at home the band seemed on stage an by the breadth of their catalogue. Touring behind their latest album Go-Go Boots, the Truckers ripped through songs both new and old in front of a crowd that covered a surprisingly big demographic range. Guitarists and co-vocalists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley alternated lead vocals (with one tune from bassist Shonna Tucker); Cooley's (usually) faster and funnier songs are bourbon and Coke to Hood's straight whiskey. The downbeat Go-Go Boots is dominated by the title track and "The Fireplace Poker", two Hood-penned short-story tales of murder for hire; to see the Truckers live is to rank them among the liveliest and most American of working bands.

Barr Weissman's The Secret to a Happy Ending chronicles an earlier period in the band's history, one where it seemed for a time that the Truckers might not survive. After reaching a new level of critical attention with 2001's Southern Rock Opera, the addition of guitarist/singer Jason Isbell resulted in what's considered by many a three album high point. But by 2007 the failing marriage of Isbell and Tucker as well as ongoing financial pressures on the band led to Isbell's departure. The Truckers have continued on and their 2010 album The Big To-Do is the group's highest charting to date. Patterson Hood is the group's founder and main voice, and Weissman takes him from a funky Alabama childhood dotted with guest stars (his father was a Muscle Shoals session musician and studio owner) to fatherhood and stardom of a kind. Hood is steeped in musical history but doesn't look to ape the moves of others; he's driven to write about the land, class, and the people of his home and as an interview subject Hood doesn't have time to contextualize or celebrate his own work.

The Secret to a Happy Ending is the most workaday rock documentary I've ever seen, preoccupied with relationships, work, and the unending and necessary grind of life on the road. Weissman might have fallen in love with his subjects a little, there are no bitter studio confrontations, but he succeeds in explaining where the Truckers come from culturally and why they'll endure by just letting the band explain themselves. Drive-By Truckers will keep going as long as Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (who's a more self-effacing presence here) want to play together, but whatever happens they will never forget where they came from.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I'll start watching the well-reviewed HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I'm not entirely sure I'll finish it. Maybe it's due to the fact that I had to deal with too many questions about fantasy novels as a bookseller, but I've never been persuaded that (with a few exceptions) fantasy provides any more of a moral education or connection to real world problems than a spy novel set in some WWII-era European capital. This review highlights the adult concerns of the series, and reading this piece (quoted below) makes me enormously sympathetic to Martin. He's a victim of his own ambition to a degree, but also badly treated by a segment of his audience who won't leave the man alone to do his work. (Salon/NYorker)

A Norwegian schoolteacher named Remy Verhoeve is one of these hyper-dedicated readers. Until a friend persuaded him to try “A Game of Thrones,” he had never especially liked fantasy fiction, with the exception of “The Lord of the Rings.” In his opinion, the first three volumes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” are “the finest novels I’ve ever read.” After discovering the series, he read those three books ten times each. “Sometimes some piece of art comes along and changes everything,” he told me. Yet Verhoeve, operating under the nom de guerre of Slynt, now runs a Web forum dedicated to denigrating Martin and his supporters. The site is called Is Winter Coming?—a snide play on “Winter is coming,” the motto of the Starks, one of the central families in the series.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NP's Nutty Professor

NP's description of her Thor character is further evidence (after the funnier second trailer) that director Kenneth Branagh wants to insert a little personality into his take on the Marvel hero. (Hero Complex)

Portman said she delved into the history of Foster in the comics and found some intriguing portrayals — especially in recent years — but also long stretches where the character was ill-defined or fairly forgettable. All of that was an opportunity, though, she said, and she took the job to work with Branagh, whose work she admires.

“I really didn’t know about it until I started talking to Ken about doing the role and then I started looking into it. The openness that they approached this with — the way they were interested in me bringing what I wanted to the character and to help create this version of her – it made for a big job. I really felt they were going to let me do whatever was needed to make this character human and compelling and a great partner for Thor.”

Monday, April 11, 2011


Joe Wright's Hanna may not be something entirely new, but it is something fresh and welcome in the world of chaotic, ironized action movies. We're seeing the world through the eyes of Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), a child raised away from the world and trained by her father Erik (Eric Bana) to kill for reasons that aren't immediately apparent. It all has something to do with a CIA agent named Marissa (Cate Blanchett, having a ball) and a secret genetic engineering program that Marissa seems to wish her colleagues didn't know about. The screenplay by Seth Lochhead and David Farr uses fairy tales (a bit too much perhaps) as a jumping off point, but the shot of a just escaped Hanna poking her head into the Moroccan desert suggests another genre. Hanna is a story about an alien. Ronan plays Hanna as a slightly older inversion of her Briony from Atonement. Briony sees but misunderstands almost everything important; Hanna absorbs everything about her new world from the sounds of an electric fan to the friendship of a British teenager named Sophie (Jessica Barden) whose family Hanna latches onto in Morocco. I loved Saorise Ronan's quiet attentiveness to her surroundings while she listens to Sophie's mother (Olivia Williams) rattle on about religion. Ronan modulates Hanna' growing comfort level with society perfectly, and while the action scenes are ingeniously staged and the relationship between Erik and Hanna surprisingly complex, this may be the first action movie I can remember where a whispered conversation between two teenage girls is the emotional high point.

I posted a few days ago about Joe Wright's approach to the action scenes in Hanna; the action in the film is a wonderful kind of stylized simplicity. A fight between Erik and Marissa's men follows a meticulous long take of Erik being pursued into a subway station. The blows, when they come, are staged as nimbly a dance. (This fight was the only point I felt that the Chemical Brothers' music intruded.) We're always aware of where people are and if they're headed in the right or wrong direction; a chase through a container yard becomes a multi-tiered puzzle. Pursuers and pursued converge on Berlin, where the secrets of Hanna's birth and surprising strength are revealed and she is forced to become a young woman. The climatic scene at an amusement park points up just how far Hanna has come; she flees from Marissa's men past giant dinosaurs while Erik's last scene occurs on a playground. Childhood is over. The end of childhood is Wright's great subject, but unlike Briony in Atonement Hanna is on the cusp a world of first kisses and fast friendships. "I just missed your heart," Hanna tells Marissa, but in the end Hanna finds her own. Inventively made and winningly human, Hanna is a welcome surprise.

Let's Do It

A celebration of Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? and a lament for the lack of emphasis on work in children's books. (Bat Bean Beam/Kottke)

Which rather begs my usual question: so why is it that we no longer make these kinds of books? Why is it that we have shifted our focus to how things work or how people used to work as opposed to how people work now? Is it that work is too elusive, that new economy jobs are harder to draw? Can we not deal with the fact that Alfalfa has become a derivatives trader? But work of course is far from invisible. It’s not just that we do so many of the occupations lovingly drawn by Scarry, and in more or less the same way. It’s also that people still work in manufacturing, only mostly elsewhere. We could teach our children about that, just like we teach them that everybody poops. They both seem worthy topics. And it will be fraught, of course, and the politics of it will seem hard to navigate – because they are – but that’s not a valid reason not to do it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Do you want to play a game?

I guess I have got to read the Hunger Games trilogy before the film comes out next year. After reading this NYT piece on author Suzanne Collins, I'm curious how Collins's almost ascetic sense of mission regarding educating kids about the horrors of war and adult ambition will mesh with big-studio sensibilities.

Some critics have grumbled that Collins indulges in too many diversions — including lavish descriptions of costumes that undercut her critique of superficial ideals of beauty. But she knows when to break the tension with pure fantasy. Her pacing is precise and ruthless, even if she knows just how much she can twist the knife — how much bloodshed falls within tolerable boundaries. “The boy from District 1 dies before he can pull out the spear,” observes Katniss of her prey in one scene. “My arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck. He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.” In “The Hunger Games” violence is embedded in a psychologically nuanced world: even the most loathsome, bloodthirsty young fighters are clearly victims of the programming and training they received during the years they spent preparing for the games. In “The Lord of the Flies,” the children are in an amoral free fall; in “The Hunger Games,” young people, even murderous ones, are for the most part innocents, creations of adults’ cruelty or victims of adult weakness in the face of power.


A 2007 interview with the late Sidney Lumet; his enthusiasm for stories seems like something very alien to today's film culture. (DGA)

Q: I want to talk about the period in the early to mid-’70s when, not just the quality, but the diversity of the projects you made is pretty remarkable. That includes Serpico, which is an iconic role for Al Pacino, another actor with whom you built a special rapport. How did you two approach each other initially?

A: In a sense, you start with suspicion. There had been another director working on Serpico who wasn’t working out. And we talked, and Al was very careful. It wasn’t a very long meeting and Marty [Bregman, his manager] called me a couple of hours later and said, ‘Come to work.’ Waldo Salt’s script was superb. However, it was 240 pages. But whoever had done the rewrite had somehow gotten it down to 130. We could do nothing about the start date because Al had to be available for Godfather II. But Al did something quite brilliant. When we started rehearsal he knew Waldo’s original script better than I did because he’d been with it for a long time. So he came in with Waldo’s dialogue and he’d say, ‘Sidney, can we read this?’ And we’d read it and it was often better. And in rehearsal we put together a new structure with Waldo’s dialogue. I think that Al saw that I was open to him and not playing turf games and things like that. That, and the first day of shooting, spun us close together because he had never shot that much on the first day—we had three different locations in three different sections of Manhattan. He didn’t know where he was at the end of the first day except that he knew that somehow or other six pages had been done.

Sunday Music: Jay Farrar - "Still Be Around"

A classic from Uncle Tupelo's second album.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Source Code

Duncan Jones's Source Code is a less bloated version of the now popular "puzzle box" movie, in which "rules" and agreed upon notions of reality are meant to engage us just as much as what any of the characters might need or want. An abrupt and disorienting opening scene puts military officer Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) into the body of Sean, a teacher killed in the terrorist bombing of a Chicago train. Thanks to secret government technology (explained in fine style by Jeffrey Wright's head honcho scientist), Colter can be put into the last eight minutes of Sean's life and learn the bomber's identity in an effort to prevent another attack. Colter's handler is Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), an Air Force officer whose initial iciness fades once she realizes Colter is attracted to Sean's seatmate on the train Christina (Michelle Monaghan, making something out of an underwritten part). Monaghan gives Source Code its heart but has less and less to do as Gyllenhaal gets closer to finding the bomber.

How much you enjoys Source Code depends on your interest in answering the questions raised almost as soon as Colter's situation established. Why is Colter inside what appears to be a space capsule? Why is Goodwin giving him memory tests involving playing cards? (A nod to The Manchurian Candidate, maybe?) Most importantly, why doesn't Colter remember anything after being shot down in Afghanistan? Watching Gyllenhaal navigate through the moments before the bombing (with predictable false starts) while warming up to Monaghan is much more interesting than the exposition-heavy scenes with Wright and Farmiga, and the elaborate government organization that's behind everything is pretty thinly sketched. It's as if we were in a Ray Bradbury short story with an ending by O. Henry; in the end Jones (working from a script by Ben Ripley) throws out logic and the rules that undergird the "Source Code" program in an effort to give everyone what they want. Gyllenhaal and Monaghan do appealing work, but Source Code ends up being a great idea for a movie with an off-the-rack ending.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The great Criterion flap of '11

Some common sense on Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture and its impending Criterion DVD release. (Some Came Running)

And quite frankly, I'm getting a little sick of all this dog-piling on Lena Dunham. Yeah, I've given her some shit in the past, and I may well do same at some point in the future, but I feel reasonably confident in every case that it's something that she's said or done that's prompted my irritation, not the very fact that she exists. Yeah, she's the daughter of affluent artist parents, WE KNOW THAT. What the fuck are we gonna do, ban everybody with a privileged background from participating in the arts, or in criticism for that matter? In that case, so long, James Merrill, WIlliam S. Burroughs, Harry Mathews, Greil Marcus even, not to mention the Beastie Boys, etcetera, etcetera, just to mention people who come to the top of my head immediately. And to extend to the coeval, are we just gonna honor poor aspiring artists on account of their no-doubt-superior integrity? Get used to reading a lot of Karl "King" Wenclas, then. I've given it a shot, and you know what? His shit is BORING, not to mention badly "crafted." Yes, I know that I myself coined the term "cinema of unexamined privilege," but that's exactly what I meant—the cinema. I meant that I thought one of Tiny Furniture's larger flaws was its disingenuousness about the actual reality of its lead character Aura's situation; the fact that she really did not NEED to even take the job that she eventually walks away from. It seemed evasive in a way that, say, even something people might consider similar, like Woody Allen's Manhattan, did/does not. In that latter film the circumstances were better laid-out, if not completely explicitly addressed; the characters all had cherry media/academic jobs that allowed them to isolate and create their own neurotic fairy tales; their was nothing in the scenario that obliged the characters to even feel the slightest compulsion to examine their privilege. I'm over-explaining myself into a corner here, but you get the idea.

NP, post-Oscar

Is Your Highness the worst film ever made?

Probably not, but I will be seeing it with teeth clenched.

For a few hours after having seen "Your Highness," I considered the possibility that it was the worst movie ever made. The image of McBride as the dim, smug and beefy Prince Thadeous, who begins the story as an irritating lardass loser and ends it as an even more irritating hero, was burned into my brain, complete with the enormous severed minotaur dong he wears on a necklace. (Monster cock! ICWYDT!) And while I shouldn't feel bad for James Franco about much of anything (let alone the Newtonian backlash from all the media-fellatio he has enjoyed), his directionless, Keanu-lite performance as Thadeous' cooler and studlier brother, Fabious, only deepens the sense that his career has abruptly hurtled off a cliff into a bottomless abyss.

Meanwhile, the trailer for the Natalie-produced Hesher seems to offer primarily indie style mayhem.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Punched again

A long, silly defense of Sucker Punch that seems to argue for the film as a kind of extended conceptual joke on its audience.

It's one of the first things that Sweet Pea announces: "Don't you get the point of this? It's to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient; that can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God's sake?" Because of all the stylistic and narrative roadblocks thrown up between the audience and the characters, it's nearly impossible to identify with them as "real" people. This leaves only one significant way to identify with anything in the film: the act of watching a spectacle.

This is how Sucker Punch implicates the audience that watches it; in the film, the people who are doing the same thing that we're doing are a parade of predatory men and powerless women.

This argument only makes sense if you accept everything but Baby Doll's fantasies as real. Whose point-of-view are we in when we're watching the brothel scenes? I've come to think it's Sweet Pea's, she's the "star" of the show and the most sexualized of the girls before Baby Doll arrives and the motif of "dancing" is her way of dealing with the far worse indignities that are visited on the girls. I can't accept that Snyder means us to critique our own response to the fantasy sequences, which are tied far too closely to images from genre film culture to be anything other than wish fulfillment.


This weird and cranky excerpt from a new Bill James book doesn't sound like it was written by the same man whose Baseball Abstract series undermined a good deal of received wisdom about baseball. James's deadpan funny deconstructions of old ideas about what it means to have value as a baseball player also helped me learn to love the game; a love of math never quite took hold with me though. He sounds awfully tired here, and I'm not sure James (who still works for the Boston Red Sox) is as good at drawing broad cultural inferences as he is at explaining Craig Biggio. (Slate)

Baseball could expand in such a way that it outpaces the available latent talent, true—if it grew too rapidly, or if it expanded to, let us say, 5,000 major league teams. There probably is not enough talent to stock 5,000 major league teams in a place the size of North America without some small slippage in ability, even if the transi­tion from 30 teams to 5,000 was carefully managed. If we went from 30 teams to a mere 300, on the other hand, carefully managing the expansion, it would make no difference whatsoever in the quality of talent. That's my view.

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Footnote Factory

A trip through the archives of David Foster Wallace. (This Recording)

BOX 26 is devoted to Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, set for release this April. The box is made up of dozens, and dozens, of pages of handwritten prose, a handwriting that is not cursive nor print, that takes up one fifth of a line carefully lining the bottom, that leans slightly to the right, or, forward. The first section in the box is called "Fierce Infant", written in the 1st person, in a green, roller ball pen. At the top of the first page, written in caps is the word "FREEWRITING" and next to it an arrow pointing to "potential title for piece." Though, only two pages later, two brilliant pages later, the words "freewriting – means nothing" are written next to "dead prose" which are entombed in a box in the upper right hand corner. These self-denigrating quips are one of the few consistencies from a person with such varied interests, talents. He let himself go on for three more pages only to write "now what" at the end. It did not seem like he gave himself the space to write freely.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dept. of Stretching Different Muscles

Joe Wright is trying to make a different kind of action movie with Hanna, and yes I'm running the risk of falling for a trailer and being disappointed. There's just something about overqualified actors in a genre movie...

Even though he admires Paul Greengrass’s “Bourne” films — and used the fight choreographer, Jeff Imada, who worked on them — Mr. Wright wanted to avoid the shaky tumult and fast cuts of Mr. Greengrass’s widely imitated technique. Mr. Wright strove instead to find what he called “economical expressions of action.”

In his estimation the most effective action set piece of recent years is from the 2003 Korean film “Oldboy”: a tracking shot down a long corridor that unfolds without a single cut. Mr. Wright also cited the master of the samurai epic, Akira Kurosawa, who quickened pulses through precise composition and montage long before the advent of digital technology, and the distilled style of Robert Bresson, who in “Pickpocket” (1959) staged a sequence of thieves working a train station as a stealthy, elaborate dance.

Given his fondness for the long take, choreography is a central aspect of Mr. Wright’s films. The centerpiece of “Atonement” is a five-minute Steadicam shot of the evacuation from Dunkirk. In “Hanna” Mr. Bana’s big brawl, in an underground train station, is captured in a single snaking shot, and Ms. Ronan’s most complicated fight, in a container yard, was also filmed in extended takes.

Sunday Music: Mika - "Stuck In The Middle"

Is that a little of "Take Five" in the intro?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Natalie Portman in Closer

 Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe and got her first Oscar nomination for playing Alice in Mike Nichols's Closer, an handsomely filmed adaptation of Patrick Marber's play. Marber, who did the screenplay, sets up a series of "meet-cutes" that aren't so cute, and then follows his characters as they're betrayed by their lusts and insecurities. Dan (Jude Law) starts dating Alice after he comes to her aid following a traffic accident, but Dan's head is eventually turned by Anna (Julia Roberts) when she photographs him for a book jacket. Anna initially spurns him and a prank Dan plays in revenge puts Anna in the way of Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist whom she eventually marries. The rest of Closer is the quartet changing partners.

I've never read Marber's play, but the mood of grinding unhappiness that might lock in a theater audience feels claustrophobic on film. Marber would have it that true connection with the loves in our lives is impossible no matter how close we get, and Dan, Larry, and Anna are all pretty openly looking for someone to stave off the loneliness. Alice, who works as a stripper and a waitress at various times, is the youngest and still believes another person can make all the difference. Alice's beauty, intelligence, and naivete are all working in opposition to each other, and Portman's performance is the (narrow) emotional entry point into the film. A scene between Alice and a bereft Larry at a strip club might be Portman's high point in the film; Portman plays the required role of sex fantasy to the hilt but her need to be loved is palpable. In the end we learn that Alice was holding back parts of herself as well; as the credits come up it's her path that would seem to be the one worth following.