October 8, 2013
Amy's Robot: On standby
As you've probably noticed, we're taking a break over here. The recent launch of a new Baby Robot model has us pretty busy, and there's isn't as much time to spend watching movies and musing/complaining about pop culture and political minutiae.
But before we resume our hiatus, a few observations about recent stuff:
The World's End: My favorite of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trilogy, and the funniest movie I've seen all year. I really like how perfectly they nailed both of the movie's hackneyed genres: Old friends who've grown apart get together for a reunion and learn they still really love each other, despite everything; and Invasion of the alien machines. The way the old rivalries resurface, and tough truths are learned about their friends... and themselves, every detail is perfect.
But the most impressive part of the movie for me is Simon Pegg's performance. The first half-hour especially, where he's simultaneously manic, obnoxious, desperate, pathetic, and hilarious, in one hyper-energetic, repellently appealing spaz-explosion in a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He just burns a hole through the screen. It's a performance at about the same energy level as Jack Black's first scene in High Fidelity, but he sustains it through the entire movie. He deserves some kind of award, even though really inspired comic performances like this hardly ever get the recognition they deserve.
Enough Said: I like all Nicole Holofcener's movies, and this one has the same agonizing social awkwardness and flawed but sincere characters that I like in all her stuff. This is one of James Gandolfini's last movie appearances, and it makes me wish he got to do more romantic comedy in his career--he's a big, gruff, hairy love interest, more convincing than you'd think.
And finally Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series. It took a while to get going, and its biggest problem is the main character, who is unappealing and less interesting than the far more colorful and interesting ensemble, but I still like it. A few episodes in, I thought, wow, it's great that there's this show with so many good roles for black and Latina actresses, older, bigger actresses, butch actresses, all roles for women that deviate from the pretty young white norm, that are so often missing from other TV shows and movies. Then I realized: that's because it's set in prison. Oh well.
We'll be back!
July 30, 2013
NY Times coverage of the Farm Bill
On the New York Times's National News page today, these two headlines appear right next to each other:
Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture sent out over $10 million in subsidies to 1,000 farmers that had been dead for over a year, and $22 million in crop insurance payments to 3,400 people who had been dead for over two years. In order to deal with this, the Government Accountability Office suggests the USDA runs its list of farmers through the wonderfully diabolical-sounding "Death Master File" before it gives more public money to dead people.
Help poor people get enough food, or subsidize dead farmers to grow commodity corn that gets turned into high fructose corn syrup. Gee, Congress, quite the political conundrum you've got there.
July 25, 2013
It's late July, so this year's Totally Ubiquitous Summer Hit, or TUSH, should already be out there, everywhere, an indelible, unavoidably catchy presence in your life.
So here it is: TUSH 2013 is "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk.
I suppose there's a potential title-holder in the other hit song to feature Pharrell, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", but that song has several strikes against it:
- "Blurred Lines" came out all the way back in March, while "Get Lucky"'s release date of April is closer to the ideal early-summer TUSH debut.
- "Get Lucky" is groovy, irresistibly catchy, features Nile Rodgers on guitar, and is 1,000 times better than "Blurred Lines".
So even though "Blurred Lines" is actually at the top of the charts right now, "Get Lucky" meets more of the classic TUSH criteria: I hear it more often, and I like it a lot more. Random people polled by New York Magazine apparently agree--GL beat BL in a person-on-the-street survey conducted in both Times Square and at 125th Street, which is close enough of a cross-section of America for me.
This is the second year in a row that a non-American has grasped the TUSH. In recent years, it's been someone like Black Eyed Peas or LMFAO, but last year it was "Call Me Maybe" by Canadian singer Carly Whatever Whatever. It's even more audacious that this year's TUSH was generated by a couple of French techno robots.
I for one support the international-robotification of the TUSH!
Note: Canadian 80's rock band Loverboy should claim a little bit of credit for "Get Lucky"'s TUSH victory because of their 1981 album of the same name. This album features enduring cheeseball classic "Working For the Weekend" and, in my opinion, the greatest cover art of all time:
July 15, 2013
Spitzer changes his mind
Many thoughts spring to mind about Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer entering this year's NYC elections. Can a politician come back after resigning in shame? And do voters even care about embarrassing sex scandals? (In the case of Mark Sanford, I guess not.)
What's also springing to mind are the icky details and images we all have of these guys' gross, inappropriate, and/or illegal sex lives, unavoidably returning to our consciousness. I never wanted to think about, for example, black socks in relation to Eliot Spitzer again, for example, but there they are, rising from the dark corner where I had mostly repressed it. (Even if that detail turned out not to be true.)
I've also been thinking about a really good interview from Spitzer in Vanity Fair from 2009, just over a year after the scandal and resignation. In conversation with John Heilpern, he reveals a surprising level of sincerity and regret about his actions and how he betrayed his family and the public. When I first read it, I actually felt a little sorry for the guy:
"You knew the risks. Either you felt you were above the law or you had some kind of death wish."
His response was that neither was the case. "It's a story that has been repeated since our earliest days as a species. It's both obvious and not susceptible to an answer," he insisted. "Nonetheless, we are led down a certain path. It wasn't hubris or a death wish--but frailty, temptation, and common miscalculation."
"Do you think the scandal will ever go away?," I asked.
"No. My obituary's written," he replied with shocking finality. "And that is a very hard thing to live with." When he turned away, I could see he was in tears.
When asked if he'd ever return to politics, he said, "I've a hard time seeing politics as a career. I wouldn’t want to put my family through the agony." Well, his family's agony must be less of a concern these days, because I'm sure they've had a horrible week since he announced he was running for office again.
Spitzer's name recognition alone is probably what landed him at the top of a recent poll, though he does have certain qualities that would make him a perfect candidate for the job. He's not afraid to stand up to powerful corporate interests in protection of the public good, which these days is so unusual that it's automatically appealing. But he went about his vigilance against wrongdoing in a hyper-aggressive, asshole-ish kind of way, making the entire financial sector hate his guts. I half love this about him and half think it shows a stunning lack of judgment. When it turned out he was hiring hookers while fighting publicly against sex trafficking, the "asshole with bad judgment" characterization got a lot of extra points.
Given the uninspiring list of candidates we're looking at for major offices, Spitzer's immoral/criminal past alone might not be enough for him to lose the primary, but the entire financial sector gleefully mobilizing their resources to bring him down probably is. A Crain's article about corporate bigwigs responding to the Spitzer (and Weiner) candidacy shows a fascinating combination of nervousness and salivation. "This is very serious business," one business leader said last week. "The mayor is a very serious thing. Comptroller is very serious. And they have a big impact on the economy and quality of life. So the question is, do either of these guys deserve to do that, or would they be good at it?" "Neither one of these guys has any friends in the business they were in," said one business leader. "That's part of the reason they fell so hard," he happily recalled.
I doubt these guys could care less about the prostitution scandal, but they'll use it however they can to remind voters about those black socks.
June 6, 2013
Some thoughts about Much Ado About Nothing, which I haven't seen
I haven't seen the movie yet, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. Critics certainly seem to love it, and I can believe that it's a fun time. But I've been irritated by the whole idea of this movie since the trailer came out, and still have some reservations.
First of all, some marketing firm came up with that idiotic tagline, but Shakespeare and his alleged ability to throw a party shows that those involved in this adaptation think Much Ado is a lighthearted romp. Shakespeare is a blast, kids! Look at all these beautiful young people drinking and carousing in the trailer! It's not like school, it's cool and fun. While it's fine to claim that experiencing Shakespeare is a good time, it assumes that audiences are incapable of appreciating the other enjoyable aspects of Shakespeare: the language, the wise and timeless insights into human nature, the emotions, the jokes.
Also, as much as I respect Joss Whedon and his clever, whimsical style, when I think about filmmakers I would trust with modernizing Shakespeare, I'm not sure he's above #40 on that list. He uses actors that are great for his kind of writing. But hiring the cast of "Angel" and "Dollhouse" to do Shakespeare strikes me as a bad misjudgment. American TV actors are fine for disposable American TV shows with that Whedon-esque snappy dialogue, but they might not bring the gravitas, skill, and confidence you need to pull off Shakespeare.
British director Trevor Nunn once said, "I have yet to see [Much Ado] done with sufficient seriousness." That's because it's not a lighthearted romp, like Whedon's version appears to be--it's actually really dark. The story follows two not-young people (Beatrice and Benedick) who have been through the emotional ringer, and seem to have a kind of romance PTSD. The subplot (Claudio and Hero) is about the world's harshest case of (misguided) slut-shaming, regret, and death. I might be wrong here, but I'll bet that Whedon didn't pick up on any of that in his adaptation. In an NPR interview, he calls the play the basis for all modern romantic comedies. Yeah, the language is a lot of fun, but the themes are dark, dark, dark.
Also, why is it in black and white? The movie was shot in Whedon's own sun-drenched southern California home, so the stark, austere, moody look of black and white seems out of place. I think he did it as an easy way to manufacture a sense of artistic legitimacy. For a certain audience, black and white automatically means "arty and serious", so they'll watch this Joss Whedon movie with second-rate TV actors and think "I'm watching a serious Shakespearean film, it must be good!" and get to feel smart and cultured.
Maybe I'm being too cynical. Critics who like the movie like A.O. Scott have personal preferences that are different than mine; in his glowing review he says, "I prefer my Shakespeare in modern clothing and with American accents." One day, if he's lucky, maybe he'll get to see David Boreanaz's Hamlet!
June 5, 2013
Don Draper hallucinates, again
I've mostly been liking this season of "Mad Men", and I've appreciated the many surprises and odd happenings that have popped up a show that was getting dangerously predictable. In particular, I liked the surprise merger, the disorienting break-in of Don and Megan's apartment by the kids' "grandmother", and every exchange between Joan and Peggy (especially this week's), whose relationship has always been one of the show's best and most complicated.
But one aspect that's getting irritating and sometimes comical is the overuse of hallucinations. Don Draper seems to hallucinate with such startling frequency that it's got to mean one of two things: his grasp on reality and overall psychological health are rapidly disintegrating toward total psychosis, or the show's writing is too reliant on a schlocky, soapy crutch. Do normal people hallucinate as much as as Don does? Of course not--just like amnesia is a much more common problem on daytime television than in real life--but it sure is a convenient plot device!
In the last couple of seasons, here are the times Don has hallucinated (that I can remember) and the alleged cause of his hallucination:
- A mystery woman from Don's past, she shows up in his apartment, they sleep together, he strangles her to death; cause: fever, self-loathing
- A ghostly Anna Draper, right after she died; cause: being extravagantly drunk, grief
- Don's dead half-brother Adam; cause: a hot tooth, gas at the dentist's office, guilt
- All kinds of weird stuff in "The Crash" episode from a few weeks ago, including a tap-dancing Ken Cosgrove; cause: a speed injection from Dr. Feelgood, a bizarre sense of office humor
- And this week, a pregnant hippie Megan and a dead Private Dinkins while at a Hollywood party; cause: smoking hash, regret, and (I guess?) severe mental illness
If we're supposed to conclude from all this that Don Draper is living on the razor's edge of sanity, and starts seeing things that aren't there whenever he runs a temperature or uses even the most pedestrian of recreational drugs, then OK, our protagonist is highly mentally unstable. If we're supposed to see hallucinations as a metaphor for the destabilizing, chaotic changes the American culture was going through in the late 60's, I can live with it, but it's clumsy and obvious. But if the writers keep using hallucinations because it's an easy way to visualize Don's emotional state and the people and things that he's haunted by, then they've really got to come up with something new.
My favorite thing in this week's episode are Don's sunglasses and Harry's rented Mustang.
May 28, 2013
We can't come up with a better name than Berberian Sound Studio?
There's a fun new trailer for a movie coming out in a few weeks that I'm really excited about. Here's the story: an English sound engineer arrives in 1976 Rome to produce the sound for an Italian horror film. The Italian movie looks like a lovingly blood-soaked homage to the great Italian giallo movies of the 70's: it's called The Equestrian Vortex, and it's set at an all-girls riding school and involves witches and lots of graphic murder. Anyway, strange things start to happen at the recording sessions (featuring screaming voice actors and shots of Foley artists brutalizing heads of lettuce and large melons) that blur the line between movie and reality. The reel-to-reel editing scenes actually look tense and creepy, and I think the whole thing will be stylish, pulpy fun. Plus, Broadcast did the soundtrack, which is out on Warp. Cool!
But somehow, this gory romp ended up with the title Berberian Sound Studio, as though the Armenian-inflected name of a production facility in which scary things happen would somehow get audiences excited to see the movie. Dario Argento would be dismayed, especially since this movie sounds like a combination of his classics Suspiria (murderous witches at all-girls ballet school) and Deep Red (Englishman in Italy witnesses horrors).
Here's the trailer:
The actor playing the English sound engineer is Toby Jones, who's had the misfortune of playing Truman Capote immediately after Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then playing Alfred Hitchcock immediately after Anthony Hopkins. But this time Toby Jones is going to OWN the role of freaked-out English sound engineer.
May 17, 2013
Terrence Malick out-Malicks himself
I'm a fan of Terrence Malick's movies. I love the dreamy, impressionistic, heart-achingly beautiful non-linear flow, the extended shots of the natural world, and the emotion in his stories and characters, even when they hardly say anything and nothing much happens. I love the whispered voice-overs and lazily swaying fields of wild grass that someone always seems to be lightly brushing with their hand.
And I'm totally OK with Malick taking 8-20 years to produce these movies. Which is why it was such a shock when To the Wonder came out recently, a mere two years after The Tree of Life. Is it possible to make a movie in his unhurriedly gorgeous style so quickly, and have it be good?
No! I was so disappointed by To the Wonder that I'm a little upset about it. The biggest problem with this movie is the story, which is this: the world's most annoying couple falls in love, then breaks up, twice. In the process, they move from a spectacularly Malickian Paris to a hideous sub-division in Oklahoma (that Malick still manages to infuse with incredible natural beauty) which is probably a big part of what goes wrong. But actually, we really have no idea why they're in love, or what goes wrong with their relationship, either time. "Love" acts as an external force that bestows itself upon them for a while, then goes somewhere else, probably to find a couple that isn't so insufferably irritating to be around.
Which brings us to the characters and actors. If you want to create emotional resonance and depth of feeling in your main characters, you probably shouldn't cast Ben Affleck and a Bond girl. Ben Affleck spends the movie brooding silently, and Olga Kurylenko mostly twirls around in blowsy outfits, probably going for "adorably free-spirited girlish imp", but coming across as "immature clingy woman-child who wants to be a pretty princess ballerina". These are not people I want to spend time with, and we're given no understanding about the workings of their relationship, so I found it impossible to care about them. I think this might be what people who don't like Malick's movies complain about--there's nothing to latch onto.
What's most upsetting is that Malick still uses his (and Emmanuel Lubezki's) cinematographic chops to create moments that are so quietly, perfectly gorgeous that they seem to take on spiritual meaning. There's a scene at the beach near Mont St. Michel and some magic hour scenes with Rachel McAdams in a field that are as beautiful as anything he's ever done. But when they're part of a movie with utterly hollow characters and the sketchiest of plots, they feel a little cheap. Yeah, yeah, nature is holy and beautiful, now can we maybe get a couple lines of dialogue, or one minute without Olga Kurylenko twirling?
Roger Ebert wrote his very last review about To the Wonder, and luckily, he liked it. Whatever he saw, I didn't see it.
May 6, 2013
Trance movie math
I'm a little behind on this one, but I thought I'd share some thoughts on Danny Boyle's new movie, Trance. Somehow I've seen every single one of Danny Boyle's movies, even the outright horrible ones like The Beach and that inexplicable one with angels in it. As an inadvertent completist, I think his movies are almost always a good time, fun to watch and really stylish, but ultimately, they're pretty fluffy. Don't think too hard about them and you'll enjoy the ride, but if you subject them to any real scrutiny you might start thinking that maybe this is a shallow, fatuous look at poverty and systemic oppression, and isn't that whole space freakout sequence a lesser rip-off of 2001?
Anyway, Trance has a lot of good things about it, and many themes he's explored in his other movies: non-criminals getting in over their heads when they attempt a major crime, secret psychosis, the allure and danger of altered mental states, and a really outstanding electronic soundtrack by Rick Smith from Underworld. It's also the only movie I have ever seen that has to feature a full-frontal shot of shaved genitals because it's actually required by the story.
So here's my equation:
Crime gone wrong, sexy art thieves, and erasing emotionally painful relationships from your mind. Trance is a little less than the sum of its parts, but still a fun movie.
April 22, 2013
Rob Zombie and The Lords of Salem
There's no real risk of spoilers being revealed in this response to Rob Zombie's new movie, The Lords of Salem, because I don't think I understood enough of what happened to give away anything like a plot. Sure, I can report on the unrelated sequence of nightmarish hallucinatory freaky images that flash across the screen in a chaotic, psychosexual, hilarious blur for the last 45 minutes, but as far as what actually happens in this movie? Your guess is as good as mine.
This much I do know: Rob Zombie's wife, Sheri, whose film career pretty much consists of her husband's filmography, is one game actress. She stars in Lords of Salem as Heidi, a DJ at a Salem, MA radio station who unwittingly enters a bizarre world of Satan worshippers and (of course) witches after she plays a mysterious record that shows up at the station one day. Over the course of the movie, as the witches insinuate themselves into Sheri's psyche, she encounters strange demonic beasts, descends into madness, rides a goat (see above; as a kind of meta-joke, her t-shirt says "Why the Goat?"), does heroin, is naked all over the place, and possibly delivers some kind of hell-squid baby, though everything had gotten so nonsensically trippy by that point that I'm honestly not sure.
Rob Zombie seemed to construct this movie by writing a coherent (though boring) set-up, then coming up with several dozen really disturbing visual concepts, then beautifully filming each one, and splicing them all together until he hit 100 minutes. The end. The movie really looks fantastic--he takes Stanley Kubrick's style of chilly wide shots and lots of slow tracking, and combines it with Dario Argento's hyper-stylized, surreal gore, all with a $2.5 million budget.
He understands the comic potential of horror, and the creepy potential of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". There are several references to silent movies in clips playing on background TVs, and in a giant still from of Melies' A Trip to the Moon on the wall behind our heroine's bed. But then there's also a demon toddler with slimy skin and flippers for hands who in one scene waddles up to this very bed, inexplicably looking at a sleeping Sheri Zombie. Nothing happens. Cut! The scene ends. I have no idea.
It's a cinematic version of a talented filmmaker's surrealist nightmare, and probably a helpful lesson on why you shouldn't take a lot of serious psychotropic drugs. It's an incoherent mess, but I find diabolical camp irresistible.
April 8, 2013
I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.
The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.
The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.
And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.
There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."
So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?
This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.
April 4, 2013
Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence
In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.
Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.
I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.
Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.