28 January 2011

Out Stealing Clouds

I steal all my best ideas from Katherine Hill. Not only am I taking her idea of posting about neato word clouds, I'm also going to use Ernest Hemingway as my first example:

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Turns out just right, no?

I am furthermore going to borrow Katherine's idea and add a word cloud of my own writing because it's amusing. This is from my grad school submission which was, for reasons known to my 22 year old self, a crown of sonnets.

Field Poem

An added benefit to this one was my theatrical gasp of horror as I reread the poem (you'll note the preponderance of "like" and "thought," always the hallmarks of good writing). Now, thanks to the word cloud version, I can view Field and Trace as pleasantly colored abstractions and pretend the actual poem doesn't exist.

26 January 2011

My first date with Superstar

I was a little hazy on the details but I knew that my mom and stepdad saw Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story as it was originally, haphazardly distributed.  So I texted the matriarch herself, who wrote back saying it was their second date, in a church basement, on "Samsonite folding chairs" (Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor would be very impressed by those specific details mom!).

I credit my stepdad for selecting the film because he has inexplicable viewing habits (if you only knew, dear readers, how many times I've seen parts of the Goop-Huey Lewis gem Duets in his presence). But I myself neglected to see Superstar until this weekend, which is inexcusable given its autobiographical and Haynesian significance. Not to mention the film commences with Karen Carpenter's death, exactly one month after my momentous birth.  

This was not the campy Carpenter biopic I was expecting (given that all the main roles are performed by modified Barbie dolls, I thought campy was the only possible mood). Instead, I saw a documentary on anorexia and a wider examination of 70's America, with Haynes' sharp eye cutting up cultural, political and social trends frame by frame.

The director's greatest strength here is editing--while only 43 minutes long, Superstar has as many cuts as a feature length film. He matches cuts ironically: a shot framing a pile of fried buffet food turns into to the first appearance of an Ex-Lax box. Even better, a topographical globe spins into a disco ball, spraying light over the band. That vision informs some of the great cuts in Far From Heaven, as when Julianne Moore turns from her kitchen straight into the revolving doors of her husband's office building.

The lighting in Superstar is dim but evocative. I'm think of a particular scene where darkness envelopes Karen as she sings, changing her orange-y face to the head of match, burning out. When presenting biographical tidbits on Karen, Haynes often uses black text over muddy background footage. Thus the information is hard to read against, say, a long shot of lunch meats in a grocery aisle. Only when more garish intertitles appear can we read them clearly, in the faux-hysterical style of Frank O'Hara exclamations in "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)."

The real heart of darkness is still the music of The Carpenters. "We've Only Just Begun" is what music might sound like if conceived and recorded by Stepford wives. I find that particular song the most uncanny and unsettling, matched perfectly to the frictionless walk of Barbie-Karen.

I know you have that most important question on your mind: can I watch this online for free? Yes (it's unavailable on DVD because Haynes did not get Richard Carpenter's permission to use the songs and, quite possibly, because Richard is portrayed as monstrous ass in the film).

23 January 2011

The Art in Barry Hannah

"I go back to the dinette and sit with Rebecca. I smoked about four Luckies in a row and looked into her face without saying anything for a while. Rebecca's face is a charm. She goes heavy on the blue eye makeup. Her neck is a long-ish classic from the old paintings of what's-his-name. Her nose is forward and long. She lights a Lucky and the exhaust is gray through the large sensitive nostrils. She's half-Jew, the rest Greek. Okay, now I've come back from the humiliation of never thinking up a better poem than Mr. Hooch. Then we go through two cups of coffee apiece. Modigliani." --Barry Hannah, Ray

This is one of a dozen or so paragraphs in Ray that made me set down the book and contemplate the day for a moment. Hannah excels at self-contained prose blocks that are poem-like in their completeness. It's a brilliant, plainspoken description but circling back to Modigliani puts it over the top.

I've been a big Hannah admirer since his use of the n-word at a Bennington reading ruined the lives of a lot of middle-aged ladies. While perhaps not on Amy Hempel level of slavish WTT devotion, he's certainly a more palatable Lish acolyte than Raymond Carver.

The real Ray comparison I want to make is to Thomas McGuane's Ninety-two in the Shade, another great favorite of mine from the last few years' reading. The protagonist of the latter, Skelton, would certainly enjoy sharing a few six packs with Ray. I like to imagine the good doctor crashing the plane that Skelton eventually converts into his domicile.

Sure, McGuane is more reliant on a propulsive plot and Hannah more focused on portrait of the man. But both books are sunbaked to a crisp and enough to make me love reading about the South even if I'm not scheduling any visits.

22 January 2011

Would You Rather: No Strings Attached or Friends with Benefits

Now that all the silly award season films have faced WTT judgment, we can get back to the juicy stuff, like a trailer breakdown of No Strings Attached (now playing at a theater near you!) and Friends with Benefits (you'll have to count the days with me till 22 July). 

Beyond blatant insipidness, they also share a common theme: the exploration of whether hot male and female friends can be close without also needing to do the sex. But which film will be better? Let's break it down scientifically... 


I prefer the straightforward Friends with Benefits because I have trouble understanding tricky metaphors like No Strings Attached (it could be a movie about experimental puppets or Michael Bay CGI).


It's tough because the female stars provide easy White Swan vs. Black Swan fodder and the male stars make us think of the best episode of Punk'd. If roles were reversed, Ashton and Mila could have rekindled their 70's Show flame and JT could have been the lauded dancer who knocked up Natalie. Still, I lean towards FWB because that is the film that does not feature Mr. Kutcher. 

Supporting Cast:

I'm so proud of Greta Gerwig mumblecoring her way to a straight paycheck role in NSA. I believe there is a shot of Ms. Gerwig with Charlie's Angels hair sharing a knowing look with Olivia Thirlby, who appears nowhere else in the trailer. Not to mention Ludacris with some guest verses!

But in FWB Patricia Clarkson convincingly uses the term "slam piece." Then Woody Harrelson, firmly ensconced in the WTT Top 5 Contemporary Supporting Actors, asks if Mila Kunis has a penis. Plus a nine-year-old Asian girl being overly serious. I could kiss that casting director right on the mouth.

Funniest Line:

NSA: Ashton: "You can't fight me, you're miniature. You fight like a hamster!" It's funny because Natalie is wee and with hamster jokes there's always the whiff of Richard Gere's asshole (and Natalie loves a good laugh).

FWB: JT: "I could sing some Third Eye Blind..." He proceeds sings one of the worst radio songs of all time not written by TEB. Really, the second half of the trailer is a running gag on a Semisonic song. Which could be a bad sign.

Worst Line:

FWB: JT: "Every time you curse, you blink." Under no circumstances is it believable that Mila would blink when she curses.

NSA: Ashton: "We're having sex." Natalie: "I knooow!" I can feel the sweat pouring off the writer's brow on that one.


It's hard to tell about the wardrobe in Friends with Benefits because Mila Kunis is in underwear or naked for the whole preview. So I have to go with Natalie in a white tank top for the win!


Too close to call--you'll just have to see them both.

18 January 2011

Best of 2010 Pt. 2 (and WTT Post #100!)

After two years of constant bitching, I found 2010 to be an excellent start to a new decade of film. Also, I'm pretty sure this post will mention several films that actually came out in 2009 but didn't open here until 2010, which makes the list even stronger. I haven't seen Certified Copy and Of Gods and Men and Toy Story 3 and much else but I like to think that nothing major released in Seattle has eluded me. (You'll note that I tried to link my earlier reviews where possible below.)

Best Actors

It's a good year when Ryan Gosling is in two movies--even though All Good Things got bad reviews I don't doubt he's excellent in it--and he blows Michelle Williams right off the screen in Blue Valentine. I'm continually impressed by Jesse Eisenberg's uncanny ability to pick roles in good films and loved him in Holy Rollers and The Social Network. He'll probably be passed over for Colin Firth (who should have won last year for A Single Man) in the awards season but his Mark Zuckerberg will be remembered longer. I can't get over Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank, one of the few times I see an actor for the first time and immediately think this guy is gonna be a star. Go get it Mr. Fassbender. And the man of the year is Edgar Ramirez. Carlos is Raging Bull 30 years later--a once in a lifetime showcase for an actor.  And I think Mr. Ramirez might even exceed DeNiro in the physical transformation(s) category. The film is five and half hours long but I'd have watched it for ten because Ramirez is that transfixing.

Best Actresses

It seems Ms. Portman's cuticle-abusing dancer will beat out Jennifer Lawrence's Ozark Odysseus for the big prize this year but we know better. Ree Dolly is the center of indelible film and Lawrence has opened a lot doors with this debut. We also had the re-arrival of sorts for Tilda Swinton, who swoops through I Am Love using the Russian-accented Italian she learned for the film (not to mention the most her most fabulous hair performance ever). As usual, Isabelle Huppert was the best thing about White Material, dragging the film along by the scruff of its neck. Sure, her dogged belief that harvesting a coffee crop could bring order to a country at war is insane, but Huppert commits to the character of Maria so thoroughly that we're strapped in the whole crazy way.

Best Documentaries

Marwencol - I'm always a sucker for a good documentary about fucked up artists trying to get work done. Mark Hogancamp's miniature world is a revelation, as is this film's gentle reminder that some people have to overcome a lot more than a boring day job to make their art.

Restrepo - A no-frills take straight from the soldiers on the ground examining the untenable situation in Afghanistan with all the attendant loss of life and national dignity. Somehow it manages to be only the second most depressing 2010 film on the war...

The Tillman Story - ...because this came out too. It's a great investigation of Pat Tillman's fratricidal murder but so infuriating I keep recommending that friends not watch it. I found myself in knots of rage wishing that Bush Jr., Cheney and the lot of congressman who presided over the farcical inquest on Tillman's death were parachuted into the Korengal Valley and left to fend for themselves.

Sweetgrass - Here's a patient, straightforward doc on taking sheep to pasture that leaves you pondering the future of the "frontier" and the capitalized West. The timeless spell of cowboys going to work is undercut with the reality of an exhausted shepherd struggling to find cell phone reception on the high ridges of Montana wilderness.

This Way of Life - As some counterbalance to all the well-executed downers this year, we have a film about triumph. Peter Karena does not triumph in money or comfort but in the refusal to let his family be constrained by ridiculous cultural mores. I'll never have his will to live life his own way but I can at least visit New Zealand, breathtakingly varied and beautiful throughout the film.

Best Pictures (so many good films I couldn't limit myself to just ten)

12. Blue Valentine - I find this one more admirable than great but, since I abhorred Greenberg, I wanted to applaud at least one of 2010 films willing to explore failed cunnilingus, surely an underseen onscreen phenomenon. Ryan Gosling is predictably great as Dean, able to be sexy as hell as young mover and shaker and devastating as a prematurely dissipated housepainter (this decline is best symbolized by the fitted leather jacket he wears in flashbacks that's replaced by a paint-spattered white tank top in the present). As always, Michelle Williams just looks sad (why must she always try so hard to project despair?--she's naturally sorrowful, even "fun-loving" Jen Lindley looked sad all the time). Still Derek Cianfrance pushes hard with lacerating closeups that give the film a Scenes from a Marriage-style relentlessness.

11. Red Riding Trilogy Part 1: 1974 - I'm pretty sure that James Ellroy had nothing to do with the production but this is the most Ellroy picture I've seen. Hollywood films, from the excellent L.A. Confidential to the unwatchable Black Dahlia, have glossed over the true pulpiness of his work. But the three segments of Red Riding, particularly Julian Jarrold's Part 1, are deliciously trashy. There's an American Tabloid-level of gratuitous sex and violence with all the showy rack focusing you could want. Andrew Garfield is bell-bottomod journalist at the center of the mess in Yorkshire (town motto: "where we do what we want"), Rebecca Hall is shockingly plausible as a Veronica Lake femme fatale and of all the great British character actor heavies in the film, Sean Bean is the heaviest--pure terror.

10. Everyone Else - In this German gem, I watched Chris unravel his relationship with Gitti and kept saying to myself, "I'd never be that cruelly condescending in conversation," then realizing I have been, repeatedly. This horror show of passive-aggression is not a good movie to see if you're in a rocky relationship (or perhaps a good movie to see if you want to break up with some one). Great, natural performances from the principal actors and skillfully shot by Maren Ade in sunny Sardinia with no superfluous "we're on vacation in the Mediterranean" panoramas. It's a sad story that approaches the second act of Contempt before surprising once more at the very end.

9. Somewhere - The value of art is not determined by its subject matter; it's determined by how good the art is. Sofia Coppola does not need to concern herself with "branching out"--she needs to concern herself with making excellent films, which she's done again here. I found the cinematography in Somewhere much less glamorous than in her previous films and the portraits more harrowing. Perhaps because I tend towards silence, I got enough sustenance out of every significant look between Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning (and, for the record, it was absolutely necessary for her to scissor garnish onto the eggs benedict).

8. I Am Love - I don't get the criticism that this film is "too melodramatic." We love the melodrama! We love Douglas Sick and Max Ophuls and lamented that we couldn't see all their films in HD until Criterion saved us! I will admit that this picture strays in certain scenes (especially the bees in the flowers) but watching the first sequence in snowy Milan I thought I might be in for one of the best films of all time. It makes the top 10 just for that.

7. True Grit - If it weren't for all the gunplay and corpses, this would be the perfect film to show your kids. I'd want my daughter to be exactly like Mattie Ross. I predict a big Oscar nom comeback for the film, with the Coens, Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld all in line for recognition.

6. Fish Tank - Andrea Arnold and her lead actress Katie Jarvis just don't flinch in a movie that you keep expecting to flinch. The last scene tears your heart out because it's so sad, inevitable and true. I'm ecstatic for 2011's Wuthering Heights.

5. Our Beloved Month of August - I've never seen a film quite like it, with Miguel Gomes just letting the camera record and then arranging documentary and scripted scenes into a big circle. It's like the way I prefer browsing a "literature" section instead of "fiction" and "nonfiction." Full of love, rural scenery and music so godawful I can't wait to hear it again.

4. White Material - Claire Denis is on a hell of a roll. Here she employs the best actress alive to dramatize an unnamed, inexplicable African country at civil war. That sounds like the setup for a loud, bombastic film but Denis keeps the volume low and the camera moving. It's confusing, clear-eyed and original.

3. The Social Network - The unlikeliest film in the WTT top 12 because I doubted mainstream Hollywood could pull it off. I thought this one had to be overhyped but it won me over scene by scene. I defend it against the absurd allegations of misogyny, I defend the dreamlike regatta sequence, I defend Justin Timberlake down to his last slimy tentacle of hair. And, you know, it actually has something to say about our culture now (I hear my father, who's barely able to check his AOL email, might be joining Facebook soon).

2. Winter's Bone - I've already written a bunch about it and my prediction from May has come true: there's no better domestic film this year (WTT loves a good self-fulfilling prophecy).  

1. Carlos - It just wouldn't be WTT if I didn't overlook all the best domestic offerings and give the biggest prize to a film directed by a Frenchman (Olivier Assayas, coming a long way from Boarding Gate). I need to do a more extensive review when Carlos is released on DVD bit it just feels like the biggest achievement of the year. Thinking back on the dizzying six hours in the theater watching, I was struck by the way Carlos was really about a promising young man who doesn't pan out the way anyone wanted (not his far left teachers, not his terrorist handlers, not himself). As he ages, the failures, both physical and ideological, mount and his downward trend proves inescapable. He's Carlos the Jackal with the attendant fame and female company but he keeps going to the same party, and it is depressing in every way.


For 2011 prospects, what more needs to be said? There will be a new film by Terrence Malick.

06 January 2011

Best of 2010 Pt. I

I'm falling behind on my year end lists for 2010 but it's not all my fault. Somewhere and Blue Valentine only reach the provinces this weekend and I don't want to make a post without having seen them. For now I'll focus on my personal highlights from the year that was and follow up with a best of next week(ish).

My twitter account

Do you follow me yet? I promise an absolutely nonsensical string of movie news, forced jokes and incoherent rants relating to Michigan State sports. What more do you want?

I am seriously shocked at how effectively Twitter accumulates relevant articles from talented folks. I've read loads of good nonfiction since I started an account and perhaps at some point I'll even learn something.

My first film festival immersion

Nothing delights my snobbish nature more than getting into movies before everyone else and securing my preferred front and center seat. Since the teenage heartbreak of being denied entry to Amores Perros at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival no less than three times, I've coveted that glossy, hologrammed press pass. Thanks to City Arts Magazine, I got it for SIFF 2010 and reviewed 16 films.

In addition to getting a great seat for free, I had the opportunity to watch new movies without too many preconceptions. Even if I try to avoid reviews before seeing a film, the buzz always filters in and I have to react for or against it in some way. But writing without falling in line with a Metacritic score is most invigorating. While I was certain to agree with the critical acclaim for SIFF favorites Winter's Bone and I Am Love, I was surprised to find that I was harsher on films that were later applauded, like Howl, which I thought plainly terrible, and Night Catches Us, which seemed too amateurish for serious consideration.

 My first proper call out

As an important public figure (writing biweekly musings for City Arts Blog), I was subject to constructive criticisms in the Comments field for the first time. After dodging a fair amount of bullets for negative reviews, I was put in my place for a single paragraph on the staggeringly trite short film Ana's Playground. In Jennifer's words:

Wow, this review of Ana's Playground is so far off the mark that I question the validity of this review. Do you have a pulse? A heart? It reminds me of the Woody Allen line, "those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym." I'll take it a step further. Those who aren't brave enough to make films trash others art.

I find this critique of my character so blindingly insightful no further comment is necessary. 

My new candidates for #1 crush

2010 was not a great year for my old favorite Scarlett Johansson and I'm forced to search for a new #1 Crush (cue the Garbage song for the Romeo + Juliet MPS). SIFF films brought to my attention Bang Chau (above left, from the feel-good Norwegian film Upperdog) and Ari Graynor (above center, as an updated gangster's moll in Holy Rollers, who you might also remember stealing scenes in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist). Zoe Kravitz (above right, the predictably cute progeny of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet) was likewise irresistible in It's Kind of a Funny Story.

With all three, I found their chemistry with cautious young male leads the most invigorating parts of films that would otherwise be fairly pedestrian. While it's unclear whether I'll ever see another film with Bang Chau (who is, according to her site, something of an aspiring Norwegian pop starlet), Ms. Graynor is going to be in a David Gordon Green comedy and Ms. Kravitz will star as "Sweetness O'Hara" in Yelling at the Sky, a film that's sure to be another triumphant pairing of co-stars Gabourey Sidibe and Tim Blake Nelson.

My love affair with The Last Picture Show

I've seen enough films now that it's hard for one to bust into the all time top 10. Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show did it in 2010 (it's the background to my twitter page for goodness sakes!).

I first saw it as I often do, while eating dinner and checking important sports scores on my phone, but the film gradually commanded my full attention. By the time I got to Sam the Lion's monologue (here in shitty reproduction and not as meaningful on its own) I had moved to a posture of full slack-jawed wonder.

Some days later, on holiday with my friend Ashton on the Olympic Peninsula, in a cabin so rustic it did not even have a television, I watched again with full attention and it cemented itself as a favorite.

Celebrating the new year and turning another year older, I repeat Sam the Lion's words to myself more and more. "I'm just as sentimental as the next feller when it comes to old times," and "if she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes." Yep.

05 January 2011

From the Righting Serious Wrongs Dept.

(edited to reflect compulsory re-watching of Raising Arizona and to, you know, actually include all the Coen Bros. movies.)

So, splashed all over the cover of The Seattle Times this morning was a critic's ranking of all the Coen Bros. films. The list is so laughable/enraging that I was glad when a double check of the byline revealed the person is not an actual employee of my hometown paper (Ann Hornaday (huh huh) writes for The Washington Post and I've of course never heard of her). In case you don't want to click through, suffice to say she puts No Country for Old Men 14th, only five slots under The Hudsucker Proxy. She also has some cop out about the ranking being based on "how eager [she] would be to watch them again." Nonsense, go play with a puppy.

While I do think there can be stimulating debate on this topic, here is a ranking that is at least not totally ridiculous. 

The Classics

1. Fargo (14-year-old self thought it wasn't that great because he saw it right after The Usual Suspects, 14-year-old self was dead wrong--go Bears!)

1a. No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy done right--hilarious, sadistic, gorgeous American dreams)

3. Blood Simple (I still believe I am due to be murdered by an extremely patient M. Emmet Walsh)

4. The Big Lebowski (not a day goes by I don't need to use one or another lines from this film, and that was true before I was on a bowling team, throwing rocks)

The Very Good to Good

5. Raising Arizona (after a fresh viewing the cartoony cinematography still keeps this from Classic status though I greatly admire the relentless pace, great period clothing and Holly Hunter's haircut)

6. True Grit (despite surface similarities to other of their films, a new direction for the Coens full of surprising Little House on the Prairie wholesomeness)

7. The Man Who Wasn't There (big plus for Billy Bob leg shaving and Scarlett Johansson madness, little minus for alien stuff)

8. A Serious Man (I see how people can find it hard to get into this one but there is truly a revelation in the last five minutes)

9. Burn After Reading (I've rarely laughed harder than I did at Brad Pitt's pronunciation of "rapport," and John Malkovich's reaction to that pronunciation, plus J.K. Simmons behaves exactly as I imagine high level government officials would)

10. Miller's Crossing (well-executed but less ambitious than their great films)

The Ones I Think Swing and Miss

11. O, Brother Where Art Thou? (I never bought into the Odyssey retelling theme and, prepare yourself for a sacrilegious thought, I think the music is borderline annoying)

12. Barton Fink (too much ham in that sandwich for me, and I'm noticing a strong inverse relationship between how much I like a film and how much time John Turturro is on screen in that film)

The Bad

13. The Hudsucker Proxy (as unwatchable as most all Tim Robbins movies)

14. Intolerable Cruelty (the Coen Bros. film that tries to be the most funny is the least)

The I Haven't Seen But Know Is Garbage

15. The Ladykillers (Ms. Hornaday and I agree!)