Monday, December 29, 2008

The Reader

I don’t recall exactly when I heard about this movie for the first time, but I was interested from the word go. The story concerns a woman in her thirties who has an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy whom she meets quite by accident one day on her way home from work - but after a time she disappears, right from under his nose, and doesn’t turn up again until he happens upon her at the trial of six women for a crime perpetrated in the name of the Nazis. He is a law student studying the case. She is one of the defendants.

After I read the novel, back in early November, I was even more intrigued. The setup doesn’t give you much of an idea of the story - and none of the notion of its depth. In fact, the mere mention of a woman in her thirties taking up with a teenager is probably enough to scare away a lot of people - and that’s too bad, because those folks are missing out on a fine story that really gets to the heart of human emotion, and how the people experiencing those emotions deal with them.

That the material, particularly in the first act, is taboo, does not mean that we should shy away from it; rather the challenge should be embraced, the more so in the film version because of the courage required to step into the roles and bring them to life. There are dark impulses in the hearts of men, to be sure, but these impulses do not always whollly corrupt those plagued by them. Placing the story within the context of World War II allows lesser evil to be juxtaposed to Hitler, who was wholly corrupted by his dark impulses (and by his religion, but whatever).

Thus, it is the degree to which these impulses corrupt, and the actions and reactions that result, that are the foundations upon which an ultimately uplifting story can be built. To see such a story staged - or filmed - well deepens its impact and enhances its meaning. When we read, we internalize, seeing what we want to see - and refusing to see that which we cannot bear. Watching a story on film strips that subjectivity and leaves us exposed, which deepens the challenge of the material and makes the achievement of translation - when done well - all the more impressive.

We too often ignore or demonize that which we do not understand - witness the idiotic use by some of the appellation “B. Hussein Obama” during the recent election campaign - or which we have been taught to fear (once again, witness the idiotic use...); but difficult subjects make great art because they engage the thoughtful mind and challenge the everyday and mundane that we too often accept as life as we know it.

Kate Winslet is Hanna Schmitz, the older woman; and David Kross is the young version of Michael Berg. (He is played later in life by Ralph Fiennes.) Though it is neither loneliness nor desperation that brings these two together (it is, rather, that lovely and beguiling mistress fate - Michael falls ill on the way home from school one day and Hanna runs into him, almost literally, on her way home from work), it is clear, from establishing shots of Michael’s life at home and Hanna’s solitary life in a flat that can only be described as bleak, that there are emotional voids in the lives of both characters.

The device of an affair between two such souls, while inappropriate on its face, serves to illustrate the desperate lengths to which people will go to forge a self-sustatining connection with another perosn; and that the connection in this case involves sex further drives home the point that this connection is an innately human phenomenon. That this is perhaps not an ideal way for two people at such different stages of their lives to connect underpins the Nazi German setting. (Was there anything ideal about Germany in the 1940s, with the possible exception of the beer?)

Michael throws himself at Hanna, both literally and figuratively, casting his friends and classmates to the margins of his life - a place he occupies within his own family and with which he is familiar (we repeat the sins of our fathers). He has a passion for books, as so many lonely young people do, and he connects further with Hanna by reading to her. The reading and the sex are interwoven, and the bond that Michael feels as it forms and strengthens illustrates the danger in this kind of relationship - Hanna is clearly more important to Michael than she is to him.

Her disappearance rends his life asunder, but quietly. He goes to her flat one day to find simply that she is no longer there. The film transitions abruptly from this point to Michael’s college years, where he takes up the study of law and is unable to connect in any meaningful way with a female classmate who is obviously smitten with him. He sees Hanna again when his advanced law seminar attends the aforementioned trial of six women who joined the SS and later locked three hundred Jews in a church and let them burn to death.

The somewhat languid pace adds to the film’s running time, but serves to show how Michael’s emotions divide him; on the one hand, the woman he loved is in terrible trouble, but she is in terrible trouble for an unspeakable crime that she helped to commit - trying to work this out in one's head must surely be taxing. As the trial continues, it becomes a question of who took up leadership of the group of women, and Hanna is cornered into accepting blame for something that she did not do. While this transpires, Michael puts together a crucial piece of information about Hanna - one that could change the outcome of the trial, and of her fate - but does not reveal this information to anyone.

Much has been made of the guilt of Germans for the Holocaust, and this shame is on center stage during the trial; but what Michael knows turns that idea on its head by transferring the guilt of the Nazis onto someone who knows something that would be vaulable to the defense of a Nazi. Thus the question of whole corruption, and who is corrupted by whom, and by what. Even in such black and white cases like Nazi Germany, there are sometimes no easy answers. It is during the trial that Winslet’s enormous abilities are on full display. Her testimony is hardly forthcoming, mostly short responses to questions from the presiding judge, but it is clear in her carriage and tone that Hanna is not entirely sure what is going on - or else, she knows exactly what is going on and cares only for keeping safe the secret that is her cross to bear.

There aren’t exactly any twists and turns in The Reader - even the revelation of Hanna’s secret is not a bombshell. Instead, the weight of the story is in the effect that Hanna’s secret has had upon her life, and in the way that the viewer is forced to understand that even with moral relativism, there is nothing as it seems. The entire third act is falling action, scenes of active and passive absolution for Michael and for Hanna, and of resolution for both. Though the film does not precisely drag (it comes close), these scenes are mostly longer than they need to be - and the score is close to overpowering throughout most of the film. I don’t know that, put together, these two can stand only as minor quibbles, because they are distracting and they take away from the power of the story and the power of Winslet’s exceptional performance. The film as a whole, however, remains very, very good. If you are up to the challenge, this is a deeply satisfying film.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Photos #2

The first batch of new photos over on my Picasa photo page is of Jackson and Dorothy playing together at the Children's Museum Playscape on Christmas Eve. This was the first time Jackson and Dorothy had met each other, even though Dione and I have sort of been talking about getting them together for playdates. The second batch is just a bunch of different shots of Jackson with funny expressions on his face - from various points in time over the last couple of months.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

I was intrigued when I first read about Slumdog Millionaire, but missed the preview screenings when we opened it; and even though I’ve gotten back into the habit of catching our preview screenings, I rarely make it to movies if I don’t catch the preview. Then, of course, the damn awards buzz started to pick up, and a couple of early critics group slapped their Best Picture tag on it, and I sort of did a double-take. Really? Slumdog Millionaire?

I finally got around to seeing it tonight after I got off work, and I have to say that I was underwhelmed. It’s a well-made film, with really fine editing and exemplary photography (which has not - in the case of photography - been the case with a couple of the movies I have really liked in the last few months, notably Milk and Rachel Getting Married), and there are lots of bright colors and a totally dope thumping backbeat; but when you get right down to it, that’s mostly just shiny window-dressing for a contemporary fairy tale that bobs and weaves amusingly, but never surprises.

Granted, it’s a fairy tale set against the backdrop of the slums of modern day Mumbai, which sort of heightens the appeal of winning a boatload of money and getting the hell out of there to someplace better. The trouble with that, however, is that it’s not the point of the story, which concerns Jamal Malik, a young man who appears on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with the hope that Latika, the love of his life, will be watching the show and that they can run away together after it’s over.

The film opens with Jamal being tortured by police after he is arrested for fraud. They think that he’s been cheating on the show because he has known all of the answers and has progressed farther than the best educated contestants who have appeared before him. The back story is filled in as the police inspector questions Jamal about how he knew the answers to so many questions. The inspector plays a tape of Jamal’s appearance on the show, and they go through the questions one by one.

The editing and the script here are strong, allowing Jamal’s story to reveal itself slowly. Jenny Lumet’s screenplay for Rachel Getting Married does the same thing, though Lumet deftly employs sleight of hand with her revelations, uncorking a couple of plot points that are unexpected and powerfully delivered. (This is the more impressive given that Rachel is Lumet’s first screenplay.) Nothing in Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay comes at you out of left field, once you cotton on to the notion that this is a quest for true love.

(I think the glaring problem with the way the story is constructed is that all of the questions with which Jamal is set on the show have answers that he knows because he has encountered the information or situation at some point already in his young life - Jamal relates these life anecdotes to the police inspector who, somewhat remarkably, I think, believes what Jamal is telling him. There are only two of the fifteen questions to which Jamal does not know the answer. The resolution of the first brings the only moment of real drama in the film, and the resolution of the second - the last question of the game, the big kahuna - is just sloppy. That he knows the answers to all of the other questions can be accepted within the context of a fairy tale in which you must suspend your disbelief - but based on one of the early anecdotes he relates to the police inspector [which contains one of the film's two running themes], it seems clear that he should know the answer to the last question. It seems an awful lot to ask for a film that is already asking a lot of its audience in terms of winking at the lack of realism.)

Would that true love were easy, forsooth! Alas, it is not. That this is especially true in places like India serves only to sharpen the contrast between the good - true love - and the bad - jumping through the hole of an outhouse (into the soup, naturally) your rascally brother has locked you into in order to keep you from getting the autograph of your favorite action movie hero; it does nothing to elevate the conventions of the story above the cloying fens of melodrama. For all of its technical wizardry (the photography really is very good) and stylish good looks, Slumdog Millionaire is just a by-the-numbers fairy tale with an exotic setting - and the goofy wink, at the end, to eastern mysticism/religion/mythology (they’re all basically the same thing) doesn’t help matters.

For what it is - a fairy tale - Slumdog Millionaire does the things that it does reasonably well; I just don't think that the things that it does are especially interesting. This is not a bad picture at all, but how it’s getting Best Picture buzz is utterly beyond me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Big List #12


If you want to read this article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker. It’s an article on the late novelist Richard Yates and his very excellent novel Revolutionary Road, the film version of which opens in select cities later this month (and at your local Mainstream Art House in mid-January). I’ve written on numerous occasions about how good Yates was at his craft, and about how good this novel is - and there’s nothing new to add here. I just feel compelled to mention it again whenever I run across an article about the late writer or his work. I say click on it quick because it’s from last week’s issue, and who knows how long they keep links for old stories live before they archive them for subscribers only?

The Religious Case For Gay Marriage

From last week’s issue of Newsweek, an excellent article on how religious people can do a better job of interpreting the Bible with respect to the issue of gay marriage. It’s illegal for the state to ban gay marriage based on any Biblical argument because that is a blatant violation of the First Amendment; but churches - which are exclusionary by nature - have the prerogative to allow or disallow gay marriage. There are no valid arguments against gay marriage, and hopefully churches will begin to understand this as more and more of their individual congregants start to get the idea.

Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association

Another best picture award for Slumdog Millionaire, which brings its total to at least two. And yes, I know I’ve been flogging the award winners more than is my usual wont this year - but I’ve actually gotten into the habit of watching preview screenings at work again, and there has been a solid string of movies out since late summer that have piqued my interest. Also, the Best Picture field (and overall field of award contenders) this year is as strong as I can ever recall it being. There are easily 12-15 pictures that I would not at all be surprised to see up for Best Picture when the Oscar noms are announced. And while I understand that the Oscars are a self-congratulatory orgy of excess, I’ve enjoyed watching the show, and rooting for this or that movie to win, since I saw Rain Man as a kid and it cleaned up at the 1988 Oscars.

The Dome Of The Rubble

The Hoosier Dome will be (mostly) imploded this coming Saturday at around nine in the morning. A security perimeter will be set up around the dome, bounded by Maryland Street to the north, West Street to the west, Illinois Street to the east, and Merrill Street to the south; but there should still be plenty of places to park yourself to watch that thing go down. I have to work that morning, but I may try to get downtown before I go in - and I’m thinking that the top level of the Circle Centre parking garage might be a really good place to watch the implosion. Even better would be to park well afield, then walk to the garage - so as not to get trapped by all the other people who might use the garage to watch the implosion and then decide to go home (never mind how many holiday shoppers are going to be out at that hour).

And finally...

You Kids Noticing All This Plight?

The Audubon Court apartments - you know, that giant hunk of plight on the southeast corner of Audubon Road and east Washington Street (right there at the eastern edge of what some of us refer to tongue-in-cheekily as “downtown Irvington” - have been bought by a developer who wants to turn the place into a yuppie enclave, with wall-mounted 42” flat-panel TVs and a “24-hour fitness studio” on the premises. On the one hand, I’m glad to hear that they’re going to do something with those historic old apartments; but on the other hand...a 24-hour fitness studio? I get the sinking suspicion that this will be a place that fills up with people who think Judd Apatow is a genius.

The Rathskeller

Last month found us at Amici’s for my birthday, and this past Friday night found us at the Rathskeller for the anniversary of Amy’s arrival on earth. I’ve been to the Biergarten for music a few times, but this was the first time we had actually gone to eat dinner (we wound up coming back for the music, but more on that later - and it was somewhat surreal). We arrived a little bit early for a 6:30 p.m. reservation and were seated immediately. Amy was quite taken with the design of the interior - the restaurant occupies part of the lower level of the Athenaeum, on the southeast corner of New Jersey and Michigan Streets, where Mass Ave bisects that intersection. Other tenants of the building - which was designed by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather - include the American Cabaret Theatre and the YMCA.

While we looked at the menu, we noshed on a trio of rolls (white, wheat, wonderfully subtle dark pumpernickel rye) and a salted soft pretzel in the bread basket that came out with the glasses of water. We also ordered the Pesto French Bread ($6.95) for an appetizer, a small loaf of French bread smeared with pesto spread and covered with parmesan and provolone cheeses and baked in the oven. It came out piping hot - soft and chewy and very flavorful. I could taste both the cheese and the pesto, which is sometimes tough to pull off because of the inherent strength of pesto.

Amy had sauerbraten ($21.95), a roast beef dish prepared with a top secret marinade and finished with brown gravy "accented with tones of currants and ginger." The flavor was both bright and dusky at the same time, sweet and strong - and yet despite a somewhat heavy portion of sauce on top, the meat tasted dry, like a brisket pot roast that’s been in the oven too long. Once meat has gone around that bend, you can sauce it until the cows come home (so to speak), and it will still be dry. I suppose the flavor of the dish makes up for it, but...that’s still a little bit bush league. Amy liked it, though, so that’s probably the important part. Entrées come with two sides and a salad, and Amy had applesauce and a potato pancake. I had the potato pancake with my meal, and it was adequate - palatable but unimaginative, and nothing to write home about.

I went with sausage, specifically the Mixed Wurst Platte ($22.95), which is exactly what it sounds like - a plate full of sausage. German wiener, bockwurst, bratwurst, and kielbasa on a bed of sauerkraut, with horseradish and dijon mustards on the side. All were very finely ground, firm and flavorful - none of that gristly Johnsonville nonsense. This is the real deal - and the mustards were amazing. They were on the spicy side, and the flavor was extremely powerful - like Grey Poupon or Gulden’s turned up to eleven. For those who enjoy sauerkraut, the Rathskeller has the best I’ve ever tasted. Too often, sauerkraut is an overpowering science project testing the outer limits of how much vinegar the human body can absorb. Here, however, the flavor is light and tangy without knocking you down. My other side was German potato salad - a warm, sweet, tangy affair that probably could have been tossed a bit longer to get all of the ingredients completely mixed up together.

I also opted for the soup of the day instead of the salad, and this was a wise choice. Our server helpfully pointed out that we could substitute the soup for the salad with our entrée, a bit of trivia that the printed menu omits. Last Friday’s choice was house-made shrimp and crab bisque. I didn’t taste any shrimp, and the crab may actually have been krab, but it was a thick, hearty soup and could have come out of a box and it would have been better than the fairly pedestrian side salad looked.

You don’t have to settle for German food if you’re not in the mood for that, as the menu contains plenty of beef, chicken, seafood, and pasta choices. The vegetarian choices leave something to be desired, however. The Vegetarian Plate consists of your choice of five items from the “accompaniments” list. This is the same way you build a veggie plate at Cracker Barrel, but whatever. I wasn’t drinking that night, but the beer menu goes on for pages and pages, and most of the choices are unpronounceable. That’s probably a good thing - although I’ve never really gotten into the hard-core German beer scene.

Anything noted above that sounds like a quibble is a minor one. Everything - especially that pesto bread - came out hot, everything was right, the service was excellent, and the portions were goodly sized without being excessive. The Rathskeller’s not a cheap date, but it’s pretty satisfying for the price - not the kind of place those without golden parachutes would dine at very often, but definitely worthy of a return trip in the future.

Now...about the music. Local pop/rock band Peal was set to play at 9pm in the banquet room adjacent to the long narrow dining room you enter when you walk down the stairs and into the restaurant. I don’t recall how I heard about Peal, though I think it was from hearing one of their songs on a Paste magazine sampler CD. I found out that they were a local band and started to keep my eye out for where they were playing. We got back to the restaurant around nine and went in and took a seat. A banquet was ending and Peal was doing a rudimentary sort of sound check (at least on some of their instruments, but more on that in a moment), and then they just launched into the songs.

Unfortunately, they had the lead guitar player turned so far up that you could barely hear the singer's voice - he also plays rhythm acoustic/electric guitar - or his guitar, unless he was slashing through chords sort of like Pete Townshend. I couldn’t tell if the lead guitar player noticed this or not, but he did keep fiddling with his dials on the floor. However, as they played on and I started to go the little bit deaf you start to go when you're listening to music that’s too loud for the space it’s being played in, I could start to hear the singer a bit better. I don’t know the band well enough to recognize more than a handful of songs from the one record of theirs that I have, but I like the basic pop-rock sensibility. For those who are familiar with Rebuilt, Peal has a similar feel to their music - with the notable difference being that Peal’s lead guitar player is talented.

Now for the surreal part, preceded by an annoying part. A little less than an hour into their set, the singer switched from his acoustic/electric to a straight electric guitar - for, you know, more noise in an already noisy enclosed space. It also seemed as though that particular instrument was not included in their rudimentary sound check. The singer clearly noticed this and somewhat frantically tried to get his volume adjusted and his tuning corrected, but I don’t know that he quite managed it. They played two songs that way and then took a break, and that was when Amy and I split. I didn’t recognize the first song, but the second was a cover...of “In The Meantime,” by Spacehog.

Yes, that “In The Meantime,” by that Spacehog. I have no problem with the song, in and of itself. I just never thought that I would ever hear anyone covering it. More surreal than that, though, was the middle-aged black dude with the derby hat who got up with his wife and danced during the Spacehog cover. There is no way I could ever have conceived of seeing that particular spectacle, no matter how much time I spent trying to think it up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Okay, let’s try this again - and see if we can keep from ranting against the anti-gay crowd. I didn’t have much luck with that in my first attempt to formulate some remarks about the new Sean Penn movie, Milk. Penn plays the title character, Harvey Milk, a gay-rights activist who moved from New York to San Francisco and wound up becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States in 1977. He held the post for less than a year before he was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco at the time, by fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

While he was on the board of supervisors, Milk worked to get a local gay rights ordinance passed and was instrumental in the defeat of an ugly statewide ballot measure that would have required that all gay teachers be fired for their gayness. The measure would even have required that anyone - teacher or otherwise - employed by the public school system in California be fired for nothing more than supporting gay rights. And this was in California, just thirty years ago. Think undoing the massive damage done by King George II and Darth Cheney is a monumental task? How about undoing the damage done by religious conservatives and the impotent Republican windsocks (paging Mike Pence) they’ve hijacked over the years since some inbred idiot decided that anything Jerry Falwell said was remotely relevant? Now there’s a quest.

Damn. There I go again. Must stay on message.

I’m really not all that far off, though. This movie is about a specific period of time in the life of Harvey Milk, but it does more than just talk about this one man. We see what’s going on in the burgeoning gay-rights mecca of San Francisco, but there is plenty of stock footage of news reports and more impotent windsocks - in this case the repugnantly self-righteous rhymes-with-bunt Anita Bryant, a fundamentalist Christian (surprise!) who seemed to get a big kick out of fellating microphones with her goofy anti-gay hate speech - that places the importance of Milk’s work in San Francisco within the larger context of an ignorant white America slo-o-o-wly beginning to understand that you don’t have to be afraid of people just because they are different than you.

This kind of ignorant fear is not easily overcome. Americans are lazy and stupid, they believe what they’re told, and they are resistant to change. (Throw in some red-white-and-blue xenophobia and a strangely non-Republican anti-capitalistic fear of competition, and you have a solid, if somewhat simplified, explanation of why GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW are fucked.) Harvey Milk was over the top, he was obnoxious, he was even - wait for it - brash; but that’s the kind of passion and energy it takes to mobilize the sedentary doltdom that became the American electorate in the post-war years when this country became “detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.”

“Nowhere is the dreamer - or the misfit - so alone.”

Sean Penn lights up the character of Harvey Milk. Though he sometimes comes across as dark and brooding, Penn is one of the more expressive actors working today. He has an enormous range of both motion and emotion, and a way of using facial expressions to show you the things his characters see, not just the things they’re looking at. (That sounded better in my head, I think, than it does on paper. I’m not actually writing on paper, but you get what I mean. Right?) I don’t know if the real Harvey Milk did as good a job as Penn’s version of him at restraining himself from anger and violence and personal attacks against those who persecuted him, but Penn’s version of him is an almost perfect example of the “turn the other cheek” lesson. Probably this is no artistic accident or coincidence, since it does such a good job of subverting religion - the perverted faggot sinner is the one who turns the other cheek, while it’s the do-gooder fundamentalists who clearly have no concept of the “love thy neighbor” bit. How could they? They try to be morally upright Old Testament Christians - except that there is no such thing as Old Testament Christians; the concept is a self-righteous affectation.

Josh Brolin also does a great job playing Dan White, Milk’s fellow city supervisor, who winds up assassinating Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Brolin has the facial expressions down, too, though his expressive manner doesn’t hold a candle to Penn, who has been a consummate actor for a long tme. The best that can be said about Brolin is that he’s come a long way from Best Laid Plans. It’s no secret that White offs Milk, so there’s no real plot spoilage by mentioning this. Rather, that knowledge allows us to see Brolin’s performance through the lens of fatalism - knowing that he is eventually going to kill Milk allows us to use that knowledge as a point of reference as we watch the character of White develop. There is more going on with Dan White than just homophobia - though there is that (he’s conservative, after all - we can’t give those yo-yos too much credit) - and it is Milk’s success as a supervisor contrasted with White’s failures (the two are often interrelated) that provides the catalyst for all of the combustible issues pulling at White’s heart and mind.

In a lot of ways, Milk is a set piece to showcase the talents of Sean Penn - in much the same way that There Will Be Blood was a set piece for Daniel Day-Lewis (though Blood is superior to Milk, as is Day-Lewis’ performance to Penn’s); but it works as a whole because of the mostly seamless integration of stock footage from the seventies with the film footage they shot in the present day. The photography is not good, but the weaving of real life to fictional biopic lends the film a documentary feel that fictional films tend to lack - while also lending drama to real life events that documentaries often lack (the delightful Man On Wire is a rare exception to the latter).

As has elsewhere been written, the release of Milk is timely because of the national prominence of the issue of gay marriage, and the recent passage of the illegal and discriminatory Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in - of all places - California. It is noted more than once in the fillm that people are more likely to vote for a gay person - and support gay rights - if they know a gay person. I think that this is true - actually, I know it’s true. The more you’re exposed to something, the more comfortable you are with it. Americans have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to change (the election of Barack Obama notwithstanding), only to discover - undoubtedly to their chagrin - that change isn’t such a bad thing at all. The best thing about the film Milk is how well it illustrates that this concept works.

Friday, December 12, 2008

More Nominations And Awards

Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Nominations

Best Motion Picture - Drama
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

I'm a little bit surprised that Milk isn't among the nominees - but pleasantly surprised that The Reader is. We have four - count 'em, four! - movies opening on Christmas, including the first three listed above, and I don't know how I'm going to manage to see all of them - even if I do make it back to the theatre after church to watch The Reader. Here's to hoping some prints come in way early. Revolutionary Road, unfortunately, doesn't bow here until mid-January, although the plus side to that is that I may have time to re-read the novel before I see the movie.

Full list of nominees here.

New York Film Critics Circle

Best Picture - Milk
Best First Film - Frozen River
Best Screenplay - Jenny Lumet, for Rachel Getting Married

Full list of winners here.

Los Angeles Film Critics Association

Best Picture of the Year: WALL-E
Best Actress Runner-Up: Melissa Leo, for Frozen River
Best Screenplay Runner-Up: Charlie Kaufman, for Synecdoche, New York

Full list of winners here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ten Again

Posted on MSNBC courtesy of Billboard, is this article talking about a March 24th re-release of Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten. Now...I loves me some Pearl Jam, and they’ve made a respectable amount of money from me - two concerts, all the studio albums, both “official” live albums, the B-sides double set, and four of the bootleg live sets - but they’re getting a little bit goofy with the gimmicks.

There will be four - count ‘em, four! - versions of the Ten re-release, although the article doesn’t really make it clear what comprises each of the four different versions. They say all four versions come with a remastered version of the original album and a remixed version of the original album, with the remixed disc containing six previously unreleased tracks. Then there’s something called the “Legacy” version, which adds a DVD of the band’s appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1992. And there’s also the “Super Deluxe” version, said to contain two CDs, a DVD, and four - again, count ‘em, four! - vinyl records, and two replica items: a cassette containing remastered versions of the three songs Ed added vocals to and sent back to the band when they auditioned him (“Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps”), and a replica of Ed’s notebook from the Ten days.

Here’s what the Super Deluxe version looks like, when you follow the links on their website:

Yikes. That whole gob will set you back a solid $140 United States dollars. But hey - they’ll ship it to you for free!

I’m not at all a fan of buying things more than once. I’d probably buy a single-CD package containing just the remixed version of the album, because the only real problem with Ten (apart from the fact that it contains “Oceans” instead of either “Yellow Ledbetter” or “State Of Love And Trust”) is that it’s way over-produced. The guy who did the mix on the new version is the guy who produced the four albums that followed Ten, and I’d be willing to lay out ten to fifteen bucks just on the off chance that the new mix gives Ten the kind of raw, urgent sound that showed up on Vs. and Vitalogy. I might even throw down for the DVD, especially if it doubles as a CD (they can do that, right?) - but $140 for a doorstop-sized aural orgy and a couple of (admittedly cool) collectibles, when I don’t even own a record player? I seriously doubt it. Halve that price and make it a doorbuster special next year on the day after Thanksgiving, and I might get up early.

Looking at that picture is pretty tempting, though...


Another of those lovely little red envelopes arrived in the mail a couple of days ago, and this afternoon I got around to watching Sherrybaby, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was awfully good in Stranger Than Fiction, though I have not yet seen any of her edgier work (Secretary, Happy Endings). I happened upon Sherrybaby while browsing DVDs on Netflix and building up the ol’ queue (and yes, I’m enough of a dork that I have to stop myself from making any goofy Star Trek references here, unless this parenthetical counts).

With the benefit of hindsight, however, I realize that I perhaps should have read more about the film, or possibly a review or two, before putting it so high in the queue. See...this is another of those films concerning Desperate Women Who Do Desperate Things To Fix Their Families - and I’ve recently seen two other films that go in this category (Frozen River and Turn The River) and a third film that concerns a protagonist struggling to get off of drugs and back to her real life (Rachel Getting Married).

The first two acts just sort of ramble along, as Sherry gets paroled and eases back into life with an asshole parole officer, an awkward living arrangement at a halfway house, a daughter who barely remembers her, and a brother who has been taking care of the daughter with his wife since Sherry went to prison. Gyllenhaal does an adequate job with the role, but the feeling she evokes is not that of a woman who wants to start a new and better life; rather, she comes off almost as someone who thinks herself blameless and is pissed off at the world for not seeing her life the way she sees it. She has a clear, legal - though not necessarily easy - path back to being a mother who can take care of her daughter. Instead of grabbing that chance and running with it, though, she seems put out that she has to go through these motions.

After a disastrous birthday party for her daughter, at which she arrives late, Sherry takes off running and winds up getting high again. Oddly, this is where the film finally starts to work. After a scene with her parole officer - he’s still an asshole - Sherry is faced with what is, to her, the impossible choice of an in-patient drug treatment program or going back to prison. She then spends a day with her daughter, and the film ends with a heartfelt scene between Sherry and her brother, and you get the sense that there is some hope for Sherry in the end.

The problem is that I just didn’t find myself feeling sympathetic for Sherry during those first two acts. It was almost as if she was a spoiled little rich girl who thought she deserved better than what she had to endure - and the nudity and sex were gratuitous to the point of being vulgar. None of the other characters were remotely interesting, nor developed in any real way - so all of the focus was on Sherry, and it turns out that she’s not really all that interesting.

Next in the queue is Little Children, which I didn’t like the first time I saw it. I just finished reading the novel for the second time, and I wanted to give the film a second chance because the novel is just so good. If you haven’t wrapped your head around a Tom Perrotta novel, you’re missing out. His most recent novel, The Abstinence Teacher (which is a little bit derivative of Little Children, but still a good read) is, according to IMDb, in development for a 2010 release.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Awards Season Begins

Film Independent's Spirit Award nominations were announced on Thursday, with three films leading the way at six nominations apiece - including a Best Feature nomination for each:

Frozen River
Rachel Getting Married

Rounding out the Best Feature nominations are Wendy & Lucy and The Wrestler. See the full list of nominees at the Spirit Awards website here.

Also on Thursday, National Board of Review announced its 2008 awards, with Best Film going to Slumdog Millionaire. Their Top Ten, alphabetically:

Burn After Reading
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Gran Torino
The Wrestler

Top Ten Independent Films:

Frozen River
In Bruges
In Search Of A Midnight Kiss
Mr. Foe
Rachel Getting Married
Snow Angels
Son Of Rambow
Wendy And Lucy
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The Visitor

Anne Hathaway was named Best Actress for Rachel Getting Married, and Melissa Leo won a Spotlight Award for Frozen River. Best Documentary went to Man On Wire.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's The Score? Nothing-Nothing. Who's Winning? (Pause, Then Sarcastically) The Bears.

2008, obviously, has been a year of Darwin-awful news out of the non-contiguous state of Alaska - but we have a change to report! There is finally a news item (sort of) out of Alaska about which it is acceptable to feel something other than incredible embarrassment.

For awhile now, the Indianapolis Zoo has been almost entirely bear-less, within the last two years having lost one of its polar bears and both of its Kodiak brown bears to that great hibernation station in the sky (or whatever post-death self-created mythology bears believe in so that they can feel better about having been born in the first place).

Today, however, the zoo once again has lions and tigers and bears - you betcha! They got two of those adorable brown bear cubs down there from the big energy state of Alaska, and that’s the kind of change that plain old average regular standard ordinary run-of-the-mill nondescript inconsequential patriotic Americanonians are hungry for out there in all of those great Americanized states that are just so wonderful and united and of course we just really owe all of that great uniting and Americaning to that great President Lincoln who just did such a great job of really unionizing all of these great states together into this amazing America that we have here today, and you know, that’s just really what it’s all aboat here in this great nation of ours in these Americas.

No, seriously, the zoo now has on exhibit two orphaned brown bear cubs from Alaska. They were orphaned when their mother was euthanized after attacking a jogger out there in all of those great wilds in the great state of...anyway, FedEx brought the little cubs down out of the wild, and now our zoo has bears again. Still no gorillas, but hey! Cincinnati’s not all that far, I guess. (Press release here - in PDF.)