Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the only best-of-the-year film poll you'll need

Well, that might be an exaggeration. But the indieWIRE poll of 107 alt-weekly and alt-leaning critics is a good place to start. My only complaint: I wasn't asked to submit.

Monday, December 11, 2006

who loves the shins?

I do. You should too. And with their new single, "Phantom Limb," there's more to love.

Elsewhere in Consumables, I gush about Sonic Youth, Sparklehorse, and the best hip-hop album of the year: The Coup's Pick a Bigger Weapon.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

will smith goes for his oscar

The Pursuit of Happyness is a pretty standard based-on-a-true-story "inspirational" tale. But Will Smith's seemingly indestructible charm keeps the movie from collapsing into Hallmark dreck.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

ucla 13, usc 9: the fans have their say

Sometimes you don't need a sportswriter to summarize your feelings about a game's outcome; sometimes the fans can express it just as well.

Today's collection of letters in the Los Angeles Times sports section are all from Trojan and Bruin fans reacting to UCLA's stunning upset of USC last Saturday. The win destroyed the Trojans' chances for going to the national championship, ended their seven-game dominance of their crosstown rival, and (perhaps most importantly) shattered USC's air of superiority, of presumed dominance.

Nothing I have read sums up the experience of that game better than the elated, angry, mocking, pithy, clever responses from these fans.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

too many movie reviews to keep track of

My reviews of ...

... Casino Royale

... For Your Consideration

... The Departed

... Babel

... Happy Feet

... Candy

... Flags of Our Fathers

... Iraq in Fragments

... The Last King of Scotland

... Sweet Land

... are all in this week's Consumables.

Friday, November 17, 2006

i don't make my jukebox selections for the recognition

One of the best places for consistently good music commentary is The Onion, that beacon of cultural satire. I must admit that I had taken The Onion for granted of late -- I don't check the site as frequently as I did, say, five years ago. But I came across this article and remembered how dead-on the fictional newspaper's writers can be. "I Don't Make My Jukebox Selections For The Recognition" is an "opinion piece" written by a very self-satisfied music fan who "considers jukeboxing an art, and not a cheap plea for notoriety." The piece nicely mocks all us music "experts" who love to find any opportunity -- any at all -- to show off the breadth of our, ahem, knowledge.

david thomson on will ferrell

David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film is a reference book I check as frequently as I do my dictionary -- it's a constant companion. Unfortunately, we have to wait years between editions of his book. Thankfully, he's starting to update it an actor or director at a time over at The Guardian. His most recent entry is on Will Ferrell, and it's easily the smartest look at the comedic actor I've read. (I tried myself a few years back.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

penelope cruz vs. borat

I'm sure it's a fight some twisted individuals would love to see. My reviews of Volver and Borat are part of my latest Consumables column.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

joanna newsom's new album.

Five songs.

Fifty-six minutes.

Say hello to Ys.

Ugh.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

cocaine cowboys

It may seem like a sleazy documentary about the drug wars that overtook Miami in the 1970s and '80s, but Cocaine Cowboys is also a darkly funny, smart perspective on a tumultuous time, told by the good guys and bad guys who saw it firsthand.

Whatever Happened to Moby?

After 1999's Play, he seemed like he was on his way to becoming a superstar. Didn't quite happen, huh? Still, with the release of his new best-of, Go, it's time to reassess.

the queen

The Stephen Frears movie is great, even if you don't care at all about the royal family. Also in Consumables, the Hold Steady and the Pogues make beautiful music (but not together).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

the man who used to be in guided by voices

Robert Pollard writes too many songs and releases too many albums. But that's why his fans love him. Even though Guided by Voices has disbanded, Pollard keeps rolling right along. Normal Happiness is his latest and, his admirers will be happy to know, it's more of the same.

badly drawn boy

It's been six long years since The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Badly Drawn Boy's latest record, Born in the U.K., is as cozy and lush as you would expect. But he seems to have lost his ability to wow us.

saw iii

The third installment in the horror franchise is more of the same, except less so.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

the decemberists

Colin Meloy's indie-rock group has never done much for me. Then I heard their new record, The Crane Wife. This is the warmest, most moving collection of stories he's assembled, backed up by hooks that recall the timeless pull of ancient ballads.

little children

Todd Field's second movie is pretty terrific, although it could have been ever better. Also in Consumables, reviews of Deliver Us from Evil, the Pernice Brothers, Irving, 30 Rock, and that new John Mellencamp song you've undoubtedly heard if you've watched any of the ads during the baseball playoffs.

Friday, October 13, 2006

writing pad, lesson two: reviewing as storytelling

Greil Marcus is brilliant at taking an album and turning its songs, lyrics, and themes into a narrative -- he reviews the work by presenting it as a story. The tricky thing about this process is that to fully appreciate his review, you may need to be familiar with the album already.

Of all his pieces, this may be my favorite: his glowing review of Bob Dylan's magnificent Love and Theft. He writes the piece as the story of an old man (Dylan) who lives in town who no one really knows. Along the way, Marcus references the songs as clues to the old man's secret passions and sorrows. Anyone who loves the album will find that Marcus has recreated the experience of hearing it for the first time, unraveling its many pleasures.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

writing pad, lesson one: the review as social observation

I mentioned before that I'll be teaching a class this weekend at the Writing Pad on the art of criticism, so I've been looking for good samples for a few weeks in preparation. This review by Ann Powers of the Britney Spears compilation, My Prerogative, does a great job of both dissecting the pop star's fame as well as examining how her celebrity seems perfectly timed for an era when young women are being sexualized more and more. And all the while, Powers smartly reviews the actual songs, too.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

zerophilia

Good news: My review of Zerophilia is my first in The Village Voice.

Bad news: I had to watch Zerophilia.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

marmaduke explained

Is this commentary? Should it be in this blog? I dunno -- but it makes me laugh. A lot.

jesus camp

Jesus Camp, the new documentary about the religious right's desire to indoctrinate its children into the cause, is both disturbing and heavy-handed. Elsewhere, in Consumables, reviews of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Fergie, and the terrific Todd Snider.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

j dilla, r.i.p.

Dilla, the talented hip-hop producer, died at the age of 32 earlier this year. The Shining was the album he was working on near the end, and now it's out. It's no landmark record, but it's a fine swan song.

Friday, September 29, 2006

crumb

Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's great documentary about his friend Robert Crumb, will be playing at the Aero on Sunday, October 1 as part of a retrospective of the director's work. I pay homage here.

And for a great, in-depth interview with Zwigoff about the making of Crumb, I highly recommend this site, which includes these bits:
There was certainly times when I was following him around with a camera where he would get to the point where he was running out of patience for it. He would turn to me and say, “If you were not my best friend, I would be so out of here.”

Robert always thought [Crumb] would just be shown on my living room wall. And when it wasn’t and when it sort of caught on and started being released to theaters theatrically and getting all these favorable reviews in all the magazines and newspapers, it really had an alarming effect on his life where he would start to get recognized on the street and journalists were showing up on his doorstep to interview him. And his life as he knew it was changing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

studio 60 on the sunset strip

Aaron Sorkin's new NBC drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is the sort of sophisticated, flashy character piece you'd expect from the West Wing auteur. That's a good and a bad thing.

Monday, September 18, 2006

how have we changed since 9/11? don't ask us.

John Powers has a fine essay in the LA Weekly about the incessant desire in the media and within both political parties to use the anniversary of 9/11 for their own purposes. The GOP gets whacked around, but so do newspapers and artists in general:

[I]t's worth remembering that, in the rush to pontificate about that awful September morning, five years is no time at all. Events may be fast, but meaning is slow.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

lambchop

The Kurt Wagner-led Nashville alt-country band return with a new album, Damaged. I think it's one of their best.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

zach braff gets serious

The Last Kiss plays like a somber version of Zach Braff's Garden State, but despite this new film's ambitions to be significant and meaningful, it's loads less profound about twenty-somethings than Braff's quirky, heartfelt offering from two years ago.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

keep your 9/11 away from my 9/11

The anniversary of 9/11 always depresses me, but it goes beyond the memory of what happened five years ago. Nowadays, it's the way certain people -- and certain people in power -- try to use 9/11 for their own benefits, trying to bully the rest of us into thinking that they care more about what happened or that they are the only ones who haven't forgotten. That attitude makes me so angry I just wanted to hide in a ball on Monday, and I pretty much did.

Tuesday morning brought some happiness, though, thanks to Keith Olbermann. His 9/11 commentary speaks eloquently to the anger that many of us feel. The Bush administration keeps reminding us that we can't forget what happened five years ago. Olbermann suggests that not only haven't we forgotten, we've also remembered all the foolish decisions and cynical manipulation that have transpired since then:

History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics. It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.

Monday, September 11, 2006

bob dylan

Modern Times isn't up to the level of Dylan's other recent albums. Sorry, it's true. Elsewhere in Consumables, I go nuts for Neko Case's latest record and have nice things to say about Ben Affleck's performance in Hollywoodland.

Friday, September 08, 2006

the album leaf

Jimmy LaValle, the electronica musician who is the Album Leaf, is an unassuming nice guy. I know because I interviewed him about two years ago. Well, he's back with a new record, Into the Blue Again. He makes good records -- I just wish he would resist the urge to sing.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

talking to patricia foulkrod

Patricia Foulkrod is the director of The Ground Truth, a new documentary about the horrors that befall our troops once they return home from combat. Anybody who has been following B.D.'s ordeal on Doonesbury since he lost part of a leg in Iraq knows that the mental scars can be as harrowing as the physical ones, and The Ground Truth brings these realities similarly to life without political grandstanding.

I spoke with Foulkrod recently for the LA Weekly:
"The biggest mythology in American culture about war is that if you sign up for the military, you'll be taken care of. And I think many soldiers believe that. Even as they're watching someone they know -- a brother or a father who was in Vietnam who came back messed up and never spoke about it and never got help -- they think that somehow they will be different."
The rest of the interview appears here.

jody rosen on robert christgau

Slate's Jody Rosen has a noteworthy appreciation on Robert Christgau's legacy. While I disagree with some of Rosen's nitpicks about the Dean's style, passages like this more than make up for it:

Christgau's craft is all about compression. He has published hundreds of terrific, expansive essays over the years, but his signature column is the Consumer Guide, a monthly compendium of capsule record reviews that he's been writing since 1969. To date, Christgau has produced more than 13,000 mini-reviews, a testament to his legendarily voracious listening habits. (On the few occasions I've seen Christgau in the flesh, he's either been wearing headphones or had them at the ready around his neck.) With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century -- yet he's devoted the majority of his working life to fashioning 100-word blurbs with letter grades. He's a public intellectual who unwittingly invented the reviews section of
Entertainment Weekly.

Friday, September 01, 2006

robert christgau and "breakfast with the beatles": say it ain't so

As we slide into Labor Day weekend, there are two sad stories on my radar. First, is that Robert Christgau has been let go from the Village Voice. The second is that this Sunday will be the final Breakfast with the Beatles radio show on L.A.'s 97.1 FM. Times change, the fates shift ... I'm not feeling much comfort in those platitudes. It reminds me of Mike Royko's comment: "I learned a long time ago that life isn't always fair. But it shouldn't cheat that much."

The most we can hope for is that both Christgau and Breakfast will find more supportive home bases soon. In the meantime, here's a great piece Christgau wrote right after the death of John Lennon. Seemed appropriate.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

the st. louis rams as a microcosm of the nfl

Yes, a rare sports piece from yours truly. For Deadspin, I wrote an NFL season preview for the St. Louis Rams. Kinda. I mostly used the team as a springboard to talk about what I love (and don't love) about the National Football League. The Deadspin readers were not pleased.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

hearting justin timberlake

It's no secret that I'm quite fond of the solo career of Mr. Justin Timberlake. I continue with the kind words in my latest Consumables column. I also ponder Paris Hilton and Spike Lee. (Now there's a combo.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

hendrik hertzberg nails bush again

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg has so continually criticized the Bush administration's failures in Iraq and elsewhere that it's easy to take his always-fine commentary for granted. But this week's piece on the growing American consensus against the war is one of his very best, as he coldly dissects the litany of recent disappointments ...

The war's sole real gain -- the overthrow of the murderous Saddam Hussein regime -- is mocked by the chaos and suffering that have overwhelmed millions of Iraqis, whose country is again a republic of fear. The concrete losses are horrific: nearly three thousand American and "coalition" troops killed; thousands more maimed; scores of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead; a third of a trillion dollars burned through. So are the less tangible ones: the unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world and Europe; the self-inflicted loss of America's moral prestige; the neglect of real nuclear dangers, in Iran and North Korea, while chimeras were chased in Iraq. The neoconservative project of a friendly, democratic Middle East, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, is worse than a charred ruin -- it is a flaming inferno.

Just about covers it, huh? Of all the insightful points Hertzberg makes, "the self-inflicted loss of America's moral prestige" probably angers me the most -- the idea that we now live in a country that has (in the eyes of the rest of the world) forfeited its reputation for honorable, virtuous behavior is going to be a bitter pill we'll be swallowing for a long time to come, I fear.

Friday, August 18, 2006

snakes on a plane

The wait is over: Snakes on a Plane is finally here. It's no work of art, but for a late-summer B-movie, it has a whole lot of charm.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

seeing barry lyndon on the big screen

The Academy is hosting a screening of Stanley Kubrick's underrated Barry Lyndon on Monday, August 21. If you've never seen it -- or only seen it at home -- now's your chance. Even better: Ryan O'Neal might be there, too.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

writing pad

I'll be teaching a one-day seminar in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 14 as part of the Writing Pad. The topic? The art of reviewing. It'll be fun, I swear -- and the food should be quite tasty.

Monday, August 07, 2006

please see the house of sand

It's an amazing film. If that doesn't sway you, my latest Consumables column also covers Miami Vice, Scoop, and Band of Horses.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Monday, July 31, 2006

will ferrell

The former Saturday Night Live comedian is pretty funny in his new film, Talladega Nights. If that's not enough to entice you, Sacha Baron Cohen is also in it.

Friday, July 28, 2006

the motel

Writer-director Michael Kang's debut feature, about a young boy stuck working in his mom's dingy motel, might sound dull, but it's a quietly moving coming-of-age story. On the other side of the quality spectrum, there's Another Gay Movie.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

little miss sunshine

Steve Carell is quite good in this comedy-drama. Also in Consumables, I discuss A Scanner Darkly, Thom Yorke's The Eraser, and that song about booties that's all over the radio.

Friday, July 21, 2006

the endless misery in the middle east

Remember how those who opposed the Iraq War said we shouldn't overextend our military on the off-chance that, who knows, we might need our troops for a more pressing problem somewhere else? The difficulties with North Korea and Iran have only strengthened those arguments, and, as Rosa Brooks points out in a sharply worded piece in the Los Angeles Times, the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is simply the latest evidence of the error in the Bush Administration's thinking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

metallica: "enter sandman"

Although my article profiling the making of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" ran in Blender a year ago, the piece is just now becoming available online. Lots of fond memories rush through my head as I re-read this piece; thanks again to Lars Ulrich, who was a terrific interview. Enjoy.

Friday, July 14, 2006

people like johnny depp as a pirate

The Pirates of the Caribbean sequel is making a ton of dough, but isn't so good. Elsewhere in my Consumables column, I tackle Superman Returns, the Dixie Chicks, the Arctic Monkeys and other fun entertainment items.

Monday, July 10, 2006

you, me and dupree

I thought Wedding Crashers was a pretty smart "new dude" comedy, but You, Me and Dupree demonstrates that the genre is far from foolproof.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

baffled by the searchers

In honor of its 50th anniversary, John Ford's The Searchers has been re-released on DVD. Here in Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a new print to commemorate the occasion, which I attended. I'd seen the film several years ago, but hadn't quite understood some critics and filmmakers' adoration for this square and disjointed Western. Despite the gorgeous new print, I remained very much in the dark.

I was, therefore, very relieved to find Stephen Metcalf's recent piece which does a great job dissecting both the flaws of The Searchers and the tangled rationale for its fans' enthusiasm. It can be difficult to trash a consensus masterwork without sounding foolish or petty, but Metcalf smartly sidesteps such pitfalls. His opener says it all…

The Searchers, John Ford's epic 1956 Western, is a film geek's paradise: It is preposterous in its plotting, spasmodic in its pacing, unfunny in its hijinks, bipolar in its politics, alternately sodden and convulsive in its acting, not to mention boring.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

wishing roger ebert well

It's easy to make potshots at Roger Ebert because of his popularity and visibility as a film critic, but there can be no question that for a lot of young filmgoers he was the person who first introduced us to the great movies that got us hooked for life.

Considering his recent health problems, I thought back to this revealing portrait of Ebert's home life from The New York Times. You get a sense of a fully lived life awash in the art and the people who matter most to him. Frankly, it sounds as close to Heaven as someone in our business can hope to achieve.

Friday, July 07, 2006

if only gay sex caused global warming

That's the provocative headline to Daniel Gilbert's great op-ed about people's willingness to ignore a problem that doesn't seem to be affecting them directly and immediately. In other words, global warming might be real but nobody cares, while flag-burning drives everyone into a tizzy despite its rather low danger factor.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

'The Road to Guantanamo'

The controversial film, along with Cars, A Prairie Home Companion, and Ghostface Killah's Fishscale, is reviewed in my latest Consumables column.

no comment

Attention, all bloggers: If you're sad that no one's responding to your heartfelt, eloquent postings, Pearls Before Swine feels your pain. Kinda.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

the fast and the furious: tokyo drift

The new installment in the Fast and the Furious series isn't necessarily terrific, but its up-and-coming star, Lucas Black, may be someone worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, June 12, 2006

the lake house

The new romantic drama starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, which opens Friday, will be a hit among the female set. Men are another matter entirely.

Monday, June 05, 2006

bruce springsteen: protest folkie

While I respect Springsteen's post-9/11 work, it's been hard for me to love it as much as Tunnel of Love or Born in the U.S.A. His fans, of course, won't have the same difficulty.

Friday, June 02, 2006

the need for iraqi civil war

While the Bush administration strains with all its might to insist that Iraq is not tumbling into civil war, Edward N. Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that, frankly, maybe that's just what Iraq needs:

Civil wars can be especially atrocious as neighbors kill each other at close range, but they also have a purpose. They can bring lasting peace by destroying the will to fight and by removing the motives and opportunities for further violence.

The logic is very sound. Of course, the White House will have a hard time accepting this rationale -- it will be a bitter pill for the Republicans to swallow if they acknowledge that they have to step aside and let the country implode so that the Iraqi people can eventually move forward.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

camera obscura

This sextet from Glasgow write pretty songs about being sad. Let's Get Out of This Country is their latest. I quite like it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Playwright Edward Albee argues that what separates us from animals isn't our ability to use tools or possess a soul -- it's our desire to create art:

I hold that we are the only animal that makes art, and I'm convinced that this is part of the evolutionary process. We all used to have a tail, you know. Not a collective one, you understand, but we still have a jut of bone at the base of our spine called the coccyx, and that is the vestigial remnant of our tails. You still have this jut of bone; don't look now, but take it as we must so much on faith. To simplify just a little bit, what happened is this: Somewhere along the line in the evolutionary process, our tails fell off and we grew art.
For most writers, this would be a strong enough point, but Albee goes further, chiding us to understand the repercussions in a society where art is no longer valued:

[B]roadly speaking, the [artists] we rightly put up on pedestals have less influence on the mind and morality of this country than their intellectual and creative inferiors. We know it is commerce that determines this, which equates popularity with excellence. But I warn you, if the finest minds and talents cease to matter in the larger cultural picture, we are in serious trouble, and our culture is in serious decline.

Monday, May 22, 2006

the best weapon against terrorism? scorn

Professor J. Michael Waller has an interesting suggestion on how to win the War on Terrorism. When engaging an enemy whose main weapon is fear, he writes, you must remove Al Qaeda's ability to inspire terror. In other words, you need to mock them, which the U.S. military did to great effect by releasing those humiliating outtakes from Abu Musab Zarqawi's latest video.

To most Americans, ridiculing terrorists might seem trivial, even sophomoric, as a weapon of war. But dictators and terrorists, being unable to function in the free market of ideas, need propagandists to control (not merely spin) their public images. They require obedience or acquiescence -- a fear factor that cannot long coexist with put-downs and snickering.
Intellectually, the argument makes a certain amount of sense. Of course, it also calls to mind this exchange from Woody Allen's Manhattan:

Isaac Davis: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Y'know, I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, y'know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times, it is devastating.

Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

getting people to see united 93

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman is only scratching the surface of a worthy debate, but he raises a good point about the so-called "small-scale success" of the terrific, harrowing docudrama, United 93. Was it, in fact, a bad idea to make the movie seem like such a tough night at the theater?

All [the media's] talk of ''lowered expectations'' may have been an accurate barometer of United 93's ultimate fortunes, but it had the effect of marginalizing the movie before it was even released -- making it sound like something that no ''normal'' American would ever want to see. In a sense, many of us in the media became enablers, telling our viewers and readers, in essence, ''It's okay. Movies aren't supposed to be this painful.''
I also can't help but wonder if lack of stars didn't help lessen the film's visibility.

Friday, April 28, 2006

avoid rv ...

... you'll thank me later.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

on my wedding day

In the three years I've been dating my wonderful girlfriend/fiancee/bride-to-be, I've consulted an essay entitled "The Road Taken" by Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau on many occasions for guidance, inspiration and its candid look at how one couple's married life works. It has nothing to do with music, per se, but it has everything to do with the passion and love generated by a well-developed romantic life that inform your appreciation for the art around you.

If I ever get to meet the man, I'd buy him a drink and thank him for this piece. I can only hope my baby and I get to have as healthy, happy and long a life as he and his wife Carola have had.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

god bless doonesbury

Who needs to spend time criticizing the Bush administration when Gary Trudeau can do it for us in eight perfect panels?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

calexico

On their latest album, Garden Ruin, the Tucson band get as political as you can while still writing lilting, acoustic ballads. Or so says I.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

kurt cobain has now been dead for 12 years

On the anniversary of the Nirvana frontman's suicide, I decided to go back and re-read this piece from The Black Table. Several writers, including James Frey, Tom Perrotta and myself, were asked to reflect on Cobain's life and death. I have to say, I agree with what I wrote even more now than I did then.

Friday, March 31, 2006

yes, billy joel

It'll break my dad's heart, but as hard as I tried, I couldn't find much nice to say about Billy Joel in this recent piece.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sunday, March 26, 2006

a movie world before dvd and multiplexes

Peter Bogdanovich risks sounding like the grumpy old man who always complains how great things used to be back in his day, but his defense of the communal movie experience is hard to resist -- especially this paragraph...
Movies, when you used to see them on the big screen, had a mystery that they no longer have. For one thing, they were irretrievable: Once the first and second runs were past, most films were not easy to see again. They were much, much larger than life and therefore instantly mythic (screens and theaters were a lot bigger before the multiplex arrived). And they were inexorable; once a film had started, there was no pausing it or in any way stopping its relentless forward motion.

loving the imperfect: the cultish devotion to malick's the new world

"Not everyone adores The New World," J. Hoberman writes in The Village Voice, "but those cineastes who like it, really, really like it. The movie has not only admirers but partisans -- it can only be truly loved by attacking those too blind to see the truth."

And while Hoberman didn't love Terrence Malick's most recent film, he appreciates the passion the movie inspires in its fans. I feel the same way as Hoberman -- The New World is the first of Malick's film I was indifferent to, but movies that draw strong reactions (especially when they polarize people) are what make filmgoing worthwhile.

Hoberman's piece reminds that I wish I had seen The New World one more time before it left theaters -- I'm sorry I missed my chance.

Monday, March 13, 2006

the real reason crash won, part 894

James Bates does a commendable job going beyond the angry accusations to lay out a very calm, logical explanation for Crash's win at this year's Oscars: Lionsgate did a remarkable job marketing it to Oscar voters.

I'm not dismissing those who really loved it and the reasons why they really loved it, although I'm on record as hating the film. But what I appreciate is that Bates solely examines Crash's strategy for getting out the vote -- he avoids the rhetoric about the Academy being homophobic and simply focuses on crunching the numbers.

Much of the morning-after punditry and blog logic has centered on whether members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had trouble giving "Brokeback Mountain" a best picture nod because of its gay love theme.

Another theory: Like a cinematic John Edwards, "Brokeback" peaked too early and its Oscar buzz dissipated.

In fact, the key to the success of "Crash" was that the film itself — and the carefully orchestrated promotional campaign undertaken by its distributor, Lionsgate — appealed to the academy's largest voting bloc: actors. With 22% of the voting members, the acting contingent is nearly three times as big as the next-largest group, producers.

It was actors — specifically, those in Los Angeles — who were targeted to deliver votes. And judging by the upset, deliver they did.

It was very shrewd and, considering that Lionsgate also does terrific work advertising its Saw franchise, you have to give the whole company the respect it deserves.

a conservative or an ideologue?

Professor Jeffrey Hart makes an important distinction between these two terms in his piece on President Bush, arguing that our current administration behaves in ways that shame keepers of the conservative GOP flame.

These sorts of articles are important for people on the left -- it reminds us that not all Republicans act alike. Plus, they make us even more upset with our current White House residents -- if folks on the right are starting to turn on this guy, how the hell is he allowed to believe he has any "political capital"?

Friday, March 03, 2006

living in robert altman's los angeles

At long last, the man is finally getting his Oscar. I do my best to praise his representation of the city I love.

Friday, February 24, 2006

unknown white male

I've been a fan of Rupert Murray's documentary since last year's Los Angeles Film Festival. Now it's finally receiving its theatrical release. Here's my review.

islam and you

Brendan Bernhard's piece in the LA Weekly does a great job of discussing the recent rash of violence propagated by some radical Islamists. Blaming no one, Bernhard simply asks that Americans who don't share the same faith at least be aware of the goal of some disturbing extremists.

sick of los angeles traffic?

Fans of The Simpsons can't hear the word "monorail" without laughing ... some of us even remember the words to the song in that particular episode. But author Ray Bradbury makes a pretty strong argument for the necessity of this form of air transportation in Los Angeles. Next time you're on the freeway, going nowhere, keep it in mind.

Monday, February 13, 2006

long may he run

Neil Young, that is. Jonathan Demme's fine new concert film about the man heads up my latest Consumables.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hating (But Understanding) 'American Idol'

Thomas de Zengotita's excellent piece on the allure of American Idol comforts all of us who hate that show by agreeing with our complaints. Yes, it is a phony way to make the spectator think he is just as important as the performer. Yes, it does further emphasize the mass worshipping of pop musicians over everything else, such as being politically active.

But he also nicely explains why music holds such sway over us:

[T]astes in pop music go right to the core of who you are, with a depth and immediacy no other art form can match. Music takes hold of you on levels deeper than articulated meaning. That's why words, sustained by music, have such power. There is nothing like a song for expressing who we are.

writing about the wu-tang clan

I can't imagine how current teenagers could have any understanding of what a talented (and often hilarious) outfit the Wu-Tang Clan were back in the '90s. This recent interview by Tom Breihan with several Clan members as they attempt a reunion tour distills their essence. Sadly, no quotes from chief genius RZA.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Top Ten Movies of 2005

I've been meaning to put this up for a few weeks now. Let the mild debate begin.

10. King Kong
Some movies have such tremendous upside that you forgive their limitations. Such is the case with King Kong, the most brazenly big movie in many a moon. Peter Jackson doesn’t just want to outdo the original, he wants to outdo every blockbuster ever made. That emphasis on size and spectacle diminishes some of the human elements, but Jackson knows that audiences don’t respond just to insightful characters – they respond quite well to being scared and thrilled and beaten across the face with unbelievable action set pieces. After being set up to be the year’s biggest box-office winner, this monster film has ironically almost become forgotten in the tidal wave success of Chronicles of Narnia. A reevaluation is in order – it’s still no deep piece of personal cinema, but what a show.

9. The Upside of Anger
Most of the attention for this little gem was centered around Joan Allen’s terrific lead performance, which deserved an Oscar nomination if enough voters could remember back to March. Allen plays an angry, grieving mother of four sexy, unique young women who’d rather drink herself into oblivion than face the truth that her no-good husband has walked out on them – and specifically her. In an equally nuanced turn, Kevin Costner plays the totally worst person for her to fall in love with, and much of Mike Binder’s film concerns the co-dependent relationship between two beaten individuals. The ending pissed off some people, but it was simply one more example of the film’s portrait of the bittersweet irony and unpredictability of this shitty, weird thing called life.

8. 2046
Writing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I praised Jim Carrey’s performance by saying, “I can't think of a performance that encapsulated the essence of being dumped so vividly.” Tony Leung’s portrayal of a depressed man on the rebound comes very close. Like Joan Allen in Anger, he is devastated by love and so he acts out in ways that we might not condone but, trust us, we understand – we’ve all been there before. Compromising his art for bigger paydays, getting involved with several women who (despite their beauty and well-defined appeal) are merely time-fillers, and pining pining pining for the one who got away, Leung gives us a definitive portrait of that time in life when a person decides to destroy his old persona in order to escape himself and his past. I’m just about alone in preferring Wong Kar-Wai’s sequel to the original, but maybe it’s because its theme of loss – beautiful, agonizing, luxurious loss – is so rarely captured on film. And it also goes a long way to showing how the remembrance of a love is often more poignant than the love itself.

7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Not since The Straight Story has a cinematic travelogue worked so well at saying so much while not doing much of anything. Tommy Lee Jones directs himself as a small man with a big heart for his senselessly murdered friend whom he promised long ago to take back to his home in Mexico in the event that he died. Jones makes good on that pledge – and brings along his friend’s killer (an underrated Barry Pepper) as equal parts vengeance and life lesson. Jones does a great job deftly handling the film’s occasional moments of surreal oddness, but what comes across strongest is the unspoken bond between men, how years of marginal existence and buried disappointments don’t get resolved, they just change locale.

6. Nobody Knows
No one needs to know it’s based on a true story – these sorts of things creep up in the newspaper and the late local news all the time. Four young children are abandoned in a shitty apartment by their feckless mother and must learn to live on their own. But without any fancy manipulative tricks, filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda observes this social drama over agonizing months. Our hero is Akira, a 12-year-old boy played by Yuya Yagira who must learn to be a grownup too early in order to keep his siblings alive, and we come to love him, not because he’s adorable but because he’s pure of heart and brave and 12 years old with no guarantee of seeing 13. Instead of being sensational, the film is quiet, mimicking the lack of attention these lost children receive from the uncaring outside world. And by being so calm, Nobody Knows makes us angry – at their mother, at any society that lets these sorts of silent tragedies happen every day.

5. Brokeback Mountain
One feels almost defensive for loving this movie. Surely I got suckered in by the hype, right? Don’t I realize how obvious it is? Aren’t I aware how it fails to enumerate every hardship ever experienced by every gay person ever? Let history decide if Brokeback Mountain was too tame – right now it’s simply the best love story of the year, an intriguing twist on the “repressed love story” plotlines that were all the rage more than 10 years ago. The men have gotten enough accolades – as well they should – but the women deserve special notice too. No irritating bitches, no whining nags, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are lovely creatures who deserve good men and think they found them. And therein lies the tragedy – Jack and Ennis are doomed to unhappy lives, but so are those around them. The film doesn’t champion the rights of homosexual love as much as ask what kind of world do we want to live in if somebody somewhere can’t be free to be with the one he loves.

4. Saraband
You’ve come to the end of your life. You’re in your 80s, you’ve had a distinguished career, you have adoring children and grandchildren, you’ve known the love of a few good women – here at the end, you can finally look back and smile, right? Not in an Ingmar Bergman movie. In his sequel to 1974’s Scenes from a Marriage, he brings back divorced couple Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson for an agonizing reunion after years of separation. Shooting in digital and staging his scenes theatrically, Bergman gives Saraband a jarring, otherworldly feel that becomes hypnotic – it seems like our planet, but one that’s infinitely more dramatic, emotional and painful than ours. Segmented into chapters – each one a lengthy conversation between the former couple, his seething son from another marriage and that son’s prodigiously talented and troubled daughter – the movie feels like one last passionate blast of contempt and sorrow before death comes knocking on the door, as much for the couple as for the filmmaker whose impressive body of intense masterworks draws to a close.

3. Capote
The best biopic of the year worked so well because nobody thinks of it as a biopic. Rather than imitating Truman Capote – although he gets the mannerisms and voice down nicely – Philip Seymour Hoffman offers an interpretation of the writer, one strengthened and supported by a screenwriter and a director who are less interested in a portrait and more jazzed by a theme. Traveling between the New York literary scene and the Kansas community where the shocking murders occurred, Capote is about success and art and failure and evil and how those things may or may not relate to the main character. Along the way, it dispels the notion that great art is made by great people – frankly, most of them are morally ugly people we’d be better off not knowing – and that great art can somehow redeem selfish intentions and callous souls. Hoffman has been one of those “great actors” who’s been searching for the right part – one that’s not simply showy but resonant and meaningful. Finally, here it is.

2. Batman Begins
It’s possible that Christopher Nolan may not be our purest action director. And, yes, I’m not convinced Katie Holmes was the best choice for the love interest. But those are about my only complaints with this very fine addition to one of Hollywood’s great franchises. As he did with Memento, Nolan shows a fascination with an antihero who exudes a noirish intensity and prefers to live out his days alone, haunted by a sad past. This doesn’t quite seem like the formula for a successful summer blockbuster, but without condescension or cynicism, the filmmaker just goes about his business making what might be the best comic book movie ever, one that’s very dark and also very funny and moving. Top to bottom, except for the above exception, the film is also extremely well cast – Christian Bale is tremendous playing what is essentially a twist on Patrick Bateman, the loathsome rich boy of American Psycho, but several character actors and Oscar winners litter Gotham with distinctive performances and not a one of them is just lazily cashing a check. In short, for the first time in a while, a big tentpole feels like a real film, a true work of art. And, c’mon, Gary Oldman is just terrific.

1. Junebug
It’s an adjective rarely used to describe a film, but it’s all over the glowing notices for Junebug: true. This quiet little masterpiece of cultural divides is so small in scale that its momentous power comes from its trueness, from its ability to accurately depict the world we live in – its social mores, its fears, its institutions of marriage and family and religion – with quiet observation and no judgment. Amy Adams was the breakout star of a perfectly realized ensemble with no weak links – even the guy from The O.C. is great – which seems appropriate for a film that loves all of its characters and understands them all equally. The red/blue state hot-button topicality comes from the viewer’s personal reaction and not from Phil Morrison’s direction, which painstakingly asks us not to love hicks or to give the undereducated a chance but simply to notice how this rarely-chronicled world operates. Even the music by Yo La Tengo strikes the right note of dreamy, everyday wonderment. No pat morals, no big resolutions, no big deal – just a perfect time capsule of our country and all its many contradictions in the early 21st century.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

manderlay: even so-so lars von trier is pretty good

I loved Dogville so much that I both feared and kinda looked forward to the second installment in Lars von Trier's "U.S.A." trilogy, Manderlay -- I didn't want him to diminish the first film's power but I wanted to see what he would come up with next. Now, I know, and while I didn't love it, I'm still pretty impressed by it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

pazz & jop

The Village Voice's annual music poll, Pazz & Jop, brings together close to 800 music critics to vote for their favorite albums and singles. Here's my ballot -- I was much closer to the consensus picks than usual.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

farewell to chris penn

An actor in search of a defining role, Chris Penn came closest to greatness with his understated performance in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. In my latest Consumables, I remember Mr. Penn and review Bubble and the transfixing Tropical Malady.

there goes your favorite local record store

With a nice mixture of music-geek purity and acute business sense, Tanveer Badal reports on the final days of a Los Angeles institution, Aron's Records. Badal used to work at Aron's and captures the essence of what made the store so special in its heyday, while accurately detailing what brought about its downfall.

I feel very much marooned without Aron's. (No doubt people on the Westside feel equally weepy about the close of Rhino Records in early January of this year.) Amoeba is simply too gargantuan to give the same intimate pleasure of discovery that Aron's used-record bins provided. It's a very good store, but it can't compare to my first love.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

bubble

You don't always have to agree with a critic to appreciate his perspective on a film. Take Bubble, a movie that I think works more as an interesting experiment than a fully-realized film. That doesn't stop Roger Ebert from loving it, and I think he raises several good points about its merits and the wisdom of its day-and-date "simultaneous delivery" strategy.

music as more than just something to pass the time

Sometimes reading a glowing review about a piece of work is more colorful and evocative than experiencing the actual work itself.

I still remember being a kid and reading Roger Ebert's ecstatic raves for Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull and wanting desperately to see movies that inspired such jubilant praise. (Consequently, when I finally got a chance to see those films, the resulting feeling was akin to hearing a game on the radio versus watching it on television -- or reading the book versus seeing the film adaptation -- in that the image I created in my mind was more personal, special and unlimited than the real thing could possibly turn out to be.)

These thoughts were swirling around in my head after reading Ted Conover's discussion of Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (also known as Dance With the Devil: The Rolling Stones & Their Times). Beyond simply reviewing the book, which chronicles the band's 1969 U.S tour and sounds like a terrific read, Conover reflects on the value of popular music in society -- and how that value has changed over time. Booth puts it succinctly: "In the sixties we believed in a myth -- that music had the power to change people's lives. Today people believe in a myth -- that music is just entertainment."

I couldn't agree more. And it makes me really want to read the book.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Why Nobody Has Heard of Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Jia Zhangke, Part Two

The recent redesign of the LA Weekly website has made it a little tricky to find a lot of archived articles at the moment, but thankfully I was still able to hunt down David Ehrenstein's report from last summer, during the height of the "boxoffice slump" media frenzy, about foreign films' challenges in getting into U.S. theaters.

Ehrenstein lays out the sad economics of the situation -- and why, like with the major studios, independent distributors have to rely more and more on DVD sales to shore up their bottom line.

(Note: Part One of this thread is here.)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Why Nobody Has Heard of Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Jia Zhangke

Recently, a friend's father lamented that today's cinema has no Bergman, no Fellini, no Antonioni. Where, he wondered, were all the great new foreign filmmakers?

The answer is that they're still very much out there, but that American audiences hear so little about them. This piece by Anthony Kaufman in the New York Times helps explain why foreign filmmakers are becoming an endangered species on U.S. screens. The culprits range from lack of media attention to the competition for art-house space, but here's a succinct summation from the head of a small distribution company:
"I feel as if there's almost no auteur draw anymore. As opposed to 20 years ago, you were marketing the movies around the filmmaker -- Fassbinder's new film, Godard's new film. We still do it, but the honest truth is that the filmmaker matters increasingly little today."
Which I think is very true and really sad.

(Note: Part Two of this thread is here.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

a great start to 24

Glowing reviews of Kiefer Sutherland's hit show, Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada highlight my latest installment of Consumables.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

glory road

Another January, another inspirational true-life basketball story. Here's my review of Glory Road.

springsteen, without cliches

Bruce Springsteen is such an instutition -- more icon now than man -- that it's hard for a reviewer to judge anything beyond the mystique. Such difficulties are no problem for Robert Christgau, though, who starts his review of the re-release of Born to Run this way ...
The biggest problem with Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album was always how unabashedly it proclaimed its own greatness. The wall-of-sound, white-soul-at-the-opera-house Born to Run is definitely full of itself — its lead track emoted over five minutes of portentous piano, its title track laden with glockenspiel and guitar guitar guitar, its thematic burden an unresolved quest narrative, its groove as grand as a V-8 hearse. Newcomers may not get why its class-conscious songcraft provided a relief from the emptier pretensions of late-hippie arena-rock. Yet it sounds greater today than it ever did.

Monday, January 09, 2006