Friday, June 29, 2012

A Few More Words on My 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Piece

As a fan of Glenn Kenny's for a while, I'm sorry that he despised my piece on Beasts of the Southern Wild, where I detailed my problems with the good but overrated film. (You can read my original Deadspin article here.) As I mentioned earlier today, one of the things I dislike about writing dissenting pieces online is that there's an assumption from the reader that they come from a place of wanting to be a willful contrarian. ("Hey, you know that thing that everybody likes? Well, guess what? I hate it! Ha ha ha ha, you're stupid.") But while there's no way of convincing people otherwise, that wasn't how I approached my Beasts article.

Glenn takes down my argument point-by-point, which I understand since he loves the movie more than I do. But my main objection to his argument is his assumption that my article comes from -- as he puts it -- a taunting "Nyah. Nyah. Nyah." perspective. As Glenn himself acknowledges, he doesn't know my work very well, so I can understand his impulse to project onto my piece all of his negative feelings about younger/web-based critics. (Not that it matters now, but I shared a lot of his views on Dan Kois' "cultural vegetables" piece from last year.) But as a consequence, much of Glenn's criticism of my piece operates from the belief that I'm relishing the opportunity to show off how smart I am by trashing a beloved movie and pouring cold water on the many critics and viewers who have been moved by it. (Why else summarily dismiss the positive things about Beasts that I mention in my article: its boldness, its emotional pull, its beautiful cinematography?)

As far as Glenn's specific points are concerned, I agree that my "authenticity" argument is more about the acclaim around the film than the film itself. But I do think it's a trap we're all susceptible of falling into: We confuse the difficulty in making a low-budget movie with an attribute for why a film is great. Still, Glenn's right that I put that on director Benh Zeitlin rather than on some of the film's admirers, which was a mistake on my part.

Moving on, Glenn was affected by the handheld camerawork more than I was and points out the scene in which Hushpuppy's trailer catches on fire, "which literally had me holding my breath." I think that sequence underlines my problem with the use of handheld in the film. Wink's chase of Hushpuppy after the trailer burns is one of the best moments in the film, and it's strengthened by the handheld camera, which gives it a sense of genuine danger. But because a lot of Beasts is handheld, I think the shock of that moment is diminished because so much of the movie is shot in a similar way. (By comparison, the use of static camera throughout Elena makes the use of shaky handheld near the end of the film all the more upsetting in what it's showing the audience at that moment.) I recognize that that's Zeitlin's choice, but I feel it has a tendency to undermine rather than underline the boldness of his vision.

Glenn also takes me to task because I dislike the filmmaker's somewhat cutesy depiction of his impoverished characters -- presumably because Zeitlin isn't poor or black. "To deny the artist his or her imaginative prerogative on the grounds that the artist is not the thing that he or she is imagining is a form of aesthetic totalitarianism, pure and simple," he writes, "and if that's the way Grierson wants things that's fine but he should at least be honest about it." First of all, I mentioned Zeitlin's race to make clear that that wasn't my issue, unlike Richard Brody who had brought it up. My problem is that I do believe there's a generally unrealistic quality to the portrayal of the film's inhabitants. Of course, you could argue that Beasts as a whole is somewhat magical -- or that it's from Hushpuppy's childlike perspective. But I think that strips away the characters' pain somewhat and creates a protective barrier -- a beautiful artifice -- between their plight and our acknowledgment of it.     

As for Hushpuppy as a character being simplistic, I agree with Glenn that her overriding concern is finding her mother, but that's not nearly as forefront as her general observations/experiences as they pertain to her father, the storm and their survival. She's more our entry point into the story than a fully fleshed-out character, so all we're left to hold onto is her voiceover and her actions, which are mostly reactive. I recognize that Quvenzhane Wallis is young, but so was Victoire Thivisol when she starred in Ponette. I think Thivisol (and the filmmakers) were able to craft a more richly detailed character there than what Beasts achieves with Wallis.

Finally, perhaps I'm bringing my own baggage by drawing parallels between Katrina and the events in Beasts, but doesn't the film's setting (and at least some of its plotting) at least open the door for such speculation? I think it's fair to introduce that as a criticism, which is why I included Zeitlin's comments about the subject.

Before I sign off on this post, there's one last thing I'd like to add for others who have read my piece and found it distasteful. Please let me be clear: I don't think the movie or the filmmaker are "smug." Nor do I think Beasts is "hollow." It's a sincere film down to its bones, and, again, I do think it's a good film. But as I tried to explain in my article, I think the movie's biggest sin is a simplicity/naivety in terms of how it approaches its characters and its milieu, which I think makes it susceptible to indie-film cliches that it can't fully overcome. Because Beasts is being held up as a model of what independent cinema can achieve, I wanted to write about the areas where I think the film falls short. I'm open to criticism concerning where my own piece fell short, but to interpret it as a snotty, hip, snarky, "the thing you love sucks" rant is inaccurate.

The Case Against 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

One of the things I struggle with in regards to writing on the web is this notion that there are only two types of film writing: You either love something or you hate something. (Put another way, you're either with the majority or you're against it in the most incendiary way possible.) So the headline of this post is far more combative than I mean it to be. The truth of the matter is, I like Beasts of the Southern Wild. I've seen it twice now, and there is much that's good about the film. I just don't think it's a masterpiece. For Deadspin, I tried to isolate the five things about Beasts that bug me -- and also how those five things are indicative of larger problems/cliches in American independent cinema. I'm sure people will not read the piece and simply assume that I'm a "hater" or a willful contrarian. Sorry, neither is accurate. I saw Beasts at its very first screening in Sundance in January, and I've had mixed but admiring views of the movie ever since. Here's the article.

Update: More thoughts on the film and my article here.

Erykah Badu - "Didn't Cha Know"

This blog is frighteningly low on Erykah Badu posts. Let's fix that.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Back Stage: A Great Movie Weekend Awaits You

Sometimes with my Back Stage Screen Grab column, the pickings can be extremely thin. Not this week: There are several strong films opening this weekend, whether wide (Magic Mike) or in limited release. With that said, I do want to take a moment to say how much I enjoyed the French film Unforgivable, which I describe as not quite a thriller and not exactly a drama. However you define the film, it's good stuff. Take a peek at the whole column for my complete rundown of seven new releases.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'Magic Mike' Review

For the first hour of Magic Mike, I was convinced I was watching one of the best films of the year. Sadly, this male-stripper comedy-drama runs out of gas a bit in its second half, but it's still a sight to see. My review is up at Gawker.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

'The Amazing Spider-Man' Review

In some ways, The Amazing Spider-Man is almost the odd man out in this summer's comic-book movie sweepstakes. Everybody was salivating for The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises will be the conclusion to one of the most critically and commercially successful franchises in recent history. Meanwhile, The Amazing Spider-Man is Sony's attempt to reboot their Spidey series with new stars and villains. How is the film? My Screen International review provides the answer.

All Hail Neil Young

This weekend, Neil Young Journeys opens. It's the third and final film in director Jonathan Demme's trilogy of concert films about the singer-songwriter. Like the previous two installments, it's great. For IFC Fix, I wrote about the lasting legacy of these three fine films. You can read it here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Who Is Timur Bekmambetov?

He's the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Wanted and the Night Watch/Day Watch films. Because I liked Vampire Hunter -- and really hated Wanted -- I decided to write a think-piece about Bekmambetov's particular filmmaking approach. I grant you that my "think-piece" may represent more thinking than Bekmambetov has given his entire oeuvre. My article is up on Deadspin.

(P.S. I do love how in every publicity still the director is always either pointing or wearing headphones. Look how busy he is! Directors are always doin' stuff!)

Friday, June 22, 2012

'Ted' Review

Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane makes his feature debut with Ted. My prediction: Your feelings about Family Guy will be just about exactly your feelings on Ted. (You know how I feel about that particular show.) My Ted review is up at Screen International.

Back Stage: Yeah, 'Brave' Stinks

Hate to go all negative on you for your Friday, but I had huge problems with Brave. In fact, I really do think it's Pixar's worst film. Brave heads up this week's Screen Grab column, but I have much nicer things to say about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, To Rome With Love and The Invisible War. You can read the whole column here.

Smashing Pumpkins - "Mayonaise"

One of the bigger musical surprises this year is how strong the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Oceania, is. (Seriously, I wrote a whole review about it.) So, in honor of Mr. Billy Corgan, here's a personal favorite SP tune. Just think: To this day, many Gen-Xers probably can't spell "mayonnaise" right because of this guy.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' Review

For no good reason, I held out hope that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was going to be a hoot. And a hoot it is. Totally ridiculous, of course, but still rather fun. My review is up at Screen International.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Sure Like Steve Carell

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World comes out on Friday, and it's a movie I seem to like a lot more than my colleagues. For Deadspin, I wrote about Steve Carell and his many impressive attributes. Hopefully you'll agree.

Monday, June 18, 2012

'Rock of Ages' and Why I Hate '80s Rock

For IFC Fix, I decided to vent a little bit about Rock of Ages and its atrocious music. It's perfectly fine if you like mainstream '80s rock more than I do, but at least you ought to be honest about what horrible things it represented. My piece is here.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Woody Allen Sure Loves His Prostitute Characters

Being a fan of Woody Allen requires a willingness to defend him on lots of different grounds. (There's the Soon-Yi business, the fact that he makes so many movies, etc.) But one aspect of his career that I'm less enthused about is his penchant for including hooker characters as comedic devices. His latest, To Rome With Love, features Penelope Cruz as a streetwalker, so I decided to go back and catalog all the other prostitutes that have popped up in his work. His track record on getting laughs from these characters is rather spotty. The results of my diligent research can be found over at Deadspin.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Back Stage: Marina Abramovic, Mark Duplass and Ethan Hawke Await You

Writing projects delayed me, so I'm only now mentioning this week's Screen Grab column for Back Stage. That's unfortunate since there are three movies out this weekend that are absolutely worth your time. You've got the great documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, which I saw at Sundance and definitely provoked the waterworks in your intrepid critic. Then there's Your Sister's Sister, which I've been raving about since Toronto. Lastly, there's the nicely moody The Woman in the Fifth. Kristin Scott Thomas you know is almost always magnificent, but I think the real revelation here is Ethan Hawke, who once again proves how good he can be when he finds the right material. The full column is here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

'That's My Boy' Review

For the record, That's My Boy is actually a better Adam Sandler vehicle than Just Go With It or Jack and Jill. But, yes, it's still real bad. But bad in an interesting way, which is how I would describe lots of Sandler's recent duds. I explain all this in more detail in my Deadspin review.

Sinead O'Connor- "You Cause as Much Sorrow"

If I made a list of the 10 greatest albums of all time, there is a distinct possibility that Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got would make the cut. While other albums from my childhood have faded in their significance over time, I Do Not Want is growing stronger. (This is even more noteworthy since she was all of 23 when she made it.) The album came out in March 1990, and if the info on this YouTube video is correct, this live rendition of "You Cause as Much Sorrow" was played just a few months after the record's release. Considering her problems of late, these lyrics pierce the heart even more...

I never said I was tough 
That was everyone else 
So you're a fool to attack me 
For the image that you built yourself 
It just sounds more vicious 
Than I actually mean 
I really am soft and tender and sweet

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Relationship With 'Field of Dreams'

Live long enough and certain movies will start to have decades-long relationships with you, their meanings morphing before your eyes as you get older. Roger Ebert has written about this with La Dolce Vita, and in a more minor way Field of Dreams is a film by which I can mark certain chapters of my life. For Father's Day, I decided to write about the film for IFC Fix.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

'Rock of Ages' Review

Rock of Ages covers an era of music that, in interest of full disclosure, I've never really enjoyed. As a rule, 1980s corporate rock pretty much sucks, but that doesn't mean a movie about the period can't still be good. Alas, Rock of Ages isn't that movie, despite Tom Cruise's very best efforts. (Seriously, he's quite good.) My review is up at Screen International.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Andy Samberg's Future in Film

Andy Samberg is a mystery to me. I liked him fine on Saturday Night Live, and I really enjoyed (most of) his Digital Shorts. And the first Lonely Island album, Incredibad, is actually quite great. But I don't find myself that interested in his transition to film: I worry there's not enough of a persona there to make me care. For Gawker, I decided to predict what sort of career Samberg is going to have in film. To make it more fun, I compared him to many Saturday Night Live alums to see if any of them might be a good fit. You can read my findings here.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Is There a Glaring Factual Error in 'Under African Skies'?

I was impressed with Under African Skies, the documentary by Joe Berlinger about the making of Paul Simon's seminal 1986 album Graceland. And one of the highlights of the film is watching Simon perform "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Saturday Night Live back in '86. What I hadn't realized before watching the documentary was that the performance took place in the spring of '86, which was before Graceland came out. As Simon explains in Under African Skies, they had been booked for SNL at that time with the expectation that the album would already be out. But his label decided to push the album's release back at the last minute, so Simon decided to go ahead and perform with the South African choral group anyway, even though nobody in the country had heard Graceland or knew anything about this new sonic direction Simon was pursuing. It makes the SNL performance of "Diamonds" all the more remarkable: As Under African Skies describes it, the jubilant rendition ignited the crowd and suggested just how popular the song (and the album) would be.

The problem is ... that's not entirely factually accurate.

According to SNL's Wikipedia page, that episode (which Robin Williams hosted) took place on November 22, 1986. Graceland came out in August of that year. Double-checking another SNL online resource, SNL Transcripts, it too shows that Simon performed "Diamonds" in the fall of '86.

Now, it is true that Paul Simon performed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on SNL before Graceland came out, but they didn't play "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." According to SNL Transcripts, Simon was on the show on May 10, 1986, and he performed "You Can Call Me Al," "Graceland," and (with Ladysmith) "Homeless." (The Wikipedia page on "You Can Call Me Al" provides a little more info on this matter.) Now, it's still rather impressive that Simon performed three Graceland tracks on national television before his album's release -- one that featured a choral group most Americans wouldn't have known -- but it's still a bit dodgy how Under African Skies presents the "Diamonds of the Soles of Her Shoes" performance as part of that earlier appearance, especially when you have Lorne Michaels during the documentary talk about the electricity in the crowd during that May performance. (I wonder if Michaels has seen the final film and noticed the error.)

To make sure my memory wasn't faulty, I checked other Under African Skies reviews and, sure enough, other people had the same impression I did about the "Diamonds" performance. "The film’s happiest moment is its clip of a 'Saturday Night Live' performance of 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,' by Mr. Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that preceded the album’s release," wrote Stephen Holden in The New York Times. (Randy Lewis makes a similar comment about the performance occurring before Graceland's release.)

I'm not accusing the makers of Under African Skies of lying or anything so severe. Maybe it was an honest mistake. But if it was done intentionally, I'll just say that it's the sort of factual fudging that's irritating because, honestly, why did the filmmakers need to do it? I'd love to see -- and I'm assuming other Simon fans would love to see -- Simon's May '86 appearance on Saturday Night Live to witness just how those songs sounded and how they were received by the crowd before anybody knew what Graceland even was. (Doing a quick search around the web, I haven't been able to find any video of the three May 1986 songs.) That's history in the making, and it's unfortunate that Under African Skies decided to substitute that moment with a different one.

(Update: Just realized that Under African Skies is available on Hulu. Start at about 57:00 and you'll see the segment I'm discussing.)

Back Stage: You Should See 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

Lots to recommend in this week's Screen Grab column at Back Stage. Prometheus and Madagascar 3 are both worthwhile -- although it's hard to imagine the person who wants to see both movies -- and there are two good indies as well, Safety Not Guaranteed and Dark Horse. The latter is the latest from director Todd Solondz; the former stars Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza. Oh, and seriously, avoid Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding. You may remember that I saw it back in Toronto. Yeah, it's not so good. Here's this week's complete column, which has reviews of those movies and others.

Beach House - "Myth"

"[I]t's not the band's most immediate music, but the album's challenging mix of heartbroken words and aloof sounds rewards patient and repeated listening." That's what Heather Phares has to say about Beach House's new album, Bloom, over at AllMusic, and I agree. Except, I thought it was pretty darn immediate from the get-go -- and then it just grew on me from there. Here's the opening track, "Myth."

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

'Prometheus' Review

A feast in 3D, Prometheus is a beautiful, glorious experience. From a visual standpoint, anyway -- the storytelling is a bit more problematic. But, once again, Michael Fassbender absolutely kills it. My review is up at Gawker.

Monday, June 04, 2012

What Went Wrong With the Snow White Films?

I was never particularly enthused about the fact that two revamps of the Snow White story were coming our way this year. Living down to my expectations, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman were both rather disappointing films. But could their problems be in part attributable to the way the films rethought Snow White for the modern age? That's the thesis that I explore over at IFC Fix.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Is Ridley Scott a Great Director or an Overrated One?

I'm going to cheat and say "both." For Gawker, I explain why the director of Prometheus is not one of my favorites, even though he's beloved by many.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Eels - "That Look You Give That Guy"

A little more than two years after I conducted my first interview for it, my book on the Eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations: The Story of Eels, arrives today in stores in the U.S. (You can order it here from Amazon.) I can't believe it. After all the interviews and research and writing, I still can't quite come to terms with the fact that a book I've wanted to write for about 10 years is out there in the world.

When my interview subjects would ask me about my interest in writing a book on Eels, I always told them the same story. When my wife and I were first dating, she asked me, "If you could write a book about any artist, who would it be?" She assumed I would want to write one on Bob Dylan because he's my favorite musician of all time, but I responded that everyone has written a Dylan book -- what else is there to say about him? "No, I'd really like to write a book about E. He's really underrated, and someone needs to explain why he's such a fantastic songwriter." Years later, I was approached by Omnibus Press to write an Eels book -- it was a dream come true.

My hope is that Eels fans will love my book and feel that I've expressed their own thoughts about E's genius. During the process of writing this book -- the first full-length Eels biography -- the two most discouraging responses I would get from people were: (1) "You're writing a book about the Eagles?" -- clearly, I need to enunciate better -- and (2) "Didn't the Eels have, like, one hit? Is there interest in an Eels book?" I want my book to help explain why E has been one of the most consistent musical forces of the last 20 years, even if not enough people were paying attention.

I'm still too close to the experience of writing The Story of Eels to fully absorb what it meant to my life. I got to meet some pretty amazing people, who generously shared their stories. And while E didn't sit down for an interview, he was kind enough to let some of those close to him talk to me, which I very much appreciate. I don't expect this book to have a wide audience, but like the Eels' music, it's not supposed to. It's meant for those who care. And I hope they do.

Since today is also Friday, that means it's time for your weekly video. Of course, it's by Eels. Beautiful song, hilarious clip.