Monday, December 24, 2007

Savagery


I loathed this movie. I wanted to walk out. If you've seen the previews and think this is this year's Little Miss Sunshine, forget about it! Go see Juno instead. The previews make you think: oh a dark but sweet comedy about a brother and sister who come together under untoward circumstances and grow through the circumstances.

The previews also tell you all you need to know about the plot: brother and sister have to figure out what to do with Dad who is getting dementia. They put him in a nursing home.

That's it. What the previews don't show is that these three people are about the most miserable, depressed, duplicitous, emotionally shut-down characters on the planet. I mean, honestly, they are pathetic, evoking judgment, not compassion, at least from this blogger. Do they grow and change? Yeah, a little. But their progress is trifling.

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are good actors, obviously. They are lauded for everything they do, but I have to say I'm sick of Hoffman. This is his second of three movies this year (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead and Charlie Wilson's War). He's overexposed, overweight, unattractive, and his talent seems tied up in knots to me, like he's turning in on himself and becoming predictable.

There are some supporting characters who actually breathe some life into the movie: the married man who Wendy Savage (Linney) is having an affair with. He at least seems alive and passionate, not drugged like Linney (frequent references to her medications show that this was actually a choice made by the writer, director, and actor--to have her seem semi-catatonic, like someone on xanax, prozac, and vicodan all at the same time). And she almost has a little sexual encounter with a male nurse from Trinidad. He was cool and quirky. Oh, and Jon Savage's girlfriend, a Polish woman--she has two scenes and some charm.

One interesting point was not developed. At one point we learn that Wendy Savage received a FEMA grant for lost wages due to 911, and maybe even some post traumatic stress syndrome, who knows. It's a touching scene where she explains that in fact that event really did blow a hole through her professional, and, we assume, personal life. It's affecting and I realized: temporary office workers (many of them "theater people" like Wendy Savage) who worked in downtown Manhattan during that horrible period were probably really affected. Now that would be an interesting movie.

I admit there might be a thousand reasons why I didn't like this movie that might have nothing to do with the movie. The truth is, we sometimes just aren't in the mood, or maybe the movie is striking too close to home, but I've said it before, and I'll say it again, a good movie needs to have at least one likable character, and it should probably be a protagonist. The characters in this movie are just unlikable. It's a total downer.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

19 Ways of Looking at the Holidays: A Very Mark McCormick musical selection


Every year at the holidays I create a CD of music that I've found during the year. I make about 50 copies of this and give to friends and family. Yes, I know it's illegal to make that many copies, and actually I do feel kind of bad about it. If the music industry would figure out a way to sell licenses of music for things like this I would pony up. I know, they would say, "yeah, we do, it's called a single use license. If you want more uses, buy more copies." But that's not realistic; when the technology is there to make as many perfect digital copies as you want, people are going to do it. But if the price for a song were say 99 cents for 1-5 copies, 75 cents for 10-25 copies, and 50 cents for 25-100, I would do it, because it's the right thing to do. Just like people are paying for the new Radiohead when they can download it for free if they want.

But I digress, and in a most un-holiday like manner. The early versions of the holiday CD I created really attempted to find pop songs that had some evidence of the Divine. Bear with me. My quest was to find love songs that sounded like prayers, or songs that were so true and tender in their lyrics or music that they could be considered transcendent, somehow liturgical. For example, you could listen to Chakha Khan doing To Sir With Love and think "Sir" was either a handsome teacher or God, depending on your perspective, which might twist and turn three times during the course of the song itself.

I include with the CD some very wordy liner notes. I work on these a long time. The amount of space I have to write the liner notes is limited--the size of the back of the CD or the inside cover. It's about a 4x4 square. I use a condensed font, and I don't have any paragraph breaks or numbering, which must annoy the hell out of some people who are just looking for a list of the songs. But that's what I do, and some people report liking the liner notes.

This year, I realized I could be even more wordy by extending the liner notes here; I have to be so concise when I write them that I leave out things, but here, on verymarkmccormick.com, space is not a object, so I can be as wordy as I like!

Here then are the extended liner notes for this year's CD, which is titled 19 Ways of Looking at the Holidays.

Greetings. A new design for the CD this year; the title is from Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I know many of you know that, but some don’t, so let’s not be snobby. I've always wanted to use this is as a title for something, to steal it, because it's one of my favorite titles and favorite poems. It also represents a slight break from the aesthetic foundation of the CD. As I said I've always wanted to favor slightly spriritual selections, but I realized that irreverence and exuberance are other ways of looking at the holidays. Of course none of the songs are actual holiday songs. That would be stupid and not verymarkmccormick.

The cover photos are from left to right: a picture of a Christmas cactus blooming on my table last year on Christmas day. It also inspired my first handmade Christmas card, which featured that photo and the words, "The Christmas cactus bloomed on Christmas day. . ." (and on the inside) ". . . and that was enough." The second shot is some chairs in the dunes near Provincetown. The third shot is a beautiful fresh pine cone, also taken near Provincetown.

Okay, on to the music. Starting with Amy Winehouse of Rehab fame (the song and her journey--meaning that she has been in rehab a few times this year. It's sad, because she is over-the-top-talented). This song is my favorite on her stellar album Back to Black.

Umbrella by Rihanna was the funnest pop song I encountered this year, and the truth is I want these CDs to include some things that are just fun.

Young Folks by Peter Bjorn and John is a super-catchy duet about new love; you will end up whistling and reminiscing. Turns out that the whistling was a placeholder for another instrument, but it worked so well they kept it.

I was obsessed with John Legend for a while this year. Save Room is about the vulnerability of new romance. The video is wicked sexy. I have to say that the John Legend that this came from was both a wonder and disappointment to me this year. At first I liked it, and I appreciated the musicality and experimentalism of it; parts of it endured, but in the end I found him slightly whiny and undisciplined as a lyricist.

The Dresden Dolls are a passionate band: alt pop meets German cabaret. This song is, for me, all about the lyrics: "Sing for the President; sing for the terrorists, sing!"

The Bitch of Living is from Spring Awakening, a musical about adolescent angst, and one of the best theater experiences I had this year. I saw this play in New York and thought it could possibly save the genre. Listen, we have to make musicals a legitimate experience for the MTV / Internet generation. Rent came close to doing that, and so does this.

Mat Kearney is another white rapper; he’s no Eminem, but is still compelling on Undeniable. I hear about a lot of new music by reading The New York Times music reviews, which is where I found Kearney, I think. Doesn't matter; white rappers are sexy, and I don't know why.

The next three songs are all interesting covers (remakes) of iconic songs: Maybe I’m Amazed by Jem sweetens the McCartney original. Just Like Heaven by Katie Melua highlights the words of the Cure classic, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun is completely recontextualized when sung by a man slowly (Greg Laswell). In retrospect, as I've listened to the collection a few more times, I think these three songs really drag things down. I regret the Laswell. But I love the Melua more every time I hear it. I always loved the Cure version, and the opening lines are spine tingling in their pop perfection: "'Show me, show me, show me /How you do that trick/The one that makes me scream,' she said."

If you’re finding Rufus Wainwright whiny and insufferable lately, try Jens Lekman: sweet, soulful, intelligent, lyrical and slightly off key. You just want to gobble him up. He sings: “I want the people in the country to be open and kind,” as he explores the dark side of Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo. And after listening to his debut album a few more times I realize I didn't pick the catchiest tune at all, but all the other lyrics are just so weird / quirky, I couldn't figure out which one to feature on a holiday CD. I will say this, though: if you wanted to explore any of the artists on the CD deeper, I would recommend Lekman and Winehouse first. They're going to be around a while, I predict.


I made a video this year about the AIDS LifeCycle Roadies, and this was the soundtrack: Pretenders, I’ll Stand By You. You can see that video if you visit my YouTube channel called, you guessed it, "verymarkmccormick."

Next we have The Roches’ Hammond Song. Whatever happened to The Roches? If you are in your late 30's, 40's, or even 50's, and if you were ever interested in pop or alternative music, I can pretty much guarantee you went through a Roches stage.

Their heritage lives on in Page France; they are pop-spiritual gurus. Chariot will carry you away. You know this band might have snuck past my filter which tries to distinguish spiritual pop from Christian pop. Whatever. I don't want to over think these choices.

Last year’s Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins selection was so popular, I included her again this year and chose The Big Guns. I think more people commented on the Jenny Lewis from last year's CD than any other song: "you are what you love and not what loves you back." But these Big Guns lyrics are pretty potent though; you see I can't tell if they're about God, a lover, or society's troubles, which makes them the perfect verymarkmccormick selection.

Heartbeats by José González touched me, and it’s the background song to a fantastic commercial.

Another Page France, since it’s Christmastime: Jesus (as earth mother). I just love the image of how "Jesus will come through the ground so dirty, with with worms in his hair, and a hand so sturdy." More lyrics here.


Across the Universe was a fantastic movie and featured this gospel version of Let it Be. This is another one I really debated. It wasn't my favorite part of the movie. I loved the version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand the most. The interpretation we saw in the movie was of a heartstruck lesbian cheerleader. It was one of the many moments in the movie where I cried. But the Let it Be gospel version seemed right for the is CD and the times we're living in. Plus, there are few leitmotifs running through

Finally, I was watching television and some show ended with this Janis Joplin song Maybe, and I just thought “yes, we must all remember Janis this year.” And if you could make these songs a circle, Janis would be hugging Amy and telling her everything will be all right. Namaste.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Juno: Fo Shizzle


Everything that you have read (and will soon hear word-of-mouth) about Juno is true. It is a perfect little gem of a movie with not a single false note (as the New Yorker observed).

What makes this movie this year's Little Miss Sunshine, that is, a movie that is really quite impossible not to like, is the combination of a smart script, a simple plot, great understated acting, and quirky original music as sort of frosting on the cupcake. You really do just want to pinch the cheeks of this movie.

The plot is achingly simple and potent: smart teenage girl gets pregnant and decides against an abortion in favor of giving the baby up for adoption to a well-meaning couple.

So many things work, and no doubt most of the attention will go to Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff, the protagonist, who is equal parts sass and vulnerability (and by the way, the success of this film once again proves my theory that all great literature has a highly sympathetic protagonist). She deserves the attention. This young actress took the writer Diablo Cody's (former stripper, btw) character and infused it with spontaneity and intelligence. Credit too goes to the director Jason Reitman who repeats here the magic of Thank You for Smoking: creating three dimensional characters where you'd expect stock: the high school jock, the popular girl, the nerd, the stepmom, the uptight yuppie couple, the working class dad.

The supporting actors are perfect. Michael Cera as the boyfriend--boy, does that kid have a shining career ahead of him. He was equally good in Superbad. My advice to him though would be to get cast against type next time around. Allison Janey: good to see ya! Is there nothing you can't do? Press secretary of the West Wing one day, manicurist, dog-loving, working class step mom the next?

But the real surprise of this movie is Jennifer Garner. You will not expect to be moved by her, but I was frankly blown away at her sensitive performance. Maybe it's because I've known so many women who just desperately want to get pregnant; it's such a complicated vulnerable position. I swear I could see dozens of emotions flash across her brow and mouth in every scene. One moment really stands out: she runs into Juno in the mall. It's already been established that Juno will giver her baby up to the Jennifer Garner character (Vanessa) and her husband (Mark--played intelligently by Jason Bateman of Arrested Development fame). Juno is explaining how the baby has been kicking a lot. She offers to let Vanessa feel it. At first Vanessa is embarrassed--she's out shopping with her girlfriends. But you can tell she really wants to feel Juno's massive belly. When she gets on her knees and puts her hand on Juno's stomach nothing happens. Juno suggests talking to the baby. She starts out self consciously with "hello, baby. . . " and pretty soon she's really communicating with this unborn child. And then across her face, like the sun came out from behind a cloud, we see, I mean we really see, her reaction to the kick! The moment is simple and true. And for once Juno, who seems to have an uncanny way of seeing the truth in all situations--albeit a 16 year old truth (partly unfettered, partly downright uninformed by her own admission)-- says nothing.

See this movie.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

He's Not There But That's Okay


This is a quick mini review of I'm Not There, the Dylan biopic, or, more accurately, the Todd Haynes homage.

If you require a linear narrative do not see this film. If you are willing to think about how our life stories (all of us, not just the famous) could be described by stringing together mini narratives with archetypal characters playing us at different periods, then you might appreciate this film. Most narrative features today are fiction. This one is poetry. Different actors play different Dylans. It's not correct to say (as the press does) that different actors are playing him at different stages of his life. No. I took the premise to be that Dylan was complex and sort of embodied several different characters at once (though some might have been more prominent at different stages): folk singer, actor, cowboy, poor black child, philosopher, rock star--these are a few of the personas Haynes has chosen to represent Dylan.

What surprised me: Blanchett has been lauded for her protrayal of rock star Dylan. I found her annoying, or maybe just that character. And Christian Bale, not a great actor, really was great in this, playing the evangelical Dylan. Charlotte Gainsborg is wonderful as Claire, the wife of the Heath Ledger character (movie star Dylan); I could have seen a whole movie about their relationship. The art direction is finely detailed and imaginative: the seventies house, the white party.

I'm not a Dylan fan and this didn't make me one. I think this movie would have been more interesting about Joni Mitchell. She says that if she ever writes her autobiography the first line will be, "I was the blackest man in the room." (Or maybe she did, and maybe that is the first line. Does anyone know. I know I heard her say this once.)

In summary: it's a slog if you need things linear, but if you buy into the poetic conceit, you'll be satisfied.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Painted Veil, Messy Cholera


Love in the Time of Cholera is about the most boring film I've ever seen. What a waste of talent (Javier Bardem) and scenery (Columbia). I'm not going to waste any more of my life thinking or writing about it, except to say that if you want to see a film much more worthy of the title Love in the Time of Cholera then see The Painted Veil which I, by coincidence, saw the next night on DVD. Over and out.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sister Act

Margot at The Wedding is a complicated film. It does some things exceptionally well, but I'm not sure if, at the end, the film is greater than the sum of its parts. One thing you can't argue , though, is that Nicole Kidman chews up this role and spits it out again. She plays Margot a narcissistic, bi-polar (or boderline personality disordered) writer, the sister to Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also superb) who is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black who plays a lovable loser with humor and awkward dignity). The movie is not so thick on plot; it's just about the very ancient conflicts of two sisters, and what happens when Margot tries to manipulate Pauline into believing that her fiance Malcolm isn't worthy.

Joel Baumbach staked a certain claim in The Squid and the Whale--precocious, mature kids with fucked up parents. Baumach's brand of family dysfunction is emotional incest: adults who are far too dependent on their sons. You find yourself cringing as the parents reveal their messy inner lives to their vulnerable offspring, who are, after all, seeking approval themselves, because that's what kids do.

I loved Margot for its fine detail: Margot wears a nightguard to bed, to keep from grinding, for example; when have you ever seen that in a movie? The dialog is fine, and there's a lot of it. It's a talky movie. There are many lines that will stay with you. For example, when Margot is having a meltdown and her ex husband puts his sweater on her shoulder, she starts crying harder and says "I didn't realize I was cold until you gave me your sweater. . . "

I believe a good movie makes us see ourselves in a different way. But if you say, about Margot, "that's my sister" or "that's my mom" or "that's me" (as I did when she started crying at the gift of slippers saying "when you give me things I don't need I feel as though you don't know me") then you will either really love this movie, or hate it, because mirrors can be cruel teachers.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Before the Director Knows It's 2007



My friend Jane and I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead tonight. We both agreed that it was masterful in its way, but definitely had some quirks worth mentioning.

This is Sidney Lumet's new film. He's very accomplished, the director of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, and a bunch of other great films, plus a host of not so notable films. And it should be noted that he's quite old. Watching this movie, you sense that. Old directors tend to do weird things, like have people make calls on pay phones, or throw their cell phones around in disgust ("this damn new technology! these buttons are so small!"), and have their characters pick up airline tickets from a travel agency (when was the last time you did anything other than use the Internet or maybe, just maybe called an airline. . .).

Anyway, he's old, but he's clearly confident. The structure is interesting: it keeps jumping around in time, mostly goes backwards, but not always. In every new sequence we learn more, though, about why these two brothers would hold up their own parents' jewelry store. It's a movie that is fueled by (a highly original) plot, and by some pretty terriffic acting. I actually don't like Philip Seymour Hoffman that much, because his characters are always so damn miserable (except for Magnolia, miserable but compassionate), but let's face it: the guy can act; he can do a slow seethe or a total meltdown with equal passion and subtlety.

And I was telling Jane that for me the movie almost broke a VeryMarkMcCormick cardinal rule: for a movie (or book) to be successful and gripping, you almost always need a sympathetic protagonist. At least a sympathetic main character. All the characters in this movie are hard to like, but there are arguably three protagonists, and in the end, you kinda have to like the Ethan Hawke character, not because he's so hot and there's a great shot of his ass, but because he is truly caught between the epic hatred of his father and his brother.

I read recently (and I cant' find this now--if you read it too, please let me know) that American movies are currently sort of suffering from an excess formalism, which means that even the best independent movies are perfecting the art of cinema, bringing together exquisite cinematography, editing, directing, acting, music, etc, to create these perfect little gems. The article cited the Coen brothers as being the pinnacle of this fomalism. In other words, try as hard as you want, but you can't dislike a Coen bros. movie, because they're so well crafted. This movie is a bit like that. It's hard to find fault in it, but will you be moved, will you care much, at the end? I don't think so, but it's worth seeing nonetheless. Still, will someone please tell Lumet that people don't smoke in their offices anymore, not even in New York.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tell Me You Love Me: Alright Already I DO


I've been watching the finale of Tell Me You Love Me. I'm crying like a baby, and realizing that I needed to circle back and say that my original misgivings about this show--that there was too much artificial sex, that the emotions and the therapy seemed forced--have been ameliorated.

The arc of this show was somewhat brilliant. In the beginning we saw a lot of nudity, a lot of sex. But by the end the rawness was not the flesh, it was the intimacy. While it might be that the three couples' (four if you count May Foster's) storylines did seem to be resolved too conveniently, the show delivered much needed emotional resolution.

I was routing for Katie and Dave, and knew that they would end up having explosive sex, but what I didn't predict was that they would have to grow far apart in order to come back together again, and when they did it would be powerfully, but tentatively, a scene of mutual masturbation that is entirely unique as far as I know.

And I love how Palek left Carolyn to be true to himself and his fear of being a father and screwing up like his Dad did. Plus I loathed Carolyn and liked Palek, and I didn't want them together, but when she miscarried and he comforted her only, finally, by admitting his own need, well it was honest and delicate.

May Foster says something really profound: "Sometimes therapists can shine the light on the dark moments. Our hope is that the light is not so glaring that you want to go back to the dark. . . " The show was brilliant at showing the particular alchemy of the therapist: how their own suffering illuminates others'.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Mark In Real Life: A few more movies




Movies should heighten reality in some way. Obviously movies aren't "real life" and they are best when they either present a different world altogether, or a reflection of this life that is "realistic" but with important twists: of plot, of character, of setting.

In the "altogether different" category, I offer Across the Universe. In the "realistic" category, I offer (funny, I hadn't considered the title): Dan in Real Life. Across the Universe is good. Dan sucks.

Who should see Across the Universe? The range is wide, from Julie Taymor fans to Beatle's fans. I love how the movie musical is getting re-invented and re-popularized. From Chicago to Dreamgirls and now Across the Universe, the movies are singing again in a way--this is important--that kids will love. It's natural that kids who love music videos would adapt to the movie musical if it was done right: with high production values, quick editing, pop stars. Julie Taymor, though, goes a step further and adds a heightened aesthetic and some edgy emotion.

I don't know why, but when a song that that is somehow in our collective consciousness, our cultural DNA, get's re-imagined in a shockingly original way, you just want to cry. Weep I did during the scene where I Wanna Hold Your Hand was presented as a lament by a lesbian cheerleader. As she's singing, voice full of longing, she's walking blithely through a group of in-flight football players. It's magic. It works.

But Dan in Real Life. Oh my god, seldom have I wanted a cocktail more or wanted to run screaming out the theater. It's an entirely predictable story about a guy who falls for his brother's girlfriend. If his damn family hadn't been so postcard perfect I might have fallen for this. I will say that the twenty something hetero couple next to me seemed to be lapping it up like kittens. Bully for them. That's who this movie is for, but if you fall in that category, but sure and check your brain at the door, or maybe smoke a joint before the movie.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Never go with a hippie to a second location."


If you're not watching 30 Rock you're missing the smartest, funniest show on network TV.

Tonight's episode featured three quick-moving plots. First, Tracy defies a request from Jack to refrain from dogfighting. Second, Lemon meets her comedy writing idol, Rosemary Howard, played by Carrie Fisher, and sees her future as a burnt out old maid, has-been, living in Little Chechnya (she says to Lemon: "you are me. . .you date cute, smart guys who leave you, because you're too complicated"), and finally Jenna burns Kenneth's page jacket and forces him into a "page-off" with the head page. What's a page-off? Well it involves feats of physical strength and NBC trivia. Of course these plots sound ridiculous without the build up, and there's certainly some absurdity in just what happens on this show. But what happens is not the best part. It's the incredible writing and acting. You almost have to watch it twice to catch all the lines and references (when Tracy messes up the National Anthem he says, "who ever knew there was so many words; it's like a Mos Def CD." See I provided that wiki link for you in case you don't know who Mos Def is. They're not afraid of quick and obscure jokes on this show. It's challenging. Hurrah!)

In one scene, Jack, who plays the head of the network, calls in the "NBC therapist" to see why Tracy has issues with authority. The therapist suggests a role play. Pretty soon Jack is simultaneously (and Baldwin is working so hard at this you can see the sweat on his neck) playing Tracy's father, his mother, "the white dude my mom left my dad for," Tracy himself, all in a sort of poor Black dialect. But wait, he also throws in a "Mrs. Rodriguez," the Spanish neighbor. This whole bit is less than two minutes. Watch it. It's brilliant! Alec Baldwin should win another Emmy for this bit alone. In this clip he graciously acknowledges the brilliance of Tina Fey and explains why he does the show.

Jack McBrayer as Kenneth the page: there is only one word: perfect. He plays the edge of gay, straight, smart, stupid like he was born all of these things, if that's possible, and it's not. He embodies the character like Jon Heder did in Napoleon Dynamite. Here's a clip of just him. Boysenberries! Get it?

30 Rock rocks hard!

Watching this episode again, with Mike, an astute and infrequent television viewer, I realized it takes two to really get all the allusions in a typical 30 Rock episode. He pointed out two things I missed: During the therapy scene, Alec Baldwin ends by quoting Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird. And as as Rosemary leaves, Carrie Fischer wails her line from Star Wars: "Help me, Liz Lemon, you're my only hope!" As one commentator on TV Buddy pointed out: "I love how Carrie Fisher is still dining on Star Wars 30 years on.

This makes a case for watching the re-runs. You'll definitely pick up stuff you missed first time around, especially if you have a smart couch buddy!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mini Reviews: Fall Movies

I haven't written much about movies, which is odd, because movies, after theater, are my favorite art form. I haven't written about theater yet, either, but that's because I haven't seen anything new in a few months.

But autumn is the season of serious movies. I love this time of year for that. I don't want to write long torturous entries on everything I see, though; I'm too lazy. Still, I have opinions on what's out there right now, and so I've invented the VeryMarkMcCormick mini review.

Into the Wild. See it. It's ambitious and will make you think and feel. It's scenic. Sean Penn bit off a lot and good for him. Sometimes it does weird, first film things, like the split screen, but I liked it for the story, the acting, the scenery, but most of all the theme: we all have a journey inside of us: it takes bravery to take it.

Michael Clayton. See it. Tom Wilkinson, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack--they're all good. I'm finding I like darkness in movies and music. I mean this is no great revelation, because I've always liked the dark side of things, but I like espionage more than I thought. I loved the Bourne movies, and this is like that in that the plot is largely psychological.


The Brave One. Hmmm. A little cheesy, but watching Jodie Foster work through any horror is a treat. See it.

Darjeeling Limited. Definitely see it. It's getting only mixed reviews. People are too hard on Wes Anderson. Build him up then knock him down. Critics think his characters aren't really emotionally complex enough, or the serious emotional drama is ignored in favor of clever art direction and music. I disagree. I think the story of these three brothers is fable-like but rich. It's archetypal somehow: "once upon a time three brothers traveled to India to ask their mother why she was absent at their father's funeral. They had many bags and lots of baggage. Each brother had some pain: one was in love, one was afraid, and one was confused." I loved the moment when Owen Wilson took off his bandages and said, "I think I still have some healing to do." How poignant to find out the actor has been suicidal as well.

Lars and the Real Girl. See it. It reminds me of a movie called Big Eden, which presented a Utopian version of small town America. As a product of small towns, I can tell you that they do not bend and sway to express their love for the misfits of society as this movie posits. In reality, small towns tolerate a very narrow range of behavior. But we can dream, can't we? What if, this movie asks, what if one amongst us had a delusion and asked us to participate in that delusion. Would we go along with it, in order to support that person, who after all had been Christlike himself, had sacrificed for us, had asked for nothing? In this town they rally behind Lars who falls for a doll (literally) named Bianca. You will find yourself crying and here's why: because Ryan Gosling is one of the best actors living. We believe his loneliness, and in the end, his grief and redemption. This movie is gentle, a warm bath, and sometimes we all need a little comfort. Oh and Patricia Clark is understated and pitch perfect as always. Love her.

Lust, Caution. See it. Ang Lee's new movie is complex and multi-faceted. It's full of atmosphere. And can I say this: Ang Lee likes his sex rough! Consider the scenes in Brokeback Mountain and this movie: pleasure through pain, baby! Bone up on your WWII history of the Chinese resistance.

Okay, so that's it. Can't say there was a dog amongst these. I've chosen well this fall. Agree? Disagree? Comment!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Silversun Pickups at The Fillmore


The coolest thing that happened to me at the Silversun Pickups concert was just before the show. I was upstairs getting a drink, a margarita if you must know, and just soaking in the history of the Fillmore. A pretty woman walked by in a little black dress. I immediately recognized her as Nikki from the Silversun Pickups. She saw me recognize her. She smiled. I smiled. No one else seemed to notice. She is at that level of fame where she can fill a pretty big venue, but still walk through it relatively unrecognized.

There were a lot of "dudes" at this concert. One of them started talking to me. I told him about my Nikki spotting, and he said, "Dude, no way. My buddy loves Nikki!" And off he went to try to find Nikki and his buddy.

The performance was beyond my expectations. Some surprises:
--Guiarist/singer Brian Aubert was remarkably sort of squeaky clean and happy. I've seen the videos and pictures, and he always seems kind of sullen with greasy hair. Not so. He was totally upbeat, fresh, smiling most of the time, playing with the crowd, a real showman and a very impressive strummer. He's got that sort of "Right now I am Jesus Christ" relationship with the audience. He makes graceful and yogic gestures a lot, sort of blessing the audience. I half expected a Namaste.
--Christopher Guanloa the drummer is supremely talented and sexy. He's got "I would kill for that" hair and he WORKS it. His approach is to get into a deep, but very precise, trance as he works out intricate rhythms on every song. He also has a whole yoga thing going on--he does this cute little stretch/twirl thing with his sticks to loosen up and cool down after a particularly intense session.
--Nikki Monninger is a total girly girl sweetheart, seemingly somewhat shy, absolutely without a shred of pretention. If I was the kind of guy who took out girls on dates, she'd be the one. I'd buy her a rose and open doors for her.
--I didn't get a good hit off Joe Lester, except he has a sort of magician-like presence. He's like a maestro of dissonance, an alchemist of sound. He and Brian sort of play with each other as they build these walls of sonic energy then crash them down, kind of like two mischievous kids with erector sets.

This concert was a lovefest. They acknowledged San Francisco for getting them to where they are today: Live 105 was the first radio station to play them in steady rotation, and others around the country picked them up after that.

So what if I was about 20 years older than the average fan there. I can still jump up and down and scream. But maybe I'm thinking about meta-ness of it all a bit more than some (and maybe not). But I do believe that with their lyrics, sound, and presentation they are working harder than any other rock band I can think of to try to telegraph some sort of semi-spiritual message about being alright with shadow, being alright with being stuck, working through difficult shit and coming out the other side.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mo and Me


I've been trolling around the blogosphere, looking at other blogs about culture, posting comments, trying to drive traffic to this blog, because I have like 4 readers and you all happen to be on my speed dial. I mean, it's only my best friends reading at this point, but what good is a blog if strangers don't come along and post nasty comments?

In any case I found Maureen Ryan's blog. She's the TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. She posted a long interview with the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner. It's a thoughtful (and long!) article and interview, but in it they try to expain the character Sal, the only gay character, and frankly I think this character, how he's written and acted, is the one flaw of the show. Below is what they said in the interview, and then follows my dialog with Maureen Ryan.

Article says:

Sometimes the characters’ choices are not what you would expect, because human nature is not as predictable as more conventional dramas would have you believe.

At first glance, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), a closeted gay art director at Sterling Cooper, appears to be the ultimate Manhattan sophisticate. Nothing would faze this dapper, worldly man — or so you might think. But Romano freezes up when a client makes a subtle but unmistakable pass at him, and quickly flees the scene.

"I knew I wanted Sal to be tempted," Weiner says. "But then I started thinking, ‘Well, what does Sal know so far? Who is Sal? Is Sal ready for this? And what does the audience expect?’"

As Weiner says, the drama would have far less impact if the characters’ actions didn’t have very real consequences. Draper lives in fear of being revealed as a fraud. Despite her husband’s infidelity, Betty is terrified at the prospect of losing her home and her marriage, having never fended for herself. And for Sal Romano, a gay man in 1960, the consequences of being outed at work would be severe, if not catastrophic.

“The guy says, ‘What are you afraid of? And Sal says, ‘Are you joking?’ Like, ‘My whole life is at stake here.’ And that is never taken seriously,” Weiner says. “The same way [infidelity] is never taken seriously – what would really happen if you were having an affair and your wife found out and you could lose your whole life? I went out of my way on an episode level to tell those stories with that in mind.”


And I said:
Great review and interview. I'm sure you've written about this before, but what also makes the show brilliant is the art direction, even the sound. Those typewriters, those cigarette lighters, the clicking of the heels.

One very small nit to pick. I don't think you have it right, or the writers have it right about Sal and his hesitance to take that guy up on his pass. See, Sal is *constantly* making these really obvious double entendres that no one notices. Therefore the character would have some self-awareness about being gay. But refusing an invitation from someone he was obviously attracted to, someone who could pretty much guarantee discretion. . . well it might fly if we had come to believe that Sal was miserable and repressed, but that's not how he's portrayed with his glib little remarks. His refusal was out of character.


And then she said:
Mark, regarding Sal, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I think he was afraid of the repercussions of acting on his feelings. I'm sure he's known he's gay most of his life, but he is just too afraid to do anything about it.

Someone can come off as well adjusted and more or less happy day to day, yet be afraid to act on impulses having to do with sex and desire, especially when those impulses might get him fired, and he knows that full well


To which I replied and she replied back:
Thanks, Mo. I appreciate your comment.
I do see how he could be petrified of being fired in a way that gay people today (like myself) possibly can't imagine, because in most places it's different now, but then I have one question: how do you explain his constant double entendres? Isn't he playing with fire? Interestingly, and true to your theory, he does go out of his way on occasion to fake heterosexuality, but isn't he worried that one of the guys will pick up on his remarks? See I think the writers have two different characters in mind with Sal: a campy art director, and a super closted, fearful ad man, but they're trying to have it both ways with Sal, because TV typically affords only one major gay character in a series. Let's just see if he doesn't end up dead which is what usually happens, as Vito Russo so brilliantly examined in The Celluloid Closet. Not much has changed, really, on that front.

[Mo here: I take your point. They do seem to go out of their way to make it clear to present-day viewers of the show that Sal is gay. It's abundantly clear that he is. Yet I'm not so sure I agree that he's making constant double entendres. I know he's always making witty remarks, but to me the majority of them don't have a subtext indicating that he's gay. Plus you have to balance those kind of remarks with his willingness to kiss Joan, and do other things that'll make the guys think he's straight. Also, I think the show is just pointing out how clueless most people were in that day and age -- and how little the subject of homosexuality was even broached. The guys at Sterling Cooper probably never mention the topic, and quite literally don't know it when they see it -- or if they do see it, purposely ignore it.


So if I were to leave one final word--and I'm trying not to have the final word, not to be "that guy" who can't leave it alone--I would say, "are you f'ing kidding me? Listen to Sal! he can't say one thing without it meaning another, usually a comment on the male anatomy." Then I realized the writing is brilliant if it's even getting by the straight audience. Sal is only as suggestive as he can be; his comments are so subtle only the gay guys are getting them. I'll publish some examples soon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Weeds


I just want to gush about Weeds a bit.

It gets better and better.

Tonight, the silent scene with Celia looking nude at herself with her re-constructed breasts was as brave and poignant as anything I've seen on TV in a long time. But the show won't sentimentalize. There was no music and the next scene undercut any bathos: Celia and Nancy's kids smoking pot for the first time.

Eventually we find Celia in bed with Matthew Modine as the real estate huckster. Their flirtation has been building for months. But she is paralyzed with fear that she'll be rejected once he discovers her scarred breasts. He says he doesn't care and confesses to popping a Viagra in her driveway. It's a comedy most of the time, but it's making some interesting points about middle age. Cut to Andy who's finally found his avocation in porn, starring as foot fetishistic stud. He makes a speech about porn being a flesh factory, but no one ever takes him seriously.

I like this show, because it strikes the right tone. It's funny/serious in a Coen brothers sort of way. It has heart, but it's not sentimental. It's funny, even slapstick funny, but it's smart and original. It plays with race, sex, age, drugs, but it's serious play.

I hope the drug dealer Marvin comes back. He was hysterical. So is "Celia's dyke" daughter Isabelle.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tell Me You Love Me: Once more with feeling. . .



Tell Me You Love Me is HBO's new series that is a very frank look at relationships at sex. It features three couples, all dysfunctional in their own way, and Jane Alexander as Dr. May Foster who helps them sort it all out. That's all you need to know as far as plot. Oh, except there is some mysterious character in Dr. Foster's past--which seems to be the only ripple in her unnerving, but I'll admit it, compelling tranquility.

This has been the hardest blog entry. I keep watching this show, then thinking about it, writing about how much I hate it, sitting on the entry and not posting it, watching another entry, editing the draft, softening my opinion, watching it again, then beating myself up for procrastinating more. Tonight, I hate to admit it, but after four episodes, I'm starting to like it. Just last week I wrote:

"I'm trying to like this show. I'm trying to care about the characters. I had high hopes for Tell Me You Love Me. I like domestic dramas. But I find a lot to dislike about this show, mostly nitpicking, trifling things but some big things too. But it won't be any of these things that kill this show. It will implode under the weight of its own earnestness."

And yet tonight, I started caring, mostly about Dave. . .

And I wondered: how could a show be so different in its first three episodes. So I went to HBO.com and looked at the writer/director combos. Yup, sure enough, episodes 1, 2, and 3 were written / directed by Cynthia Mort (writer and Executive Producer) and Patricia Rozema (director), but episode 4 was co-written by Anya Epstein and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. I think someone smarter than me should do an analysis of the gender / racial blends that are going on with these creative teams, but in general a verymarkmccormick principle of understanding TV and film is this: it really does matter who wrote and who directed and if you spot inconsistencies in quality in a series, check this out.

Anyway, here are some random thoughts about what's working and what's not working. I wrote most of these when I was convinced the show sucked:

--First and foremost: none of the characters are likable! This is a problem! And some are downright unlikable, particularly loathsome is the character of Carolyn. What a bitter, castrating bitch, she is. And her husband Palek would be fairly likable, but you find yourself wondering why this character wouldn't have walked years ago. Oh, and did I mention that there's a lot of full frontal male nudity in this show, mostly Palek, but get this: his penis is fake. I'm not kidding; it's a laughably obvious prosthetic. Mark Wahlberg's in Boogie Nights was more realistic. I guess the producers (or HBO) figured America was ready for real testicles but not real dicks.

--Much of the sex is the same! Always starts with an argument, proceeds with tearing off the clothes and about ten thrusts later, it's over. This isn't sex, it's not making love, it's neither soft core nor hard core, it's no core. Oh, and we get it: old people have sex. Now do I have to keep watching it over and over? You know the problem with a show that starts out by being "about sex" is that it takes away all the tension that makes sex interesting. Sex should grow organically out of plot, character, relationships. It should not be an end in itself. We have X-tube for that, and the sex on that site is way hotter. The show is actually at its best when it's exploring why couples don't have sex.

--Would it have killed them to add one gay couple? Doesn't HBO know its base? There better some latent homo in the mix somewhere.

--Have the writers in this show ever been in therapy? I love Jane Alexander, but her character is often all wrong. Shrinks just don't ask leading questions, don't dole out advice so freely, and I've never had one reach across and take my hand, but maybe it's me. What they do is listen, occasionally offer commentary, ask leading questions (yes, like she did in the fourth episode).

--Shameless product placement for TiVo.

Things that work:

--The acting. I'm particularly fond of the performance by Tim DeKay as David. He plays the husband who is desperately attached to his wife, but unable to make love to her for reasons that are not clear; but his wife wants to understand what is happening, why their marriage is a barren of all intimacy (not just in the bedroom) and so seeks counsel with Dr. Foster, played by Jane Alexander.

--The silences. There is a lot of meaningful silence in a relationship and lots of it in therapy too. I like how this show takes its time and lets the beats settle. The silences have a lot of meaning. This is a credit to the director(s) who are responsible, or not, for letting dramatic tension ripen.

I will keep watching, if only to see what happens to David and Katie. His eruption in the Dr. Foster's office was so spot-on, the best scene in the series so far. And yet there's still mystery about what the fuck is going on with him. Is it just garden variety sexual boredom? That's kind of dull. All of the characters in this show are afraid. What is he afraid of exactly?

And I loved the ending, when Dr. Foster nails Jamie on her shit about monogamy. Jamie is the character I care least about after Carolyn. But I suppose the arc of the show will be to redeem them all.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Love, Stars, Provincetown


Annie Dillard's new book, The Maytrees, is a long prose poem about love. If you read it, you will learn something about that lofty topic, and you will learn about why Provincetown is a unique place on this earth--a place I come to once a year for a week, like a religious sojourn, just for (I'll say it!) the light, and something more unnameable, but it smells like freedom. I am in Provincetown right now, as I write this. But I digress, and she wouldn't. Because after learning about love, and about Provincetown, you will learn about the craft of writing, and that is indeed, for a writer at least, a good reason to read.

You may want to throw the book across the room. It is short, but it is not simple. It is spare, but it is not light. The sentences are simple in form, but layered with meaning. The syntax is yogic: it bends and stretches the rules, but doesn't break them. Sometimes her prose seems chiseled or sculpted, and this is deliberate on her part. She says as much in an interview with Scott Simon when she reveals that she will never write another book unless it's in cuneiform, and this is for a few reasons. First she feels that writing on a computer leads to digression and prolixity, and second she reveals that her hands are stricken with an ailment that makes writing longhand or typing impossible. In an amusing anecdote she reveals that one of her earlier books was going to be made into a books-on-tape. Originally it was going to take eight tapes. The publishers cut it down to four, and sent her the proposed manuscript. She was surprised to find that it was a better book. Similarly, she whittled The Maytrees down from 1,200 pages to just over 200, a process, she reveals, that just about "killed her." In the end, she says, she cut out everything that didn't have something to do with the love of the main characters Lou and Maytree. And, she confesses, she left in a bit about the Cape.

Thank god for that, because she is best, and most famous for, creating a sense of place that is at once naturalistic and metaphysical in the best sense--an exploration of the connectedness of things.

I've not said much about the book here, other than it is a love story. I think that's enough: a love story set in Provincetown, spanning several decades, with a full cast of bohemians and thinkers. The setting and plot are secondary to the meditation on the types of love: sensual, sexual, parental, romantic.

She says she will not write another book, that this one nearly killed her, that her body simply can't do it. I think if she told that to her characters Maytree or Lou, they would laugh: if writing is like love, and I think it is, you have no idea what you will do next.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Move in a little Closer. . . if you dare


The word "fierce" was over used at exactly the same time it was first used to describe anything other than a mad dog. It's a word for drag queens and teenagers. But--you know where this is going, don't you--what other word can describe Glenn Close in Damages? Well, consider "committed." She is committed to every single scene with clear intention; she signals to the audience in every utterance that Patty Hewes is duplicitous, manipulative, brilliant, righteous, deceitful, ambitious, selfish, and selfless all at once. I believe it is her screen actor chops that are working here. In film, and not so often in TV--except perhaps in the shows I'm ranking as part of the Golden Age of Television (Six Feet Under, Sopranos, Weeds, Mad Men are the most notable)--we see actors reaching for more dimensionality than television commonly affords, because of its pace, timeline, simplistic (or too complicated) plots and straightforward moral dimensions. But Damages delivers complexity solely in the character of Patty Hewes, not so much the other characters who are more standard / stock--with the exception of Tom (Tate Donovan), who is handsome, loyal, vulnerable, yet seething, but all heart to Hewes' brawn.

I have one gripe about the show. I might save this for another post. It's basically that the whole flashback structure doesn't work for me. I don't think it adds anything, and it's cheesy in its mock horror effect. I think the dramatic tension might have stood on its own with just the plot.

And I'm not crazy about the stalker either. This show is better than that.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Silversun Pickups


it's everything that is connected and beautiful
and now i know just where i stand

I discovered this band on my own, meaning some hipster friend did not recommend them, so I have an odd sort of loyalty to them, bourne of some fidelity I have to serendipity. I love finding things, and sometimes the thrill of finding the thing transcends the quality of the thing.

But that's not the case with this band. What's surprising about Silversun Pickups and my general adoration of them is that they are not typically what I like at all. My musical taste is wide when it comes to pop, narrow when it comes to rock, and only deep when it comes to folk, jazz, or musical theater. So in the narrow rock category, I dislike most anything with a lot of guitars, anything loud and dissonant.

But Silversun Pickups are just that: loud, lots of guitars, dissonant, but underneath it all, there's a sweet emo core. Almost every song descends into chaos at some point, but if you listen you can hear a sweet bass melody and persistent rhythm, just waiting for the vocalist and lead guitar and god knows what else to calm the fuck down. And even when the vocals are a crazy quilt, you can make out the lyrics, which are good and poetic.

This diving-deep-then-surfacing quality is psychologically, even spiritually satisfying. I can't get enough.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Californication: ". . .a little turgidity. . . "


David Duchovny (Hank) is so hot on this show. His character proves that bad boys are just that: bad. Women fall over him, because when it comes right down to it, everyone likes the taste of scotch and cigarettes on a man's breath. And he likes to fight, too. All to bury his pain of being alone and separated from his ex-girlfriend (the lovely Natascha McElhone) and daughter (the scene-stealing, adorable Madeleine Martin).

This show is about dialogue, but it's Hank's show. Everyone else is given stupid lines: "Once upon a time, I used to love you," his ex-girlfriend (the lovely Natascha McElhone) says. Gawd.

The production values aren't nearly as good as Mad Men; it feels a little like it was done on the cheap, except for the gorgeous house where his ex-girlfriend lives with her fiance. But other details seem very Pier One to me. And yeah, I get the point of the burnt out Porsche he drives, or was that all they could afford? But to its credit, there's not the same level of shameless product placement we see on Entourage. Yet.

The show does one thing very well: banter; it's not so good at plot. Or maybe it's too soon to tell. There are arcs and story lines for each of the characters, but as they inch along, they feel a bit forced and bit stolen: Hank's agent's secretary likes to be disciplined. Where have we seen that before: oh yeah, Secretary.

There's a voiceover stream of consciousness technique where Hank comments on his life, kind of like a more literary Carrie from Sex and the City. Is that his conscious, his autobiography, his blog, or some poetry hidden a drawer?

But when it shines, it shines, because it's brave. Hank is not any sort of latent homo, but there's a sweet moment when he's lying on his agent's couch, just kind of rambling, as though he were an analysand, and he's reflecting about a massage he got from a guy where, he admits, he got a little "tingling", and he wonders what it means, ". . .a little turgidity. . ." That's a nice turn of phrase and a nice metaphor for this show--it's sort of confused, excited, halfway to some sort of libidinous epiphany. I like it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Golden Age of Television


I know I'm not the first to say it, but we are in a golden age of television. I just finished watching the Mad Men episode called Babylon, and I can't remember when I last saw a more layered and subtle episode of anything on television. The program of course has crossover talent from the Soprano's. That's been covered widely in the press. But it bears repeating again and again that this is the best thing on TV right now. I am fascinated by the loves of Don Draper, and by his demons. When have we seen such a more morally and existentially ambiguous character? He is like a cowboy in that way, or like a character James Dean or Brando might have played. His soul is all over the map. Tonight he goes from a flashback (which cleverly adds to the subplot of the mysterious brother) of falling down the stairs when he was a kid, to reading Exodus in bed, to having an epiphany or inspiration--isn't the same for him as he has the suits of an advertising executive, but the soul of a poet--in a West Village bistro, circa 1960. Meanwhile, the directors and writers swoop and dive into equally unnamable, but somehow parallel yearnings of the other characters--his wife, his secretary, his boss, his boss's girlfriend (who is his secretary's boss--this is a hierarchical universe, bordering on a meritocracy as we see his secretary potentially tapping a current of embyonic talent).

And if that weren't enough, we have the gorgeous productions values. The New York times is creaming all over the look--the atmospheric perfection of a thousand details of sight and sound: filmic light, the perfect cigarette holders, lighters, ashtrays, the sound of each of these so carefully wrought that the props themselves are characters and objects of desire, which adds of course another layer to the wanting of the main characters. They are raw balls of need, each of them, and it's all just so very close and really very out of reach. . . but we pray for these wounded souls. This is transcendent television.