Monday, December 24, 2007


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, 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.