Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

I haven’t been the best slogger this year, but I thought I’d offer up a“Best of” entry, with best books, movies, and television. 

Top Ten Movies
I saw about 30 movies this year. Here were my favorites and why.

Midnight in Paris: Frothy Woody fun, and wonderful Owen Wilson performance.

Beginners: seek this out! What’s not to love about a movie about a dying gay dad and his devoted son? Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer are amazing and there are some interesting animated narrative techniques. It’s this years’ The Kids are Alright.

Bridesmaids: I could watch the scene in the bridal shop over and over again. Finally: a chick flick directed by a man who understands how gross and how funny women can be. Trivia fact: Paul Feig also directed a bunch of Nurse Jackie episodes.

Tree of Life: I loved it AND I respect those who hated it. It’s polarizing. As such it takes risks. I found it brave. Where others rolled their eyes (“dinosaurs, really?”) I sat on the edge of my seat: dinosaurs! heaven!

Drive: I may just start a fan site for Ryan Gosling, but I’m sure there are thousands of others.  He starred in my favorite movie of last year, Blue Valentine. He did make one stupid movie this year, Crazy Stupid Love, but Drive is intense, and it’s fun to watch Gosling seethe.

Ides of March: Another Gosling flick! The shadow side of idealism never looked sexier. See how a good man get corrupted by politics but somehow keeps his moral center.

Take Shelter: No one saw this, but Michael Shannon is terrific as a guy who may or may not be mad. Keeps you guessing even through the final few seconds, which I think could have been a little less ambiguous.

My Week with Marilyn: Michelle Williams also had a good year (like Gosling—whom she starred with in Blue Valentine last year). Though rather flat-chested, she is believable as Marilyn Monroe, and I like how this film told the rather tragic story of her life by focusing on just one week.

A Dangerous Method: If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be in the room when Freud and Jung were arguing, this is your movie, and if you’ve ever wondered what that would be like if Freud looked like Viggo Mortensen and Jung looked like Michael Fassbender, then run don’t walk to this smart and sexy movie!
Shame: My favorite movie of the year. Sexy, dark, and brilliantly acted by Michael Fassbender: watch your back, Ryan. Some say the pace is slow. I thought the pace was perfect. I love a movie that earns its right to go slow and seep into the nooks and crannies of your brain though a kind of cinematic hypnosis.

Okay, those were my favorite films. Before you write me about these, the answer is yes, I saw them, and no I didn’t love them: The Descendents (not funny enough or sad enough; The Help (good, but not a great movie; spoiler alert: I'm sorry but that maid at the end would not have walked off into the sunset and had a happy life--that was a liberal guilt ending if I've ever seen one); The Artist (silent, black and white: two, two, two gimmicks in one!)

Almost made my list: Margin Call, Moneyball, and We Bought a Zoo.
Haven’t seen yet: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Iron Lady.

Some of these I read, some I listened to. All are noteworthy:

Role Models: John Waters’ autobiography. I think it came out in ’10, but I listened to it in ’11. Very entertaining, and shows how smart he is.

Just Kids: Also came out in ’10. Loved it. Patti Smith is probably a way better writer than rocker. All about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. If you’re not interested in either of these two, you still might like it. It’s about a friendship that was more like a marriage.

We the Animals: First novel by Justin Torres. The secret life of a tribe of three brothers, and acute observations of parenthood.

The Empty Family: short stories by Colm Toibin. Didn’t I slog about this earlier this year?
Ten Thousand Saints: Eleanor Henderson’s great new novel about a bunch of kids coming of age in New York in the 80’s. On many 10 best lists including the New York Times.

Downton Abbey: Order up the first season and get ready for the second: wonderfully delicious PBS costume drama about a baronial estate in England, and the American/British family who occupy it. So much better than the revival of Upstairs / Downstairs.

Parenthood: If you don’t believe me that this is an outstanding series, read this week’s New Yorker review. It’s well written, well acted and earns every once of its sentimentality. I cry every week. Who doesn’t like crying?

Modern Family: I finally got over myself and started watching this. I was concerned the gay characters were too stereotypical. They are, but so what? The Latin mama is my favorite!

Margot Robbie
Pan Am: Guilty pleasure. No one likes this except me. When did Christina Ricci get so beautiful. And there’s this va va voom character/ stewardess played by Margot Robbie. She’s lovely and a really great actress.

Nurse Jackie: I’ve written about it here. It’s one series that has not jumped the shark.
Dylan McDermott from American Horror Story:
Now will you check it out?
American Horror Story: Seriously, how come everyone isn’t watching this? It’s the funniest, scariest, campiest, sexiest new show! Rent the first season, which just ended. It's even got Jessica Lange for god's sake! What more do you need? (And let me just say she eats up, chews, savors, and spits out every scene she's in). Do NOT watch it alone or just before you need to sleep. It will freak your shit out!

Enlightened: Listen: watch this. Of this entire post, it's almost the ONE thing I really have to insist on. I have an entire slog entry almost ready about this show, starring Laura Dern and Mike White (who also wrote Chuck and Buck and School of Rock). This is the most subversive television show in a long time. It’s a spiritual  comedy/drama that is pretending not to be spiritual by pretending to be and then laughing at its own spirituality. Ha Ha. It’s a Zen koan. It got renewed for a second season but barely. This show needs us.

My friend Ken, aka the star
of Home Made Simple
Home Made Simple: DIY show, very formulaic, except for one thing: one of my best friends, the almost famous Ken Wingard stars!
Happy New Year. Let me know what you think of my selections.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Like to Listen

Forgive me, but I can tend to evangelize something that is already so in the zeitgeist that the only appropriate response from my learned followers (all 10 of you, ha ha) could be an exaggerated roll of the eyes, and a "honey, get this, verymarkmccormick just discovered Hulu! ha ha ha!" Well this is not about Hulu, it's even more mundane: it's about audiobooks.

I'm feeling wordy today and this is a slog (slow blog--yes I coined the term for blogs like this that tend to be long but infrequently updated), so allow me to digress before I start my rhapsody about how pleased I am with myself to be introducing an entirely new form factor to verymarkmccormick--by that I mean, I've written about television, books, theater, film, photography, and probably even performance art here, but with this entry I introduce a few form factor to my repertoire: audiobooks.

Here's the digression: Isn't it delicious when you finally catch on to something that others have known for years. You feel left out, but you can't make it work, and then something clicks. My imperfect analogy for this is teeth flossing. I knew I was supposed to do it, but I hated it, and it never became a habit until one day I was sitting in the dental hygienist's chair and she said in her beautiful Persian accent, "some of my patients do it in the shower." Yes! I love extending shower time. I had already been brushing my teeth for years for two whole minutes with my Sonicare and now here was an excuse to stay in there another 30 seconds. I have flossed every day since. It's not easy being verymarkmccormick, but when it works it works.

So the audiobook idea started with similar life-changing toss-off suggestions from my friend Ed. Once he said he was listening to a book by a mutually-favorite author, Colm Toibin, and another time he said he listened to podcasts and books at the gym and in the car. Ed is one of those super-together people who you aspire to be like, so I took note. (Ed, now will you subscribe to the blog?)

At first I was at first puzzled, because I thought at the gym you had to endure a thumping motivational beat to keep you going, and cars were for old CDs, NPR, and mindless pop.  But I was convinced to try.

So first I listened to Brooklyn by Colm Toibin over a couple of long car trips. I still hung on to NPR for my news source in the morning driving to work, but for long stretches an audiobook is magic. Time flies and your mind is, or should be, really alert because you're driving. Similarly in the gym,  I knew I couldn't give up reading the New York Times on the stair machine for cardio, with a musical soundtrack, but I decided to try listening to books and podcasts while doing Pilates, yoga, weights, with a similar impression: your mind wakes up and gets a workout too. Yes, it was hard to put aside the Lady Gaga remixes, but I did it.

I LOVE listening now, and here's the best stuff I've found:

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. A terrific read, sure, but a more engrossing listen, because the actress reading somehow manages to give each of the many characters a different voice, and all that lovely lilting Irish brogue. I've written about Toibin before, I think. He may be my favorite writer. I'm also reading his collection of short stories The Empty Family--heartbreaking narratives that might very well be a good listen, but somehow seem just right for bedtime reading: a quiet room, soft light helps you witness the characters' subtle and exquisite struggles.

Bossypants by Tina Fey, read by Tina Fey. Laugh out loud funny (people do stare at you in the gym when you laugh, but when you're just walking around with a grin, because you're relishing a particular extended anecdote, well, they'll just think you're enjoying some exercise-induced endorphin buzz, and they'll admire your discipline.) Yes, Bossypants is a solid OMG and LOL experience, and it's like Tina Fey is having such a moment right now so it's delightful to understand what got her to this point and how her life was shaped largely from an awkward adolescence fully of drama camp summers and sassy gay friends in college. Equally funny are her behind the scenes stories of Saturday Night Live and trips to visit her husband's family in rural somewhere-or-other ("what's so great about apple butter? I don't get it.")

Billy Collins Live. Here's an accessible poet. He was poet laureate of the US for a while. (Like Maya Angelou, I believe). He's funny and profound at the same time. Poetry at the gym! Who knew?

Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Engaging, complex novel about a bunch of characters whose lives overlap. They seem to have some common neuroses in common: how to love themselves and each other  in an age of extreme self-consciousness. It won a Pulitzer. Again, the actress reading the book makes each character unique.

Okay, so that's a book of short stories, a biography, a poetry progam, and a novel, take your pick and start listening.

Now, interestingly, one book I'm in the middle of, a perfect gift, Role Models by John Waters does not work as an audiobook very well, though it does work as an old fashioned book. It's got a lot of detail and a lot of asides, the narrative is quick, witty, and smart and if you read it, you'll go fast, but you'll find yourself read sections, even just sentences and clauses again to make sure you caught the drift and to relish Waters' general outrageousness: (did he just say. . .? omg he did. . . ) But as Waters reads it on the audiobook, it goes by too fast. And he's not the best reader: he drops the ends of his sentences, and at times he mumbles; at other times he roars. The state of the art isn't, yet.

I've also taken to listening to podcasts like Fresh Air, and certain KCRW programs. My friend Ed said that listening to such things at the gym is like working out with the most interesting friend imaginable. And in the car it's like having a traveling companion who is endlessly entertaining and doesn't expect you to do anything but drive safely. Easier said than done. You may find yourself leaning into the speakers. . .

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mad Women: See Me

When the universe aligns to make an entire weekend's events thematically connected, it's really cool. When that alignment delivers four very satisfying and thematically linked cultural events, well that's proof of the existence of Saraswati, the Indian goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. And when you learn something about yourself though art, that's, for me, a peak experience.

Such was this weekend for me. By chance and design, I saw four first rate productions about women on the verge of nervous breakdowns--all lower case, because that particular movie classic (and musical theater disaster) was not on the docket.

I saw Another Year, the new Mike Leigh film, Rabbit Hole, with Nicole Kidman (nominated for Best Actress), Next to Normal, the traveling production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway show, and The Believers, the art film production by Katy Grannan.

If you like Mike Leigh (Happy Go Lucky, Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Naked) you may very well like this film, and I liked it very much. It's Mike Leigh light though; meaning that his other films carry a wallop that sneaks up on you like that third shot of tequila. Everything is going fine, you're having an okay time, then suddenly you're on the floor and the room is spinning. No that's the wrong analogy though it does describe the impact of some of his films. But typically his films are more like a holiday dinner with the family--all the usual tensions and discomfort, mixed with a familiar joy and then someone, you know who, that's right, you--or even better, your mother, suddenly makes an announcement: someone's gay, someone's got luekemia, someone's got a secret baby, someone's got a secret life, something. The point is you don't expect it. This film works like that, but the reveal is more subtle and it's not hopeful at all, but it's true, so if you're the one who complains about sugar-coated Hollywood movies and the sappy endings in American films, this one's for you! Now: go see it and please write me an email with these three words: you're not Mary. If you want to see my worst fear go check out Mary. Hey, being single is a choice! Hurrah!

But I swear if being married and having kids means that you may experience the pain of the couple in Rabbit Hole, well, I'll just snuggle up with a warm book for a lifetime of holidays, thank you very much. It's not a spoiler to say that Rabbit Hole is the masterful exploration of a couple coming to terms with the death of their son. We learn that very early. It's a plot point. It's a so what. But the movement of these two individuals--because with tragedy like that there is no group response--through their pain and the dark psychological landscape of grief is fascinating and gripping--meaning that there is some psychological truth and emotional authenticity. Nicole Kidman is great; Aaron Eckhart is passable (but whose idea was it to shave off his body hair?). You won't believe this was directed by the same guy, John Cameron Mitchell, who did Hewig and the Angry Inch, and Shortbus, but there is some logic there: it's in the theme of Parallel Universes: in a different world we are all happier versions of ourselves. The universe aligns to make it so. . . right? True art asks those big questions and then leaves them unanswered.

Next to Normal is touring with part of the original cast. This musical was a big hit in New York and won many Tony awards and nominations. It also won a Pulitzer prize for the book and lyrics. The music is very Rentish and unremarkable, though brilliant at manipulating emotions--which was my only complaint about the show. There is a generic "rock musical" style that's starting: Rent, Spring Awakening, etc. It's fun and compelling, but they can sound a bit alike. Whereas Sondheim. . . well he knew different themes require different sounds. But I quibble. Led by the talented Alice Ripley (hee, hee, that's a pun), the musical tells the story of one family's struggle with bi-polar disorder (with hints of schizophrenia). What a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, you're thinking. Well it is, because again, pain is delicious if it's being acted out on stages by strangers. It's cathartic. Go back to your Literature 101 texts to remind yourself why tragedy is so satisfying: remember sorrow and pity? (Or do the modern equivalent: review the Wikipedia article.) We need to witness this on stage and it becomes a substitute for our own emotions. When we come out the other side, when we survive, we feel catharsis, a purging of the feelings. That's why we often feel so good after a good cry in the movies. I really felt for the family in this show, enjoyed the songs and acting, and brilliant sets. And there's a logic in madness and not-quite-madness, like the husband is suffering. Go see it; it's not in San Francisco very long. It's one of those things that by the time it's gets the attention it deserves, it will be gone.

Finally, do this if you want to be totally hip: go to the Fraenkel Gallery and see the current exhibit, Boulevard, by the brilliant photographer Katy Grannan, then go to the storefront theater gallery at 1453 Valencia (between 25th and 26th) and see her art video installation that loosely accompanies the exhibit. In a little over 9 minutes, she captures somehow the inner lives of three or four of her portrait subjects. It's masterful, because the video installation lives at the intersection of several genres (documentary, photography, portraiture) and themes (exhibitionism, dreams, femininity, street life, aging, impersonation, bravado, self destruction, self creation): in nine minutes! I wasn't bored for a second and I watched it twice and would have stayed longer, but it started to rain, and I was traveling by bicycle with a paper bag full of groceries in the basket. Such is life. As I pedaled home, though, I felt it again: cathartic and light as air. These women who we see everyday: the Marilyn impersonators in Hollywood, the dimestore eccentrics, the ancient ladies in bright red lipstick--they carry a lot of the weight of our collective unconscious. They are doing a spiritual service. I have to say the location itself was also very smart; you hear that it's on Valencia, and you expect it to be in a cool spot. Don't get me wrong, the gentrification of Valencia is radiating in all directions, but right now it kind of stops (or starts) at 24th street. Past that and you're suddenly in gritty Mission proper. Like these brave women: at the edge of cool, and yet comfortable there, thank you very much, because they are therefore in their own stratosphere of cool, you know, the border between cool and crazy, hip yuppie and workaday poor. That's where Saraswati lives, not in the Afterlife.

I came to believe after seeing these four masterworks this weekend, that with grief and mental illness, and with our creativity, should we be brave enough to entertain it (and we all have it, not just the talented--don't confuse the two!) we are all as unique as our DNA. Love might be universal, but love implies "other"--families, lovers, spouses, friends. . .  But grief, anxiety, madness, even the desire to make art or make ourselves art, those are other stories: ultimately we are alone, but there is hope and joy in there if you're brave enough to put out a hand, ask for help, ask to be seen . .

Saturday, January 15, 2011

No picture entry about the best pictures of the year

The Golden Globes are tomorrow night and then the Academy Awards will be on in a bit more than a month.
I wanted to give some very top line impressions of what I think should happen. And predictions . . .
Black Swan, up for best picture, might win, and if it does I may have to throw up. I know that reasonably smart people liked this movie, but I thought it was a fucking travesty. I thought it was Showgirls bad. Laughable. Wretched. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Really, I hated it. I’m not alone, but I’m in the minority. It’s a polarizing movie. And when I tell people who liked it that I didn’t like, they invariably say one thing: Don’t you like Darren Aronofsky? Yeah, I do, and that’s why it’s odd to me that he went down the stony end with this one.
Did you know he also produced The Fighter, also nominated for best picture (Golden Globe)? Now that’s a movie, and very interestingly it’s really about the very same theme: talented young person rising above the influence of psycho-mom to make it big. I LOVED The Fighter. It stayed with me. Christian Bale is the best thing in it—nominated for supporting actor, but he’s better than Wahlberg, who gives an okay performance but is nominated for best actor, Golden Globe; Bale nails the crackhead thing. And the mother, played by Melissa Leo, also nominated. Loved her. Hated her.  Loved to hate her. Amy Adams, also nominated: she’s better as a tough good hearted bitch with a thong an a tattoo than she is as a fairy princess. That’s for sure. And I nominate the ensemble case of the seven sisters for best supporting actress. These sisters—it’s a true story remember, no one could invent these harpies—move and speak, with a spot-on working class Massachusetts accent, as one unit of bad hair, bad manners, and bad teeth. One of the best moments in really terrific movie that is ultimately about brotherly love, not boxing, is when the Amy Adams character almost kicks all of their asses.
True Grit: loved the performance of the little girl, Hailee Steinfeld; she plus Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role plus Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger are terrific in this Coen brothers flick. People say it’s not a typical Coen brothers movie, but one thing it does have is their signature sense of humor.
Acting awards may go to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine—they’re both nominated, and I’ll be routing hard for Gosling. Michelle Williams is an indi/foreign press darling. Blue Valentine is a non-linear story about a woman falling out of love with her husband. And I ask you: how could anyone not love Ryan Gosling? Yes, he plays a big man child in this movie, and yes that would be annoying, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better portrayal of masculinity and sensitivity all wrapped up together so they are one and the same. “Men are more romantic than women,” he says. Yes. I would give it an award for cinematography too. It’s a devastating movie. I cried twice, once when the Ryan Gosling character is moving an old man into a nursing home. Ryan’s character Dean works for a moving company. He takes the time to make everything just right, every momento in place, because he really gets that this guy has had an interesting life, and this is his last stop, and because it was the most brilliant way the filmmaker could show rather than tell the audience that Dean is a caretaker of the most exalted kind (that is, not expecting a damn thing in return).
Two other noteworthy movies, the first nominated, the latter overlooked: The King’s Speech and Somewhere.
The Kings Speech is one of those little gem historical movies that doesn’t hit a false note, not unlike The Queen a few years ago. Like it or not, the royalty motif still plays a big role in our collective subconscious in general, and for Americans, we are still psychically drawn to our national mother: England, her kings and queens especially. In this movie Colin Firth (who I like more and more all the time and whom I’m adopting along with George Clooney as role models on how to age well), plays the accidental King George. His brother was supposed to be king, but he abdicated so he could spend his live with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  Who knew he was a stutterer. And who would have imagined that the drama of his overcoming this affliction would make such good cinema. The Brits make one kind of movie over and over: someone (or a group) works and works to rise from an affliction and then they triumph spectacularly. It’s Billy Elliot; it’s Fancy Boots; it’s Calendar Girls; it’s The Full Monty; it’s Little Voice; it’s Seabiscuit—oh wait that’s American—see we’re still copying them.
Somwhere, Sofia Coppola’s movie, is getting a lot of attention. I liked it, and I like Lost in Translation, but they are more like interest artifacts than really great films. But she’s considered an auteur in the European tradition. American’s want a bit more plot and can handle less style. She has a great eye, and Somewhere goes pretty deep, but I can’t say it moved me.
Also on my wish list, and let this be your guide to rentals / Netflix:
I Am Love—I loved this movie, perhaps, most of all this year.
The Kids are Alight.  Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as lesbian moms. But ignore all that. It’s about family. They’re both nominated for GGs, best actress.
Winter’s Bones. I would love Jennifer Lawrence to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but the competition is so tough with Moore, Williams, Benning, Portman, Kidman, Berry..
Inception: overrated. But nice effects. Nominated for best pic.
The Social Network. If it’s beats Black Swan I’ll be happy. It’s an altogether more honest piece of filmmaking.
Documentaries: good ones this year: Exit Through the Gift Shop and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and Catfish—one of those will win the Oscar, I’m sure of it.
Here are the nominations.
It's late and I'm going to post this without pictures, or it won't get up before the Golden Globes tomorrow night. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shameful if you don't catch Shameless

If you want to try something fun culturally, if you really have enjoyed infrequent blog at all and trust me, you will watch the new series on Showtime called Shameless back to back with an episode of Parenthood. Shameless is the new series (maybe just a pilot right now, but I'm betting it gets picked up, because it's the best new TV since Nurse Jackie) starring William H. Macy, who is, by the one way, the one thing on the show I could without. I love Parenthood. It makes me cry. It's slick. It's Hollywood. It's Berkeley. It's covered elsewhere on this blog. Shameless makes me laugh and the pilot kept me on the edge of my seat.

It's a show about a very LARGE family without a mom and and an alcoholic, absent father (Macy). It's utter chaos, a sort of Eight is Enough for the Great Recession. It's a remake from the British series. Interestingly, it premiered the same night Episodes premiered on Showtime, which is about the bastardization of a British series that's Americanized (like they did to the Office, but you can't say the American version is bad. It's not). I suppose the British version of Shameless is better--that's often the case, at first. Has anyone seen it?

The characters are just introduced in the pilot, and the story revolves around two siblings, the oldest sister, age unclear, but probably 20 or so, who is trying to keep it altogether, for this crumbling family. (All the kids are involved in crime in one way or another. You even wonder about the toddler.)

And it's also about the gay character, Ian, and his next older brother Lip (short for Philip). Ian is the best written young gay character I've seen on TV in. . . forever. This isn't Curt from Glee. This is a tough cookie, ROTC, who works in a Muslim grocery store and is having an affair with the hot, much older, much married owner. There's some great scenes where Lip discovers he's gay and first tries to convert him, then tries to understand, then finally accepts. Nice arc, and all in sixty minutes, unlike real life, where that shit can take sixty years in some families, truth be told.

I haven't posted in a while. If you'll accept these shorter posts, I'll try for more often. You can do me a favor and watch Shameless so we can talk about it. And pass this on to your friends, or better yet, post it on your Facebook.