Thursday, December 23, 2010

Published: "Drawing the line on Gerrymandering" in NUVO Newsweekly

You can read my first article in my role as a freelance reporter for NUVO Newsweekly, "Drawing the line on Gerrymandering", in this week's issue. It's available both on their website and free on news stands in the Indianapolis area.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Top 15 Authors

This challenge was forwarded to me by friend Kelly with the following instructions:
"Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who have always influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes, and they don't have to be listed in order of relevance to you."
Let's get it.

1. Nick Hornby
About a Boy and High Fidelity are both pretty perfect distillations of what it feels like to be a young man caught between adulthood and adolescence long after the universe has shifted.

2. Kurt Vonnegut
Maybe I'm biased because I'm also a native of Indiana, but Vonnegut just gets what it is to be human and manages to relate this in the saddest, funniest way possible.

3. Hunter S. Thompson
Possibly the coolest person ever to live, Thompson pioneered a new form of journalism which really just meant that he had the courage to tell the truth that every reporter is an unreliable narrator.

4. Bret Easton Ellis
The Rules of Attraction continues to be of my favorite chronicle of the fake problems that magically appear in the absence of actual strife.

5. Stephen King
For a period during high school I operated a Stephen King fan e-mail newsletter that at one point had over 150 subscribers. Do we need to discuss this further?

6. David Sedaris
Holidays on Ice is in my top three favorite books of all time. The king of first-person memorization. 

7. Mary Roach
She manages to make even the most unsavory subjects palpable and even fun.

8. Chuck Klosterman
I will become you, one day, Chuck Klosterman. Mark my words.

9. Bill Bryson
I've had trouble recommending Bill Bryson to others because he comes off as dry, but I'm a fan.

10. Sarah Vowell
Maybe it's because I heard her on This American Life first and her voice is so awesome, but I can't get enough.

11. David Foster Wallace
I love the fact that his footnotes often take up more real estate than the actual piece. A perfect example of a writer who sees every detail about the subject he's chronicling whether or not he wants to.

12. Douglas Adams
Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy? Yes, please.

13. Dan Savage
He's probably done more for healthy sexual discourse in this country through his hilarious tone.

14. Whoever writes The Onion/A.V. Club
Consistently insightful and hilarious.

15. William Faulkner
The Sound and The Fury contains pretty much everything you need to know about the American experience.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Album Review: Girl Talk - All Day

Greg Gillis (AKA Girl Talk) has always been one of my favorite mash-up artists. This has caused some disillusion amongst some of my friends, many of whom hold a less than favorable view of him. My friend Sean, who is himself a sick mash-up DJ and claims credit for this mashup of Nelly's Country Grammar and Lynyrd Skynryd's Sweet Home Alabama, claims to be unimpressed by his stylings. Same goes for my friend Zack, whose opinion I trust in these matters as he introduced me to the wonders of Ludachrist just for starters.
Myself, I can hardly contain my excitement that today saw the release of his latest mix, All Day.
From open seconds of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" transposed over Ludacris' "Move" I was hooked. Anyone who has encountered Gillis' previous work on Night Ripper and Feed the Animals will know how they feel about his rapid-fire style and this is just more of the same. I couldn't stop laughing when I first heard "Ice Cream Paint Job" over "Strawberry Letter #23" and that's what I love about Girl Talk. The first few times through the most fun is guessing what will come next. After that the question becomes how he thought to pair the two at all.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Movie Review: Open Water (2003)

For the majority of its run time, Open Water exploits one of the most base human fears: the loss of control.
Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan) are a busy married couple who take a much-needed vacation. During their tropical excursion they decide to go scuba diving. As they board the boat a head count of 20 is taken by the crew. Once the vessel has headed several miles out from shore, it stops over a large coral reef. The ten sets of partners then begin to descend into the water when one of the passengers realizes he's forgotten his mask and is forced to stay on board. Meanwhile, Daniel and Susan spot an eel and begin to drift below away from the rest of the group. Back on the surface another diver has begun to have problems with his equipment, freeing up a mask for the forgetful tourist on the boat. The absentminded vacationer seizes the opportunity and takes to the water before the crew can take notice. This causes the original head count to become distorted as Daniel and Susan are now not counted at all. Satisfied that everyone has returned to the craft, the crew speeds away without Daniel or Susan. When they resurface they find themselves alone, that is except for the ever-circling sharks and jellyfish.
The log line contained in Netflix's description for Open Water reads: "The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws" which really just means: "another low-budget horror movie movie about a small group of people being attacked by an unseen predator, in this case sharks and, to a lesser degree, jellyfish." I don't think this is a completely unfair comparison, but it does leave our some of the most compelling reasons why Open Water is so terrifying. In both Jaws and Blair Witch the protagonists head out on their doomed excursions explicitly looking for the danger that eventually finds them. Open Water is the story of a couple that simply wanted a watery vacation where they'd get to pet some fish. In Jaws the crew of the Orca had guns and air tanks to fight off the great white they were after. The documentary film crew of Blair Witch not only had their camera equipment to comfort them, they had also packed supplies for a, albiet shorter, multi-day hike in the New England wilderness. Here Daniel has only a small diving knife and Susan a handful of breath mints.
And that's why I was legitimately scared by this movie: Floating in the ocean with no hope of rescue, predators closing in from every angle with no means of defense: my nightmares are made of these.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Top 15 Movies

[Editor's Note: This challenge was posed by my friend and former coworker Monica on Facebook a few days ago with the following instructions: "Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you've seen that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes." This was possibly the hardest thing I've ever had to do and (without meaning to) took a bit longer than 15 minutes to whittle down to the list below.]

15. Election (1999)
I love this movie for a lot of reasons. It's hilarious. It's perfectly cast. More than anything, though, it allows the audience to feel empathy for what would otherwise be a totally unlikeable character. If you heard the details of the plot condensed into a couple of sentences you'd hate Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and pity his put-upon student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon.) Election is the 102-minute explanation I'm sure the subject of every quirky national news story wish they had a chance to deliver.

14. Pulp Fiction (1994)
It almost seems like a waste of a choice to include Pulp Fiction on this list. Somehow it just seems too easy. But there's no getting around it: it's a great movie.

13. High Fidelity (2000)
My love of High Fidelity confirms my belief that to truly connect with a piece of art it has to hit you at exact right moment. When I first absorbed this movie I was a tender-hearted sophomore in college who had just painfully ended his first relationship. I felt that somehow this movie was made just for me and no one else, like my name should have somehow appeared in the credits. I'm a happily married newlywed now, but High Fidelity still holds up.
Also, the main character's name is Rob. So you do the math.

12. Clerks. (1994)
Years before director Kevin Smith made Cop Out or insulted me via social networking Clerks. was one of my favorite movies. I loved it so much that when Ash and I drove to New Jersey during our trip to New York City the most exciting part of the journey for me was our stop at the actual Quick Stop where it had been filmed:

When I first saw it I hadn't seen anything else like it before. It influenced my sense of humor for years to come. If nothing else, Clerks. taught me that being witty didn't necessarily mean steering away from less genteel topics.

11. Starship Troopers (1997)
I agonized over whether or not to include The Thin Red Line on this list because it's my favorite war movie. My reasoning was that I should include at least one entry from this genre. Then I realized that Starship Troopers was already on the list, covering that base and several others. Not only is Starship Troopers the basic archetype for any gung-ho war movie (I mean, they literally dehumanize the enemy) there's also hilarious one liners in pretty much every scene.
"Hey, all I know is you shoot a nuke down a bug hole, you got a lot of dead bugs!"

10. Swingers (1996)
Another formative movie in my life. As I write these out I'm starting to get the impression that I think cinema sure was at its best in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s. But that's also when I first defined my taste in popular culture. Perhaps there's a connection there somewhere...

9. Donnie Darko (2001)
Like fellow downers Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Donnie Darko is a great movie that I can't bear to watch all that often. It's so gritty and depressing that I almost feel as if I've already seen it as many times as I ever want to. It's not because I don't love everything about it, it's just hit me so hard the first few times that viewing it again might be too much to bear.

8. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombies are a favorite subject of mine and there's at least three or four other such films I wish I could include on this list. Shaun of the Dead is gets the honor because not only is it hilarious, its not actually about zombies. It's actually a touching coming-of-age story about relationships of every kind. Really!

7. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
I used to place The Rules of Attraction much higher on this list. When I was in college I felt this movie basically defined me as a person. Since I've graduated, though, being this nihilistic and cynical looks less and less appealing. I still love it though and would argue that it's among the most underrated films ever.

6. Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors and while this may not be his technical masterpiece (that would be There Will Be Blood) Boogie Nights is by far the most fun to watch. I love everything about it from the music to the clothes to the acting (Don Cheadle! Mark Wahlberg! John C. Reilly!) The only problem is that its hard to express that to people without them thinking that you only showed up for the nudity.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
This is a case where you have so many good elements you can't really go wrong. Hunter S. Thompson is one of my favorite authors. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are among my favorite actors. Director Terry Gilliam was the perfect choice to bring this fantastical tale to the screen. I just can't get enough.

4. Casino (1995)
Goodfellas is by far more beloved as far as Martin Scorsese mob movies go, but I saw Casino first. Added to that, Casino is longer by about a half an hour so there's more of it to go around. Between the salmon-colored suits Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) wears and the suave dating techniques of Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) it's also one of the funniest movies ever.

3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
One of the most compulsively re-watchable movies in my collection. It never fails to make me smile.

2. Waking Life (2001)
I've watched this movie probably a dozen times and I always get something new out of it. The rotoscopic style is so hypnotic it's easy to forget there's only a very thin plot. I always end up thinking about Waking Life long after the credits have rolled.

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
I was married by a Dudeist priest after walking down the aisle to Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me." When I get my first tattoo it will be over the word "ABIDE" on my right forearm. When the Lebowski Fest first came to San Francisco Ash and I and our friends Sean and Ryan jumped the line and got our picture taken with the real Dude (or at least the back of his head since he agreed to the picture and then completely forgot about it the next second and started walking away):
Is that enough evidence that this is my favorite movie of all time?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Joneses (2009)

If writer/director Derrick Borte's cinematic debut The Joneses gets by at all it's certainly not because the plot was particularly gripping or well played out. But when it does succeed it's because the telescopic nature of the details of the universe starts at an extreme close up which then slowly retracts until the entire picture is revealed.
Well, that and I'll pretty much watch anything starring David Duchovny.
The Joneses chronicles the arrival of the titular family in a upper crust neighborhood. In short order, parents Steve (Duchovney) and Kate (Demi Moore) along with their children Kate (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) have infiltrated every strata of their new surroundings. It's not long before the entire community is playing out a live action version of the ancient platitude as they attempt to keep up with novel family. The Joneses wear designer everything and every part of their life can be had for a price, which is usually a lot.
The reason for their arrival becomes apparent when walking power suit KC (Lauren Hutton) shows up for a family meeting. KC sits the Joneses down and explains how much of a bump in sales each member of the family has driven for their particular demographic. You see, the Joneses have been placed here strategically for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell high end products and start trends in their upper class community. (We're led to believe that this is only one of thousands of such four-person units stationed all over the globe.) The members of the "family" aren't a family at all and have only been assigned their current roles. Trouble begins to brew when Mick can't hide the fact any longer that he's actually gay and not particularly well suited to the straight American teenager role he's been assigned. Also, Steve is new to the "family" and not yet adjusted to the current "family" he's been placed in. Added to that, Larry Symonds (Gary Cole) has begun to suspect something is off about his new neighbors.
The premise is genius and works because it feels so plausible. (I've always wondered who sits down and decides what will and won't be popular this year. It makes no sense.) This idea is the engine that drives the movie along until it runs out of gas and coasts slowly downhill towards the finish line somewhere around the middle of the second act. This means that there's really no compelling reason why its even the 96 minutes long it takes to play out.
It's easy to see how in another reality this would have made an amazing short story.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Movie Review: Born Rich (2003)

Born Rich, Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson's incisive look at the secret lives of the progeny of the upper upper class, isn't quite as shocking as you'd believe based on the controversy surrounding it. In the first 15 minutes of the film the family's legal counsel advises Johnson to tread lightly or not at all while gathering interviews for the documentary. Johnson's father, James Loring Johnson, encourages his son to drop the project altogether and instead start a "career" in collecting antique maps. Sure enough, by the end of the scant 75 minute run time we find out that one of the subjects featured in the film, Luke Weil, heir to the Autotote gaming empire, has sued Johnson for defamation of character before the final product is even released.
Born Rich is, however, a fascinating look into the ways those who don't have to work for a living spend their days and nights. Some of the insanely wealthy children, Ivanka Trump in particular, seem remarkably well-adjusted to their station in life. Others, like S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast Publications fortune and grandson of Samuel Irving Newhouse, Jr., and Josiah Hornblower, of the Vanderbilt and Whitney families, face wildly conflicted feelings about their good fortune.
The most interesting dilemma these people seem to face is the gaping void between how their ancestors amassed their wealth and how their descendants maintain it. Before each subject is interviewed they are asked to explain the circumstances of their family's rise to power. During this recounting, black and white photos are often shown on screen picturing men with handlebar mustaches leaning against modest storefronts as horse-drawn carriages traverse the avenue a few feet away. These were obviously hard-working people, many of which traveled oceans and uprooted their families to unfamiliar continents to make a better life.
Flash forward to the present and the biggest problem for that same family revolves around deciding which after-hours function in the Hamptons would be most suitable for that evening's festivities.
It sounds exhausting.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World by Lawrence Osborne (2004)

"It then occurred to me that perhaps what I was searching for in my own quest for taste was some sort of adulthood. It was a startling idea. The quest for taste might be nothing more than a voyage out of childhood. In the case of wine, it was surely a pilgrimage away from the sweetness of mother's milk and toward the 'unnatural' tastes of perverted (but sublime) old age! From sweetness to dryness; from simplicity to complexity; from certainty to ambiguity."
- Lawrence Osborne, p. 197

Wine by its very nature is a purposefully exclusive culture. The words used to describe every part of its creation alone constitute a sort of second language, one that isn't meant to be understood by the unwashed masses. The need for this kind of esoteric aura is clear from a financial standpoint if nothing else: It's just fermented grape juice after all. Anyone who would ask a consumer to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per bottle with a straight face needs this to be true.
Osborne's book, The Accidental Connoisseur, is meant to be a counterpoint towards this notion. He's not a wine writer by trade. As a wine lover though, he does possess a canny understanding of how the industry has developed over the last few decades. His travels take him from Italy to California to France and back to Italy again. His only destination, as outlined in the excerpt quoted above, is the refinement of his own taste. This mythical idea is what the wine world lives and dies by. For example, noted wine critic Robert Parker, who created the 100-point scale which revolutionized wine industry, has insured his sense of smell for $1 million. A winemaker can spend months and years toiling over the varietals, the terroir and every other aspect of their product, only to be laid to waste in a matter of 30 seconds by Parker's nose.
Readers who aren't familiar with wine culture, Romance languages and European geography are at a disadvantage with this book. Osborne assumes a prerequisite knowledge of at least a little of all three subjects and breezes past obscure references without a second thought. More than once I found myself scanning entire blocks of text with my eyes, only to find that when it came time to turn the page that I had little to no idea what I had just read.
Still, Osborne is frequently a funny and adroit author who has the ability to draw vivid portraits of the personalities he encounters including the aforementioned Parker and California wine baron Robert Mondavi. (Here's some free advice: never mention Mondavi to a European winemaker. You may not make it out alive.) His worldwide travels offer a global perspective on what was once the hallmark of local culture.
"As I see it, the great power of the Americans comes from their having no relation to their own land," French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying. "No relation to anything. They float in a void. Globalization, so called, is just an irrational spurning of history."
Indeed Americans (and especially Californians) receive much of the blame for the mechanization and commercialization of wine by the Europeans interviewed by Osborne. However, this does not stop them from attempting to cater to our tastes as 75,000 different wines make up what is now a $50 billion per year industry.
If nothing else, The Accidental Connoisseur proves that if taste, refinement and history can't be bought, someone forgot to tell the scientists at the UC Davis School of Viticulture and Enology.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Movie Review: "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984)

Watching Jim Jarmusch's sophomore film Stranger Than Paradise I was reminded of the first time I ever viewed Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon. Both films broke barriers and definitions of what cinema was and what it could be and are required viewing for anyone serious about film history. Released in 1950, Rashomon took storytelling to new heights with its distorted flashbacks. When I was watching it I knew that I should be amazed. I should have been overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of genius on display. And while I thought it was quite good and an important movie I wasn't exactly blown away. I had seen an episode of Saved by the Bell a few weeks prior that mimicked pretty much every convention Rashomon laid down (different remembrances of the same event, non-linear storytelling, etc.) The problem was I had already seen this particular episode of Saved by the Bell (and countless other pop culture trash bins) before I saw Rashomon, which meant that I had already absorbed the derivation before experiencing the original. Through no fault of mine other than being born too late, the element of surprise was gone.
When it was released in 1984, Stranger Than Paradise must have felt avant-garde set against the backdrop of what was then contemporary cinema. The concept of independent film as we know it today was virtually non-existent during Reagan's first term. The same could be said for the bleak visual style and use non-actors in this stark character study. Now that Slacker, Clerks, El Mariachi and hundreds of other so-called "indie" films have traveled the path blazed by Stranger Than Fiction it doesn't seem so amazing that a movie where dialogue moves the plot along instead of action could find a place in the cannon.
Stranger Than Fiction is presented in a very orderly fashion. The movie is split into three acts complete with a title card announcing each (Act 1 is called "New World," Act 2 is titled "One Year Later" and Act 3 is named "Paradise.") Each scene is shot in one take and the camera hardly moves during any of them. The experience is something akin to watching a slide show as the screen goes black and the soundtrack goes quiet for several seconds between each scene.
The plot, as much as there is one, centers around three main characters: Willie (John Lurie of Fishing with John fame) is a Hungarian-born New York City gambler who bets on horse racing. Eddie (Richard Edson,  the original drummer for the band Sonic Youth whom you might remember from Ferris Bueller's Day Off as one of the devious parking lot attendants) is Willie's friend and fellow gambler, also lives in New York City, but instead wagers on dog races and is slightly less bright. Eva (Eszter Balint) is Willie's cousin who has just arrived in America from Budapest. The film starts when Eva arrives in NYC where she stays with her cousin for a few days before heading off to her mother's house in Cleveland. Eva quickly becomes bored when Willie and his friend Eddie head off to the racetrack without inviting her. As she doesn't know anyone else in town and she no means of transportation all sees of the city is contained within the confines of her cousin's dingy apartment. A year later, Eddie and Willie leave New York and head to Cleveland in a borrowed car after cheating at a card game. There they quickly become bored after they find Eva working at a hot dog stand. After a few days they head out, but not before doubling back for Eva and heading for Florida.
Jarmusch is a very quiet director and the arc of his films are quite gentle. Almost every scene shows some spare moment from the character's lives that would have been quickly glossed over in a more mainstream movie (especially in 1984.) There's Willie playing Solitare. There's Eva asking where the vacuum cleaner is hidden. There's Eddie losing at cards to Willie's Hungarian aunt.
These are not the common elements of stirring movie moments, but do take up the majority of real life. And that's why highlighting the mundane can seem so revolutionary.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death by Internet: Oxford English Dictionary Edition

One of the scariest results of the slow, painful downturn in print media is the loss of permanence. Physical copies of books are, at the very least, something that can be passed down and referred to year after year. One of the comforts of a favorite book is the material space it takes up. Books frequently outlive their owners.
And now, the unkindest cut of all.
In an article titled "Internet may phase out printed Oxford Dictionary", Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui describes the latest causality of this war of attrition:
It weighs in at more than 130 pounds, but the authoritative guide to the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, may eventually slim down to nothing. Oxford University Press, the publisher, said Sunday so many people prefer to look up words using its online product that it's uncertain whether the 126-year-old dictionary's next edition will be printed on paper at all.
While I find this incredibly distressing, the meat of the article centers around the online version of the OED. Of all the ways digital media has sought to "monetize" (how I cringe while I type that word) its content, this scheme has got to be one of the most successful. Even the New York Times couldn't make it work in the past, but the online OED seems to be doing quite well.
The digital version of the Oxford English Dictionary now gets 2 million hits a month from subscribers, who pay $295 a year for the service in the U.S. In contrast, the current printed edition — a 20-volume, 750-pound ($1,165) set published in 1989 — has sold about 30,000 sets in total.
I am heartened by the news that the online version of this information has been so effectively valued. The reason it has value is another point altogether. Even as online subscribes shell out nearly $300 per year for the privilege, the reason it has value in the first place is because of the physical product. Without the foundation, the structure above is bound to crumble.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Movie Review: "Winchell" (1998)

Like fellow '90s biopic "Ed Wood", the Made-for-HBO movie "Winchell" paints a sympathetic portrait of a generally reviled artist. Both Wood and Winchell made notably bad art in their chosen fields, but they did it incredibly unique ways, Wood with movies and Winchell with his gossip column.
Walter Winchell, here portrayed by Stanley Tucci, basically created the celebrity-obsessed culture of tabloid "journalism" that has grown like mold to cover the end-caps of every cash register in every supermarket in America. Even at his most successful he didn't even write most of his own material, as evidenced by the character of Herman Kurfeld (Paul Giamatti) who acts as Winchell's head ghostwriter.
Director Paul Mazursky breezes past the first two decades of his professional life in the beginning of the movie, assuming the viewer is well familiar with this most famous portion of his career. Instead the crux of the plot becomes Winchell's early opposition to Adolf Hitler and Nazi sympathizer/American hero Charles Lindbergh, at the implied behest of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Christopher Plummer). The publisher of the newspaper publishing Winchell's column, William Randolph Hearst, is perturbed by this as he owns business interests in Germany in addition to being friendly towards both Lindbergh and Hitler. Winchell, a Jew himself, carries his verbal campaign against the Axis powers to the radio after his column is dropped altogether. He then joins the military after war breaks out, only to be called home FDR to once again write his insanely popular column.
This proves to be the highlight of Winchell's professional career. After capturing attention as a serious commentator with his Nazi opposition, he then turns his sights to the threat of Communism. He aligns himself tragically with soon to be reviled Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy as his House Un-American Activities Committee ruthlessly seeks to root out suspected communists. What follows is a fairly predictable slide into television and the kind of vaudeville sideshow Winchell first found success in at the start of his career. His family begins to fall apart as well when his son commits suicide on Christmas 1968 and then his wife dies a year later. When Winchell himself dies of cancer in 1972 only one person attends his funeral. Roll credits.
While I appreciate this movie's intentions, it doesn't make a compelling case for Winchell's legacy. The list of admirable qualities assigned to Winchell by this movie are as follows (while my commentary is parenthetical):
- He invented new words to suit his own purposes, which some found objectionable, but others in the literary arts found exquisite. (I do think it's interesting that he warped the English language to suit his own needs.)
- He was one of the first writers anywhere to condemn Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies. (Hitler was not really that hard of a target to hit, though I appreciate his efforts.)
- He communicated with the common man without talking down. (Even though the movie seems obsessed with glorifying the populist appeal of his sleazy tone, you only need to look at the current state of media to see the results.)
- He loved his country and fought during World War II. (I do respect his service.)
- He was a smooth talker and a snappy dresser. (Who doesn't like Stanley Tucci, right?)
For decades Winchell slung tawdry bullshit on his way to becoming the most famous columnist in America. He paid for information. He buried stories. He blackmailed people. And all the while he wasn't even writing most of what he became famous for.
Still, his contributions to the turn in public sentiment against Hitler, who called out Winchell by name as an enemy to a "new" Germany, and to the English language won't soon to be forgotten.
But ask yourself this: does that make up for us being forced to know who the Kardashians are?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Movie Review: "My Dinner With Andre" (1981)

"They've built their own prison, so they exist a state of schizophrenia. They're both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to even see it as a prison."
- Andre Gregory

"I've lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side. And when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I'm 36, and all I think about is money."
- Wallace Shawn

"My Dinner With Andre" is the most anti-movie movie I've ever seen. If you think of all the elements that make up a movie: plot, characters, scenes, sets, etc., this film fulfills almost none of these requirements. As the title might suggest, 95 percent of "My Dinner With Andre" consists of the entirety of a dinner conversation between playwrights Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory at an upscale New York City restaurant. Prior to arriving at the establishment we see Shawn walking to the subway while he provides a voice-over explaining how the meeting came to be. Years before, Gregory had been at the top of his game in the theater world when he launched Shawn's career by featuring one of his plays. In the meantime, Shawn has continued to work steadily in the field while Gregory has all but disappeared, leaving on trips for months at a time. With Shawn's significant other Debby (Eisenberg) away at her part job as a waitress, the dinner with Andre will be the first meeting between the two in quite some time.
After Shawn arrives at the restaurant anyone in the audience hoping that the plot of film, such as it is, will keep moving forward in any meaningful visual way is in for a rude shock. There's only so many ways characters can be shown in a two-shot and Director Louis Malle cycles through nearly every single one of them at least twice over the course of the next 100 minutes or so. For those ready to accept this new reality, this represents a marvelous break with the accepted rules of the medium. In the absence of any visual cues the dialogue becomes almost wholly responsible for moving the proceedings along.
Another interesting point is that Shawn and Gregory seem to be basically playing themselves. All of the mentioned personal details of their lives seem to correspond perfectly to reality, but even this point is up for grabs once Shawn and Gregory start conversing. Gregory maintains that humanity has become increasingly habitual in all aspects of life, making everyone an actor in their own lives.
The two quotes included at the top of the article provide a representative summation of both characters' worldviews:
Gregory desires connection with reality in all aspects. He sees humanity's predilection towards science, reason and order as a futile attempt to find permanence. Man's attempt to fill our lives with constant static amounts to nothing more than a distraction from the inevitable fact of death. Gregory relates several extravagant adventures he's been on in search of this truth including being temporarily buried alive on Halloween, eating sand on a dune in the Sahara while attempting to adapt a theatrical version of "The Little Prince" and his dalliances with several dozen musical Pollacks in a forest.
By contrast, Shawn is much more grounded in his observations. He desires comfort and freedom from confronting the very realities Gregory runs toward. During the day he writes plays that force his characters to confront these facts, but in his off-time the electric blanket on his bed provides a small amount of comfort from these same issues. He is a working man who has goals, checklists and a routine. These things make him feel as if he has some kind of control over his life. He rejects Gregory's outlook as unrealistic as accomplishing these comparatively menial tasks is what makes life worth living.
"My Dinner with Andre" all but invites the viewer's imagination to work overtime, the very skill most commonly dulled when watching movies. Not only are their stories, especially Gregory's, incredibly descriptive and colorful, the conclusions they draw invite self-reflection from the audience. For my own part, I respect Gregory's outlook, but if I'm being honest with myself, I relate most directly with Shawn. I'm a journalist and I spend my working life wallowing in the misery of humanity so I can relate my findings to others. After the work day is done, I want to do nothing more than free my mind from the facts I've ingested. Much of who you agree with comes down to nothing more than perspective. Gregory has the means to travel to Europe and North Africa to find himself. Shawn has rent to pay and errands to run.
Like obvious "Andre" progeny "Waking Life", this film is a tightly-wound knot of ideas that requires multiple viewings to completely understand. I didn't find "Andre" to have a resolution as such. It merely raised a bouquet of questions I couldn't stop thinking about for hours after the credits rolled. I feel like I could watch "My Dinner with Andre" once every five years for the rest of my life and come away with a different conclusion each time.
Of course, one thing in this life is certain, you never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movie Review: "Severed: Forest of the Dead" (2005)

After years of unabated production, novel variations on the theme of zombies in film are increasingly hard to come by. Some highlights along the way have included slow, traditional zombies ("Night of the Living Dead"), fast-moving "zoombies" ("Dawn of the Dead" remake), demon-possessed zombies ("Evil Dead"), zombie babies ("Dawn of the Dead" remake again) and viral zombies ("28 Days/Weeks Later"). I went into Canadian horror film "Severed: Forest of the Dead" with my eyes open that the plot lines would fall apart long before the final credits mercifully rolled down the screen, but what made me take a chance was its unique zombie premise: A giant logging company develops a genetically modified fungus that causes trees to age three times as fast as normal. Everything is going to plan for the company until some of the trees are spiked by environmental protester Rita (Sarah Lind). When one of the loggers begins chainsawing a tree that has carries both the company's genetically modified sap and Rita's metal spike, the whirring blade swings back and severs a major artery. It is this accident that causes the logger's blood and the tainted tree excretions to mix and create a new breed of flesh-eating undead.
"Severed" was filmed in British Columbia and lends the cinematography a lush backdrop over which to splatter fake blood in every direction. The jaunty zombies depicted are an interesting mix of both classic and contemporary renderings of the hungry undead. The cause of the zombie outbreak is one I've never heard of before and is an interesting break from traditionally accepted causes.
Meanwhile, back at company headquarters, the company's CEO sends his son, Tyler (Paul Campbell), to investigate the problem. The moment Tyler arrives in the company-owned forest he discovers the zombie apocalypse well under way. He quickly finds shelter in what looks to be an abandoned hermit abode along with a rag-tag group of survivors. The hippies and the loggers who had been at previously been at odds now must fight for survival against the zombie threat.
Predictably, the logic train of "Severed" sails right off the tracks into the dark ravine of incomprehensibility, but what is remarkable is how long it takes to do so. It's reasonably well shot and despite the minimal acting and dialogue power on display the first 66.6 percent of the movie is relatively watchable. The increasingly diminished group then reaches the front gate of the property. They find that the entrance has been locked by the logging company who has now figured out what has transpired.
This is when the movie completely falls apart.
Head logger Mac (Julian Christopher) informs his newly-formed posse that the only other exit is behind another mill on the other side of the property. Once they traverse the 25 to 30 miles that separate the two camps they are captured by an all-male group of loggers who have developed a violent, "Lord of the Flies" style hierarchy. Entertainment in this sister encampment consists of treating captured zombie versions of their coworkers as clay pigeons in a macabre version of skeet shooting. This diversion is completely unnecessary and is also a fairly blatant ripoff of the third act of "28 Days Later", released only three years prior.
(And another thing: how did they create this violent social order so quickly? Even if the people involved decided this was the way things would be once the dead began to rise, the infrastructure of the zombie pen alone would have taken much longer than the handful of days since the outbreak began.)
Despite the enormous structural problems that plague the foundations of "Severed" the worst thing a zombie movie can be is predictable; and I certainly never would have seen this coming.

BONUS: Apparently you can watch "Severed" in its entirety on YouTube by clicking here, but you must confirm that you are above 18 years of age by signing up for an account.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Primer" (2004)

If you could change the past what would you do? More importantly, should you?
These are just a few of the seemingly endless number of questions raised by Shane Carruth's mesmerizing debut film "Primer". Even though it was written and performed in the English language, subtitles are absolutely necessary for anyone who isn't a genius-level engineer. The dialogue actively spurns the clumsy "and then this happened"-type expository speeches that litter lesser movies pandering to the lowest common denominators in the audience. Every scene is a clue to unlock a later one, making the finished product a scaffold of ideas so complex it's nearly impossible for it to be understood in one sitting. I won't pretend to understand even half of what "Primer" has to offer as I've only seen it once thus far. What I do know is that this film not only lends itself to repeat viewings, it downright requires it.
Setting-wise "Primer" springs from the same Texas soil of "Office Space". Like Mike Judge's over-educated office drones, the main characters in "Primer" are engineers in the Lone Star State who scheme of world domination in their free time. On the surface, the similarities end there, but it's worth noting the parallel as it frames the mindset of both plots. In essence, both films are about the ever-quickening spiral of destruction wrought by worker bees who have figured out a way to short-circuit the rules of their hives for their own benefit.
"Primer" is the story of Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), one half of a four-man company called "Emiba Devices". The business is conducted in Aaron's garage, which also allows the members to pursue their own inventions. It is during one of these experimentations that Aaron and Abe accidentally create a time machine. However, the limits of the machine's power extend to the time that it has been turned on. After a careful solo expedition by Abe, he informs Aaron that he has constructed a pair of larger, person-sized versions of their discovery in a storage unit. Initially, Abe and Aaron are extremely cautious as to not disrupt the fragile nature of reality, but as time goes on this breaks down. They start by using this knowledge to play the stock market, but by the end of the movie they're preventing armed assaults at parties.
The rules of the universe of "Primer" are fantastical, but the central themes it meditates on are far more commonplace. Like Abe and Aaron, real science often hurtles into the unknown without regard for the consequences. Making money first and asking questions later is an all too familiar tale in the world of scientific innovation. (Remember Olestra?) This is pervasive in no small part thanks to the fact that infusions of cash are much more likely if the science in question is likely to produce a profit. It's a simple matter of incentives.
Extending beyond the world of the wrong-headed unleashing of untested discoveries is the film's statement on relationships. Even as Abe and Aaron are making cash hand over fist and playing hero to those they care about, the connective tissue of their own relationship slowly becomes completely unraveled. Every friendship is the culmination of all of the moments shared together. When these memories become unreliable, so does the future of the relationship. Surely even those in the audience who don't have access to time-bending machinery should be able to sympathize with the idea that tampering with the ecosystem of a relationship can result in complete collapse given enough time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Portraits of the artist

Eric Burch
and I took an excursion to Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve today to bask in the giant Redwoods. It was like living in a screensaver. Here's some amazing portraits courtesy of eBurch Photography that make me look cooler than I have any right to.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anderton Leaf Photography

If you're reading this blog then there's a better than average chance you'll be excited to learn that my wife Ash and I have a photography business. Would you like to know more?


I would also encourage you to click here and "like" our Facebook page, which will allow you to receive updates including selections from our latest shoots.

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Rees's Artisanal Pencil Sharpening

[Editor's note: It is super-duper hard to write an entire piece about a pencil sharpening business without devolving into puns. Any usage is inevitable and completely unintentional.]

Political cartoonist David Rees had already been high in the running for the Award for Funniest People Alive in Rob's Opinion when he masterminded the brilliant "Get Your War On" during the reign of W. His latest brain child may have just put him over the top of that most-prestigious (in my apartment) heap.
Rees is now offering a service he's calling "Artisanal Pencil Sharpening", a service for which he charges $12.50 per pencil.

Via the site:

"REACQUAINT YOURSELF WITH THE PLEASURES OF A HAND-SHARPENED PENCIL. In New York's Hudson River Valley, craftsman David Rees still practices the age-old art of manual pencil sharpening. His artisanal service is perfect for artists, writers, and standardized test takers. Shipped with their shavings and a "certificate of sharpening," these extra-sharp pencils make wonderful gifts.

Traditionally people mail in their pencils to be sharpened; however David now offers a new service: He will provide the pencil.

Rees has now undertaken a Facebook campaign in support of his appearing on the David Letterman Show for a live pencil sharpening demonstration. I just became the 132nd person to "like" this. I suggest you become the 133rd.
I hope he makes gobs of money from this and I suspect he will too. It's just genius enough to work. My prediction: a glut of imitators when this thing goes crazy as I suspect it will. In college, my best friend Cha was evangelical about "Get Your War On" and introduced me to Rees' comic stylings. I know we aren't the only ones. I don't have any hard and fast data to support this, but my hunch is that he's got mad support amongst white liberal males.
"Just because something makes you smile or laugh ... doesn't mean it's a joke," quotes Rees, and he's right. At its core this isn't a joke. Rees is a working man in an increasingly brutal industry. "Red Meat" author Max Cannon described the situation on the ground for political cartoonists in a piece entitled, "The Alternative Comics Apocalypse Has Begun". Like schools slashing art and music during the first signs of trouble, struggling alternative weekly newspapers have summarily dropped long-running comics one after the other. My former employer, the Ukiah Daily Journal, dropped its comics section in favor of free alternatives of which no one had ever heard. (Not that they ever had anything as cool as "Red Meat" or "Get Your War On". It was more like "Family Circus" and "Hagar the Horrible", but the point remains.)
In the age where we routinely expect our most beloved media to be free and accessible instantly and all the time, Rees' pencil sharpening business points out that if we indulge in artistic output, we have to make an effort to support the expert craftsmanship behind it while we still can.

Movie Review: "Inception"

Director Christopher Nolan is a uniquely intricate non-linear storyteller. His plotlines often fold in upon themselves and chronology becomes as malleable as a fistful of Play-Doh. His jumbled technique would be distracting and unnecessary if Nolan were anything less than a genius. Luckily for everyone involved he is and "Inception" is an amazing movie in the tradition of Nolan's already legendary resume.
Since 1997, Nolan has been married to his producer, Emma Thomas. Thomas probably knows this better than anyone, but Nolan has a serious fixation with the sudden, violent, unexplainable loss of family. If his male main characters aren't becoming widowers (as in "Memento" and "Inception") then their parents are getting murdered in front of them (as in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight"). This fundamental disruption in the characters' lives drives their increasing obsession with the search for truth and the nature of reality.
Speaking of mazes, the climax of "Inception" involves frantic shootout in a dream within a dream within a dream while leaving the possibility open for all of that to have been contained within a larger dream. (A great debt is owed to "The Matrix" as much as Nolan's previous work.) Memory and time are as elastic as the manner in which the tale is told. Time within each successive level of dream is increasingly stretched and distorted. This comes with an increased unreliability of the nature of the dream. The dreamer's subconscious is reflected in each dream's bit players. These "projections" will eventually attack foriegn dream inhabitants like white blood cells. This is inevitable in every dream and the tourists can usually only survive a finite amount of dream time.
(As a side note, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be entering a phase in his career that I never saw coming: the mentally unstable leading man. The last Leo-Dio movie I reviewed post-viewing in the theaters was "Shutter Island" another twisty psychological thriller in which his interpretation of events is anything but rock solid due to previous close encounters with grisly death.)
With "Inception" Nolan continues his campaign against the assumption of ultimate truth as it relates to the human experience. Mental disorders plague the victims of his plot twists and make them unreliable narrators. Whether they can't fall asleep (like Al Pacino's character Will Dormer in "Insomnia"), they can't wake up ("Inception") or they can't make new memories (per Guy Pearce's Leonard Shelby in "Memento"), this lack of stability drives their incessant need to discern the real from the manufactured. Lies are constantly being told to them both by outsiders and, especially, the main characters themselves. Solving their own puzzles consumes them and in the process sucks everyone else around them into their schemes. These side characters always have their own motives, but in the end the blindfold the main characters wear is a self-inflicted handicap.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fighting words

Outside of listening to "The B.S. Report" podcast hosted by ESPN's Bill Simmons I haven't followed sports on a regular basis for at least half a decade. That was until the three-headed monster of the Tiger Woods debacle, the World Cup and the endless scrutiny over the new home of LeBron James made ignorance of the current state of professional competition utterly untenable.
After James announced his decision to rob the Cleveland Cavaliers and home state of Ohio of his presence in favor of Miami yesterday I expected there to be some hurt feelings in the Buckeye State this day. What I did not expect was the statement issued by Cavaliers Majority Owner Dan Gilbert in reaction to the move. I won't even mention the unnecessary quotations and capitalization. These are the least of my concerns here.

Via NBA Fanhouse:

Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight;

As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.

This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.

Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us.

The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you.

There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you.

You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.

You have given so much and deserve so much more.

In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:


You can take it to the bank.

If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our "motivation" to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.

Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.

Sorry, but that's simply not how it works.

This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "chosen one" sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And "who" we would want them to grow-up to become.

But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called "curse" on Cleveland, Ohio.

The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.

Just watch.

Sleep well, Cleveland.

Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day....

I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only:

DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue ...

Dan Gilbert
Majority Owner
Cleveland Cavaliers

Perhaps any readers who are sports fans could fill me in: Is this type of statement a normal occurrence? If so I might pay attention more often.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Music Video: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"

This video, courtesy of the A.V. Club's "Undercover" promotion, proves why there should be a filter installed in all new radios that immediately turns every song on the airwaves into a Ted Leo cover version. Can't get enough of this guy:

And if that wasn't enough Kelly Clarkson and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally get to make sweet love in Leo's guitar:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Movie; "Fantastic Planet" (1973)

[Note: This is the only complete copy of the movie I could find online that I could embed for free. The sound is a remix and not the original, sadly. Feel free to mute above video as sound isn't completely necessity for enjoyment.]

I was simply not ready to see this movie when I was 18 years old.
I first saw this sometime around the second summer I worked as a counselor at Waycross Camp and Conference Center.
It has been said “Fantastic Planet” is an allegory for the Soviet occupation of the Czech Republic . I highly doubt the counselor who showed me this knew that, at least not when I first walked in on a showing of this in the Staff Room. (Or was it a staff party?) [UPDATE: According my friend and former coworker Kevin, it was first screened at the staff party at the conclusion of the summer of 2001 held at his house. In which case, it's no wonder I don't remember it.)
The animation here is truly terrifying. Roland Topor was a French surrealist and architect of the film’s design who has clearly done more drugs than anyone I’ve ever known.

It has even inspired producer/rapper/man of mystery Madlib (a.k.a. Quasimoto, a.k.a. Beat Konducta) so much so that he made an entire song using samples from the movie.

Quasimoto - Come on Feet

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Movie Review: "Alice in Wonderland"

Most everything you need to know about "Alice in Wonderland" can be found in the Internet Movie Database entry's "Trivia" section. Some selected entries:

- This film marks the 7th time Johnny Depp has worked under the direction of Tim Burton and the 6th time for Helena Bonham Carter.

- Director Trademark: [Tim Burton] [Black and white stripes] Tweedledum and Tweedledee's shirts.

- After the defeat of the Red Queen, The Mad Hatter does a dance and his head starts spinning. Just like Tim Burton's Beetlejuice.

- Crispin Glover's character, Stayne, has only one eye. This may be a reference to him being a representation of the Jack of Hearts. (The Jack of Hearts and the Jack of Spades are often referred to as "One-Eyed Jack" since only one eyed is showed on the card.)

Next, here's a list of selected movies from Burton's directorial filmography on IMDb; organized by year:

# Alice in Wonderland (2010)
# Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
# Corpse Bride (2005)
# Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
# Big Fish (2003)
# Planet of the Apes (2001)

# Sleepy Hollow (1999)
# Mars Attacks! (1996)
# Ed Wood (1994)
# Batman Returns (1992)
# Edward Scissorhands (1990)
# Batman (1989)
# Beetle Juice (1988)
# Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

I would be willing to verbally fight anyone to death in defense of all of the listed films produced between 1985 and 1999. These are some of the best, most imaginative examples of cinema ever made. Most of them were cornerstones of my childhood the minute I laid eyes upon them. I don't know anyone of my age group who doesn't still quote "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" at least once per year.
After Y2K? Eh, I can't vouch.
As noted above, he obviously can't get enough of Johnny Depp and is totally married to Bonham Carter. I can't blame him on either count. First we've got Depp. If I need to explain to you why he's awesome, then you need awesome lessons. And if you're a director I think you know it's pretty much understood that the spouse is stays in the picture so you stay in the picture when the cameras go away.
But enough already.
How many times must we see this trio bang out another zany tale? How many times do I have to see black and white in an alternating pattern on film? Burton's been using the same visual cues for between 10 and 25 years depending on who you ask.
Not to mention the fact that this is a horrifying, disjointed retelling of the "Alice" tales. Parts are cherry picked from the carcass of Lewis Carroll's yarn. Whatever you think of Tim Burton, I defy you to place him higher than Carroll in the cannon of human artistic achievement. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm going with the originator of the style that Burton only hopes to high-five. Besides that, Burton's visuals are becoming more horrifying each outing.
What Burton needs is a time-out.
I don't want him to take a permanent break, I just think it's fine to slow your own roll and recenter yourself a bit.
And, you know, maybe find some new actors.