The Junk Food of Writing

Monday, June 22, 2009

An obvious title for a subtle film

Mean Creek (Jacob Aaron Estes, 2004)

Back in 2004, Mean Creek was released to highly favorable reviews and paltry box-office (roughly $600k). In 2005 and beyond, Mean Creek was apparently forgotten. Its relative obscurity seems like an unfortunately logical trajectory for this small sensitive film; it's an intimate look at a topic that is often tackled by absurd, over-the-top TV-movies and after-school specials. Just like the subdued, intelligent small-fry in glasses who has trouble finding a seat at lunch, Mean Creek remains respected and complex yet unpopular.

In the face of verbal and physical abuse, Sam Merric (Rory Culkin) doesn't feel particularly comfortable. The core of Mean Creek focuses on Sam's disillusionment--how he gradually becomes jaded to a violent and unfair world of youth where biceps momentarily trump brains; Estes and Culkin delicately probe the difficultly of being a sensitive child in an indifferent universe (whether that represents only high school or a more expansive worldview is the question). On the surface, this affecting morality tale looks like just another teenage revenge story, but it has deeper levels than the usually shallow vindictive tale. The whole cast, blemishes and all, turn in impressively nuanced performances; they create a collective ensemble that displays a mature understanding of human dynamics. Mean Creek slightly wonders aimlessly and isn't completely devoid of tropes of teenage anomie, but it never loses focus of its piercing adolescent angst and treatise on the superfluity of (particularly unprovoked) violence. As the weight of the consequence becomes a heavy burden, Estes balances the gravitas with truthful ambiguity.

You can view Mean Creek online, at

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Oh, the wonders of (one of) my internship(s)

Backstory: My full-time, paid internship as a production editorial intern is at a publishing house, where most of my tasks include proofreading/copyediting and playing with maps/arguing with cartographers, among many other duties that sound dull but entertain me enough. This is my ode to the peculiar love I possess for proofreading.

-Oh, the pleasure I get from finding a mistake--making myself feel useful, important and, if it's a discreet error, rather clever.
-The mirth experienced upon discovering a comma splice--the joyful reaffirmation of finding a second.
-"Over production"? That's one word, right? Yes! Sweet sensation.

Hmm, it's almost 5:30; I should leave the office soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm allegic to dust.

Oh dear, cobwebs are starting to grow on this blog. Let me just dust them off with my Top 20 on 2006, because I am nearly finished with that year in cinema (I topped out at 98). I hate to rank the top ten, because they're all nearly equal in my eyes. I, however, decided to include some thoughts on my three favorite films from this past year.

1. Old Joy (Riechardt)

Striking many truthful chords in tiny moments, Old Joy is an insightful meditation on near-middle-age malaise. On the surface, it revolves around a hiking trip through the lush, green woods of Portland with two, recently reunited old pals. One is a married thirtysomething on the brink of fatherhood while the other is on the precipice of stoner-oblivion. The interactions between these buddies are appropriately uncomfortable. Old Joy is emotionally charged in the most delicately nuanced way; the true emotions perpetually bubble under the surface. The characters realistically express themselves through facial expression, not over-explicit dialogue. Its title and presentation are richly ambiguous, but Old Joy is among the best of 2006 for its painfully honest depiction of expired friendship and the failure of nostalgia.
2. Duck Season (Eimbcke)

Forget the "Three Amigos" (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron), the best film by a Mexican director was Duck Season. Do not be fooled by its minimalist facade—this little Mexican gem has the capacity to charm the coldest moviegoer with its modesty, dry wit and acute representation of those awkward early teenage years. The film, similar to that confusing and languid stage in life, is all about passing the time. Two young friends, an eccentric pizza delivery man and the pretty neighbor collectively cope with the lack of electricity after a blackout; consequently, they furtively tease out the film’s potent themes concerning the apprehensions of growing up and true camaraderie. Filled with droll humor and authentic, unforced epiphanies, Duck Season’s poignancy really sneaks up on you. Catch onto its wavelength and it will be a delightful experience.

3. Shortbus (Mitchell)

Despite the overbearing ubiquity of multi-narrative films in 2006, no film has come as close to capturing that elusive feeling of interconnectedness like Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s follow up to his breath-of-fresh-air musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The deeply emotional Shortbus succeeds due to its wide scope in tackling the conflicted inhabitants of Manhattan, its brilliant use of Animal Collective’s primal “Winters Love” and the honesty of its characters and performances. In Robert Altman’s wake, Shortbus is the only film to pay homage, and not bastardize or oversimplify, his mosaic paradigm. Unlike other films of its structural ilk, this candid presentation of sex and alienation in an increasingly modern world does not seem overly calculated; it’s entirely genuine. Shortbus is long on ideas—oh, and it’s absolutely hilarious.

And the rest...
4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu)
5. Brick (Johnson)
6. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Winterbottom)
7. Volver (Almodovar)
8. Mutual Appreciation (Bujalski)
9. Woman on the Beach (Hong)
10. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai)
11. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Feuerzeig)
12. The Hole Story (Karpovsky)
13. Monster House (Kenan)
14. Half Nelson (Fleck)
15. L’enfant (Dardenne bros.)
16. The Painted Veil (Curran)
17. LOL (Swanberg)
18. Iron Island (Rasoulof)
19. Marie Antoinette (Coppola)
20. Children of Men (Cuaron)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pure musical genius.

I have discovered my new favorite pop song, usurping Prussian Blue's anthemic "Victory Day."

It's just so damn catchy -- I can't help but sing along to its truthful tunes, homophobic hooks and tempos of intolerance.

New Beginnings Camp, Summer 2007 -- sign me up!

Monday, January 22, 2007

I would rather be insane than boring.

Do you remember that moment of every Academy Award ceremony when some random celebrity is given the menial task to state that the show will be broadcast in some inordinate amount of countries, as if the world really cares? This the first time I will be happy to hear that and not yell, "great -- now get off the stage and give away another award."

For the first year since I have become an unabashed Oscar watcher (I type "unabashed" with a bit of reservation, however, since our relationship can easily be summed up by the word "masochostic"), I will not be in front of my northeastern, American television watching the ceremony at promptly 8PM. I will comfortably settle, although I'm sure "uncomfortably squirm" will ultimately be more accurate, into the common room around 2 AM with some popcorn and other irascible cinephiles (and a few annoying fashionistas) to watch the Academy Awards on German television (even though I'm residing in a castle in the Netherlands).

Although only a week or two ago the Oscar race for nominations seemed wide open, it's inevitable that, as the guilds announce nominees and winners, the nominees become way too clear and, frankly, begin to bore me. Therefore, I'm offering my predictions, but I am only writing comments (or justifications) for my more irrational choices. This year, the only race with variety that should demand rationalizing commentary is the Best Supporting Actor race, which is becoming duller by the millisecond.

Best Picture:
The Departed
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Ew. Yup.

Best Director:
Pedro Almodovar, Volver
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

If any category feels deceptively secure, it's this one; I even believe that Frears is vulnerable. I'm expecting at least one foreign-language director, besides Inarritu (so either Almodovar, Cuaron, Del Toro), but I'm much too timid to predict any of them. Almodovar has been nominated here too recently and his film isn't even a lock for a screenplay nomination, which Volver needs in order for Pedro to break in here. Cuaron will not get in for the sole reason that it would make too many people happy and Del Toro probably does not have the buzz here to overcome his film's "genre" status (I think both will be awarded with screenplay nods, though). I have a sneaking suspicion that Almodovar will score here. If he's being anointed as the new Fellini for the Academy, he's got to start picking up those directing nods.

Best Actor:
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make for Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

I optimistically included Almodovar for wishful thinking and I'm pessimistically excluding Ryan Gosling here in hopes that I'll be pleasantly surprised. As for Sacha Baron Cohen, the academy has recently been trying their hardest to seem hip. Usually they just use the Best Song category ("It's Hard Out There for a Pimp," "Lose Yourself"), but this year they're turning towards the category they nominated a pirate in just a few years ago. Come on, even Warren Beatty attempted to mimic Borat in public (and what a hilariously awful and desperate attempt it was). I'm actually curious to see if DiCaprio makes the list for Blood Diamond. I have no idea what's going on with that mess, so I'm just leaving him up there for The Departed.

Best Actress:
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sherrybaby
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Why is Maggie on this list instead of Kate? Because I'm bored, or crazy -- I can't decide between the two, so let's just say both.

Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

I would rather give Eddie Murphy an Oscar for his "Party All the Time" music video than Dreamgirls. I'm not exactly sure which is chessier. Only one Departed chap will make it. Remember, I'm going nuts here, because Jack makes so much more sense. I refuse, however, to make sense of this category.

Best Supporting Actress:
Adrianna Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration

I'm almost as sure that Abigail Breslin will be left off this list as I was that she would snag a SAG nomination. Child stars usually need both a Golden Globe and SAG nomination to pull off an Oscar citation (like Haley Joel Osment). Abigail Breslin will join Freddie Highmore and Dakota Fanning at the SAG kid's table. The only thing I cannot figure out is...who is going to replace her?

Best Original Screenplay:
Little Miss Sunshine
Pan's Labyrinth
The Queen

I would include Half Nelson if I was sure which category it belongs in; since I'm uncertain, the Academy must also be, so no nomination for Fleck and Boden.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Children of Men
The Departed
Little Children

Which heavy-handed drama will make it? Little Children or Notes on a Scandal. Which comedy will make it? Borat or Thank You for Smoking? They gave the middle finger to Patrick Marber for Closer even after the Globe nomination and the lack of WGA recognition is troubling. Perhaps personal preference is clouding my power of prediction, but I refuse to believe that Thank You for Smoking's fire-in-all-directions, yet oddly remain dull, satire can receive a nod. Since Little Children and Thank You for Smoking are both satires (albiet poor ones), only one of them will likely get in. With Globe and SAG love, Little Children should snag a spot to match Haley's nomination, leaving Borat looking nice.

As an added bonus, new grades are posted to the right, in the sidebar. Feel free to call me silly, sharp or downright certifiable; I'd appreciate it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I don't know what "meme" means.

1. Popcorn or candy?
Popcorn. Despite the annoyance of post-consumption kernel remnants, popcorn is the ideal theater snack for a reason. It smells delicious, it's lightweight and I can easily cram it into my mouth without taking my eyes off the screen. It can, unfortunately, be a bit noisy, though. Candy is too sweet for me -- I need to be in a certain mood to enjoy it. Popcorn, on the other hand, always makes a perfect lunch for a matinee. Oh, and please keep that salty yellow chemical sludge away from my pure popcorn.

2. Name a movie you've been meaning to see forever.
L'Avenntura and the other 442 films on my Netflix queue. I have, however, been keeping L'Avenntura (and a few others) in the teens in hope that they may appear at a theater that often runs retrospectives before I see it on DVD.

3. You are given the power to recall one Oscar: Who loses theirs and to whom?
Hilary Swank, wave bye-bye to your undeserved second Oscar. I'll use my cloning machine to create a replica and award Imelda Stauton and Kate Winslet their own Oscar.

4. Steal one costume from a movie for your wardrobe. Which will it be?
A mullet wig from This is Spinal Tap.

5. Your favorite film franchise is...
I don't like this question. Do the films of Pixar (sans the numbingly awful Cars) count? Probably not. The Charlie Brown films. I love the dance song in the series: Do-du-la-doo-da-do-doo-doo-doo-la-doo-doo.

6. Invite five movie people over for dinner. Who are they? Why'd you invite them? What do you feed them?

Patricia Clarkson. Why? So I can serve her those adoption papers (it's legal to have two mothers, right?).

Anna Karina. Why? Primarily, to admire her beauty in the physical realm. Perhaps she will say something intelligent and insightful.

Max Minghella. Why?
Primarily, to admire his beauty in the physical realm. Perhaps he will say something intelligent and insightful.

Jean-Pierre Leaud. Why? He can give me all the dirt on the 60/70's French scene (a different perspective than Anna Karina, I'm sure). He's most likely provide a good amount of wit at the table, also.

Woody Allen. Why? Oh, no particular reason...

(and one more for good, even measure):

Miranda July. Why? Oh, I'm sure we'd complain about technology and this crazy postmodern world in a comical fashion -- we'll get along swimmingly.

Since I'm hardly a world class chef, I'd take them out to a restaurant for dinner (after a few coocktails at the house, of course). We'd go out for shabu-shabu, because it's rather interactive and delicious.

7. What is the appropriate punishment for people who answer cell phones in the movie theater?
I don't wish any more ill will on frequent cellphone users, but I do hope they enjoy the brain tumor they are rapidly developing.

8. Choose a female bodyguard: Ripley from Aliens. Mystique from X-Men. Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. The Bride from Kill Bill. Mace from Strange Days.
I don't like these choices. I'm going with Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You. Her verbal assaults are much more cutting than The Bride's knife (I realize this isn't exactly true, but I'd love it to be).

9. What's the scariest thing you've ever seen in a movie?
Laura Dern's gaping mouth in Blue Velvet. I would post a picture if I had one, or if I hated you.

10. Your favorite genre (excluding comedy and drama) is:

The metafilm (, All That Jazz, Sherman's March, Adaptation).

11. You are given the power to greenlight movies at a major studio for one year. How do you wield this power?
I'd resign.

12. Bonnie or Clyde?
The one that dies at the end.

13. Who are you tagging to answer this survey?
I would never be so mean.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Volver (Almodovar, 2006)

An obligatory image of Penelope Cruz's beaming smile and gorgeous cleavage.

Despite the international success of his recent output, including All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education, Pedro Almodovar, Spain's most prominent director, seems to be returning to his kitschy, yet oddly affecting, roots with Volver. Therefore, the title, which literally translates into the Spanish infinitive "to return," holds a double meaning.

The plot revolves around the supernatural return of Irene (Carmen Maura, an Almodovar regular), mother of Raimunda (a luminous Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), and the film itself serves as a homecoming for Almodovar. Career-long aficionados and new appreciators of the auteur will likely rejoice in Volver's flippant pizzazz, which mixes elements of Almodovar's earlier, campier productions and his deeper modern melodramas.

Volver is certainly not as heavy as Almodovar's most contemporary efforts, but this frothy concoction endures and resonates despite its lighter weight. It searches for truth and insight in a more focused area of emotional complexity: mother/daughter relationships.

The slickly stylish Volver fits perfectly into Almodovar's oeuvre, even though there is an alarming lack of transvestites. Almodovar compensates for this dearth of pre and post-op trannies with his trademark vivacity, sympathy and sanguine-soaked sets. He creates a pervasively mystical atmosphere in which to set his absurd story involving three generations of women coping with the past and the bizarre nature of life in a small Spanish village. Raimunda, Sole and Raimunda's twiggy daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), react in vastly different ways to the unexpected and paranormal arrival of the deceased Irene. Their reactions reflect the tumultuous relationships they had when Irene was alive. On the surface, Irene's reappearance is due to promises she left unfulfilled.

She regretted her semi-neglectful parenting upon death and now wishes to stay on earth as a compassionate guardian, mostly to help her daughters with life's troubles-mainly their "poor luck with men." Despite her compassion, she still isn't going to be picking up her World's Greatest Mother trophy anytime soon; she'll have to settle for a tacky mug. It's best to think of her as a maternal Casper, but also with flesh, long hair and female anatomy.

Volver is, undoubtedly, a picture made for primarily female audiences, albeit not in the shallow way an archetypical romantic comedy is. It's a colorful ode to domesticity, feminine familial bonds and dealing with haunting repressed memories. This discreetly feminist production isn't designed to be enjoyed by only one gender, though.

Despite its perpetual awareness of mortality (the film even opens in a graveyard), Volver never becomes overbearingly morose; it maintains a playfully dark tone. Most of Volver's charm lies in the darting glances its capable cast surreptitiously and assuredly shoots each other. At Cannes, the ladies of Volver were collectively awarded the Best Actress award. While this may seem a cop-out, not to mention indecisive of the jury, the performances do coexist in a community where every actress understands the nuances of her character and the way she relates and interacts with the other women. Although this is an ensemble piece, Penelope Cruz is individually incandescent.

With a strong character, mojitos and some cleavage, Cruz proves that she's most comfortable and well-suited for cinema in her native language. It would not be a shame if she never appeared in another English-language movie, as long as that guaranteed her presence in copious amounts of Spanish-language films. Dressed in radiant reds and purples and a face capable of extreme emotional range, Cruz seamlessly glows through Raimunda's life highs and lows. Similar to Sophia Loren, Cruz has the capacity to play a benevolent mother, daughter and sister and, without making it icky, remain a sex symbol. Her character is realistically flawed and Cruz handles Raimunda's imperfections with unapologetic ease.

In the narrative department, however, Volver ultimately runs into the same problem most of Almodovar's recent films have; it's a bit too jammed in the end. The narrative bounces smoothly throughout, yet the final twists and exposition are not given much space to breathe and shock in the film's hurried conclusion. Fortunately, what preceded it is an exuberant, lively bit of luscious fun.

While Almodovar's storytelling skills aren't always in top form, he visually commands every frame. The film's heart is always in the right place; it's refreshingly thoughtful. Volver's coda may seem overloaded, but due to its affectionate humanism, endearing characters and tender pathos, it earns nearly every sentiment and dry slice of humor presented to the audience. It's a lovely film, as warm as the Spanish sun.