Archive | June, 2013

Film review monthly: June 2013

30 Jun

Beware spoilers as always.

What Maisie Knew
I think I come away from a lot of high-concept movies like this disappointed by the execution. I was not disappointed by this movie. The construction of the movie follows a pretty strict set of rules for what the audience sees, but if you’re not paying close attention, there doesn’t even seem to be a high concept at work. Credit the directors (there are two directors) for that. The whole story is told from the point of view of Maisie. The audience sees and hears only things that she sees and hears. That’s pretty radical when you think about it. Going in I thought it would be a boring showoffy “look at how clever we are” gimmick. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Onata Aprile, the girl who played Maisie was great. I think there’s been a run of really good acting performances by kids in the last couple years. Is it just me or are child actors a lot better now than they were ten or twenty years ago? Julianne Moore is one of my favorites and Steve Coogan is always delightful. They ended up being supporting players at best–Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham really carried most of it. They were both good. I was especially impressed by Mr. Skarsgård. I’ve seen a couple episodes of True Blood, and he didn’t seem to be anything special there. And in his first scene or two in this I thought his character would be a one-dimensional buffoonish kind of afterthought. He has kind of a detached, almost vacant manner sometimes that he really used to good effect here. That kind of acting can come off as lazy or lacking craft, and it’s a pretty fine line, but he was measured and showed the right emotions in the right places and generally pulled it off very well.

Before Midnight
I love love love the idea behind this series of movies. It’s a very similar idea to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series, which I also love. I wish more creative types set out on this kind of long-term project. It takes a certain kind of ambition and arrogance, but who cares. Go for it everybody involved in telling narrative stories.

As much as I enjoy the fact that these movies exist, I think the appeal is so limited that it kind of surprises me that it was even made. But when I saw it the theater was full of old ladies. I wonder if the old ladies had seen the first two installments. I think you really do need to see the first two to have any context for this thing. Maybe context is overrated. I’d be interested in the opinion of someone who went into this cold.

For people who love to watch old Jesse and Céline talk, this movie is mostly terrific. I suppose other people will have learned by now to stay at home. I thought this installment was as good or better than the first two, except for the whole dinner party nonsense at the beginning. I’m just not interested in all of these other people and how Jesse and Céline relate to them and how they represent Jesse and Céline’s relationship in different stages or whatever. They should have cut it down about 75%. It didn’t feel as at-ease as the rest. The car scene at the beginning, the walk around town, etc. That’s what we came for. That’s my only real complaint. The hotel scene was downright gripping. On paper watching a married couple in a movie fight for 45 minutes sounds horrible. This was not horrible. The ending struck just the right note. I assume there’ll be another chapter in nine or ten years, and I’m looking forward to it.

I’m not a big Ethan Hawke fan. Other than these movies, I can’t think of another movie of his that I really like. Maybe it’s just that he’s so familiar here it’s hard to have any bad feelings. When I sat down to write this, I planned to include an anecdote from the recent David Foster Wallace biography about how once at a reading with Mr. Hawke in attendance DFW dissed Richard Linklater movies right after Before Sunrise came out and Mr. Hawke got all pissed off. Unfortunately now that’s as much as I remember of the anecdote. Oh well.

I do really like Julie Delpy. I haven’t seen a lot of her stuff, but her 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York are both highly enjoyable.

The East
I don’t quite know how to feel about Brit Marling. I was really surprised by Another Earth. I thought it was really creative and and the screenplay was well-thought-out and the characters were nuanced and compelling. So score one for Brit. Then I saw Sound of My Voice. It had so much potential. It was so close to being good. But it just felt…incomplete. Like it needed another 45 minutes. The story just sort of peters out and vanishes just when the really interesting things should have been happening. When I saw it I thought there must have been some editing shenanigans because the whole trajectory of the plot seemed so frustrating and baffling. Still, there were definite flashes of excellence, and I was looking forward to The East.

After seeing The East, I think I’m still sort of disappointed and frustrated, but I’ll definitely be seeing Ms. Marling’s next movie. A lot of plot points–major plot points–were downright implausible. Some of the characters were equally implausible. I thought the ending montage was hacky and didn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the movie. But still…I liked it. I liked it a lot. Ms. Marling is a good actress. She’s in just about every scene, and she held everything together, even when she overmatched her scene partners. Especially the guy who looked like he was wearing eyeliner in every scene. Terrorists don’t wear eyeliner. Maybe he just has naturally lined eyes or something. I don’t know. Alexander Skarsgård was the terrorist honcho. His demeanor that worked so well in What Maisie Knew didn’t translate as well here.

I wish there had been more emphasis on the Washington DC story. Sarah’s relationships with her boyfriend and boss seemed like strong points with room for interesting stuff to happen, but they were both glossed-over. Maybe that’s a necessity if you want to keep things at a reasonable length.

The twist with the breath strip packet and floss was clever. Loved it. Maybe I was supposed to have seen it coming. Whatever.

And a shoutout to fictionally-polluted Ambler PA which is like fifteen minutes from where I used to live in Conshohocken.

The Bling Ring
I was disappointed in The Bling Ring. Maybe I was expecting too much or something other than I should have been, but this didn’t hit the mark like it could have. It reminded me a lot of Spring Breakers, which I loved. But whereas indulging/wallowing/living in the world of Spring Breakers totally worked and made total narrative sense in that movie, it just didn’t here. Most of the movie was really boring, frankly. I kept hoping they would stop showing extended house break-ins and get to the actual story. Maybe you have to love the world of LA celebrity or fashion or whatever to get it, but it just lost me along the way. If I were directing we’d have seen one scene at Paris Hilton’s house, the Audrina Patridge robbery, and the Orlando Bloom robbery, all done quickly instead of excruciatingly slowly. No more. The actual robberies aren’t what’s interesting about the story. I wanted more or Emma Watson at home. More of all the kids at home. More of all the kids talking to each other or doing something, anything, other than burglarizing and clubbing.

I don’t know if Sofia Coppola was going for a satire or trying to make a statement or what. In the world of celebrity culture as it exists now, it seems almost self-defeating to moralize or condemn or make a movie that critics might call “a stunning indictment of our collective obsession with celebrities” or whatever. To try to make that statement is wholly unnecessary. We don’t need a movie to tell us that people who idolize Lindsay Lohan are likely to be shallow and uninteresting and generally terrible. There has to be more, especially since this movie has so little to hold the audience’s attention on a pure plot level.

The New Yorker: June 24, 2013

26 Jun

I don’t have any pithy intro comments this week. Right into it.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record. Fine illustration, but does it have to be so current-eventsy? I dislike covers like this that are essentially political cartoons. There are way too many of them.

The highlight of Goings On was the reproduction of an Ian Teh photograph being exhibited in New York somewhere. Quarry and Temple, Bayin, Gansu, China. I’ll be on the lookout for more from Mr. Teh. Probably not up to this standard, but it reminds me a little bit of Charles Sheeler’s famous series of photos of the River Rouge Ford plant. I saw an exhibition of those in Chicago some years ago. Incredible.

Ian Teh

Ian Teh

Charles Sheeler

Charles Sheeler

The other noteworthy item was the ad for Mad Men. Cool colored pencil drawing of multiple Don Drapers. I liked that.

Kind of a boring Talk. Saved by the last piece about a new font on street signs. I love fonts. I wish I knew more about them. There’s a fun online kerning test everyone should take.* I took it once and got like a 91/100. Sometimes I wish I were a graphic designer.

*I realize many people will not find it fun.

Jill Lepore’s piece about privacy/secrecy was interesting. It felt kind of incomplete–almost like the start of a larger essay that was rushed into the magazine because of current events. A little too academic for me to have any informed critiques.

Jerome Groopman, good as usual, on Alzheimer’s disease. TNY’s medical journalism is consistently the best out there. A drug named solanezumab is discussed. This is kind of a disorienting name. It would sound just as much like a pharmaceutical if spelled backwards: bamuzenalos.

I have some notes on copy editing. Everyone likes talking about copy editing, right? A couple brief excerpts:


So, epsilon gets written out in Greek but beta is spelled out in English. I wonder how those decisions get made. From my recollection, Greek letters are more likely to be used throughout in medical literature than they are in general-interest publications. Is there general standard? Does TNY have their own standard? Is it a case-by-case basis?



Notice the wide disparity in acronyms. This is something I’ve noticed for some time. The small type is reserved for those acronyms that are pronounced as a word, like PET and AIDS. That makes sense. What I don’t get is the differing treatment of periods. MRI has no periods. H.I.V. does. Most other acronyms also have periods. Knowing TNY, there’s a well-thought-out reasoning, but I’ve tried and failed to think what it might be.

Ryan Lizza’s political reporting is good. I hate reading about politics. It makes me angry and I try to avoid it as much as I can. Mr. Lizza does a good job of telling stories about the processes and people involved without delving too much into the stupid petty arguing that defines so much of political discourse. Plus you come out of it with an actual understanding of the thing he’s talking about, in this case, the drafting of the immigration reform bill.

I normally like Larissa MacFarquhar, despite the fact that I don’t quite know how to pronounce her last name. Her profile this week fell flat for me. It’s about a Japanese Buddhist priest working in suicide prevention. She tried to go for a kind of overview of Japanese suicide culture and talk about this guy, but there just wasn’t enough space for that. She didn’t get a really full picture of the guy, and barely touched on the larger issues involved. She also reproduced several emails about suicide from people reaching out to the priest in question. Maybe this is callous, but they just sounded kind of banal to me. None of them had anything unexpected or out-of-the-ordinary to say; only the typical things you’d expect from the depressed and families of the depressed. I don’t think they added anything to the piece. I think this needed to be either doubled in length and overhauled or scrapped entirely.

Pretty standard TNY short story from Thomas McGuane. I enjoyed it, but nothing memorable, really.

I just found out this week that Sasha Frere-Jones is a man. Sasha is one of those terrible names that went from being a male name to a unisex name to a female name. A really regrettable situation. It’s like Americans don’t even know or care about proper use of Russian diminutives. Anyway, he had a review of the new Kanye West album. I listened to it. Mr. West is an increasingly tiresome celebrity. I don’t know how I feel about the album yet, other than that I think he’s grown as a producer much more than as a lyricist in the last ten years. He has a lot of big ideas but he usually can’t quite express them in a compelling way and sometimes he sounds like a moron. (as in the already-infamous “eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet-and-sour sauce” line. Christ, is he twelve years old?)

Malcolm Gladwell’s book review was a bit of a departure from his normal style. (Someone somewhere called his schtick the “faux-naïf”. Ha. I wish I could remember who it was.) This guy Hirschman sounds interesting, but I think the whole review could have gotten all the important points across in a Briefly Noted blurb. Most of Mr. Gladwell’s writing would work better as a blurb, when you think about it. That is his curse.

I wish the Superman piece had been longer. That’s a very interesting topic. I got the impression that there’s a lot there to unpack. This barely scratched the surface.

I liked the popcorn one on page 42 and the despotism one on page 60.

Caption contest entry
“I told you radar guns were complicated.”

The New Yorker: June 10 & 17, 2013

19 Jun

Double issue! Theme issue! Summer spectacular! I thought about writing this last week. I probably should have. Oh well. The summer fiction issue. “Crimes & Misdemeanors”. I think that works better as a Woody Allen movie than a magazine theme, but whatever. The graphic design in this issue was tops. Black and white, noirish header images for all the main body pieces. That was the best part of the theme. As always, it kind of felt like they were trying to squeeze things in. I’d rather see them pick whatever fiction they thought was interesting. That said, it was mostly very good.

Black and white, silhouette of a woman with an old-timey Lugerish pistol, a guy in shadow, “fiction” in vertical neon letters. Cool.

Summer entertainment preview in Goings On. Good idea, that. I always wish they had more blurbs instead of just lists of stuff. That’s what the internet is for. I suppose maybe actual New York residents might browse it and find things they want to attend, but it just seems hopelessly quaint. To me a lot of the charm of TNY is its history, and I get that this is part of it, but they have photos and color illustrations and a table of contents now. Maybe it’s time to scrap page-long lists of jazz bands.

The highlight of Talk was the piece about a new cab driver’s first day. Money paragraph:

Sozan said that he had come to New York three years ago, after success in the green-card lottery. He had passed his driving test last summer, on the third attempt. His only experience as a driver had been in his driving school’s cars, and during that day’s shift.

Ha. Stereotypes, etc. Pro. Con. Conclusion.

James Surowiecki’s column this week is about how it’s essentially impossible to catch most insider traders. I wish I were rich. I would get so much richer.

Starting off strong with a new story from Dashiell Hammett. An Inch and a Half of Glory. Great title. I say new because as far as I can tell this is the first time it’s been published. That’s a bit of a shock. He’s a famous writer who died more than fifty years ago. Where could this thing have been hiding? It was pretty straightforward. No surprises, but Hammett’s a pretty terrific writer. He got to be a pro at this kind of story by turning them out one after another for pulp detective magazines. Even though this isn’t a detective story. I know a pretty fair amount about Dashiell Hammett. This is because last fall I went on the Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco. It was a good time. Very information-heavy. The guy who leads the tour has been doing it for decades. Highly recommended. I can now point out places where Hammett lived and places where events in The Maltese Falcon took place. I’m practically a Bay Area expert.

Gary Shteyngart is back this week. He had a short theme piece like two weeks ago. Fun little personal story. Maybe I should read one of his longer works. Maybe. I don’t know. I have a lot of other things on my to read list. Maybe I should write book reviews instead of magazine reviews. Maybe I should do a lot of things. I just decided not to stress out about my knowledge or lack of knowledge of the oeuvre of Gary Shteyngart.

Rough Deeds by Annie Proulx was the highlight of the shorter fiction pieces. Hard to pull off a twist ending in a six-page story, but this was perfect. Maybe it works because of the length. In a longer story, with more time to think and put things together, it would probably become pretty obvious. Maybe it should have been obvious as is. Maybe I’m an idiot. I have a digression related to this story. I read it in a coffeeshop in San Francisco. I’d been to the coffeeshop before. It’s a good place. The night before, I was browsing the neighborhood on Yelp and read the reviews of this coffeeshop. One was by a truly terrible person named John L. I’m reproducing his one-star review here in full:

A friend of mine had a few hours to kill and stopped by Garden House Cafe to hang out and use Wifi.

After buying a couple drinks, sandwich, and sweet cake, we sat streaming a movie.

After almost 90 minutes an older waitress/owner came up to us and said our laptop was too loud and was distracting to other people trying to study/concentrate. At the time the laptop was just barely above whisper and both my friend and I could barely hear it even while leaning in, especially over the crappy music which alternated between classical and other forgettable nonsense as well as the same waitress/owner talking loudly to some other patrons. We finished watching the movie in just 20 more minutes and left.

The food there was nothing special and the atmosphere was a lot to be desired. It was quite loud despite the place being almost empty.

I would have thought the older lady would have been nicer to some new patrons but I guess the fact that the place was practically empty during Saturday afternoon was fine with her.

No problem, there are many more cafes closer to my house.

Is this guy serious? What is wrong with people? Am I the only one who’s outraged? Is this kind of behavior normal? Is this just another example of San Francisco being overrun with people who totally lack self-awareness or humility or any other positive personality trait? Does this guy stream movies without headphones in coffeeshops frequently? Has he never been punched in the face? Jesus.

I couldn’t really get into the Cormac McCarthy screenplay thing. I’m also reading Blood Meridian right now. I can’t really get into that either. Am I missing something? Maybe I’ll try one of his books set in the present instead of the Old West, but I don’t think he’s for me. I remember Wes Anderson once described Eli Cash, in The Royal Tenenbaums, as “a stoned Cormac McCarthy.”* That’s my favorite thing about him. McCarthy, not Anderson.

*Or something like that. I’m not going to try and look it up or find it on a DVD commentary or whatever. I don’t know how actual journalists manage to do this kind of thing. Is it all interns who do the actual work like this? I bet it is. Man, that would be a good topic for me to write an angry screed about.

I really enjoyed the long fiction piece by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m not that familiar with her work. She did have a story on This American Life that I recall. That was also very good. Two A-plus stories. I’m going to do some further investigation into the work of Ms. Lahiri.

Walter Kirn had a personal narrative about his friendship with noted fraudster “Clark Rockefeller”. Kind of amazing. If you’re not familiar with this fake Rockefeller, I’d recommend this pretty crazy Vanity Fair piece that is now also a book and apparently will soon be a movie. I think a good lesson is: if you’re going to invent a fake identity, go big. This guy claimed to be a Rockefeller, claimed to have the number for the President’s private line, claimed to be friends with JD Salinger, claimed to own original Rothkos and Motherwells, etc. And he managed it for like fifteen years. Sure, now he’s in jail for murder, but it sounds like he had a pretty fun time for awhile.

Theme pieces
TNY always brings the A-list. Roger Angell and Joyce Carol Oates are the heavy hitters this week. They also had George Pelecanos, maybe best known for his writing on The Wire. Although he came off as sort of a dick in his memoiry thing. The other three were highly entertaining. Special mention to David Peace, who I hadn’t heard of. He had a little story about a British serial killer that was unexpected and kind of sweet in a weird way. Mr. Angell and Ms. Oates brought it, as expected.

The noteworthy piece here was Adam Gopnick on Florida-based crime fiction. He makes an interesting case that the locus of the kind of seedy environments that built the world of noir fiction have moved from the West Coast to Florida. Interesting. More goofy and ridiculous than dark and sinister. It’s a compelling argument, which brought to mind my favorite superhero, Florida Man, and the hilarious twitter feed featuring him. I might check out some Carl Hiaasen and see what this Florida business is all about.

There’s an incidental thing I want to talk about. Here’s the introduction to the article:

The bloodlines of genre fiction tend to be cleaner than those of the more self-consciously literary kind. There’s always a measure of uncertainty, in the glossier precincts, about who owes what to whom; among the three big literary Johns, who can say exactly what Updike owes to Cheever, or what either owes to O’Hara? But the line in the hardboiled, California-noir thriller that goes from Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain to Raymond Chandler, and on to Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy, runs open and unapologetically from author to author, like the dharma transmission passed from one Zen master to the next.

A couple things. 1. How do you think John Irving feels about this? It kind of feels like a slap in the face. Even though I don’t think he’s quite on the same level as the three “big” Johns. He’s probably just as famous as them. And does Jonathan Franzen count? is Jonathan not close enough to John? 2. All three of those Johns made their name publishing stories in TNY. I don’t think they used in-house examples on purpose, but it’s just a small reminder of how influential this magazine has been in the literary world these last 80-odd years.

Mostly blah. The elephant one by Farley Katz on page 79 is the best.

Caption contest entry
Joan, quit complaining. We have to give him someone, and you’re the prettiest.

The New Yorker: June 3, 2013

5 Jun

I think I’m kind of getting into a groove writing these. Or maybe it’s a rut. I doubt these are very interesting for anyone to read. I think I’ll start trying to find more places to riff, using TNY pieces as jumping-off points for my trademark wit and interesting anecdotes.

I like this illustration style, but I don’t really get it. Is it a joke? Commentary? Whatever. I like the covers that work as standalone art pieces. More of those please.

I like when Goings on About Town has blurbs about old movies or art, because those are the two things they blurb that I could conceivably experience even though I don’t live in New York. It’s also nice to see third-string film critic Richard Brody get a few words in here and there. So kudos for the note about 1947’s Pursued, which maybe I’ll see some day.

I liked Lizzie Widdicombe’s Talk piece about the upcoming Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie. Apparently it takes place at the Google campus in Mountain View. To me it made both the movie and Google sound really unappealing. The thing about a “hipster dad” magazine based in Brooklyn functioned similarly. Lots of people involved who sound really terrible. The Colin Quinn mini-profile was not what I expected. I’ve never been a big fan. Mostly because he followed Norm MacDonald hosting Weekend Update, and he just couldn’t compare. He’s trying to make a TV comedy about immigration, which this makes sound interesting. Always glad to see Tad Friend show up. He’s good. You might recall my fondness for his article about a Manhattan Craigslist real estate scammer last week. He’s good. Plus, Tad might be America’s WASPiest name, so there’s just something New Yorkery about him.

Alex Halberstadt checks in with one of TNY’s signature short-ish entertainment industry profiles. The signature is that they’re all about New York-based people who aren’t that famous or are famous in an obscure part of the entertainment field. The subject is Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. It was fine, I suppose. I’ve never been into Sonic Youth. They were one of those bands in the early-mid 90s that I sort of knew about and knew that people liked, but they were never on the radio and I didn’t know anyone who owned any of their albums so I don’t think I ever actually listened to their music. Most of my knowledge about them comes from the episode of The Simpsons where Homer joins the Lollapalooza freak show.

David Sedaris’s TNY appearances give me mixed feelings. He is very funny and I like his writing a lot. But. To me, reading his stories just doesn’t match up to listening to them. I’ve listened to the audio version of most of his books and I’ve been on a pretty serious This American Life trip lately. Just feels like there’s something missing on the page. He has the cadences and rhythms of performing so perfect that sometimes he comes off more as a live performer than a writer. I don’t know if that’s a criticism or a compliment. As far as the actual story goes, it was funny, although it’s too bad that Mr. Sedaris no longer lives in France. His stories about language barriers and cultural differences there were some of his best work.

The two pieces of serious reportage this week were of the run-of-the-mill sort. Both were interesting and readable, but neither seemed that memorable. I did like Nicholas Schmidle’s dual-profile kind of structure. Worked really well. Reminded me of John McPhee, mostly because he’s kind of famous for that kind of thing and he’s been writing a series for this very magazine about writing and he had a really terrific installment about structure. The other thing was about professional mountain climbers and an incident on Mount Everest. That’s kind of a played topic. I haven’t read anything worthwhile about modern Everest climbing that isn’t also in Into Thin Air. Plus the only mountaineering stories that get published in general-interest venues are Everest-related. No more Everest for awhile everybody. Thanks.

Short work by Akhil Sharma. Not that memorable honestly. Great title though. We Didn’t Really Like Him. Seems like there’s been a lot of South Asian stuff in the magazine lately. I wonder if the fiction department thinks about geography when they’re picking stories. “OK, we just had something set in Japan. How about India? When was the last time we had something South American?”

I’m really excited about Jill Lepore’s book review. It’s a biography of Robert Ripley (of Believe It Or Not! fame). It doesn’t sound like a very interesting book, but the way she wrote the review was unexpected and kind of great. She looked at Ripley and the book about him through the lens of a TNY profile of him from 1940. 10/10 idea. Reading old TNY profiles/reporting is something I love. Most of the old heavyweights have collections out there somewhere. Some of it’s famous (Lillian Ross on Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote on Marlon Brando, etc.), some of it isn’t. A lot of it’s very fun to read. Maybe I have a different idea of fun reading than most people.

The blurb about Butterfly People exemplifies the best of Briefly Noted. I’m never going to read that book but the paragraph about it was a fun little chunk of info about lepidopterology. It even mentioned Vladimir Nabakov, which I think is mandatory for anyone discussing lepidopterists.

Interesting to see the review of the new HBO Liberace movie handled by Emily Nussbaum of the TV beat instead of one of the movie guys. What’s the difference between a TV movie and a theater movie from a review standpoint?

Here’s how Anthony Lane ended his review of Fast & Furious 6:

To cap it all, Chris Bridges, otherwise known as Ludacris, who plays the tech expert, announced that the film’s release on May 24th would coincide with that of his new ‘I Don’t Give a Fuck’ mix tape. If that isn’t a loyal tribute, I don’t know what is.

Tie stripe update: incorrect on page 39, but correct on page 43. Eternal shame for Joe Dator. Celebratory parade for William Haefeli.

Caption contest entry
“Honey, why don’t you go down and see what it is?”