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Washtenaw Flaneurade
13 December 2007
Extroverted Suicides
Now Playing: Thin Lizzy--"Whiskey in the Jar"

God, that song's so fucking cool.

 Mutual Appreciation (2005):

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Ummm... I have eyeshadow."

By all rights, Mutual Appreciation should have annoyed the living crap out of me. Focusing on three hyper-articulate young people living in New York City (Brooklyn, from the credits), it tells the story of Alan (Vincent Rice), a musician trying to make it big there after relocating from Boston, and the effect his decisions have on his friend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski, who also wrote and directed) and the latter's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Filmed in grainy black-and-white with a presumably handheld camera (it certainly looked like it), Mutual Appreciation had "twee indie nightmare" spraypainted all over its smug wine-and-latte-stained mush. On the back of the DVD case, Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly declares that "Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation." Turns out, though, that he probably is, and Thoth help us all. Fortunately for me, against all odds, I rather enjoyed it. Mutual Appreciation is one of those movies, like Miranda July's Me And You And Everyone We Know of the same year, that just manage to stop death-defyingly short of some artistic precipice leading directly to talky, "quirky" hipster cinematic hell (in the liner notes, Bujalski fantasizes in the form of kids' book drawings about July turning into a waffle at a film festival--because he likes her, I hasten to add). Those are actually the only two I can remember, but hopefully there are others out there, so that I don't have to continually console myself with flicks that predate me. Alan moves to Brooklyn, has a few abortive romantic encounters with DJ Sara (Seung-Min Lee), comes between Lawrence and Ellie in a number of ways, plays his songs, and acts not quite enough like a chode to be aggressively unsympathetic (although in a couple of scenes, he actually looks like an aroused koala, which I thought awesome). For my money, the central joke of the movie is that Alan's stuff (apparently written by Rice), despite the strained quasi-English accent, is actually very good--it would have been so easy to make him a delusional hack. Rice himself is one of the founding members of Boston band Bishop Allen, some of whose songs feature in the movie, apparently, and who I should definitely investigate. The leads are terrific (Bujalski and Clift, despite their characters' problems, make a lovely and realistically endearing couple), and Bujalski nails urban (or "rural," for that matter) hipster dialogue with squirm-inducing accuracy. It never gets irritating, though, only one catchphrase managing to make my skin crawl, and that for relatively unrelated reasons. Bujalski himself will be someone to watch in future (I'll make it my business to catch his 2003 picture Funny Ha Ha, also including himself and Rice), particularly since he had the stroke of genius (I'm guessing it was his decision, anyway) to put the cast and crew's parents on the DVD commentary instead of, say, himself and one of the lead actors or the cinematographer. That way, instead of getting all this snarky, self-referential stuff about songs and music and performance pieces and pop culture, you actually hear people unfamiliar with the world shown trying to make sense of it, particularly in the context of their own experiences as teenagers or young adults. Like the movie itself, it could have been a cheap exercise in cutesy "ironic" mockery ("heh, they just didn't get it"), but it happily doesn't turn out that way. Some, of course, did say they just didn't understand. Some said they just didn't like the movie itself (as I was almost one of these, I had a great deal of sympathy, if not agreement--and dear God, how often do you hear that on a DVD commentary?). Some understandably fawn all over their kids (you can tell how proud they are, even if they don't "get" it). Others (it somehow helps that you usually don't know which parents these are--only a couple identify themselves for certain) make a fair number of extremely incisive comments about the nature of the relationships, the characters, the structure of the movie, Alan's hair, and even technical matters like sound and cinematography (one minor actor's father had the same issues I did with the occasional and--if intended--pointless lack of focus in certain shots). It was a real trip watching the movie bare and then with commentary, for once genuinely like watching two different flicks. Mutual Appreciation is one to investigate, and one I can safely say for people of all ages.

Nashville (1975): One of the great American classics, and one I've shockingly avoided throughout my checkered career as a cineaste (Do the Right Thing and Raging Bull were two other--until recently--inexplicable exceptions, all the more inexplicable as I believe Lee and Scorsese to be exactly as good as advertised). My problem is that I find Altman incredibly overated. M.A.S.H. (1970) is probably the centerpiece in my conviction, and Short Cuts (1993), though handicapped at any rate by its swollen length, ran hot and cold (mostly cold). Cookie's Fortune (1998)--okay, Cookie's Fortune??? I have The Long Goodbye (1973) at home on VHS, and still haven't watched it due to a lingering dread. Fortunately, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was fantastic (if draining), 3 Women (1977) was one of the most genuinely hallucinatory movies I've ever seen, and I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tanner '88 (1988), a mockumentary cooked up by Altman and Doonesbury writer Garry Trudeau covering a minor congressman's campaign for President--the sequel, Tanner on Tanner (2004), again featuring Cynthia Nixon as Tanner's daughter, wasn't quite as good but still well worth a look. All these eventually convinced me to give Nashville a try. Considered by most (if I'm not mistaken) as Altman's masterpiece, Nashville looks at a wide array of characters taking part in the events leading up to a fateful political rally--this being Nashville, many involving the country-western music world of the period. It's hard to summarize the plot and the characters except with that sentence. The cast list is daunting--Keith Carradine (who won an Oscar for his song "I'm Easy"), Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Keenan Wynn (really some of his best work, but I still found myself suddenly wanting to watch Shack Out on 101), Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Elliott Gould and Julie Christie in minor roles as themselves, and a couple of my personal favorites, Barbara Harris and frequent Altman performer, Tanner star Michael Murphy (again playing a mildly shady political type). Even more interesting were people I didn't know that well--Robert Doqui, Gwen Welles, and especially country singer and occasional Bob Dylan muse Ronee Blakely as a fragile, unstable... country singer who gets caught up in the film's climax. Besides painting an exhaustive portrait of mid-postwar life (Chaplin is funny as a goofy BBC radio journalist trying to make sense of the "real America"), Altman has a number of things to say on the nature of politics and celebrity and what happens when those worlds collide--certainly nothing new, even thirty years ago. For once, I think a movie described as "essential" actually is.

Jason X (2002): Why? you ask. A determination to prove my willingness to watch anything? Something to tell my grandnieces and nephews? I remmber hearing that it would be made, way back when, with a combination of awe and stupefaction (now, when I heard about Saw IV, I was just depressed). I remember well the inimitably derisive tone of my grad school colleague Sean when it was mentioned one day in an Akron bar--"isn't that the one where he's in space?" He is, indeed, and let me tell you, Jason X makes Leprechaun IV: In Space look like Silent Running. Right, so in or around 2000 (the date changes at several points throughout the "plot"), Camp Crystal Lake has been turned into a research facility exclusively devoted to finding out why Jason keeps coming back to life. He manages to escape, slaughters a couple of security guards and the greedy government suit who wants to profit from Jason's regenerative abilities (the latter a cameo of some note in the world of horror--and general--cinema, and, though not one of my favorites, I've always respected him and he really should have known better), delivers a critical wound to Rowan, a gutsy scientist (Lexa Doig, and if that character name's a Wicker Man reference, that just makes it worse), and then accidentally freezes himself and Rowan in the same cryogenic chamber for four centuries (give or take; the movie certainly does). By that point, Earth's been irretrievably poisoned, everyone lives in various interstellar colonies (I imagine; there seems to be little interest in humanity's living situation except to provide plot points), and a scantily-clad-as-the-situation-will-even-remotely-plausibly-permit student archeological expedition unearths Jason and Rowan, with fairly predictable results. Jason X manages to rip off Aliens, Alien: Resurrection, and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock with brio that might be commendable if the movie weren't so stupid (there were a few other sources of "homage," but I lost track). As some of you know, I've got a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing, but Jason X just gets dumber and more obnoxious as it goes along; every time you think it can't plumb yet another depth, it proves you wrong and (probably) laughs at you. I surely doesn't help that I'm not a big splatter fan; excessive gore, more often than not, is just a way to avoid having to work for your chills (unless you're Dario Argento and you're making Suspiria). On these shores, I don't think a lot of directors got the message, particularly the Friday the 13th series' Sean S. Cunningham (who merely produces Jason X--I'll be nice and omit the director's name). Two things make it even worse. The cast is unexpectedly likable in a weird way (the acting varied, but Doig is pretty decent in her role, which made me feel especially bad for her), most unusual for slasher flicks, and it sucks to think of them probably having such a good time only to produce this taintscrape. The script, too, comes well enough after, say, Scream to try and be "ironic" and "witty" in certain passages, which might have worked if the drumrolls weren't so heavy-handed, and some of the funny bits so loathsome, and, dare I say, if the movie weren't about Jason being unfrozen four hundred years later on a fucking spaceship. It's even sadder when you consider that Joss Whedon was making Firefly that year. The best thing I can say about Jason X is to crib the marvelous Leonard Maltin summation of 1986's Iron Eagle, with Lou Gossett, Jr. and Jason Gedrick: "Not boring, just stupid." 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:54 PM EST
Updated: 13 December 2007 9:32 AM EST
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8 December 2007
Finding Myself In Sunny Morocco
Now Playing: The GZA--"Animal Planet"

I haven't dreamed vividly in some time, to my utter dismay, and thankfully reversed the trend last night with two of them (I guess leftover jambalaya, a bottle of cheap cabernet and The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Volume 2 are all you really need).

First, the new Todd Haynes Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (which I still have to see) had become an all-time record-breaking moneymaker for the Michigan Theater. There was a gut-churning array of I'm Not There cash-in events and activities throughout the streets of Ann Arbor--rides, games, taffy pulls, the whole enchilada. Someone I knew who used to work at the Michigan came into the restaurant and--quite accidentally--grabbed someone's sandwich off the counter, thinking it hers. Fluffy somehow sensed that I knew her and told me to follow her, adding "she's the one who looks like Bob Dylan!" I should add that quite a vast percentage of Ann Arbor's population, maybe thinking it would make the place seem more like an actual city, had taken the movie's lead and swanned about dressed as the Zimm himself in one of his many poses over the years. The lady in question, of course, was trying to look like Cate Blanchett in the movie. I eventually found her, and as we hadn't seen each other in a while (in real life, she knows a rather unusual secret about me) we got to chatting and leafing through Bob Dylan pamphlets and coloring books. Before I knew it, a good two hours had passed, and I hurried back to Chateau Fluffy, where my boss was fuming. "Well? Did you find her? What's your decision?"

I woke up at that point, but thoroughly enjoyed it.

After falling back to sleep, I found myself thrown what seemed to be a couple of weeks in the future, as Starling Electric were going to play the first phase of Mittenfest at the Blind Pig. People came over to my house--which resembled no house I've ever lived in, but I could tell that the place rapidly shifted back and forth between Ann Arbor and Baton Rouge. It eventually seemed to settle on Baton Rouge, as we started watching the BCS championship between LSU and Ohio State (itself a month in the future, and even that could have meant Ann Arbor because of the whole Les Miles thing and Ohio State's involvement). An ex-fling showed up with some new guy (the latter alternately nice and rude to me, which I found consciously hilarious). It was an interesting assembly. I passed out, "woke up" four hours later, and realized that the show had already started. Rather inconvenient, that, as my house not only turned into a shack across the river (definitely Louisiana, this), but also found itself the center of a crystal meth operation gone wrong, with squat, shadowy figures in three-piece suits waving guns and chasing varied quarry in trucker hats. A little freaked by the gunfire, I crawled away on all fours so as to avoid detection and found myself in a secret country club somewhere to the northwest of Port Allen, with a still, shimmering lake surrounded by Renaissance statuary and Inca stonework. All of a sudden I was being driven through the place by a rather attractive anthropologist who I could swear I've met in real life. I asked if she could let me out (stupid! stupid!), as I really wanted to get to the show. She dropped me off in New Roads, which looked nothing like the real thing. It was now a charming interwar city of the kind that reminded me of what Sinclair Lewis' Zenith (in Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry) must have looked like. Running into an old high school friend, whose name I horribly mangled into that of film director Stephen Sommers, the criminal hack who gave us Van Helsing, I decided to visit a podiatrist, who I found immmediately suspicious due to the curious hat she wore. Hearing her giggle behind doors at the money she would make off me, I determined to make my escape and wondered when the hell New Roads had gotten so cool and attractive (noticing as I did the "NOW HIRING COOKS" signs in many restaurant windows). Finding that the bus for Baton Rouge (!) left in another hour, I decided to explore the downtown area by car (so many of my dreams have me driving) before I was offered a helicopter lift by a passing chopper pilot. "Sure," I said, and he took me for a spin before dropping me back at the bus station, where--really hungry by this point--I noshed down on a "Cajun" vending machine feast of smoked salmon and dill sauce (like they serve at Ann Arbor's Central European restaurant Amadeus). A guy asked me, "don't they have those at Common Grill?" I paused and looked at him. "Which Common Grill?" I asked. "The one in Chelsea," he told me. Chelsea, Michigan. Baton Rouge and Ann Arbor had become inextricably linked. Parts of "downtown New Roads" resembled parts of downtown Chicago, so I'm wondering if there's some sort of psychic triangulation going on. I sadly woke up before I could finally make it to Mittenfest (as I'm sure it was still going strong by that point).

I love it when places get mixed up in that way. There are two recurring places in my dreams--one some kind of Mediterranean port, and another in Latin America, both of which have featured frequently in my dreams (which is really all I used my journal for at one point). This one'll take some figurin', though, I don't doubt.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:09 AM EST
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4 December 2007
Muses Weep
Now Playing: Gruff Rhys--"Skylon"

There's a dead Cheeto down on the bus floor

What'll it want when it knocks on your door? 

This, my friends, is what happens when I attempt to write poetry. One wholly unsought consequence of my visit home for Thanksgiving is that I discovered a file of my old poems on disk, many dating from over a decade ago. For whatever reason, I've never been terribly passionate about poetry, and I'm not sure whatever possessed me to start writing it (guilt about not pulling my weight as a "sullen teen"? Could have been anything, really). Like much of my older prose, it frequently makes me wince to read it. Some of it was all right, I guess, but it's all terribly arch and romantic, and it tries too, too hard. That overly strenuous attempt at "literary quality" is probably what made me snap and write the following in the late summer of 2001, after which I'm pretty sure I never wrote another word of verse.


 Rollo's Lament

Why do those gnomes persist in stealing my sugar?

I think the boiled ocelot we had for dinner last night was undercooked.

That's why those little bastards want it--they like their ocelot sweet!

Sweet, hot, sexy, juicy tropical bite-size minimammals--

Good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday School picnics...

Those festive little fatherings where I press Leslie's luscious lips to mine,

Caressing her sweet velvety skin beneath the thin white cotton sundress--

My tongue thrumming about my mouth with animal passion, waiting to enter hers--

And then she asks me: Where's this week's boiled ocelot?

That's all she cares about, Leslie, my tarnished, greedy, hungry pixie;

Damn her, she's working together with those thieving gnomes--

I see them now, lurkiong beyond the ill-lit hedges, carving knives at the ready,

Knowing all I have to offer the world are meals of cute little animals!

I must calm myself, go home, and read Bret Easton Ellis by firelight,

Pretending with each page he'll get better, while knowing in my heart he sucks,

And then the call from the Meat Company of the Jade Tassels arrives--

They want my recipe, their robot workers anxious to prove their loyalty,

Not a Hormel striker among them, damn their sojulless metallic hearts--

If I'm ever to afford my DVD player, I must sell out, give in, hands up, palms spread,

So my dream of seeing The Longest Yard can merge with the realm of concrete reality.

And so, Leslie behind me, her shotgun barrel in my back and an army of gnomes at hers,

I trudge wearily into the Palace of Jade Tassels, each hour possibly my last.

El Presidente rises to greet me, his elephantine jowls dripping with sweat and saliva,

And his head explodes, cut in eighty billion by the well-armed diamond shards of Winkles,

Winkles the Warrior Gnome, whose killings and machinations birthed the fifty scalps at his waist!

I fall headlong into the fray, wallowing in rancid ocelot meat and stringy vitals,

As robots and gnomes join claws and war-axes in furious, tempestuous combat.

I see Leslie smiling at me, growing a mysterious tumescence beside her thigh,

Murderously visible beneath the black spandex of her warrior catsuit.

She takes aim at me, showing her love with yet one more... single... bullet.


 It reads to me like Beowulf performed by Sid and Marty Krofft, and probably sounded a lot more entertaining screamed aloud by the author at the Avenue Bar in Kent, Ohio, six years ago, to the music of the House Popes, a local northeast Ohio band made up almost entirely of professors and grad students, who'd foolishly invited him to do so. He just as foolishly accepted, but I think everyone had fun. I got pretty drunk, anyhow, and to invoke the circumstances of the poem itself, at least it's better than Bret Easton Ellis. Hell, maybe I will start writing the stuff again. A lot of the old stuff was "better" than "Rollo's Lament," but nowhere near as fun.

A Jersey Tale (2003): Sometimes you want a good, honest meat-and-potatoes movie about ordinary people, one almost wholly uninflected by what's often misinterpreted as "irony" or flashy, showy camera angles. For that reason, despite its vaguely disposable patina, I hope movies like A Jersey Tale stick around forever. Ray Morales (Rafael Sardina) works as a shoe salesman but dreams of becoming a DJ, and ends up working for local criminal kingpin "Chunks" Colon (Joe Grifasi) in order to make it happen. In the course of the action, he has to lean on a pawnbroker of Armenian descent (David Margulies) and his ridiculously beautiful niece (Marjan Neshat). It seems pretty workaday stuff, but therein lies its charm. The director, Michael Tolajian, attempts no fireworks but shows a quietly sure foot, touching lightly on issues such as the Armenian Genocide (without making it seem too preachy) and handling the surprisingly bittersweet (and mildly implausible) ending without fuss. The cast is very good, but my favorite had to be Ray's buddy Papo (Frank Harts), whose Tarantinian monologues behind the steering wheel hint at a hilariously vast degree of sexual frustration.

Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-79 (2006): Palin was always my favorite member of Monty Python, and perhaps inevitably went on to have my favorite solo career after the TV show ended in 1974, running the cult Victorian-Edwardian parody series Ripping Yarns (1976-79), appearing in all the Python movies, forging a respectable acting reputation in such movies as The Missionary (1982), A Private Function (1987), and American Friends (1991, which he also directed), and best of all, making a series of wonderful travel documentaries in the nineties and aughts exposing him as a wonderfully witty and human observer of the species. It's a pleasure to find that his diaries are just as good. They stretch from the beginning of Monty Python to the making of Life of Brian, sketch the fortunes, both private and public, of Palin and the troupe (his father's decline and eventual death from Parkinson's is movingly told) and preserve a fascinating period in American and British history, even more fascinating as seen through Palin's eyes (one of my favorite moments comes as Palin describes what he believes to be the final day of the original Python troupe in 1975, and all he wants to do is scamper about with his kids in the snow and hurry back home to catch Doctor Who--by my reckoning the final episode of "The Sontaran Experiment"). One service the diaries render is to remind readers of how genuinely brilliant and serious the Pythons were; Palin's observations on how a comedy writer learns how to act and direct are engrossing, and John Cleese's diatribe against Shakespeare (that he couldn't get five minutes on TV with his jokes) is particularly memorable (and rather revealing). These were not people to be taken lightly on any level, and Palin probably least of all.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:34 PM EST
Updated: 4 December 2007 5:39 PM EST
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29 November 2007
Now Playing: Carla Thomas--"(Your Love Is A) Life Saver"

Thanksgiving comes and goes again, and I age another year. A friend of mine commented elsewhere that home feels less and less like it every time he goes back, and I've found the same to be the case with me. Previously, I might have found it tragic, but this year I found a weird sort of comfort. I also remembered how much I hated planes. Love airports, hate planes. I found my family well, a little more dispersed this year than usual (half Louisiana Catholic, half Mississippi Protestant) but well all the same. I had a great conversation with my politically polar opposite grandfather (which memorably began with him asking if I was "on the relief"), probably walked too much (no, not really), and spent most of Friday (during which everyone else watched football, with LSU losing to Arkansas) on YouTube.

I decided to celebrate my birthday this year and had planned on getting people to come to Leopold Brothers' for a few drinks and maybe a board game or two. On learning that Tim Monger would be playing there that night, backed by Scott DeRoche and John Fossum, I became more excited, and then found that they'd all be opening for the Silent Years and the New Green. I got there, found a few friends, hung out, met more, and then the music started. Before I continue, I should say that it was the best birthday I've had in a good long while, possibly a decade. All I wanted to do was enjoy myself, hang out with friends and I think I succeeded admirably. As for the music... Tim's set was excellent; I think his generally sweet, gentle songs actually benefit from having a relatively hard-rocknig backup. The contrast worked wonders. I'd heard the Silent Years before, and remember not being all that enthused about them, and found my opinions reinforced. I'd never heard the New Green (including stalwarts like Jim Roll) before, and wished I could have stayed longer to do so. I got to hear their CD Easily Made, Easily Broken later, and it was decent enough alt-country-pop, although I suspect I'm ready for a new dominant local music paradigm. At any rate, "Mature Alcoholic" and "The Sanguine" were particuarly good. By their set, though, I and a couple of other people were wearying of the unusually packed scene at Leopold's.  The huge stage with the lighting, cavernous ceilings, and beer-hall atmosphere made it seem like a distinctly unsavory political rally. It was a little hard to relax and converse, so a few of us--myself, Sara, Margot, Josh, and later Eric--wound up at the Old Town later for a wonderful round of conversations, during which I finally realized how hard it must be sometimes to follow me when I'm talking about movies. Thanks for everything, guys.

Moliere (2007): I like Moliere, and as this was only going to be at the Michigan for a couple of days, I decided on a whim to catch it that next night. It opens alarmingly, with a soft light panning across sumptuously arranged linens that promise the sort of middle-brow historical spectacle that makes going to period flicks these days such a perilous chore (I heard Marie Antoinette was crap, but I still want to see it just because it tried to shake up the formula a little, the same way I still think A Knight's Tale did so successfully). The plot itself has been likened to Shakespeare in Love, and it's easy to see why, as it uses a romantic complication from Moliere's past to explain most of his masterpieces, like Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Moliere (Romain Duris) gets busted out of debtor's prison by Jourdain, a dweeby bourgeois with more money than sense (the excellent Fabrice Luchini, a frequent mainstay of Eric Rohmer flicks back in the day, particularly 1978's bewildering yet engrossing Arthurian tableau Perceval) who wants the playwright to tutor him in the theatrical arts, so he can seduce a notoriously fickle salonniere (Ludivine Sagnier). Jourdain's wife (Laura Morante) realizes what's going on and falls in love with Moliere, with tragicomic, yep Shakespeare in Love-like consequences. It's all frothy fun, but with some nifty in-jokes and serious artistic undertones. One might even detect a dig at the Oscars in Moliere's initial hidebound assumption that the only quality theatre is drama. Even with all that, the movie's stolen by none other than Edouard Baer, Audrey Tautou's mopey boyfriend in God Is Great And I'm Not (2002), as a sleazy, impoverished aristocrat with an eye toward nabbing his business-minded son a prosperous match. The scene where he tries to deny that one of his ancestors was a merchant is the movie's comic highlight.

No Country For Old Men (2007): As far as I could tell early Tuesday, the Coen Brothers had made exactly two undeniably good movies: Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996). I have yet to see Raising Arizona (1987), but I'm afraid I have to side with the critics who condemn their oeuvre in general as a constant barrage of film-school artifice. You'll find great individual moments and excellent performances by actors and actresses (one thinks of Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and John Turturro and John Goodman in pretty much all of them), but they never really seem to hang together as movies for me. It's just another casualty in the irony overdose that may yet do for narrative cinema and literature as art forms. Fortunately, the Coens seem to recognize this themselves (or at least have temporarily exhausted their reserves of gratuitous snark) and do themselves proud with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, which hardly ever feels like a Coen Brothers movie. A gripping thriller and a grim, downbeat essay on the nature of fate, No Country turns the Texas-Mexico border into a blasted wasteland, almost a preparation for the end, as taciturn Vietnam vet Llewellyn Moss (the perennially underrated Josh Brolin) and charismatically psycho hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) chase each other over some missing drug money in an occasionally deceptive game of cat-and-mouse, with washed-up sheriff Edward Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as a resignedly impotent spectator. The Coens pull out all the stops with a fantastic supporting cast, some of who seem to have been pulled out by the roots from the surrounding soil (I don't think I've seen Tess Harper in anything since high school). Kelly McDonald hardly seems Scots at all as Moss' wife. Woody Harrelson pops up as a shady character with his own reasons for helping Moss, and a couple of my favorite American TV actors of the past decade make appearances: Stephen Root, NewsRadio's Jimmy James, as a crooked sort employing Harrelson, and Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt (good as Jack McCall, Wild Bill Hickok's assassin, but genuinely great as the enigmatic, sinister geologist Francis Wolcott) as Jones' goofy deputy with a stereotypically silly name. Barry Corbin, as Jones' grizzled old adviser, looks like he's actually been exhumed, and seems to provide the philosophical lesson to which the movie builds. As with the earlier Coen stuff, there's plenty of quirkiness, but this time it's effectively balanced out by a truly horrific shadow hanging over the action, even more horrific for being so prosaic and inevitable. It all made me feel that what was wrong witht he earlier movies was a sense of calibration. Hopefully the Coens will see this, as I do, as a welcome new direction, because I think they'd be really terrific making good movies that genuinely mean something.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 6:02 PM EST
Updated: 29 November 2007 6:31 PM EST
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19 November 2007
Why Should They Kill Me, When Everyone Likes Me So Much?
Now Playing: Roxy Music--"The Bob (Medley)"

Today I received one of those Cialis and Viagra emails on yahoo from the magnificently monickered Petronella Bellamy ( --it's too bad that it's probably not her real name--which directed me to I clicked on neither location, as you can probably imagine, but did notice a rather unusual email signature (if such it was)...

"had ridden up. Don't you understand, your excellency, my dear sir, that you must not defile through narrow officer you would set a good example, yet here you are without your boots! The alarm will be sounded and Here it is! thought he, seizing the staff of the standard and hearing with pleasure the whistle of bullets mantilla, Natasha, shivering in the fresh air, went out into the deserted streets lit by the clear light of dawn."

It smells a lot like War and Peace to me, the scene where Nikolai Rostov's having that rude awakening while watching his army get its clock cleaned at Austerlitz. "Natasha" might also suggest so. But then there's "mantilla," which suggests Spain? The Peninsular War? It's definitely got a Napoleonic feel, and I'm guessing was cobbled together from several different bits and pieces. But why? Why, Petronella, why??? And so on and so forth.

It's mildly embarrassing that I'll probably wind up thinking about this on my deathbed (if I have one).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:21 PM EST
Updated: 19 November 2007 1:22 PM EST
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15 November 2007
Fasten Your Piehole With Fetters Of Brass
Now Playing: Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky--"Francesca da Rimini"

For the longest time, I've been fascinated by the Basques, the non-Indo-European people living among the western Pyrenees, in the border region between France and Spain. They've lived in Europe longer than anyone else and their language is pretty nigh unclassifiable. The Basque country, or Euskal Herria in Euskadi, ties with Wales as the part of Europe I most want to visit (as opposed to cities, where London and Rome still hold preeminence). I was scarcely deterred by watching a strange BBC documentary from the mid-50s hosted by Orson Welles. Welles, of course, is one of my heroes, and this period, even with Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil, is supposed to be a low point in his career. You wouldn't be able to tell, though, as he swans about the mountains doing whatever he damn well pleases and gets paid for it into the bargain (one would imagine, anyway). It's a treat watching people turn to drink in their interviews with him just to get a word in edgewise.* Back to the Basques, their food is held by many critics to be the height of Spanish cuisine. Much of it involves seafood, as the Basques have been making a living off the Atlantic for centuries and probably knew about America before Columbus (likely from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, one of the world's great historic fishing grounds). There's one recipe in particular that I've long been meaning to try.

Marmitako (Tuna and Potato Stew)

1/2 cup olive oil, 2 large onions, sliced or chopped, 4 medium Anaheim chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, 2 bay leaves, 8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

Warm olive oil in stockpot over high heat. Add onions, chiles, bay leaves and garlic, and saute for 10 mins.

2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered, 1 cup dry white wine, 3 cups veggie stock, 6-8 saffron threads.

Add potatoes, stock, wine and saffron. Bring to boil, cover and reduce heat to minimum.

1 tbsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1 mild dried chile pepper.

Add salt, pepper, and dried chile; cook until potatoes are tender (approx. 15 mins.).

2 tsp olive oil, 2 lbs. yellowfin tuna fillets, cut into 1 1/2 in. cubes, 3 tbsp chopped parsley.

Warm remaining 2 tsp olive oil in large saute pan over high heat. Add tuna and saute for 2 mins. until lightly browned. Transfer tuna to stockpot with potatoes; continue to cook about 8-10 mins. Stir only occasionally on account of fish. Season with salt and pepper to taste and discard bay leaves.

Yes, "simple," hearty "fisherman's stew," which appears to be the Basque equivalent of bouillabasse. To me, it seemed the height of gourmet dining. So many of these recipes looked delicious (I got this one from Gerald and Cameron Hirigoyen's The Basque Kitchen), but I wanted a soup to try, and this one turned out fantastic, my favorite yet. I had to make a few subsitutions; I probably could have bought saffron threads from Whole Foods, but the transportation issues didn't seem worth it. Having a few green peppers on hand, I switched those for the Anaheims and compensated with a couple of jalapenos. I used dried parsley (a lot less, as dried herbs are usually stronger than fresh) and found I had no veggie stock, so I decided to use one cup chicken stock and two cups water, just to make sure it didn't overpower the flavor. I probably should have processed the chili pepper (it was an ancho; I didn't want it too strong and they didn't have any guajillos besides), but wound up simply doing a julienne and dumping it in there; I don't think it was that big of a deal. Browning the tuna was a surprisingly sensual experience. I love seafood, and love cooking it almost as much. Add to that the piquant taste of the peppers and spices, and the extra tang of the wine (I'm not sure they had sauvignon blanc in mind, but that was all I had, so there), and you have a very delicious soup. I was pretty damn proud of myself, to be honest.

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999): When I was in high school, I read Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). I wasn't supposed to do so, as it had nothing to do with any of my classes, but you know how it is (I got a 4.0 anyway). I came away mighty impressed with the mix of theoretical anmalysis and direct reportage that Faludi brought to her examination of the hissyfit a lot of guys threw around that time at the alleged despotism of "feminazis" and their ilk. She was particularly good on the media, eviscerating thirtysomething's not-so-subtle tumescence for the imaginary fifties and looking at the bizarre reactions Roseanne (while living on Spring Street a few years ago, I caught up on a few reruns and don't think I'd ever realized how good it was) provoked for its honest and feminist portrayal of American working-class life. I'd been meaning to read Stiffed for a while and had just never gotten around to it. Faludi's recent The Terror Dream, about the official manipulation of masculinity and popular culture since 9/11, has just come out, and the reminder of her existence spurred me to get in gear and read Stiffed (among other things, so I could read The Terror Dream, as they seem to comprise a trilogy of sorts). One of the reasons I enjoy reading, say, Bitch magazine is that it demonstrates feminism to be a universal; if, as the bumper sticker says, "women are people," then it follows that men are people, too, something just as easily ignored in patriarchal culture. Faludi looks at how the alleged winners are just as deprived under the existing system, one that prizes winning above all and an almost sociopathic veneration for the individual, drawing on a host of cases from American cultural and economic life during the post-Vietnam era. Her core thesis--that a brief progressive moment of collective identity in the immediate post-World War II era was usurped by a triumphalist imperialism that not only got the country into Vietnam but also the problems of its aftermath--I've found echoed in other works, from Gore Vidal's essays to Fred Inglis' impassioned, Anglocentric history of the Cold War, The Cruel Peace (1992). Faludi focuses primarily on the changing nature of fatherhood, and how many men felt they had to live up to paternal examples that simply didn't exist in real life. Most of her stories come from that new heartland, Southern California, many in turn revolving around the McDonnell-Douglas defense industrial complex. Her most gripping tale comes from Michael Bernhardt, the Vietnam veteran who, with fellow vet Ron Ridenhour, blew the whistle on My Lai. On the cultural front, she has a very illuminating series of discussions with Sylvester Stallone, both on the mythmaking nature of the Rambo movies and his own status as a male role model of sorts, and undertakes a fascinating exploration of how the porn industry devalues men as well as women. The latter section demonstrates why I enjoy Faludi so much as a writer, probably because her background's in journalism and not academia. She can engage in a deep, scholarly "interrogation" of the fin-de-siecle male malaise and then provide this image:

A few weeks after the [porno] incident, [Ron Jeremy] invited me to his apartment to watch a videotape of a Beavis and Butt-head segment in which they sniggered endlessly about Jeremy's paunch. "Isn't this great?" Jeremy crowed, as he sat on the floor before his wide-screen TV, devouring an entire platter of bagels, lox, and cream cheese, which was supposed to be brunch for three. "I don't care what they say about me," Jeremy said cheerfully, as he snaked his tongue along the empty bottom of the deli cream-cheese container, "as long as they spell my name right." (546)**

*If you ever run across it, though, it's great fun, both entertaining and fascinating (mostly entertaining) as he jovially bullies the wan young son of an expatriate American food writer, smokes a cigar while speaking on-camera during a pelota match (Basque stickball, commonly known as jai-alai), and basically turns into a five-year-old whenever anyone shoots off fireworks.

**Probably just as well, then.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 15 November 2007 2:12 PM EST
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6 November 2007
Oh Well, I Guess I Must Have Fumbled; I Suppose That's Just The Way The Cookie Crumbles
Now Playing: The Pipettes--"Dirty Mind"

The pleasant situation in my life, to which I alluded a couple of weeks ago, no longer exists. To be sure, it was an ephemeral thing from the start, but no less sweet in the duration or painful at the end (with nobody, really, to blame, which has its own set of blessings and curses) as a result. While I consider my present ache inevitable, if silly, I regret nothing, wish her the best and am glad to count her my friend regardless.

Still, as one might imagine, the weekend was shit (even if some sort of reverse tension meant I had an unexpectedly mellow time at work--not enough energy to be pissed off, perhaps), and I've had to troll around for things to cheer me up.

Scream and Scream Again (1969): One of only a couple of films to feature the three horror icons of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing at once, Gordon Hessler's wacko masterpiece for AIP (if you ask me) is marvelously (as always) reviewed here and also by yours truly for Darrell Buxton's upcoming anthology of 1960s British horror reviews.

Lindisfarne--"No Time To Lose": I don't remember where I first heard of Lindisfarne, a folk-rock band from the north of England (Newcastle to be exact, hence the name), but I fund their 1971 album Fog On The Tyne at poor old Schoolkids' in Exile shortly before it departed this world and decided to give it a go (as I did with Pentangle's 1970 Cruel Sister, which is good but not nearly as much as Fog On The Tyne). Their big hit was the title song, but my personal favorite came at the end of the CD bonus tracks. With a muffled, jokey intro, a cheeky mandolin whisks into gear a militantly peppy and enchanting little song, all about the joys of getting out into the country and washing out your cares with pumice (not necessarily pumice, but there's a hard edge to the song that gives me that impression). It's especially good for those undeniably nice days that yet seem a little too brisk and overcast, with a hint of rain coming your way, and those are the very best days of all.

Sergei Prokofiev--"Kije's Funeral" from the Lieutenant Kije Suite: Kije had a can't-miss premise, from the novel by Yuri Tynyanov. A bureaucratic error in military dispatches to the Czar's court results in the creation of a fictional hero by terrified pen-pushers, one whose exploits become more imaginative and unbelievable as the snowball of mendacity gains momentum. The piece is probably best known for the rousing "Troika," the theme music to Woody Allen's 1975 classic Love and Death, but I love the last bit, where Kije's jaunty introduction at the beginning plays essentially side by side with the mournful "Love Song," illustrating both the impossibility of Kije's existence and the fundamental ambiguity of every single life, filled as they are with joys and sorrows. Any time things seem too out of hand either way, "Kije's Funeral" will do.

Barry Lyndon (1975): The Michigan Theater showed this as part of its ongoing Kubrick series; I tried to get a few people to go see this, but with little success. A friend of mine met me for coffee beforehand, which was nice, as I hadn't really had a good talk with her in a while. I was also terribly pleased to run into the good John Fossum during the intermission, and as always had a good chat with him about movies and music (he's backing Tim Monger at Leopold Brothers' on the 24th, happily the same day I was going to do something for my birthday at that very location). Kubrick isn't exactly one of my passions; while I love many of his movies, the authoritarian, control-freak way in which he puts them together so violently clashes with my own worldview that I'm surprised I can watch them at all. Fortunately, he's perfectly matched with Barry Lyndon. I'd seen it before on video, but never in a theater, which concerned me a little going in, but it was really the perfect thing for me to watch in my present mood. William Thackeray was an eighteenth-century guy--wry, cynical, and knowing--in an early Victorian literary world that prized youth, romance and sentimental cant above all things. In much the same way as he would Vanity Fair a few years later, he presented his 1844 work, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, about an Irish rascal trying to make it in the Georgian English aristocracy through a variety of picaresque adventures, as a "novel without a hero" (I think; it fits, anyway). Kubrick's three-hour film isn't so much one without a hero as it is one with a hero who's also a feckless, self-destructive goon, almost a more conscientious, better-heeled equivalent of Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971). He goes through most of the movie acting like a complete and utter douche, commits one honorable action towards the end, and as a result loses pretty much everything. I ragged on Ryan O'Neal in the message I sent to people describing the movie, but he's actually well-cast in the way I described. What he does with his casting, though, one must judge for oneself. Moments in the first half of the movie when he has to cry are almost criminally hilarious. The supporting cast is to die for, honors going to the great Leonard Rossiter as Captain Quin, Patrick Magee as the stylish Chevalier, and the ever-swish Murray Melvin as the Reverend Runt. Its visual splendor's become cinematic legend, as Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott patterned the look after painters of the period like Watteau and Gainsborough, probably the main reason I wanted to see it on the big screen (as with Kubrick's 2001, it makes so much more sense after seeing it that way). The music matches the visuals, Handel's grim Sarabande as the main theme and Schubert's Piano Trio anachronistically repeated throughout the movie, with traditional Irish music by the early Chieftains thrown in towards the beginning. In happier times, Kubrick's intensely cynical take on life--particularly love and desire--can seem cartoonishly corrosive, but at moments like these, it can feel so right.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:10 PM EST
Updated: 6 November 2007 2:32 PM EST
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4 November 2007
When You're Walter Gotell, Life's Never Easy
Now Playing: The Pretty Things--"Buzz the Jerk"


A commentary on the last few days (with apologies and thanks to Tina Fey).

It's already getting better, what with the movies and the soups and all, but I just wanted a memento for posterity. The weather fits, at least.

Off to cut up tuna!

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:05 PM EDT
Updated: 12 November 2007 3:56 PM EST
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25 October 2007
Look Out, Honey, 'Cause I'm Using Technology
Now Playing: Carl Maria von Weber--"Overture" to "Der Freischutz"

"The alchemist says your HMO was destroyed in a goblin attack."

I apparently need to learn more about World of Warcraft so I can mock it more accurately.

So barely a day after I write the first paragraph of the previous entry, I have my own personal Larry Craig moment at work. I find Craig a terribly amusing figure--these secretly sybaritic gay-bashers usually are, and Craig's a little more brazen than most. It helps that he's a colossal embarrassment to people who've done their level best to ruin the country for the past seven years. I'd never heard anything about the cult of bathroom toetapping (I guess I move in the wrong circles), but such moved through my mind as I did something a couple of days ago that every one of the people reading this has done--on the toilet. Fluffy (who I wanted to have certified at least five times today, God help me) installed new locks on the bathrooms (bathroom locks are good things to have in a public place, I'm sure we'll all agree) and very nice they looked, too. So I... performed my ablutions in a fair amount of confidence I wouldn't be disturbed. No sooner had I finished than I heard a splintering sound and looked up to see the door open, the wooden base of the lock fractured and some dope in a shirt and tie standing there with a suitably shamefaced look on his mug. Either he realized what a stupid thing he'd done or he sensed I wasn't into him. Was this part of some dipshit management training seminar way back when? Did "Brad" (let's call him such) have to wrench open doors to show he wouldn't take no for an answer, that he was a winner? I pictured him in a disused portion of some dismal office park, straining to pull yet another door open to the sound of his seminar leader clapping his hands, shrieking "earn this, Brad!" with a dog-eared copy of Sun Xi lying at his feet. But then I do these things.

 And if it has to happen, having the overture to Der Freischutz as your incidental music works great--I'm really trying to keep my face straight as I type this.

Equinox (1970): The Criterion Collection is an ongoing gem, having released probably hundreds of classic movies with full DVD extras, the masterpieces of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (no filmmakers have ever come closer to creating genuine magic on screen, I think) such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), and probably their most famous movie, The Red Shoes (1948), receiving particularly sumptuous treatment. Curiously, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the best of the lot and one of my ten favorite movies ever, hasn't yet, so far as I know. So why the Criterion people did Equinox I'll never know. An uncharitable part of me suspects that they, like many "serious" film critics, look down on horror and fantasy movies and decided Equinox was good enough to "represent," which, if true, was very, very wrong. There's an interview with horror writer/icon Forrest Ackerman that tries to explain the importance of the movie which was probably wasted on me, but then that was only because the movie wasn't very good (I guess). A "kid" named David (who looks older than I am) winds up in a hospital with a cross clenched in his hand and babbling about assorted nonsense. A reporter and doctor piece together his story and find out that he and three friends went off to find their professor friend who vanished in a nearby state park. A park ranger with prominent eyebrows tells them that the professor probably went back to the city. Despite some sort of alleged training in the occult, David fails to see anything wrong with the ranger being named "Asmodeus." There's some ancient book (I suspect this had something to do with Sam Raimi's original inspirations for the Evil Dead movies), monsters, other worlds, lots of running around, and wooden acting from the two romantic leads. The two mildly comic sidekicks fare much better, although much of the comedy comes unintentionally from the girl's rapidly shifting hair-lengths (her boyfriend played by Franklin Boers, later to become Frank Bonner and WKRP In Cincinnati's lustful Herb Tarlick). What distinguishes Equinox--to a point--is the model work on a number of monsters that menace the party. It doesn't quite rise to the level of Harryhausen, but it has its own rough-hewn charm, and it's rather impressive that it all started out on a student project for less than $7,000. Still, the sometimes clever special effects (watching the clay human "victims" get tossed around is genuinely hilarious) fail to make this much of a flick worth watching.

Green For Danger (1946): Criterion gets back to what it does best in releasing Sidney Gilliat's little gem of a whodunit from the immediate postwar British cinema. A couple of mysterious deaths take place in the wake of V-1 attacks on a rural English hospital, and Inspector Cockrill of Scotland Yard (Alastair Sim) finds himself called in to deal with the matter.  I made the huge mistake of reading Geoffrey O'Brien's superb introductory essay before writing this, and now feel horribly inadequate, my limbs all shrivelled up like a dead cockroach. He explains it with a verve and authority that I could never manage, but the movie's still a lot of fun, mixing the tropes and visual themes of the wartime drama, mystery, and, in a couple of places, horror movie, while remaining a fun, brisk little thriller. It helps that the original story was changed from the Blitz of 1940 to the V-1s of 1944, both fresher in the mind and sneakier in the attack, ratcheting up the tension. While the great Trevor Howard, Leo Genn (just as genially oily as he'd be twenty-five years later in Pete Walker's mildly disappointing sleaze classic Die Screaming, Marianne), and Megs Jenkins are excellent as some of the hospital suspects, it's Sim's show, as he perfectly inhabits a deceptively buffoonish Columbo-like detective who, even when he seems to have everything in hand, doesn't quite have all the answers. This would probably make a great bookend to a "Sim night"--Green For Danger, A Christmas Carol (1951; Sim's still probably the best Scrooge of all time), and The Belles of St. Trinian's (1955), not that I'm trying to give anyone ideas.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:25 PM EDT
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22 October 2007
Dungeon Girls And Mutant Squash
Now Playing: Lily Allen--"Everything's Just Wonderful"

Something I struggle to avoid in writing the blog is a rote recitation of the various things I've done or experienced--shows, parties, movies, books, walking--without some sort of context. One of the most frequent accusations made against blogs is that they're nothing more than narcissistic navel-gazing, which I find a little churlish. Many are, but all too often the accusations are made by paid writers studying pop culture for various publications, which really amounts to navel-gazing writ large and therefore renders them hypocrites of the first water (and nervous nellies--remember how the internet was going to make books obsolete?). In their defense, I suspect it's really their justified fear of the notion that anyone can write interesting and quality stuff for anonymous consumption, whether the material consists of weighty thoughts on politics and philosophy or "what I ate for breakfast"--a "celebrated journalist" on the British Horror Films forum once tore into a several-page rant on the subject, essentially accusing bloggers of stealing the bread from his children's mouths. My own reaction, sadly, has been to internalize this attitude and minimize the purely personal details (which usually aren't that interesting anyway) and lean more towards the cultural and culinary criticism that I enjoy doing in the first place. It becomes a problem when my social life overheats to the degree that it has recently.

Simply put, I am... seeing somebody. I don't want to write too much about it because of the whole aforementioned "personal downplay" mode, but also, I think, in a weird way, because I want it to stay ours. Suffice it to say, she's terrific, and it's an unusually pleasant meeting of circumstances: I've known her slightly for some time but don't really know much about her, and vice versa. So we're somewhat familiar with each other but there's still a lot to learn, which I think will be very, very fun. It occurred over the course of a weekend involving both a pumpkin-carving party and a happily abortive attempt to see The Darjeeling Limited at the Michigan Theater (it was sold out). This wasn't entirely a bad thing, especially as I have issues with Wes Anderson. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket (1996) and loved Rushmore (1998; although in the latter's case, it was probably more the soundtrack than anything else), but found The Royal Tenenbaums (2002; she disagrees, but who the hell names their falcon Mordecai?) a militantly twee toothache. I didn't bother to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and have heard a few negative rumblings over Darjeeling. Apparently Laura and Steve tried to get into the Q-n-A session with Anderson and that lovable scamp Jason Schwartzman at Borders a week ago, only to find themselves barred because they weren't "with the University" (for most cultural events in Ann Arbor, a vital requirement for "personhood"). Fortunately (for me, anyway, because it was hilarious), they got to watch the whole thing on a TV screen set up on the first floor. The same thing happened to me when Rackham Auditorium was too packed to hear Jeffrey Eugenides; Middlesex worshipper that I am, I found the concept a little too well-meaningly weird, and left. The intereview was, by all accounts, a cacophony of ass-kissing, with Schwartzman shamelessly mugging to the crowd at the end. The stench of phony Klostermanesque irony that ruined a perfectly good cultural moment in the late 90s hung over the whole idea of The Darjeeling Limited from the get-go, and I wasn't that sorry we couldn't get in. We all went to the Eight-Ball and had a better time than I thought we would, as I'd only gotten two hours of sleep from the night before.

 Mean Girls (2004): As relatively independent as I like to think myself from the world of celebrity obsessions, I have only myself to blame for not seeing this enjoyable little flick before, and all down to fear of what  Lindsay Lohan performance looked like in this day and age. The only other movie I'd really seen her in before was the lackluster remake (Lackluster? A remake? No!) several years before of The Parent Trap, and she wasn't that bad (the reason to see that one is that Natasha Richardson has never looked better). Besides, I love Tina Fey. 30 Rock could have been a stultifying landslide of smug in-jokes and tired hipster snark a la Wet Hot American Summer--excepting, of course, that canoe rescue scene and the great Paul Rudd--and it's instead one of the funniest comedies out there right now, and largely down to the quality and timing of the writing. Mean Girls doesn't quite rise to that level (although few things can) and gets a little preachy at the end, but it's a lot of fun and funny with it. Caddy (Lohan) and her parents return from the African bush to America, where Caddy has to maneuver the minefield of high school social life, especially the title characters (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried). While finding allies in an understanding teacher (Fey) and a nonconformist friend (Lizzy Caplan), Caddy finds herself seduced by the more privileged lifestyle and has to make some tough choices. That last bit is the original proposition, with Solzhenitsyn's quip about the line between good and evil made flesh in an American high school (pretentious but true). Though onetime Party of Five moppet Chabert's rather entertaining as the deceptively saccharine Gretchen, the lovely Caplan's the best reason to see the movie besides Fey's writing--she actually makes me wish I'd watched The Class while it was on.

Oh, this is pretty sweet, too.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:53 PM EDT
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