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December 2008 Archives

December 30, 2008

Roland Burris graciously accepts pretend Senate seat

Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich

Look at the smile on Roland Burris's face. That is one brave and gracious man. Getting appointed to the Senate by an indicted governor who is in process of being formally stripped of his appointing powers -- it must be sort of like when you're playing with a small child who, feeling generous, starts handing you random objects she picks up, like other people's wallets or her mom's thing of lipgloss. You know it's not really yours, but you smile and say "thank you!" anyway to keep up the illusion.

Poor guy. He has to stand there pretending this sham is for real, and then Bobby Rush points out to everyone that once Obama is inaugurated there will actually be zero black people in the Senate. Good point! But let's be honest here: everyone knows that Blagojevich can nominate a really exceptional and worthy person to the Senate right now, even someone who he couldn't squeeze for any cushy jobs for the delightful Mrs. Patti Blagojevich, and it doesn't mean squat.

I would have no problem hearing an outburst from Mr. Burris sometime in the next few weeks about how he got used in this silly charade by a greedy, meaty-fisted charlatan trying lamely to make himself look honorable as he crashed and burned. Potential upside: at least his name is out there now, so he could very likely get appointed by some less tainted Illinois person, or even elected through a legitimate process.

Also: Gawker points out that on his way out of the press conference, Blagojevich demonstrated spectacularly poor word choice by asking the press not to "lynch" Burris over the ongoing corruption scandal. Dude, it's all over.

December 22, 2008

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Just like everyone else, I loved The Wrestler. If you take it at face value as a character study, it's great--the central character is so likable and tough he seems like he can handle anything, but also so fragile and damaged that you know he definitely can't. The sad life of a washed-up pro wrestler would be pathetic in other circumstances, but this character is noble in his struggle to do the right thing in a bleak and lonely world.

But on top of the standard character exploration of a struggling artist, there's a lot in there about identity, performance, simulation of sex/violence, and self-determination. I'm sure cultural studies graduate students will be writing theses about it for decades to come.

Then on top of that, there's Mickey Rourke in the lead role, which brings any analysis of this movie into the fourth dimension of complexity. He's made a mythological persona for himself, a tough-guy/psychopath mystique, whose personal history is full of questionable facts and non-questionable arrests, and he's playing a character with his own manufactured mythology and identity.

Both Mickey Rourke and Randy "The Ram" Robinson, aka Robin Ramsinsky, have created careers based on stylized performances. The main difference between them seems to be that Randy is at heart a sweet person trying (and failing) to find his place in a world that has left him behind, whereas I don't know what Mickey Rourke really is. He's a big question mark. There's more on Rourke in the Times' recent magazine section feature, which highlights his emotional retelling of his life story, which may or may not be fake. There's been tons of press about the return of Mickey Rourke, about half of which is praise for an amazing performance, and the other half is about the man himself, which usually involves comments like this one from director Darren Aronofsky: "I think the reality is this, that he's basically a ripped open nerve and he's just sizzling with emotion."

Then there's the screenwriter: this is the first movie by Robert D. Siegel, former editor-in-chief of The Onion. He apparently wrote the character with Mickey Rourke in mind, so hopefully was prepared for the emotion-sizzling he got himself into. In a brief LA Times interview about a favorite scene in the movie (the one with Ratt's "Round and Round") he says, "The actual lines from the script -- Mickey does a lot of improvising -- I’m glad they made it in: 'Like there’s anything wrong with having fun'; 'The 90s sucked.'"

If you decide to be a screenwriter, and the first thing you get produced is The Wrestler, you're doing pretty great for yourself. Actually, Siegel wrote another movie first, called Big Fan, which got the attention of Darren Aronofsky, who then asked him to write The Wrestler. Siegel seems to have a really dark sense of humor and is drawn to characters that live on the fringes. He seems especially good at bringing dignity to characters whose lives might be laughable if you didn't have so much respect for them. In a recent Times interview, he says, "The idea that a person with a comedy background would do something dark should not come as a shock to people with any exposure to comedy or darkness."

Which brings us to this other movie, Big Fan, which Siegel is directing himself. He started production on it as soon as The Wrestler was finished, and it's debuting next month at Sundance.

Here's the story: Patton Oswalt plays a 35 year-old parking garage attendant in Staten Island, who loves the NY Giants. During a chance meeting with a Giant, things go horribly wrong, and he gets publicly beaten up by his idol.

Judging from this still shot from the movie, Siegel has once again captured the dinginess of working-class life:

Big Fan, Patton Oswalt

I'm guessing that's Patton Oswalt's mother standing there at the counter, who he may or may not live with. I'm really looking forward to this one.

Here's a great poster for The Wrestler's screening at film festivals, done up like an 80's wrestling flyer.

December 19, 2008

New Hampshire learning lessons from Katrina

HELP sign in Brentwood NH

A huge ice storm wiped out a lot of New Hampshire last Friday, and a majority of the state lost power. Something like 30,000 people, mostly in remote areas, still don't have electricity or water a week later, and NH gets pretty freaking cold in the winter. (Disclosure: both Cushie and I have family that were without power for 6 days, and in some cases 8 days and counting.)

A few trends have started to emerge as people deal with the aftermath of the storm that are sad reminders of 2005 and the weeks and months (and years) that followed Hurricane Katrina. That crisis seems to have created a kind of blueprint for what happens after large scale disasters.

(Note: we're not trivializing all the horrors that people in New Orleans and the surrounding areas went through and are still dealing with. At all. We're drawing some parallels between situations that have some similarities but are totally different in scale.)

While most people in New Hampshire have gotten their power back, a few isolated areas are still waiting, and were told yesterday it might not happen until after Christmas. People in Brentwood, NH have started making signs asking for help that doesn't seem to be coming:

Residents frustrated with the conditions on the road, where trees and wires still obstruct traffic in a number of places, have placed a sign on a barrier that reads "Help" and "Forgotten by Unitil and Exeter DPW."

Just give it a few more weeks, people of Brentwood, and you might come up with signs as memorable as those we saw along the Gulf Coast ("We Are American, Where Is FEMA?", "Still Heer"), like the infamous big dog, claw hammer, ugly wife guy in NOLA.

Some looting has also started to happen in abandoned houses and businesses with non-functioning burglar alarms, but of course, with a special New England twist:

In the 12-hour period between house checks, someone had forced entry into the home and stole numerous items. Police captain Raiche said some of the stolen items included seven rifles and shotguns, jewelry and two high-definition, plasma televisions.

Another burglary occurred Friday night at the popular restaurant and nightspot Kelley's Row, located on Central Avenue in Dover. Police say someone forced entry into the restaurant while much of Central Avenue was in the dark that night.

"They have a burglary alarm but they didn't have power, so the alarm didn't matter," Raiche said.

A flat-panel television and $100 worth of lobster meat were stolen.

"We have very few leads at this point," Raiche said.

And there are problems with FEMA and resources sitting in a warehouse somewhere, not reaching the people who need them:

Dover resident Jim Alty told the Herald he had been told there were 53 generators, along with several pallets of water, at Pease national guard base. He said he was concerned they weren't getting to the people who needed them.

A call to Sherri Pierce, spokeswoman for the 157th Air Refueling Wing, confirmed they were there. "But they are not under our control," Pierce said. "They are under the control of FEMA."

If things keep getting worse, hopefully we'll get New Hampshire natives Adam Sandler or Sarah Silverman to say "George Bush doesn't care about rural people" on live TV.

December 17, 2008

Imagine college. Now imagine your roommate is Tracy Morgan.

Tracy Morgan in goggles

We all love to watch Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock every week, but how's his film career going? What has he done since Little Man, First Sunday from earlier this year, and Deep in the Valley, an almost definitely pornographic Kim Kardashian vehicle in which Tracy plays Busta Nut?

Variety announced today that Tracy Morgan will star in Freshman Roommates, in which a hapless dude drunkenly responds to a Nigerian scam email. Then Tracy Morgan, an actual deposed Nigerian prince, shows up at his door looking for his inheritance. Crazy! So we're probably looking at a weirder Coming to America with more costume changes, more strippers, and more inappropriate jokes that make you wonder if Tracy Morgan is actually mentally ill or just really good at his shtick.

The drunken emailer is played by the guy with the video camera from Cloverfield, and the screenplay is by John Mulaney, who wrote for SNL's Weekend Update Thursday series, and Nick Kroll, one of the Cavemen.

December 15, 2008

Which soul icon will Beyoncé play next?

Beyonce as Etta James, Cadillac Records

Beyoncé's latest movie, Cadillac Records, tells the story of Chicago's Chess Records, an early blues, soul, and rock label that introduced black artists to white audiences and global stardom. Beyoncé plays Etta James, and though her acting is a little uneven and the movie isn't doing especially well at the box office (it opened last week in 9th place, this week it's at 11th), she's got an Executive Producer credit and sings the hell out of a lot of soul classics on the soundtrack.

Her last major role was in Dreamgirls, the quasi-historical story of Motown Records, Detroit's early pop and R&B label. She played the Diana Ross character, and even though she was flat as a flounder, she looked great in those early 60's outfits and more or less held her own in a mediocre movie.

So what's next? I'd like to see the early rock label triumvirate completed with a movie about Stax Records, Memphis's early soul and funk label. Like Chess, most of the greats on Stax were men (Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MG's, Otis Redding) but there were a few outsize female icons that would be great for Beyoncé to play. She could do a pretty good Mavis Staples [photo], beating out her older Staple Sisters to become the lasting solo star. I'm not Beyoncé's greatest fan, and she's better at pop than soul, but she's trying to stretch herself into a respected actress, which is good. Plus she's probably a major draw for audiences that might otherwise not care about movies about old record labels.

Cadillac Records was OK. It has a few great scenes, and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Mos Def as Chuck Berry are especially good. I wish there had been more scenes about the uneasy partnership between Leonard Chess, the label owner, and Muddy Waters, his first star, since their scenes together were the most memorable. And fewer contrived lines like "Just you wait! My wife's gonna drive a Cadillac!"

The Post explains today why Bo Diddley, also a major star on Chess, isn't mentioned in the movie at all. His management company says:

"It's no secret that Bo had real issues with the Chess brothers and their 'creative accounting practices.' It was Bo's recollection that every time he or another performer would go into the Chess offices to ask for their royalties, they were given the keys to a new Cadillac instead. So, in that regard, at least they got the title of the movie right. Regardless, we are completely shocked that the producers would omit such a seminal figure as Bo."

That "creative accounting" is represented in the movie, with Leonard Chess diverting a bit of Chuck Berry's prodigious income stream to his less popular labelmates. The scene in Cadillac Records was almost exactly like the scene in 24 Hour Party People, the quasi-historical movie about Factory Records, when Tony Wilson uses New Order's royalties to pay for other less successful ventures, like the Hacienda and every other band on the label.

Seven Levels of Christmas

Here's a special Christmas music video from Uncle Thermo to remind you of the true meaning of the season: Morrissey and flossing.

December 12, 2008

Eric Fensler, the G.I. Joe PSA guy (sorry, Eric)

G.I. Joe PSAs

You probably remember those funny G.I. Joe PSA parodies from around 2003--they were an early internet video phenomenon that probably helped inspire the creation of YouTube. Here's a collection of a bunch of them so you can reminisce.

Anyway, the guys over at Spout's FilmCouch podcast decided to track down the creator of the videos, Eric Fensler, and interview him over the phone. Fensler is a video artist who's gone on to do lots of music videos and other parodies using found footage, including some stuff that looks just like 80's cable access video and some writing for Adult Swim's Tim and Eric Awesome Show. He's had his stuff in galleries and film festivals and everything. But, as you would probably guess, he's still usually referred to as the G.I. Joe PSA guy, which it seems he isn't crazy about.

Anyway, the Spout interview starts about 10:00 into the podcast, and it's one of the stranger interviews with a filmmaker I've ever heard. It starts with Fensler apologizing for being so out of it because he had recently eaten a roast beef sandwich that wasn't sitting well, and he says some things in the interview that make the interviewer start to wonder if in Fensler is pulling one over on him.

Throughout the interview, the guys at Spout stop the tape and provide some commentary about how they couldn't figure out what was going on, if Fensler was for real or if he was turning the interview into one of his parody projects. In the interview, he claims the following: he made videos of the girls' softball team in high school that were really popular when played at assemblies, and he thinks they're some of his best work; he doesn't own a video camera; he didn't own a computer until 2004; in high school he weighed 300 pounds and had bad acne. The interviewer actually knew Fensler in high school and says he was skinny and fairly good looking, which is when he starts really getting confused about what's going on.

Then Fensler calls people who like the G.I. Joe videos "losers", then calls himself a loser and quotes Micky's death scene from Rocky 3. He also notes that his best work is the stuff that throws people off and confuses them. He says, "Isn't that the best kind of stuff? It's like you're asking questions, people are left to guess what the hell's going on. I don't like to be told everything. I like to be, like, what was that?"

And then the bad roast beef sandwich gets the better of him, and it's all right there on the interview tape.

So the FilmCouch guys were either made to be part of a performance art parody of an interview, or they recorded a filmmaker having some terrible digestive problems and broadcast it over the internet. Hard to say which.

Anyway, here's Fensler's website, with links to his music videos, Flickr, YouTube (including 23 videos of the kickoff of the 2007 Super Bowl), Vimeo, and live streaming video and slideshows of his dogs.

December 10, 2008

New crackpot investment opportunity!

The Producers

Now that investors have been scared off from stocks, real estate, and the financial institutions that used to be the foundation of our economy, we need new and innovative investment products to help us incinerate our money.

Here's Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm whose primary credential seems to be that they haven't gone bankrupt yet, with a financial service I can actually sort of relate to: movie futures. Here's how this new scheme works. Six months before a new movie comes out, you place bets on how well you think it's going to do. If you think a movie will do better than the odds say (determined by the market) you buy a one-millionth share. Then if it does well, you get some cash! And if it doesn't do so well, you owe your bookie, Cantor Fitzgerald, more money.

This is great news for producers of really terrible movies that people have unreasonably high expectations for, because it will get lots of casual investors and movie fans to give them advance money for their box office bomb. A year ago, I would have definitely bet that Run Fatboy Run would have done really well, like it did in the UK. But it only did $6 million in the US, so I would have lost big. One the other side you've got Mamma Mia!, which might not have had the greatest expectations, but has made $560 million globally so far.

Apparently Cantor Fitzgerald first talked about creating a movie market 7 years ago, right before the company got almost completely wiped out on September 11. Better luck this time. They also own a virtual movie market, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which for people like me is probably as good as the real thing.

Of course the first thing this scheme brings to mind is good old Bialystock and Bloom and their realization that you could make more money with a flop than a hit. "If he were certain the show would fail, a man could make a fortune!" Some unscrupulous movie producer out there could announce a movie that attracts tons of futures investors, then make sure it bombs. And someone will create some sort of alternative fund so contrary investors can bet against the market. If I could get into one of those, I'd go all in against the next movie Nicole Kidman makes.

Hopefully People and Variety will start running live odds.

December 8, 2008

Tzameti remake

13 Tzameti

A little thing on Page Six today alerted me to a Hollywood remake of a Georgian movie from two years ago that freaked the hell out of me: Tzameti (13).

This movie was pretty rough: super low-budget, black and white, with no soundtrack to speak of, but it was one of the more intense movie-going experiences I've ever had. It got some attention when it came out, even though it only played in a few theaters, because the story is so thrilling and dark: a Georgian immigrant in France unwittingly signs up for a high-risk/high-reward secret game, and lots of horrible things happen. The less you know about the movie going in, the better.

The remake will feature Mickey Rouke, described by the Post as "covered in scars, facial hair, tattoos and cowboy gear" while shooting scenes for the movie in a Long Island prison. The rest of the cast is like every tough guy you can think of: Jason Statham, Ray Winstone, Ray Liotta, one of the guys from Oz, and good old Fitty. And to balance things out, there's also the guy who played Ian Curtis in Control, who presumably plays a skinny English guy.

Here's the website for the original movie. The original writer/director is doing the remake too. It might be tricky for him to maintain the suspense and tension of the original with the new cast of famous actors, many of whom are no strangers to hamming it up (and in cowboy gear too!), but the guy seems to know what he's doing.

December 3, 2008

Pitchfork 500

Pitchfork 500

I should have written about this earlier, but Pitchfork has a new book out, Pitchfork 500. It's a collection of the 500 best songs ever according to them.

Last week I went to an event at a bowling alley in Greenpoint where a DJ played tracks from the book, and it seemed like a great selection. With 500 tracks to pick, they covered everything--some huge hits that probably appear in the majority of our planet's CD collections ("Holiday" and "Push It") as well as a Stereolab B-side ("French Disko") and a Magnetic Fields song released on a tiny label from Chicago that I mailed a check to in 1995 to order the album and they never sent me the damn thing ("Take Ecstasy With Me"). Justin Timberlake appears right next to Luomo. So it's a really eclectic list and a lot of fun to peruse.

They organized the book chronologically, starting in 1977 with "Heroes" by David Bowie, a song that on some days I think is the best song ever. It would probably be in my Pitchfork 1. Anyway, it's the perfect year to start with for anyone who is in my generation and doesn't want another rehash of how great our parents' music was. Pitchfork says they picked that year because it was "the birth of punk and independent music".

The book then travels through chunks of years that represent sort-of distinct periods of popular music with little blurbs about each song selected. There are also lots of pull-out mini-lists about notable (or made-up) sub-genres that might be the most compelling part of the book. They've got a section on Yacht Rock (which of course includes "Sailing" by Christopher Cross), Career Killers, and something like Bleep Rock which includes a personal favorite, I-F's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass".

Listening to selections from the book as they were played leads me to guess that a significant number of the editors that chose the songs were mid-90's college radio DJs who happen like all the same stuff I liked when I was 20. Including some I've hardly thought about since I was 20 (Felt, Unrest). But there are many moments of recognition. My favorite Pavement song ("Summer Babe (Winter Version)") my favorite Kate Bush song ("Running Up That Hill", of course), AND my favorite Orange Juice song ("Blue Boy")! Whoa.

As with any "best of" list, there are going to be a lot of selections in there that you'll strongly disagree with (for example there is NO WAY that "Setting Sun" is the Chemical Brothers' best song) but the book is a pretty fascinating flip-through. And it would make a great gift for music fans, provided you are prepared to accept their refusal to leave the house, talk to you, or do any activity apart from read that book for several days after they get it. If you choose to give it as a gift, expect total engrossed silence, punctuated by outbursts of impassioned ranting about "Highway to Hell" vs. "Back in Black" and how just because Bon Scott was dead doesn't mean that they didn't record some of their best stuff post-1980.

Here's the full list.

December 2, 2008

William Shatner: One Man Hyperbole

William Shatner and Jenna Jameson

William Shatner has a new talk show.

It's kind of unbelievable that he's gone all this time without having his own show to share his own intense, self-aware, detachedly-cool and possibly insane personality with the world, unfiltered through any fictional character. Maybe he had to go through all the 20 or 30 careers he's already had before getting to this level.

The show, Shatner's Raw Nerve, is on the Biography Channel at 10:00 tonight, and is automatically the most interesting thing that channel has ever done. His guests will include Jimmy Kimmel, Judge Judy, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jenna Jameson. I don't understand it either, but I think it's going to be great.

When people try to describe Shatner and the kind of celebrity he's made for himself, they often talk in expansive, hyperbolic terms, and end up some place that's almost mystical. In the Times review of the new talk show, Ginia Bellafante writes:

The range of Mr. Shatner’s cultural contributions sometimes seems incalculable, and his tenure on Star Trek, is, of course, really just a fraction of his national gift. If YouTube offered nothing but his spoken-word renditions of classic rock songs ("Rocket Man", "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"), it would still get thousands of hits, no millions and zillions of them. Google might have bought YouTube with no other content.

And later she really nails that ability Shatner has to operate on many different, progressively complex levels of comedy at once: he's serious; he's absurd; he knows he's absurd; he's in on the joke; he's become the joke and also somehow surpasses it.

His genius is a simulation of sincerity that makes it seem as though he is finding profundity wherever he looks. And yet he leaves enough wiggle room for his audience to wonder whether he really is faking it, or whether, in actuality, he isn’t: maybe he is just nuts.

And of course the Fametracker Fame Audit of William Shatner from back in 2005. An excerpt:

When the world zigs, he zags. When the world zags, he zigs. When the world zigs back, he records an album with Ben Folds. When the world chuckles, he pantses the world.

Some celebrities think they've got this whole image thing figured out, they can have fun with it, and they can make it their bitch. Sure, we like John Malkovich, and, sure, we thought it was cool and funny when he starred in Being John Malkovich. But for William Shatner, every day is Being William Shatner. Some celebrities get it, but Shatner so thoroughly gets it that "it" no longer exists. He's consumed "it." He's crawled up inside celebrity and made it explode, the way that Neo finally crawls into Agent Smith and makes him explode.

December 1, 2008

Gus Van Sant's mainstream gay activist movie

Sean Penn and Victor Garber in Milk

Milk did really well in its opening weekend. It's only playing on 34 screens, but it broke a box office record for that size release--$1.9 million since Wednesday, and it sold out at the theater where I saw it. When was the last time a Gus Van Sant movie sold out any theaters? Forget selling out, when's the last time one of his movies even cleared $1 million gross? A quick IMDb scan suggests that 2003's Elephant made just over $1.2 million total, which is a lot better than anything else he's done since 2000.

I didn't see Elephant, or Last Days, or Gerry. Paranoid Park was released earlier this year, and it was great, but also really dark and non-linear, and had a dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere that placed it squarely in the art film category of Van Sant's movies.

Here's the thing about Gus Van Sant: he can do mainstream, and he can do arty, but he seems to lurch from one style to the other whenever he gets stuck. His career is an uneven mess of solid mainstream movies (Good Will Hunting, To Die For, and I'm going to include Milk here) and solid indie/art movies (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Paranoid Park) with all these embarrassing clunkers mixed in (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Finding Forrester, Psycho) that make you wonder what he was thinking.

His latest run of small movies focusing on shaggy adolescents and their encounters with death (Last Days, Elephant, Paranoid Park) didn't make any money or have any big stars. So now he's got Milk, and it looks like he's not taking any chances--he's got a cast of famous actors and a pretty well-known assassinated civil rights leader as the subject.

The movie is about as a good as a conventional biopic can get. And that's in spite of some really cliched biopic devices, including an older Harvey Milk narrating his life story into a tape recorder for posterity or something, fast-forwards through mundane years to get to the important historic events, and an epilogue sequence telling us what became of the real characters we've been watching. Hardly any of the experimental, impressionist style that's in all his small movies.

For a movie about the gay rights movement, Milk plays it totally straight. It's like Van Sant looked back over his career, realized that he can draw big audiences when he makes movies like Good Will Hunting that have compelling characters, a few big actors, and an inspirational story about underdogs overcoming obstacles to fulfill their dreams. So he more or less just did that, and it looks like it's working again.

But this time, probably because the story of Harvey Milk is closer to his heart than some freak genius wiseass from South Boston, Gus Van Sant seems to have made an effort to advance gay actors in his casting choices. Sure, all the leads are straight, but as Van Sant pointed out at a press conference that Spout attended, there aren't any gay actors that have the "box office stature" he needed to get this movie made.

So we end up with Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin as the leads. And they're all really great. But Van Sant did get a whole bunch of gay actors for supporting roles. We've got Victor Garber (above, the guy from Alias and Legally Blonde) as Mayor George Moscone, Stephen Spinella (who plays lots of gay characters, with the notable exception of sexual harasser Miles Papazian from the last season of 24) as a high-powered lawyer, real-life Hollywood producer Howard Rosenman as rich businessman and gay media figure David Goodstein, and best of all, Denis O'Hare as California Senator John Briggs, the sponsor of the 1978 initiative to ban gay teachers from schools.

As Van Sant says, there may not be a lot of gay stars out there--at least not many young ones. (Once they get to be Ian McKellen's age, I guess they just stop worrying and come out already.) I'm glad Van Sant is using his big return to popular mainstream movies to help advance some careers other than just Sean Penn's.

About December 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in December 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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