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May 29, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience: that's what professional actors are for

The Girlfriend ExperienceI finally watched Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (only $6.99 to rent on Amazon, now that it's also out in theaters!) More than enough has already been said about this movie, mostly about casting real-life porn star Sasha Gray to play an expensive prostitute, and how the buying and selling of people and relationships runs through many aspects of modern life.

I mostly liked the movie, especially the structure that jumps back and forth through time, returning to a couple of key scenes that grow more resonant as the audience learns more about what happened before and after. Soderbergh is really good at slow, deliberate revelations about his characters, and creating a bunch of little snapshots that add up to something bigger than the sum of the parts.

This movie works in the same way that other smaller movies of his do, like Full Frontal or The Limey: really nicely shot, no wasted scenes, repetition of important moments, building up to a few really amazing scenes. You hardly knew you were as into it as you were.

But: it would have worked so much better if he had cast a real actress instead of Sasha Grey. The movie got more attention that it probably would have, but this is pure stunt casting. It helped make some kind of interesting meta-points about buying and selling people and the sex industry, but didn't help the movie at all.

Sasha Gray is great at playing cold and distant, and her character spends most of the movie with clients wearing an emotional suit of armor. Her clients are ostensibly paying for the "girlfriend experience", but what they actually want is a pretty woman who will sit quietly and listen to them talk, speak only when spoken to, and when she does speak, agree with everything they say. The sex part is almost incidental. Sasha Grey is great in these scenes at conveying the blank receptivity that the clients want.

What she's less good at is conveying that there's more going on beneath the surface. It makes sense for the clients to see her as a pretty, reflective screen onto which they can project whatever they're paying for. But in order for the audience to care about her, we need to see that she's a real person underneath the shiny exterior. She needs to show layers, where the characters in the movie see one thing, and the audience sees something more.

This is why we have professional actors. But even the other inexperienced actors in the movie are better at this than Sasha Gray is. There are a few scenes of her personal trainer boyfriend Chris, played by Chris Santos, where we watch him talking to his clients, and we can see him projecting one thing to them, while allowing the audience to see more happening under the surface. One client, attempting to have an honest conversation with his hired trainer, asks "what are you doing this weekend?" Chris' reaction is more layered than just about anything Sasha Gray does in the whole movie.

Not to say that she can't play anything other than detached blankness. Late in the movie, when her character experiences closeness, then sadness and disappointment in some unguarded moments with another character, she's great at that. But those scenes don't mean that much because we haven't seen any real human emotion in her until then.

If Soderbergh hadn't gone for the stunt casting choice, what pretty young actress could he have cast? I think someone like Evan Rachel Wood would have been good--think of those early scenes in Thirteen when she's clearly conflicted about the questionable stuff her new bad-girl friend is getting into. Or in The Wrestler, when we can see the difference between how she's acting toward Mickey Rourke and how she actually feels on the inside.

Or maybe someone from Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood issue, like Summer Bishil. Or Emma Roberts, Eric Roberts' daughter. She's probably good, right?

Casting someone like Sasha Grey makes the movie feel more like an elaborate conceptual experiment than a movie we're supposed to watch and respond to for what it is in itself. Like he wanted it to be critic-proof. As Owen Gleiberman pointed out, there are a number of unsubtle jabs at critics in the movie, though Soderbergh denies they're there.

You can say that he cast Sasha Gray to get more publicity, and to draw a connection between service work in which people use each other as substitutes for something else, and movie audiences who want to believe that actors' performances are real. OK, well, it was still a bad choice.

May 28, 2009

Trailer for Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant

Here's the trailer for Werner Herzog's "don't call it a remake" remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 movie Bad Lieutenant.

Lots of snorting, lots of shooting.

The movie's second title is "Port of Call New Orleans", which prompted the star of the movie Nicolas Cage to suggest it could turn into a Herzogian franchise: "You could have Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call London next. It could happen!"

I request "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Amazon Jungle", please.

Nicolas Cage has been either forgettably bland or teeth-gnashingly earnest in most of the movies he's done for the last 10 or 15 years, with only a few exceptions (Adaptation? I guess?) But judging from the trailer, it looks like he approaches this role with the same flailing desperation as he did with Leaving Las Vegas or Bringing Out the Dead. Every once in a while, he comes out with something pretty great.

It also stars Val Kilmer and Eva Mendes, and Xzibit and Jennifer Coolidge, which sounds sort of nuts, but I bet Werner Herzog somehow pulls the whole crazy thing together.

From an earlier interview with Herzog: "I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is."

May 26, 2009

Cannes update

Antichrist cast and director at Cannes

Quick update on the Cannes film festival, which ended over the weekend. AP summed up the festival like this: "The festival began buoyantly May 13 with Pixar's 3-D animated adventure Up before plumbing depths of tragedy, pain and horror." Mm-hm.

Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress in Lars von Trier's "terrifying" Antichrist, which I am scared of. Like von Trier's other leading ladies, Gainsbourg sounds like it was a hard role. She called making the movie "the strongest, most painful and most exciting experience of my whole life." (She stopped short of calling it "soul-robbery", like Bjork did about making Dancer in the Dark.)

Another article about the movie (SICK SPOILER ALERT) reveals that it contains a talking fox, and genital mutilation. Whatever Charlotte Gainsbourg got paid, it wasn't enough.

The big winner was Michael Haneke for his new movie The White Ribbon, which sounds almost as soul-robbing as Antichrist. It was shot in black and white, and AP says it "examines themes of communal guilt, distrust and punishment among residents of a small German town besieged by tragedies and strange occurrences as World War I approaches." I liked Haneke's Caché and The Piano Teacher a lot, so this one should be good.

The Evil Nazi guy from Inglourious Basterds won Best Actor, stealing the spotlight from obscure character actor Brad Pitt. Here's a complete list of winners.

Google: your guide to the 95% of the internet that is useless

Google vs. Facebook

pic by APC

During a protracted, sacred-cow-bashing bitch session the other day, a friend pointed out that Google is getting less and less useful for finding the things you want online. A generic search engine is fine if you have literally no idea where to find what you're looking for, but if you spend a lot of time looking for stuff online, it's often faster and easier to go to a site that pulls together information about a broad topic (like business news or movies or book reviews) and start searching there. Between a basic news aggregator like Yahoo News or Google News, the front page of the NY Times, Wikipedia, Amazon, IMDb, YouTube, Bartleby, and your social network of choice, you can find a lot what you're looking for on the internet without having to wade through a Google search that points to a lot of sites that aren't useful.

This is nuts, though, right? Google is supposed to be the easy-to-use guide that takes you where you want to go through the chaotic mess of the internet. Now it's the service that points you to one thousand robo-sites that reproduce the same inaccurate lyrics to Rihanna singles that every other robo-site offers, then tries to sell you a ringtone ("pictures, lyrics, pics, videos, photos, wallpapers, biography, news and much more!")

Useless content on the internet isn't Google's fault, but as a search engine, it has to get better at weeding out the garbage. This is where more specific sites like Facebook and Wikipedia come in. Sometimes the external links and references section at the end of Wikipedia entries is faster than a Google search to find some specific bit of information. And a lot of people would rather ask their group of friends for advice on a bar with a good jukebox or a book to bring on vacation instead of wading through 200 book blogs by PR account assistants.

One good thing about Google searches is that the first response you get is often a link to the Wikipedia entry (examples: Cyclops, "Maude", cadaver, philanthropy, Colorado River, quinoa, and Doug Henning.)

Lately there have been headlines like "Facebook Could Kill Google" because Facebook is getting users a lot faster than Google is, and because Facebook is now responsible for almost 20% of Google's traffic. And 45%(!) of people on the internet use Facebook as their homepage.

This week a Google product manager said that for many users, social networks are more trusted than an anonymous search engine because the results they get are better. If you want to know the capital of Tunisia, you'd use Google, but if you want to find out about restaurants, you go to Yelp or Facebook.

Maybe after the orgiastic explosion of new websites that happened over the last 7 or 8 years, the internet is starting to contract into a handful of sites that provide reliably useful information. When you're searching around blindly, you might want Google to show you a huge, sort of random list of sites related to what you're looking for. But as people start to get more comfortable with the internet and how it works, they won't want their searches to show them everything on it.

May 20, 2009

Vampire lady smackdown

Charlaine Harris in her officeStephenie Meyer

The Times has a great feature today on Charlaine Harris, the middle-aged southern lady who writes the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels that has become the basis for HBO's True Blood series, the show about dirty, sexy, campy vampires that stars Anna Paquin. This lady has got it going on.

I'm coming in really late in the game, here. I've never read any of her books, and I haven't seen True Blood. I also haven't read any of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, or seen the movie that came out a few months ago. My opinion is based solely on this one article and the press about the books and tv/movie adaptations. But next time I'm taking a really long flight or recovering from dental surgery and need a vampire soap opera potboiler, I'm picking up Sookie Stackhouse.

Both Sookie and the Twilight series have been wildly popular. The latest Sookie novel, Dead and Gone, came out last week and debuted at number one. Twilight has sold one hundred billion copies (actually 42 million) and preteens everywhere went completely mental for the movie.

But from what I can tell, Sookie has it all over Bella Swan and the Twilight crew. She's a waitress in a rural Louisiana bar, she's kind of trashy, she can read minds, and she likes to have freaky swamp sex with vampires. The TV show itself sounds like it unfortunately abandoned its pulpy roots to devolve into a misguided metaphor for identity politics. I love this quote from Slate's review: "its ideas (about race, gender, sexual orientation, what have you) simmer on the artsy-fartsy backburner while blood and lust boil away in the low-culture pot up front." The opening credits are good and nasty.

Meanwhile, Twilight's main character, Bella Swan, looks wan and ineffectual, and her relationship with her vampire boyfriend involves a lot of pained chastity. I like Kristen Stewart in Panic Room and Adventureland, so I hope she doesn't get trapped playing bad gothy damsel in distress roles in this series for too long. A few months ago Stephen King said in an interview that Stephenie Meyer "can't write worth a damn."

Here are a few good bits from the Times article on Charlaine Harris. In addition to the latest one, she's also written 25 other books, including an earlier series about a librarian-turned-sleuth, and another "more violent and sexually explicit storyline" about a cleaning lady who investigates murders.

"It was just a huge relief that I finally hit on the right character and the right publisher," said Ms. Harris. Or, as she put it more succinctly, with a cackle that evoked a paranormal creature: "I had this real neener-neener-neener moment."

She had always wanted to write about vampires. From the outset, she wanted to set the story in the prosaic trailer-park and strip-mall landscape of northern Louisiana, to distinguish it from the gothic opulence of Anne Rice’s New Orleans.

Driving last week along a tree-lined country road dotted by an occasional horse farm or a row of abandoned chicken coops, Ms. Harris said it was how she imagined the road to Sookie’s house. Ideas for characters come from all over the place. "Every trip to Wal-Mart is an inspiration," she said.

I already love her.

May 18, 2009

Who's Older?™: Rock legends at Radio City

Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Today's edition of Who's Older?™ takes you to the Leonard Cohen concert at Radio City last Saturday night. Cushie used her advanced-level detective skills to get on the pre-sale list and got to go to the show, and while there, saw and heard about all kinds of celebrities, including Kirsten Dunst, Pierce Brosnan, Bjork, Bette Midler and Martha Stewart waiting in an epic bathroom line.

Also attending the show was Leonard Cohen's old pal Lou Reed. But exactly how old are we talking here?

To play, guess which of these two grandfatherly singer/songwriters is older, then click on their names to find out if you're right.

Who's Older, Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed?

Even if it's tricky to tell which is older, it's pretty obvious which of the two dyes his hair.

Here's a great anecdote about the first time these two met, taken from a book of rock star reminiscences called Yakety Yak:

In 1966 I borrowed some money from a friend in Montreal and came down to the great empire, America, to try to make my way. I had written a few books and I couldn’t make a living.

In New York I found this huge explosion of things and I was interested in this enlightened community being promoted in the east side of New York and I would go down there but I couldn’t locate it. I walked into a club called the Dome and I saw someone singing there who looked like she inhabited a Nazi poster; it was Nico, the perfect Aryan ice queen. And there was a very handsome young man playing for her; he turned out to be Jackson Browne.

I just stood there and said forget the new society, this is the woman I’ve been looking for. I followed her all around New York. She led me to Max’s Kansas City.

I met Lou Reed there and he said something very kind to me which made me feel at home. I had no particular clout in that scene. Lou came over and introduced himself and said, "I love your book." I never knew anybody knew my books because they only sold a few thousand copies in America.

Nico eventually told me, "Look, I like young boys. You’re just too old for me."

Lou Reed recounted their meeting too, while he introdruced him at the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:

"I first met Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel," Reed said. "We were talking and - I thought it was sweet of him - he said: "You wrote a song called I'll Be Your Mirror and it made me want to keep writing songs.'"

Sounds like they're still friends. Lou Reed may have a lot more albums than Leonard Cohen, but I bet Leonard Cohen has made more money, if only because of "Hallelujah", aka the most grossly overused song in movie/TV soundtracks. Lou Reed has "Satellite of Love" in Adventureland, but Leonard Cohen has "Hallelujah" in Watchmen and Shrek.

But at this point, Leonard Cohen probably needs the money more: a couple of years ago he won a lawsuit against his former manager for $9 million that she stole from him, but actually never got any of his money back.

So if you go to his show on this tour [schedule], I'm sure he'd appreciate it if you buy a t-shirt or some stickers at the merch table.

May 14, 2009

Lars von Trier explores his dark side

Lars von Trier, Antichrist

If you've seen some of Lars von Trier's movies, you'll probably understand why Stephanie Zacharek over at Salon once described his movies as "meat grinders he feeds his characters through."

I've only actually gotten through Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, and I barely made it out of those alive. Judging from those movies, and from what I've read about Dogville and Manderlay, he tends to start with troubled characters (usually women) who are struggling against some difficult situation, then makes some bad things happen to them, then makes other really bad things happen, then you hide under your seat until it's over.

Which is why it's not really a shock to learn that von Trier has been suffering from "severe and inexplicable depression" for the last two years, according to an interview in Variety. "Severe" I understand. But I think I can come up with one really good theory that might explain why he's been down lately. Some kind of karmic backlash against directors who make psychically agonizing movies just bit back, big time.

Anyway, he's started to cheer up, and is showing his new movie at Cannes this year. It's called Antichrist, and it's a horror movie. [official site] He was probably pretty desperate to get back to creating lots of new and horrible things to do to his characters, so it may have been therapeutic.

Here's the story: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are a troubled couple who retreat to their country house to try to get their lives back on track. Then some bad things happen. Then some really bad things happen and nature starts taking over and there are some sort of snarling marmots in their house and all hell breaks loose.

Here's the trailer.

It looks like there are also some beautiful shots of the two stars looking pensive and beleaguered in creepy natural settings:

Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

Charlotte Gainsbourg notes there are lots of graphic sex scenes in the movie, whch I am going to guess means that there are also lots of violent and terrifying sex scenes, and that overall the movie is as disturbing and sick as anything he's ever done.

Von Trier says, "For me it is a very personal film. It is childish, even though it definitely is not for children to see."

May 13, 2009

Aerosmith knows its audience

Aerosmith Guitar Hero

In a brilliant piece of cross-marketing, Aerosmith just made a deal with a gaming company to make a series of lottery games named after Aerosmith songs with pictures of the band on them. The company says they already have two dozen card designs based on different songs.

Now that is a band that truly understands its fan base. People love Aerosmith, people love scratch cards. Now they can buy their $2 "Sweet Emotion" lottery ticket at the same time they're picking up some grape soda and a thing of Cheetos at the 7-Eleven. It's beautiful.

Ross Dalton, the head of licensed content for GTECH, the lottery company, said they noticed that Aerosmith fans overlapped with the traditional lottery audience, which is male, middle-aged and lower middle class. "You could probably count on one hand the number of bands that would be both palatable in government-sponsored gaming and recognizable to a broad demographic. That’s why we got very excited about Aerosmith."

I see what he means. Who's gonna buy a Coldplay scratch ticket?

Winners will win things like backstage passes, concert tickets, and, of course, more Aerosmith branded merchandise.

Now that Aerosmith has cornered the markets for band-branded video games with Guitar Hero and band-branded lottery tickets, you could probably guess that they've also branched into merchandise that appeals to more affluent demographics, such as stainless steel water bottles, onesies, and fancy pen sets. Thankfully, a girl can still get an Aerosmith belly ring too.

May 12, 2009

Note to Obama: This is not your next Poet Laureate

This story includes weirdo Oxbridge traditions, a Nobel Laureate/sexual harasser and an anonymous smear campaign. So... Oxford University elects a Professor of Poetry every five years. The tradition has been in place since 1708, and previous Professors of Poetry include Seamus Heaney, Robert Graves and W.H. Auden, as well as a bunch of men I have never heard of. The voters are anyone with a degree from Oxford (except for those fakey honorary degree people, no votes for you). Oh, and it's not really a job or anything. It consists of a small salary, an even smaller amount of work and a fancy professorial title.

This year there were three candidates, one of whom was Derek Walcott. Walcott is a Nobel laureate. But he's now withdrawn because people keep talking about his history of sexual harassment.

He's been accused of sexual harassment at least three times, has never denied it, and seems to have reached a settlement with at least one of his accusers. Salacious details of one of the incidents are here, and in a book called The Lecherous Professor, including a dirty comment he made to one student about "licking".

An anonymous person or group felt that Oxford should not be honoring this harasser, so they bombarded various Oxford folks with an anonymous note. Meanwhile, various prominent poets like Carol Ann Duffy and AC Grayling were taking sides in the election. And it really is an election, with campaign statements etc. His 'flysheet' states his credentials and his endorsements, and includes a poem.

Some of Walcott's supporters think his little sexual harrassment problem shouldn't get in the way:

[Feminist Scholar] Professor Hermione Lee, a campaigner for Derek Walcott, said that these allegations should not interfere with Derek Walcott's running for the post.

She said, "I ask myself how far this puritanism might go. Should students be forbidden to read Derek Walcott's poetry, lest they be contaminated by his long past behaviour?"

"I am campaigning for a professor of poetry who will be a person giving public lectures to students and professors. I am not campaigning for someone who will be in pastoral relations to students."

"This matter has arose in the past, when Derek Walcott was given a honorary D.Lit at Oxford and these issues were raised at the time as with the many awards and positions that Mr Walcott holds. These historic matters of previous bad behaviour were set aside."

She added, "You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry neither of whom personal lives were free of criticism."

There were rumors that Walcott would speak at the Obama inauguration, since Obama has been caught reading him (see photo above) but apparently Obama's vetting team knew better. He wrote a poem entitled "Forty Acres" to mark the occasion anyway.

Walcott has dropped out of the race, claiming a character assassination. Now it looks like the Oxford Professor of Poetry will be Ruth Padel, the first woman to hold the position.

Tx Amy.

May 9, 2009

Who'dat?™: The ravages of age

Today's celebrity photo isn't quite tricky enough to be a Who'dat?™. But it does speak volumes about how strange people look as they get older and their faces get weirdly taut and sort of horizontally elongated.


Try to guess who this is, then click on the photo to see if you are right.

But OK, I'll just tell you.

Tori's features, which could be attributable to something other than bad plastic surgery, I guess, aren't even the weirdest part of this Reuters article. She has a new album out soon called Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and guess what it's about. Female sexuality? Faeries? Freaking out on peyote? Nope. The economy!

"The world has changed completely, it seems, in the past two years. The world that we all knew before, could wake up in feeling safe, now it seems that everything has been turned upside down," Amos told Reuters in an interview.

"The record is asking all kinds of questions about power -- how do we define it? Because if it's with money then we're all in trouble. And what is success? What are we attracted to? Because it kind of needs to change.

"I started thinking we can redefine what is a sexy, powerful male. To me that's the greatest challenge we have right now, because if we don't, a lot of relationships are just going to be ripped apart."

OK everyone, here's what you can do for our crumbling economy. Take Tori's advice, and make out with a sexy unemployed guy!

May 4, 2009

Midgets vs. Mascots

Midgets vs. Mascots

Last night I watched the weirdest movie I've seen so far this year at one of the last screenings of the Tribeca Film Festival. It's titled Midgets vs. Mascots, and plays like an especially surreal competitive reality show--more offensive than "Little People, Big World", but mostly less shocking than the really nasty scenes from the first few episodes of "Rock of Love Bus".

The premise of the movie is this: a successful little person, who during his career transitioned from mascot to porn star, dies, and leaves his estate to whichever team wins of a series of 30 challenges. One team is midgets. One team is mascots. Both teams end up getting really porny.

As you would guess, the humor centers on fart jokes, sex jokes, porn jokes, puke jokes, and poop jokes, and slurs based on race, gender, body size, penis size, and horniness. It's quantity, not quality. Too many jokes depended on shock value and nothing else, so sometimes it was pretty jaw-dropping and funny, but often it was unimaginative and not that funny. But it won third place in the film festival's Audience Awards! People love schlock.

But the reality show style was absolutely perfect, complete with trash-talking scenes on each of the teams' tour buses, the competing coaches secretly getting busy, and escalating gross-out depravity. Some of the challenges were inspired, including Drinking a Gallon of Milk, Making a Movie Trailer in 30 Minutes, Tetherball, and Getting Someone to Punch You in the Face After the Fewest Insults.

Plus the cast. In addition to the primary cast members Bunny, Gator, Spartan Man, and Taco, we've got Gary Coleman as the lead little person, the little actor from In Bruges, Jason "Jay" Mewes, and Scottie Pippin.

The movie website has some NSFW clips, some interviews that discuss Gary Coleman's sort of sweet rants about the movie and a claim that he threatened to kill the cast, and audience comments such as "Love the racial offensiveness" and "I liked the booger dialogue."

About May 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in May 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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