Tuesday, September 30, 2008

michael cera's film career just isn't as promising as he thinks it is

Oh, Michael Cera. Just a nubile 20 years old and already you're counting on surfing bland Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist-type roles for the rest of your career. Schmucky late-teens fare is your genre, kid. In fact, it's a genre that's practically being catered to you. What a joy it must be to have a plum schmucky role in an Oscar-friendly juggernaut like Juno. Why not ride that wave while you can, right?

God forbid you pay thanks to that which hath launched your career.

Perhaps it doesn't occur to Michael Cera that all these nerd-as-cool movie parts coming his way are all very much linked to his work in "Arrested Development". In fact, all these nerd-as-cool movie parts are all very much variations on a theme of his "Arrested Development" character, George Michael Bluth. Michael Cera hasn't burst out of this box, and why bother? It's how he's marketable.... and I'm guessing his agent is counting on that. He can just keep playing Superbad until he's thirty. Right?

In this vapid interview, Michael Cera just wants to have a career, you know? A career, that is, that doesn't involve "Arrested Development".... and certainly not an Arrested Development movie. Despite all the internet buzz and proof-positive "yes-it's-happening" rumblings from Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor about Arrested-Development-the-movie, Michael Cera just seems a bit queasy to sign on to the rumor. This is the second instance that I can remember reading about his unenthusiasm. But why not, Michael? Smart people (yes, me included) loved that show, and they even loved you in it. It's pretty widely accepted that "Arrested Development" was a preeminent and tightly-stitched comedy that's going to be hard to top, despite it's low ratings and Best Comedy Series Emmy win. These smart people, in turn, let you ride that wave of goodwill all the way to the Judd Apatow machine-made comedy Superbad last year. A role that, hey, let you play a version of George Michael Bluth! So you could relax, you could play on home turf.

And, hey, Juno let you do the same.

And, judging by the trailers, Nick and Nora should be a slamdunk, right?

Dear Michael Cera, did you have a lot of acting prep to do when tackling such a layered and complicated teenage anti-hero role like that in your forthcoming inspirationless titled Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist? [Author's note: had this film been pitched in the late 1970s, substitute "playlist" for "eight-tracks"; for late 1980s, substitute playlist for "mix-tapes"; for late 1990s, substitute "playlist" for "burned CDs"] Do you honestly think that by poo-pooing the possiblity of an "Arrested Development" movie, you can distance yourself enough so that you can keep getting these kaleidoscopically varied late-teen/early-20-something roles? Because, you know, they're really testing your acting chops. Who remembers George Michael Bluth anyway, right?

Oh wait, I do. Everytime I see your face.

So, why aren't you jumping at the chance to reunite with the gang and at least be positive about the possibility of a movie? Why not return to something so beloved and held dear? Why are you quoted more than once about your unease at the idea of an Arrested Development movie? Is it because you're leaning on your agent to make sure that the script for Nick and Nora 2 has already been picked up?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

film fest this

Tomorrow opens the 46th New York Film Festival (with a film slate that looks like this), and it appears to me the more I write about it the more I feel like I've been bought by them. It's not the truth! I just like to brag.

The festival's opening screening is The Class [Entre les murs], the first of a pretty sizable lineup of French films making their way through the festival circuit. Apparently there's gonna be a red carpet, people are gonna be dressed nice (which in turn means I'm gonna have to don the suit), there's a hobnobby get-together afterward. I've arranged my screening schedule so that I won't be seeing anything that made its way through the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, though I am disappointed that David Fincher (he who stood up his audience at Telluride when supposed to introduce the director's cut of Zodiac) didn't pony up and get a print of his forthcoming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button out to the festivals any sooner. The twenty piecemeal minutes I saw at Telluride after a dead-on-arrival interview of Fincher weren't all that impressive to begin with. I think I just don't like Brad Pitt.

So, the question remains, how much of a starf*cker am I allowed to be when technically a NYFF correspondent? Perhaps I should take on the guise of jaded journalist. Except I'll have my cell phone camera on standby at all times.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NYFF dispatch #2: la pierre de famille

Perhaps I'm not the first person to run and ask about the manners and mannerisms of contemporary French society. I don't know jack about the French, and certainly the French language is a mystery to me when spoken.... I don't speak a lick of it, and it never sounds to me how it is spelled. These are digressions though: what's up with French humor? Is it so deadpan and lackluster that the laughter comes from the heart of cynicism? Suddenly these sound like my kind of people.

I posit this, only because I was struck by the kind of deadpan atmosphere of comedy fostered by the Vuillon family in A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël], part of the main slate of the 46th New York Film Festival as put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, starting this Friday. I'm a fan of French cinema new and old, but I can't say I've seen many French comedies. A Christmas Tale isn't exactly a comedy (actually, no.... this movie is drama all the way), but it has a stunning scene between Vuillon family matriarch Junon (played by Catherine Deneuve, ravishing forever this woman is) and her crackpot adult son Henri (the guy from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, aka The Sea Inside) as they sit together in the snowy backyard of the family's homestead. They talk almost off-handedly about how neither of them like each other very much (he a bad son, she a bad mother), yet the venom is drained out of their words. Are they joking with each other? They're not smirking. I'd want to believe yes, except the scene is played so non-chalantly that it feels like they're only discussing the boring truth they've both known forever. But they love each other. It's there.

Director Arnaud Desplechin (who I am unfamiliar with, though I'm told his films are always off-kilter) gives us a Christmas tale that volleys some pretty standard tropes about family Christmas movies: estranged siblings, loner grandchildren, sick but brave family elders. Although the pieces don't seem to be trumpeting anything new, I'd argue that Desplechin deploys them in ways that caught me off guard. His style could be described as jumpy; scenes are strung together by non-sequitirs, sometimes punctuated by distracting title cards for each "movement" of the film. The cast of characters have quite a lot going on, sometimes independent of many of those throughout the movie, and in order to balance things out, it feels as though Desplechin applies contrasting settings (the warm Vuillon family home, the cold hospital, the neon darkness of a discotheque in town). I think he's driving for something that appears fragmentary but has more connective tissue than meets the eye.... not unlike how families grow as the children return home as adults.

The Vuillons seem to be wrested at the hands of eldest daughter Elizabeth who seems to always want to be at the center of some power struggle no matter how much she has to create one. Her reasons for "banishing" Henri from her sight are shoddy at best.... she claims to be worn down by his screw-ups throughout his whole life, so she pays off his debts in one swoop and then announces she never wishes to interact with him again. Boy, does that make family get-togethers awkward. Instead of demanding answers or counseling her in any other way, the family sort of goes with it, and in effect Elizabeth has sealed herself off from anything jolly the family ever has a hand in. It's interesting how her trajectory plays, though, because she is absolutely convinced she has done the right thing.... and is blind to the fact that her consistent misery might have something to do with the fact that she's a heartless bitch.

But Henri's no angel.... we learn that mental instability runs in the family, and Henri is just jumping on the bandwagon. Maybe he's even faking it. Elizabeth's teenage son is starting to show signs of early schizophrenia, and apparently younger Vuillon son Ivan has been miraculously cured in adulthood of his similar teenage affliction. Henri makes some wild outbursts when home with the fam, and somehow his not-so-much-a-bombshell bombshell girlfriend sits back and politely laughs about it all. The family seems complacent in Henri's edginess, but that could just be denial talking. You'd think this was an American family.

To try to divulge all the inner workings of this family would take a good long while.... but why bother? Even if there's a shoehorned topsy-turvy love affair at the end, does that change our view of a family teetering on the edge? I left the film with only flatline words to describe it, like "weird" or "strange", but only in terms of subject matter.... to be hoenst, at face-value, it seems pretty straightforward.

The core of the story sits between Junon and Henri, and in some part with Elizabeth's son. Junon, recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, is in need of a bone marrow donor.... and both Henri and Elizabeth's son have the perfect matches. And here in lies the dilemma: Junon would be happy to accept either as a donor, but what does it mean to have the bone marrow of a schizophrenic teenager transplanted into you? What does it mean to have the bone marrow of a child how was unable to save a previous child from a similar death? How do each of these players feel about it?

The movie clocks in at 150 minutes, and it feels like a stretch. There's lots of interesting drama, but not much explanation of its roots; the viewer occupies the spot of Henri's bombshell (?) girlfriend here, the outsider thrust into this world without much background. I can't help but think of a handful of scenes (hell, subplots) that could have ended up on the cutting room floor, and perhaps some filling in of the blanks behind Elizabeth's and Henri's separate madnesses. Why not spend more time on the schizophrenic grandson's illness, why not pull his thoughts/fears/feelings to the forefront? Where are the connections between him and hius uncles? More coloring within the lines is needed. But this is a family drama, and unlike recent American family dramas I've seen of late (Christmas types no less.... The Family Stone, anyone?), this movie feels like it's aiming to strike deeper, and at least does the pick-axeing necessary to get started.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

NYFF dispatch #1: harrowing pet stories and trains trains everywhere

Next week opens the 46th New York Film Festival, brought to you by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. And, like most fall-season film festivals, the selection list is crammed with movies both underground arty and fodder for Oscars. Like most fall-season film festivals, the selection list masquerades as premiere-worthy when in reality these films have seen small audiences earlier in the year. But, luckily for me, I've been tasked with writing festival dispatches for FilmLinc, and I have the rare opportunity to see a handful of the films offered by the NYFF.... and let my true opinions let out into the wild on this very blog you (yes, you!) are reading.

My first foray into the press screening experience? Wendy and Lucy, a hyper-minimal and very film-festival-friendly entry by director Kelly Reichardt (who wielded similar minimalism, I've read, with her previous film Old Joy).

Down-and-dirty plot summary: Wendy is homeless and jobless and headed to Alaska in her Honda for reliable work in the canneries. Her companion and roadtrip partner is her dog Lucy. Just outside of Portland, her car gives out; she's got $500 to her name and can't afford to fix it. She's run out of dog food. She shoplifts said dog food, gets arrested for it, and we're treated to a memorable and heartbreaking shot through the back windshield of the police car of Lucy tied to a bike rack and faithfully waiting at the door of the supermarket. Wendy's left with nowhere to go and no means to get anywhere, and without her dog she finds herself truly and undeniably lost.

This is a kind of road-film, but I like that it opens in a way where Wendy is ultimately caught in a feedback-loop odyssey; this is a road film without any roading. It's probably too reductive to say that the movie is about Wendy's search for Lucy, because that's only one piece to the puzzle. Down to its bones, this is an atmospheric and behavioral film rather than one that adheres to Aristotelian rules of story and structure; every little scene that highlights Wendy's impending collision course with rock-bottom is as much what the movie is about as it is about trying to find her lost companion.

Nary a shot goes by without Michelle Williams, she of “Dawson's Creek” and Jack-nasty, who carries this entire film on her shoulders. Unfortunately, she's saddled with an awkward Mary-Martin-goes-goth haircut. I think the jury's still out for me on whether I think Williams is a high-caliber actress, and part of me thinks that she approaches the role about as well as any unknown-but-reasonably-talented actress would. Wendy is, after all, awfully destitute, but not to the point of going a bit wacky (unlike a small troupe of tattooed drifters she meets near the film's opening). Her performance is quiet and even-keeled, but she approaches each situation of Wendy's as dead-eyed and helpless.... What doesn't move me into full-fledged sympathy for Wendy, especially after losing Lucy, is that fact that Williams treats Lucy dead-eyed and helpless as well. A movie that is titled Wendy and Lucy, after all, must require some degree of chemistry between the title characters.... and I never quite feel it.

Still, movies that involve pets separated from their loving families always tug at my heart strings. How can they not? They highlight that gray area where humans and their pets simply can't communicate in the way that says “stay close to me”.... any amount of unforeseen difficulties, even worse when they're accidental, can separate a pet from its owner, and each one of these difficulties always ends in helpless loss. Of course, most media on the subject isn't so heartless that owner-and-pet end up separated forever, but the fear still lingers. Suffice it to say, after watching Wendy and Lucy, I wanted nothing more than to go straight home and snuggle with my cat, whether he wanted to snuggle or not.

Kelly Reichardt, the director, came to the press screening and answered a few questions from the audience after the film was over. The film is based on the short story “Train Choir” by Portland-native Jonathan Raymond (whose work Reichardt had previously drawn from for Old Joy), shot over 20 days on location around Portland, and self-edited in her apartment in New York City. Reichardt’s vision of Wendy translates to film quite well, and she proves herself to be a director of startling control in crafting Wendy’s awareness of the day-to-day, veering away from the “big picture” because, in the end, Wendy can’t afford to cast her net so wide. I did find some nagging things unforgivably problematic, though: The way this film “resolves” between Wendy and Lucy feels like much was left on the cutting room floor, though I got the impression from Reichardt that this wasn't the case. If Wendy decides that Lucy would be much better off to live in the backyard of some old guy's house outside of Portland, we're gonna need a lot more convincing of this fact than just a fence-enclosed yard and the old guy owning a Prius. For Wendy to decide that Lucy has found a better home, I would also need a little bit more work done on Wendy's part (and not the filmmaker's) of reflexively understanding that her life is bare-bones to the point that she'd be doing the dog a favor by leaving her behind. Even though this point is made clear in the big picture of things, I never get the sense of that coming from Wendy herself.... and, I dunno, I feel like that's something integral to the story if this is the movie's closing statement.

There is another element to the film that seemed almost hyper-aware and heavy-handed, and I'm quite surprised none of the people who asked questions during the Q&A brought it up. I'll bet someone a cookie that not one minute of outdoor screentime goes past without the occurrence of the sound of a train. Seriously. Whistles, horns, squealing tracks, ratcheting. It's everywhere. Some of the time is forgivable, sure, but all of the time is the filmmaker stepping in and bitch-slapping the audience. I'm totally willing to go with it when trains are on screen, even some of the time off screen, but these train noises are at all hours. My careful and studied detective skills find that maybe the inspiring short story “Train Choir” might have something to do with that. The last shot of the movie is of Wendy staring out into the night woods from the open car of a freight train. Lots of train sounds. I am a lover of trains and they've been known to pop up from time to time in my own short fiction.... I suppose trains-as-symbol in Wendy and Lucy highlights the transience of Wendy's predicament.... but there's just too much. Maybe some subtlety should be in order.

Monday, September 08, 2008

necrophilia for all

Although in recent years I've turned into a voracious reader, it only happens once or twice a year that I find a work of literary fiction that grabs me by the lapels and pulls me to the end in a breathless flurry of page-turning. This year’s most recent recipient of this honor: Waste by Eugene Marten.

Marten seems to be one of those underground lit writers who have little attention paid to them yet develop a small but excitable and loyal cult following. Think Gary Lutz or Dawn Raffel. Like both Lutz and Raffel, Marten is a "disciple" of Gordon Lish (he who launched Raymond Carver’s career, and he who can be tied by one degree of separation to (ballpark) 75% of the best contemporary literary fiction writers out there).... although I don’t believe that Marten was taught or schooled by Lish. To hear Lish’s raves in the blurbs he’s given to Marten for both Waste and his previously published novel In the Blind, it sounds as though Marten is more of a Lish discovery than a Lish student. Not much is publicly known about the guy (google searches don’t turn up much).... what little digging I’ve managed to do makes it sound like Waste was self-published first, followed by Lish’s championing to get In the Blind sold to an actual publishing house. Waste finally got its professional publishing treatment just last month. With this guy’s first two (and only two) novels, I'm a rabid fan.

Both novels provide a very close-up perspective on two lonely, disaffected men. Both novels give the reader an inside view of these two men’s occupations (the former of a locksmith, the latter of a skyscraper janitor) and beautifully illuminates the minutiae of these jobs into something almost symphonic.... and once we're able to see past the details and fixations on these jobs, the greater character study comes into play.

Where In the Blind provides more historical context to allow us to see how the protagonist evolves into the person he is, Waste plays all its cards at once. I'd hate to get categorical, but Waste seems to follow directly in the footsteps of the Southern Gothic tradition (language-wise, certainly.... think William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy). I don't have a truckload of literary criticism to back this up, but let's just say that our protagonist loner also has an affinity for necrophilia.

What is it about having sex with dead people that is so fascinating to writers of this oeuvre? Hell, it's fascinating to readers like me, so clearly there's a market. And this isn't a rare occurrence: think McCarthy's Child of God (you get a whole cavern full of dead girls there), think William Gay's recent novel Twilight (undertaker takes advantage of his clientèle, so to speak), think Faulkner's short story classic "A Rose for Emily" (with gender roles reversed, this woman keeps her lover in her bed years long after he's expired). Even outside of the Southern Gothic box you can point to examples of classic British literature: In Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, you've got one of the main characters digging up his beloved and having his way with the exhumed body. Of course, with a more Victorian sensibility the prose is subtle as hell to describe his actions.... but oh yes, he's having sex with a corpse.

Marten takes a cue from McCarthy's book of tricks and just goes for the gusto. I'm certainly the kind of reader who goes crazy for imagery (minimalism be damned!), and despite how graphic and unsettling it is, the quality of the writing is so elevated and beautiful that you can only help but tag along. Why bother shrouding necrophilia in innuendo when you can just come out and tell it like it is? Both protagonists of Waste and Child of God first happen to stumble upon their deceased sex objects by accident: one in a dumpster, the other in an abandoned car. Perhaps it's this idea that the characters are so helpless to their hidden urges that the fact they accidentally come across the bodies makes them more identifiable? Identity with the protagonists, at least in terms of what turns them on, isn't what concerns us readers: I'm sure we're in it in part for the lurid show of it all, but I think there's a bit of acknowledgment of the curiosity that desperation can engender as well.

It's interesting, though, how literary fiction as "art" with regards to something this heinous can get away with this.... but the "art" applied to film may not be so forgiving. I can't imagine fare such as Child of God or Twilight or Waste translating to film without seriously compromising the integrity of the story. I mean, how exactly could you film something like that? [side note: I have similar concerns about the forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winner The Road. Although no dead people are sexually exploited, the subject matter of the novel is pitch black and awfully bleak (cannibalism among one of the more sensational topics), and I'll be interested to see how audiences respond to something like that.... also interested to see if the filmmakers dare to inject some levity in there somewhere.]

Necrophilia aside, Eugene Marten is a fantastic literary talent who deserves a broader audience so that he can stand aside heavyweights like McCarthy. I'm just hoping he's got another finished novel out there he's ready to kick into distribution.....

sometimes blogger

I took the summer off! And traveled from coast to coast.... quite a few times.

But still, damn it, the blog calls for me to air my opinions. Despite the Election '08! crap that is spewed on every minute of every news program, I WILL NOT be writing about politics. Never. It only inspires ire on the part of all parties involved.

But I have read a few good books. And saw a few good movies, thanks to the 35th Telluride Film Festival, where I was a volunteer.

And, I ask all two of you, aren't you excited to hear more?