Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Brüno goes easy on the Jacksons

I wasn't one of those people shouting "Too soon!" after 9/11 whenever an action film depicted a building being leveled, but I salute the Brüno filmmakers for doing the right thing.

The song that's stuck in my head this week

The Seattle JEWISH Times?

That's apparently what my former employer has decided to become, reporting today on Drash, a Jewish literary magazine started by Temple Beth Am visionary Wendy Marcus.

The quadricycle has arrived

It's insanely fun. The folks at the RavTav love us; tonight we gave their bartender and cook a ride. This is the best thing to happen to the Kibbutz since Gimel. And that's saying something. (Awesome photo courtesy of Liz Spring.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Watch out, world!

The Forward article came out today, featuring a photograph by yours truly. Woot!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ten for the price of five

I welcome the expansion of the Best Picture category. Maybe I'm a cockeyed optimist, but I think it's actually possible that genre and animated films will join each year's slate of nominees and not, as Michael fears, five more movies like Crash. Ebert's take on the matter is worth a look, too.

R.I.P., Michael

I was sent home early on my first day of kindergarten because I refused to stop singing "Beat It." Seriously. Other MJ memories: being too scared to watch "Thriller" with the rest of my band class in middle school, and thinking "Captain Eo" was phenomenally cool when I visited Disney World. I even had a Captain Eo watch. May he rest in peace. (Hat tip to Greg for pointing out the video that follows.)

Five favorite Michael Jackson songs, off the top of my head, in no particular order:

"Beat It"
"Billie Jean"
"Black or White"
"Man in the Mirror"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


As my friend Tia points out, the story of the 16-year-old toddler could be science fiction. Except it's definitely not.

Wisdom from two DWs

Earlier this afternoon, Steven read me the bulk of the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, and it's just beautiful. The following excerpt, about how to see the tedium of adult life with fresh eyes, was exactly what I needed to hear, and it's as good an example as any of what he's up to:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
I recommend you read the whole thing. The fact that Wallace refers to suicide in the course of the speech makes it all the more poignant. (And if you haven't read the recent New Yorker article about Wallace, please do so.) I'm actually reminded, just now, of some lyrics I particularly like in Dar Williams' song "Mortal City":
He smiled and said, "Sometimes at night I walk out by the river,
The city's one big town, the water turns it upside down
People found this city because they love other people
They want their secretaries, they want their power lunches."
I've always loved that: the (unnamed) male character's willingness, his ability, to view seemingly soulless big-city realities as signs of people's love for others, their overwhelming desire to have them all around. Of course, this conceit has its payoff in another of the song's beautiful moments, when the female character tells him:
"I think I have a special kind of hearing tonight
I hear the neighbors upstairs
I hear my heart beating
I hear one thousand hearts beating at the hospital
And one thousand hearts by their bedsides waiting
Saying, 'That's my love in the white gown.'"
Williams' song is about the same kind of compassion Wallace discusses, the same goal of traveling outside your familiar perspective, received wisdom, and routine to find a more positive way to look at the world, including its maddening aspects. I only wish Wallace had been able to swing that when it really counted. As he says, it's damn hard. From my perspective, having wonderful friends and exercising my creativity are just two of many ways to fight back against the "day in, day out" repetition that can slowly turn you angry, small, and hollow -- already dead, as Wallace sees it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

We're superfamous all over again!

If you've read and reread and yet again reread the wonderful Seattle Times article about the Kibbutz, you'll be pleased to know that The Jewish Daily Forward will pick up the Times piece on Friday with additional text and images. Our first national media exposure! Since Sunday, we've already gotten a call from someone who's interested in letting Kibbutznikim rent his house, which would then become House Dalet. And while it may not yet be time for another expansion, it's fantastic to get such an immediate, positive response to our newfound local fame. I can't wait to see how the Forward feature looks.

Meet the new Nora, same as the old Nora

I've long been snobby about romance novels, and though Lauren Collins' interesting profile of genre queen Nora Roberts didn't change my mind, it does offer considerable insight into how these books get written, and why people read them. (It's not, apparently, because they're miserable and loveless and want pure escapism. Well, at least not always.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Lowland Fell" and "Treevenge"

Having missed every shorts program in the film festival, I decided to catch today's 11 a.m. screening of the best of the fest. It was a mixed bag, but I enjoyed a few of the selections and am already looking forward to Bumbershoot's One Reel Film Festival, always a terrific shorts showcase. The standout among the SIFF shorts was Lowland Fell, an (intentionally?) ambiguous account of a 17-year-old girl who takes her scooter into the Irish countryside and encounters two handsome brothers working by the side of the road. She asks them for directions, then starts up again, only to fall off her scooter and end up in a swampy ditch. When they help her out of it, she and they discover a dead man beneath the muck.

But this is no murder mystery; the guy they find has been there quite a while and looks positively mummified. The teens speculate that he may have been the victim of a sacrificial rite perpetrated by the Celts. In any case, they take him back to the boys' house (their parents are out of town, conveniently enough) and set him up by the fireside. What ensues is a strange combination of morbid fascination, sexual tension, and a dreamlike climax that leaves one surprise for the film's finale. I'm not exactly sure what that enigmatic ending means, but I do know that Lowland Fell is a sharply written and very well-directed piece of work.

Since I'd entertained thoughts of seeing SIFF's slate of horror shorts, I was glad that today's sampler included Treevenge, a graphic tale of Christmas trees that are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. There isn't a subtle bone in this scrappy horror-comedy's body, and some of the gags/deaths made me cringe inwardly as I laughed outwardly, but the central concept -- pine trees get back at us, big time, for our yearly massacre of their kind -- is hilarious, and the filmmakers' decision to let us see things from the trees' perspective, not just thematically but visually, really pays off. Though I could have done without seeing a sizable fir jump on a baby's head and splatter it, I have to commend the twisted minds behind Treevenge for balancing campy special effects with somewhat disturbing realism -- insofar as violence wrought by trees can be realistic.

Ohmigod we're superfamous!

The Seattle Times, in its infinite wisdom (remember, they hired me once), has reported on our beloved Kibbutz. Three cheers for writer Carol Tice and photographers Erika Schultz and Ellen Banner! I found the video especially moving; it captures our spirit very well.

Update, 2 p.m.: There's a lively discussion going on about the article; one commenter even accuses us of being illegal! I couldn't help offering some clarification.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ebert on food, Dawdy on mental health

Roger Ebert's review of the documentary Food, Inc., which is based on Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, makes me want to see it this coming week at the Egyptian. Anybody care to join me?

In other news, former Seattle Weekly reporter Philip Dawdy's recent post "Study: Serotonin Gene Not Linked To Depression" is a reminder of what makes his blog so valuable. I found the impassioned back-and-forth among the commenters especially compelling.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wish me luck!

I just applied to the Online Film Critics Society and e-mailed Stranger film editor Annie Wagner to see if she could use a new freelancer, i.e. me. I think it's time I shifted my movie-reviewing career out of neutral and gave it some gas.

"They taste so good on my salad/They're fun as a tasty snack..."

As I prepare to embark on an elimination diet, I owe Christy big time for bringing "The Carrot Highway" to my attention:

Stunning, really.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Scorsese does horror?

Not quite, but close enough.

Out rage

Gotta love HRC head Joe Solmonese's open letter to President Obama. Especially this:
The government again ignores our experiences when it argues that DOMA does not impair same-sex couples’ right to move freely about our country as other families can... This example shows the fallacy of that argument: a same-sex couple and their child drives cross-country for a vacation. On the way, they are in a terrible car accident. One partner is rushed into the ICU while the other, and their child, begs to be let in to see her, presenting the signed power of attorney that they carry wherever they go. They are told that only “family” may enter, and the woman dies alone while her spouse waits outside. This family was not “welcome.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yes, please

The Ave now has a terrific-looking pastry shop, which means I'll be visiting the Ave again very soon. Saturday afternoon, in fact, after a trip to the zoo.

And Weird Al wept

Michael recently made me aware of polka's expulsion from the Grammys. You did your best, polka; you're not to blame. Long may you live in VFW halls and retirement homes across this fine nation.

Everyday style

Kate introduced me to the new photoblog Face Like a Blessing, a diverse and gorgeous catalog of faces. Says its creator, Jasmine:
Some will be friends, some strangers, some fashionable, some not -- it'll be a slightly different focus from Pike/Pine, but I hope just as interesting and enjoyable for you and me.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New crush

Kate Micucci of Garfunkel and Oates, you've won my heart. Please treat it well.

Pillow talk

Hat tip to Kelly for making me aware of Said in Bed, a more lascivious take on the OINY phenomenon. Her blog is looking good these days, too; I especially like the recurring "Small Town News" feature.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"This zen world you're enjoying/Just makes you really annoying..."

Many thanks to Reed for introducing me to the lovable, hilarious phenomenon that is Garfunkel and Oates:

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Zap! Pow! Blam!

Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman's 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail is a masterful summary of what seemed like an endless election cycle and turned out to be both memorable and historic. Spiked with plenty of world-weary humor (often courtesy of its reporter protagonists, Harlan Jessop and Jason Newbury), 08 made me realize just how unlikely Obama's win really was -- but also how little potential any of the Republican candidates had. (Sound contradictory? One word: Hillary.) I recommend the book to anyone who followed the election, but also to those who didn't and want to be brought up to speed in the least boring way imaginable.

SIFF Report #4: "Humpday" and "500 Days of Summer"

Local director Lynn Shelton's largely improvised comedy Humpday packs an impressive amount of emotional complexity into a premise that smacks of Judd Apatow and/or Kevin Smith. Ben (mumblecore icon Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Blair Witch alumnus Joshua Leonard) are old friends. Ben has a beautiful, sensitive wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), and a responsible desk job, and he owns his own home in Seattle. Andrew, in contrast, is a traveler and an artist, albeit one who has trouble finishing the ambitious projects he starts. When Andrew breezes into town, surprising Ben and utterly bewildering Anna, the stage is set for Ben to journey away from his tidy domestic life and into Andrew's bohemian milieu.

So far, it's all predictable enough: Anna offers to make dinner for the guys, but Ben joins Andrew at a raucous, pot-fueled party and ends up staying very late, leaving his wife to sit at home beside his rapidly cooling supper. At the party, Ben and Andrew drunkenly hatch an outrageous scheme: They'll enter The Stranger's amateur porn competition with a video of two straight guys -- themselves -- having sex. It sounds good enough in the haze of alcohol and marijuana, but the next morning Anna (who knows nothing of the porn idea) is understandably pissed at Ben, and Ben and Andrew are experiencing a weirdness unlike anything their bromance has weathered before. Eventually, they talk about it. Each man essentially double-dog-dares the other to chicken out, but neither blinks. Ben assures Andrew that Anna is cool enough to okay their plan, and Andrew leaves the conversation thinking it's on. Now all Ben has to do is figure out how to broach the subject with Anna in a way that won't completely infuriate her. Oh, and did I mention Ben and Anna are trying to have a baby?

Shelton combined improvisation and her own strong vision to produce a movie that feels light in all the right places, and more substantive when it counts. She was intent on hitting certain "emotional beats" in each scene, so while the actors didn't generally know how a particular scene would play out, they knew what emotions their characters would go through. This process can be dicey in the hands of certain directors, but Shelton uses it to make her finest film yet, and easily the best new movie I saw at SIFF this year. Duplass and Leonard have tremendous chemistry, making their friendship much more interesting than the average cinematic "bromance." Humpday looks at exactly the kinds of issues I'd hoped I Love You, Man would explore, and it does so with a fraction of the budget and no big names. Though the film's central concept might put off some potential viewers, or conjure thoughts of broad, vulgar farce, Shelton's more interested in the romantic/platonic love triangle she's created than in the results of Ben and Andrew's wild idea.

Just as Duplass and Leonard never hit a false note in their portrayal of male friendship, Delmore and Duplass make one of the most compelling, credible screen couples I've seen in some time. You wouldn't expect it, but one of Humpday's greatest achievements is its depiction of a strong, vibrant marriage. Ben and Anna try to be completely honest with each other, but some things slip through the cracks; when Ben levels with her about his and Andrew's plan, she comes back with a confession of her own. Here Shelton's and Delmore's strengths truly come to light: What Anna has to say isn't as scandalous or dramatic as it could have been, but it still hurts Ben, and Delmore delivers it without malice, but also without regret. I see a lot of movies about relationships, and plenty about marriage, and I don't often witness such honest moments played so well. With unusual boldness, Humpday shows us realistic, well-meaning people who yearn for greater knowledge of each other and themselves -- and then recoil at what they find. The film has a distributor, Magnolia Pictures, and will open in Seattle this summer. I recommend it highly.

I was less enthused about 500 Days of Summer, the new romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Zooey Deschanel (aka my movie-star girlfriend). Much of what's in the trailer unfolds in the film's first few minutes, leading us to wonder whether we're in for a dreadful slog. We aren't, but director Marc Webb's pastiche style misses and hits with about equal frequency, meaning that for every sharp bit there's a stale one in the offing. Gordon-Leavitt is a versatile actor, but he does better with gritty, darkly humorous material (like Mysterious Skin and The Lookout) than with lightweight romcom stuff. Though he brings his signature thoughtfulness to every scene, there's only so far he can go with his character, Tom, a would-be architect stuck in a joyless job at a greeting-card company. (Is the movie packed with easy jokes about greeting cards? Yes, indeed.) Similarly, Deschanel, as the titular love interest, has a fine time singing karaoke and playing the pretty, distant heartbreaker, but we don't get to know her so much as watch her in action.

Clark Gregg's performance as Tom's boss pretty much summarizes what's wrong with the film. Gregg is a capable actor, especially in roles that require dry wit, but Summer's script isn't dry or witty enough to showcase his talent. So he muddles through several underwhelming scenes and calls it a day. Webb shows a few flashes of directorial panache: There's a rousing song-and-dance number in which everyone, including Gordon-Leavitt, appears to be having a hell of a good time, and there are nice comic touches here and there, as when Summer seems not to have overheard something Tom said but proceeds to surprise him. And there's a wonderful black-and-white montage that illustrates Summer's charms in a way that makes fun of an age-old movie phenomenon: the lovely young lady who effortlessly charms the pants off every man she meets. Unfortunately, these fine moments aren't enough to make Summer more than the sum of its parts. On the plus side, the movie has a smashingly good soundtrack, and did I mention that Deschanel sings "Sugar Town"? I think I could watch that scene 100 times.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

SIFF Report #3: "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Prodigal Sons"

John Cassavetes' 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence feels astonishingly fresh and intense 35 years after its initial release. Gena Rowlands' performance is a wonder to behold; much of it is both awful to watch and supremely compelling. The word "towering" came to mind; I learned after the screening that it's considered one of the finest performances ever captured on film.

That's not hyperbole as far as I'm concerned. Rowlands acts with her eyes, face, body, and voice, and her portrayal of a woman plagued by an unnamed psychological malady never idles for even a moment. Her Mabel is always up to something, and Rowlands lets the character's thoughts and emotions play powerfully across her face without giving away too much. Peter Falk, as her husband, Nick, shifts believably and very movingly from affection for his troubled wife to frustration, and finally to violent outrage at his own helplessness in the face of her demons.

Rowlands' performance reminds me somewhat of Sean Penn's in Milk, inasmuch as both actors throw themselves passionately into their characters and are riveting to watch but never draw undue attention from their costars. They aren't chewing the scenery, merely acting with rare force and intensity; despite the attention-getting nature of their portrayals, they give their fellow performers the space to develop their characters and provide a rich human context for the protagonist's trials. "Elemental" is another word I'd use to describe Rowlands' acting. There are moments in which she seems possessed, bringing to mind films like The Exorcist, and the fact that she adds this layer to the performance makes her character's plight that much more terrifying. It also explains why her husband might resort to physical abuse in an effort to snap her out of it.

The SIFF program mentions the movie's feminist leanings, and there's certainly the implication that a familiar domestic trap exacerbates Mabel's condition. To me, however, the film played more as a story about mental health, and to some extent the mental-health system. That no one, including the family doctor, attempts to name Mabel's malaise seems unthinkable in light of the 21st-century tendency to assign nearly every kind of problem behavior a multipartite name with a handy acronym and a future spot in the DSM. Poor Mabel, however, is just "nuts" or "crazy" in the eyes of her friends and family, and the treatment she ultimately gets is the usual Cuckoo's Nest cocktail: sedatives, group therapy, and electroshock -- in short, everything but lobotomy.

The Mabel we meet after six months of treatment is a quieter woman, a woman careful not to get too "excited" when she sees her kids for the first time in half a year. It's arguable that her condition needed some form of professional attention, that she wasn't simply a harmless kook dancing to a strange beat, but it's also apparent that her husband, an overworked construction-crew chief, simply doesn't have the resources to stand up for Mabel -- something she explicitly asks her father to do toward the end of the film.

The ending Cassavetes chooses only makes the movie even stronger: As Nick and his newly returned wife clear the dishes following an uncomfortable party in her honor, cheery instrumental music plays. Nick has shown that he regrets having Mabel committed; he's also made it clear that despite his questionable behavior toward her throughout the film, he loves her very deeply and would, as he says, lie across train tracks for her. Mabel, for her part, emerges from the hospital in an altered state, but the ending's upbeat tune isn't a sick joke at her expense, nor is it simply a satiric poke at fraudulent domestic bliss or the horrors of psychiatry.

The closing scene is, instead, a bittersweet way of saying that life goes on, though Cassavetes pointedly avoids picking sides or predicting the future. Nick may or may not become a better husband, Mabel may or may not improve over time, and who can say if this deeply burdened marriage will survive? All we know is that these two characters have chosen, this night, to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and clear the dishes. I don't think their ease and slight playfulness with each other during the credit sequence is anything less than a glimmer of hope; what it isn't is a guarantee of a neat and tidy happiness. Only a less masterful film would give us that.

Kim Reed's autobiographical documentary Prodigal Sons also examines the impact an individual's mental instability can have on family life. In this case, it's the director's adopted brother, Marc, who suffers from mood swings and erratic behavior. He always played a bit rough, according to Kim's biological brother, Todd, but only after Marc sustained a head injury at the age of 21 did he begin to act out in frightening ways. The film was originally intended to follow Kim's appearance at her high school reunion in small-town Montana. The catch: She's transgender, so the person her classmates knew, a star quarterback named Paul, no longer exists.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of Kim's friends and acquaintances take her transition in stride. One woman asks a bit rudely how she can be female but still attracted to women, but that's about as much flak as the filmmaker takes. Marc's breakdowns, outbursts, and sorrowful apologies end up hijacking Kim's documentary, but she seems much more interested in helping her brother than hogging the spotlight. She isn't a tremendously sophisticated director; her movie is technically average, structurally imperfect, and thematically unfocused. But Marc's fascinating, contradictory personality -- his rudeness, sweetness, anger, fear, self-hatred -- held my attention through most of the film.

In a particularly strong sequence, we hear one of Marc's sadder apologies over footage of Kim hauling various items through the snow from their late father's truck to her cabin. Kim's determination as she loads one heavy thing after another onto a plastic sled and tugs it to the house touchingly reflects how hard both she and Marc are trying to have good lives. We suspect, sensibly, that only one of them will succeed. Prodigal Sons isn't as startling as Cassavetes' film in its depiction of mental illness, but both stories force us to consider anew the definition of that term, and to think, however fleetingly, about what we'd do if someone dear to us was similarly afflicted.

Louis Menand on creative-writing programs

One of my favorite New Yorker writers examines that age-old question – can writing be taught? – in the current issue. (The image above depicts Robert Frost, second from left, as a writer-in-residence at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.)


Happy birthday, Tetris!

I mean, С днем рождения!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If there's a better song for summer...

...I don't know what it is:

Sasha Frere-Jones called it "a big fat ice-cream cone of a song" in The New Yorker.

"Great with kids and cats!"

Though I don't endorse buying from breeders when you can adopt from Seattle Pug Rescue, a recent NWsource.com classified ad does spotlight some pretty cute little guys. (Thanks to Sheri for bringing my attention to it.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Superiority complex

Hat tip to Michael Wittie for letting me know about Tweeting Too Hard, an Internet oasis for the haughty and the bored.

Pictures from my mom's recent trip to Poland

She took them on her newish digital camera and uploaded them herself. I'm so proud!