Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My top films of 2010

Note: For a while now, I've started each year with a list of my top 10 films of the previous year. I've been an errant blogger, so this list includes only eight movies, and I haven't added honorable mentions, as I usually do. That said, I spent some time on this, and late is better than never. Plus, these films deserve the praise, however belated. Enjoy!

1. Greenberg

Last year, the movie that made me happiest wasn't the gritty war saga that ended up winning Best Picture. (That film, The Hurt Locker, was second on my list.) Similarly, the likely winner of this year's top Oscar, The Social Network, didn't warm my heart as much as a much smaller-scale indie dramedy about relationships, romantic and otherwise. In 2009, I fell hard for Humpday; in 2010, Greenberg won my heart with terrific casting, a very smart script, and plum roles for both Ben Stiller and mumblecore heartthrob Greta Gerwig, one of my favorite young actresses. (Writer-director Noah Baumbach gets bonus points for casting Rhys Ifans, somewhat against type, as Stiller's patient, thoughtful -- and seemingly only -- friend.)

In 1998's Permanent Midnight, Stiller proved that he could carry an edgy, darkly comic indie film on his shoulders. That year, he also did some impressive, outside-the-box work opposite Bill Pullman in Jake Kasdan's equally underrated Zero Effect. After that banner year, however, Stiller spent most of his time in middling comedies of the Meet the Parents variety. Sure, there was Zoolander, but he had to create that deliciously off-the-wall comic role for himself. I've waited more than a decade for the Ben Stiller I knew and loved in the late '90s to return; in Greenberg, he was in stronger form than even I expected.

Some of my friends avoided the movie because they didn't want to spend any of their valuable time trapped in a dark room with such a misanthropic figure. To me, on the other hand, Roger Greenberg is both touching and inspiring. Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale was my favorite film of 2005, hints throughout Greenberg that its title character is not beyond repair. "Hurt people hurt people" is the movie's unofficial mantra, and Greenberg's ability to hurt others never quite overshadows his own suffering, for which he's constantly, desperately seeking relief. It's such a deeply human state to be in.

While some viewers felt that Gerwig's character, the confused but kind-hearted Florence Marr, deserved better than Greenberg, the movie's exceedingly graceful ending offers hope that the grouchy protagonist can change, and even that he wants to change, in order to be worthy of Florence's love. Baumbach specializes in thorny, complicated relationships, yet he doesn't craft them coldly, as some kind of creative exercise. By the end of Greenberg, I so wanted Stiller's character to release the smitten, honest, caring person trapped inside him that my heart ached.

Although it boasted one of the year's finest trailers, I was almost afraid to hope that David Fincher's collaboration with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin would be as good as I wanted it to be. What a wonderful surprise, then, to discover an expertly edited, cracklingly written, superbly acted psychodrama about the origin of something that has come to permeate our lives: Facebook. I've enjoyed Jesse Eisenberg's work ever since his terrific performance in 2002's unfairly forgotten Roger Dodger, and while he's certainly had high points in the last eight years (The Squid and the Whale, mentioned above, gave him his first chance to play a conceited, unlikable young man), Mark Zuckerberg is clearly the role he had been building toward.

Much was made of the differences between the real-life Facebook founder and the cinematic version, and many a critic has discussed Sorkin's Luddite tendencies. To me, though, all that matters is that Network delivers an engaging story, and that it's distinguished by some of the year's nimblest acting. In a perfect world, both Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield would score Oscar nominations for their work as, respectively, Napster founder Sean Parker and Zuckerberg crony-turned-nemesis Eduardo Saverin. I occasionally found the much-buzzed-about score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross a bit distracting, but its quiet menace did fit the film's tone and themes. I think this is the film to beat for the Best Picture statuette; I can't think of another movie that got (and kept) people talking this year like The Social Network.

Writer-director Debra Granik's stunning second feature has integrity in a way that few contemporary films do. Like its characters, all fighting poverty and somehow connected to the meth trade, it doesn't waste words. Granik reveals the Ozarks' anachronistic culture bit by bit, sometimes focusing on vivid details, sometimes giving us a battered landscape to inspect on our own. There are various kinds of strength on display in this film; some types can coexist peaceably, while others inevitably result in bloodshed.

As Ree Dolly, an unusually resourceful 17-year-old, Jennifer Lawrence gives a revelatory performance. Granik gets clean, raw acting out of her leads; Vera Farmiga, in Down to the Bone, slipped with similar grace and conviction into her character. What makes both films outstanding is not only their unflinching realism but also their unexpected watchability. A wrenching account of an addict struggling to stay sober -- sounds like a slow trudge through highly unpleasant terrain. So does Winter's Bone, when you first hear the premise: world-weary teenager goes on a quest to find her meth-cooking father, who put the family home up as bail, then skipped town. If she doesn't find him, or evidence that he's dead, the Dollys, including Ree's two younger siblings, will "have to live in the field like dogs," as Ree puts it.

What ensues is a journey at once soulful and entirely unsentimental. When Ree's uncle, Teardrop (Deadwood's John Hawkes, who also deserves an Oscar nod), decides to help her, we get the most unshowy kind of buddy movie imaginable. Both characters are tight-lipped and think they know how to fend for themselves; both find a few surprises as they draw nearer to Ree's father, Jessup, or at least what's left of him. What a contrast between this screenplay and The Social Network's! While the latter sparkles with wit and verbal flourish, Winter's Bone has a spare beauty that will haunt you for days after you see it.

Low-budget indie romantic comedies set in New York City -- aren't there, like, 10 million of those by now? Quite possibly. So what a wonder it is that Breaking Upwards, by young writer-director-actor Daryl Wein, manages to make its characters and story compelling. In collaboration with Zoe Lister-Jones, who cowrote and stars opposite him, Wein has fictionalized, achingly and sweetly, his actual relationship with Lister-Jones. This conceit reminds me of another fine recent indie, Tiny Furniture, in which writer-director-star Lena Dunham cast her mother as her character's mother and, yes, her sister as her character's sister. There's thinly veiled autobiography, and then there are films like these, in which the veil may or may not exist at any given moment.

In any case, Upwards is deeply enjoyable even if you know nothing of its backstory, and that's certainly a testament to its narrative and emotional strength. It starts much the way a lesser 2010 indie, The Freebie, started: Two attractive young people are in a long-standing relationship, and though they love each other very much, they're a little bored. Or maybe a lot bored. So they concoct a plan to add spark to their bond without severing it -- because, of course, that would be unthinkable.

How much freedom can couples give themselves? How much can they stray without wrecking their relationship? Both movies ask these questions, but Wein's interrogates monogamy much more satisfyingly. Even when his characters visit a party populated almost entirely by polyamorists, the film is intellectually curious, not dismissive and mocking. It's easy to ridicule non-monogamy, Wein seems to be saying, but you know what they say about glass houses.

Wein and Lister-Jones are extremely appealing, and their characters are both lovable and obviously flawed. They're fun to watch together, but they're also interesting to observe apart, which is sometimes what separates a very good romantic comedy from a sea of decent ones. What also makes Upwards a joy is the casting of the secondary roles. Andrea Martin is absolutely marvelous as Zoe's open-minded mother, and Julie White and Peter Friedman are equally good as Daryl's parents.

Both Zoe and Daryl spend a lot of time with their parents -- an almost disturbing amount, unless it's a New York Jewish thing -- which lets us decide how many of their neuroses are their own, and how many could be inherited. All that parent-child bonding also opens up these characters, lets them exist outside the central relationship, and gives us an all-access pass into their emotional lives. The film's last scene channels the heartbreak and joy of romantic partnership: the anxiety, the complexity, and the vital friendship that somehow remains beneath it all. Movies can tell us 'tis better to have loved and lost, but this one has the courage, and the skill, to show us.

Lisa Cholodenko's 1998 debut feature, High Art, left me cold. Her 2002 follow-up, Laurel Canyon, looked a bit livelier, but I never got around to seeing it. I knew Cholodenko was talented, but something just wasn't clicking for me. Then The Kids Are All Right came along, and the coolness of High Art became a distant memory. The story of a lesbian couple, their two teenage kids, and the kids' biological father, All Right achieves a tremendous balancing act in terms of tone. Although it's no screwball comedy, light comic notes permeate the film. Yet when it comes time for Julianne Moore's climactic speech, its emotional weight doesn't feel incongruous.

This is, in short, a film that never quite manages to decide whether it's a comedy or a drama, and not only doesn't it seem to care, neither do we. Cholodenko's open-hearted exploration of her characters' flaws and redemptive virtues is what holds your attention and affection. As warm and inviting as High Art was chilly and distant, the movie makes an understated but undeniable case for embracing family in all its forms. We now live in a post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, and The Kids Are All Right is precisely the kind of smart, humanistic entertainment our time deserves.

If you think the term "threequel" is annoying, you should try watching the third movie in a franchise sometime. (The Godfather: Part III and Alien 3 are two of the most notorious examples.) Those of us who were teens in 1995, when the original Toy Story was released, were afraid to hope that the final piece of the trilogy would rival, or even approach, the first two films' wit, expert pacing, and tender (but never maudlin) tone. But really, who were we to doubt Pixar? The Disney-owned animation powerhouse seems capable of almost anything at this point; the studio's diehard fans would probably line up to watch Up: Part 12. For the past few years, I've essentially had a Pixar slot in my top 10 list. Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up are all among my favorite films of their respective years. As it turns out, 2010 is no different.

Toy Story 3 is about growing up, and knowing what to hold onto and what to let go. The longtime owner of the movies' toys, Andy, is ready for college, and it's unclear what role his childhood playthings will have in his life. Everyone who clung to his beloved stuffed animals past the "normal" point of giving them away will recognize this situation. Woody, the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks, stands the best chance of joining Andy at college: the token toy to bring along, the talisman, a piece of childhood Andy won't be too embarrassed to have lying around. All the others, including heroic astronaut Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), appear destined for a place in the attic. Not ideal, but not the trash heap, either. By a twist of fate, however, the entire gang ends up at a daycare center that seems benign at first -- don't they always? -- but turns out to be a dictatorship run by a big, pink bear named Lotso (as in Lots-O'-Huggin'), voiced with great chumminess, and then even greater menace, by Ned Beatty.

Not unlike 2000's delightful Chicken Run, TS3 gleefully borrows tropes from classic prison-break movies, but it's never too derivative to feel fresh, or too clever by half (I'm looking at you, Shrek). Cleverness, after all, is no substitute for intelligence, great storytelling, and heart, and this movie has all three in spades. When the band of toys faces annihilation in a bravura scene set in a trash incinerator, the moment has all the emotional charge of a live-action film, and why shouldn't it? We've come to know and love these characters as much as many of our favorite non-animated ones, and the filmmakers miraculously managed to gather the vast majority of the voice cast from the first two movies. That even the secondary characters still have the same voices makes TS3 an especially graceful way to end what might be the most consistent trilogy in film history. (Sorry, Lord of the Rings.) Also, the subplot involving Ken and Barbie? Terrific.

I stayed away from Kick-Ass for a long time. I wasn't exactly drawn in by the media uproar over the fact that 13-year-old Chloe Moretz swears like a sailor in a few scenes. I also knew that the movie was extremely violent, and I'm still sensitive to gratuitous mayhem, even if I'm watching more horror films than ever these days. So the controversy came and went, and Kick-Ass came to DVD, and curiosity finally got the better of me. What I found was a comic-book adaptation with an unflagging sense of humor, a whole lot of energy, and -- most surprising -- some emotional undercurrents that made me feel more than, say, Iron Man ever did (and I loved Iron Man).

Perhaps the key to Matthew Vaughn's movie, what makes the whole thing work, is the casting of Dave Lizewski, our painfully normal teenage hero. Aaron Johnson seemed to come out of nowhere to snag this role; his previous work mostly involved bit parts in little-seen films. In one year, he managed to play an unlikely superhero and a young John Lennon, and now he's a Hollywood It Boy. It's not hard to see why: Johnson is handsome, but he makes you forget his good looks in Kick-Ass by being a very specific kind of geek. He's into comic books, but he isn't friendless; he's lonely, but he's not especially off-putting; and he's the opposite of a burnout, maintaining ideals about justice that propel him into a makeshift costume and a life of crime-fighting. "Kick-Ass" seems like the dorkiest superhero name in history at the beginning of the movie, but by the end it actually sounds kind of cool. That's Dave's trajectory in a nutshell.

Of course, there's more to the story than one average kid's self-realization. As he has so many times before, Nicolas Cage tiptoes happily along the line between eccentricity and full-blown psychosis. Some critics might be tired of Cage's crazy-guy shtick, but I find nuances in each performance that engage me. Here, as former cop Damon Macready, he's certainly nuts, but he has a young daughter, Mindy (Moretz), whom he loves more than anything in the world, and that love grounds and steadies the character (as much as that's possible). Like so many superheroes, Damon has a score to settle with a crime boss; he battles wrongdoing as Big Daddy, with Mindy, aka Hit-Girl, by his side. He may not be the most rational parent in the world, but Damon finds his own ways to be nurturing. When he puts a bulletproof vest on his daughter and shoots her at medium range to prepare her for gun battle, he uses low-velocity bullets. Awww.

The film's other unexpectedly moving relationship involves Dave and his girlfriend, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). First nice surprise: They get together before the end of the movie, defying the tired notion that the hero can't win the heroine's love until after the climactic battle, wherein the former proves his mettle. Dave proves worthy of Katie's devotion pretty much by being his usual, dorky self. Once she realizes he's actually straight (long story), she finds him damn near irresistible. When that climactic battle finally arrives, what's shocking is that Dave's inner monologue, as he's being beaten to a pulp, is genuinely touching. He doesn't just like Katie because she's arm candy; he loves her because she's a good, if sometimes misguided, person. It's a real relationship, and he wants it to have a real future -- and so do we. In most cases, a superhero's life-or-death battle has only one possible outcome: life, victory, the triumph of good over evil, etc. Kick-Ass has the gumption to only partially satisfy our happy-ending expectations, which makes it far more emotionally satisfying than your typical comic-turned-movie. Yes, Vaughn's film has its moments of ghastly splatter and hair-curling vulgarity, but it's as much about the sweetness of love as the thrill of the kill.

"Cantankerous" is a nice word for what Jack Rebney is. The hero of Ben Steinbauer's unexpectedly moving documentary is prone to spouting vulgarities and conspiracy theories in roughly equal measure, and he's going blind. He lives alone, far from civilization, with a dog to whom he shows affection the only way he knows how: cussing and complaining. Rebney is one of those figures in nonfiction film, like the absurdly vain antagonist of The King of Kong, who pack more punch than a dozen average Hollywood characters put together.

Rebney shot to YouTube fame because, back in the day, he appeared in promotional films created by the Winnebago company. We expect pitchmen in such films to be bland, polite, and salesman-like. We don't expect them to swear at every living thing they see, including flies, and launch into hot-blooded tirades against cast, crew, and even themselves. Yet that's precisely what Rebney does in the widely viewed films, and that's what his many fans love him for.

Steinbauer doesn't spend too much time wondering why a man's renown could rest on such a weirdly candid display of rage. Instead, he explores Rebney the Man, who turns out to have a talent for deception exceeded only by his desire to spend a little more time in the spotlight. At first, the director has to drag his idol into the film, and there are uncomfortable scenes of Steinbauer driving an ambivalent Rebney to and fro.

It's hard not to think that the young filmmaker is exploiting his cranky old subject; after all, the latter's popularity rests on the schadenfreude of millions. What makes the movie memorable, and even redemptive, is that Rebney warms up as his reentry into civilized life proceeds. When he finally appears at a screening of the Winnebago films at the Found Footage Festival, two things become clear. His fans don't adore him simply because they enjoy watching a man suffer and melt down; they actually admire the honesty of his hilarious logorrhea, just as many people in 2010 admired the flight attendant who impulsively quit and then went down an emergency slide.

We keep so much inside; the Jack Rebneys of the world let it out, and it's cathartic as well as funny (and, yes, a little sad). Winnebago Man could have been a simple tribute or takedown, but instead it lands skillfully in the middle. It's really just a character study -- and boy, what a character.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Propaganda on wheels? The "war crimes" bus ads

I haven't blogged in more than three months. I've been using Facebook to convey most of my opinions on local and global happenings, and since the fall was packed with GRE prep, classes, and another contract gig for the Times, I seriously de-prioritized blogging. Still, I missed it. I missed writing in brief or at length about things that mattered to me. I missed getting the occasional response from a reader in New Zealand or Vermont or Patagonia. And since the cinematic year is drawing to a close, and I always make sure to write about my top 10 films of the year, I'll make sure 2010 is no exception. (Expect that post in early January; I still have to catch up on Winter's Bone, The Ghost Writer, and other critical darlings.)

In the meantime, I'll say that the growing Facebook campaign to remove a series of bus ads that accuse Israel of war crimes is getting my goat. It reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Seattle Rep's 2007 production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a one-woman show that presented the Israel-Palestine conflict from the perspective of a young woman who spent a lot more time with the Palestinians than with the Israelis, and who died after being run over by an Israeli bulldozer.

The Jewish community's argument against the show was that it offered a one-sided view of the Mideast conflict, and that the Rep's discussion panel included only liberal Jews. While it can certainly be argued that the play isn't an even-handed overview of Palestinian and Israeli concerns, the next step for outraged local Jews should have been to make statements, in whatever media they deemed appropriate, that reflected the pro-peace aspects of Israeli society and government. To an extent, they did just that. Aren't such actions protest enough?

Looking back, I think Rep artistic director David Esbjornson erred in claiming that the ADL's and Federation's program ads were an attempt to "discredit" the show. I also think Jewish leaders shouldn't have assumed that they would be afforded program space rather than having to purchase ads to air their views. As I've indicated on Facebook, in response to a group that intends to "stop" the bus ads, I think the Jewish community does itself a disservice when it pushes for censorship -- the outright removal of views it doesn't like -- rather than figuring out how best to answer the offending messages.

A little pro-Israel advertising might go a long way towards making people think; throwing around the word "libel" makes us look reactionary and defensive. And protected speech is protected speech. The bus ads qualify, and if that makes some local Jews uncomfortable, well, that's the price of free speech. The people who so despise those bus ads should come up with a little free speech of their own and, if need be, cover a few city buses with it. Couldn't hurt.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

R.I.P., Fred

Fred Lanphear, a longtime advocate of intentional community, became a personal hero of mine not long after I met him and his wife, Nancy, who serves with me on the Northwest Intentional Communities Association board of directors. Though Fred led a life full of noteworthy achievements, his unusually wise approach to illness and death was particularly inspiring. I'll miss him, and I'll always wish I'd had a chance to get to know him better. But even the brief time we spent together left me with a clearer idea of how to live well, and how to face the end of life with courage, dignity, and integrity. Thanks for everything, Fred.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seven songs of summer

None of these was released this summer, but they all got stuck in my head, kept popping up on KEXP, or otherwise made an impression.

"Black Sheep" (written by Metric, performed by Brie Larson)
When movies feature fictional bands that are supposed to rock, they usually suck. In fact, they tend to suck so much that their (equally fictional) fans' devotion is hard, if not impossible, to believe. The made-up bands in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, on the other hand, have a secret weapon: They're either real bands performing under false names (e.g., Crash And The Boys = Broken Social Scene), or their music was written by honest-to-God musicians with tons of actual fans. Beck wrote the songs played by Scott Pilgrim's band, Sex Bob-Omb, including the endearing Iggy Pop rip-off "Garbage Truck"; and Canadian pop powerhouse Metric wrote "Black Sheep," an unreleased track that Brie Larson -- as Envy Adams, the singer for fictional band The Clash At Demonhead -- nails to the wall. Whether or not you're a Metric fan, it's hard to deny the craftsmanship and outright catchiness of the song, and suddenly the throngs of worshipful fans make sense.

"Gimme Sympathy" (Metric)
This is Metric performing as themselves, from their 2009 album Fantasies, which got the band plenty of U.S. airplay. "Help, I'm Alive" was the lead single, but this infectious follow-up stands up better to repeated listening. The lyrics playfully name-check the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the band's irresistibly polished sound, not unlike that of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, makes this a perfect summer driving song.

"My Love" (The Bird And The Bee)
Foot stomps, hand claps, and then singer Inara George's deceptively sweet voice, which usually has a sardonic hidden agenda. But not this time: "Hey, boy, won't you take me out tonight / I'm not afraid of all the reasons why we shouldn't try." Right there, in the first two lines of the light, punchy chorus, you've got all the necessary ingredients for a fine romance: a date and some odds to overcome.

I didn't think much of the Shins' third album when it was released back in 2007, starting with that damn title. Wincing the Night Away? Really? As it turns out, it's got much of the charm of the band's much-praised debut and sophomore records. This song, in particular, includes nearly all of the Shins' best tricks: unpredictable melody, busy lyrics, and a subtle but persistent sense of humor that mocks songwriting clichés: "Faced with a dodo's conundrum / Ah, I felt like I could just fly / But nothing happened every time I tried." Especially great to run to!

The hype surrounding Arcade Fire's third album made it extremely unlikely that both fans and newcomers would be satisfied. While The Suburbs isn't as marvelously cohesive as Funeral or as striking, musically or lyrically, as Neon Bible, it's no slouch. "Suburban War," the record's centerpiece, powerfully conveys the nostalgia, sadness, and beauty evoked by American suburban life. Yet "Rococo," which creeps up on you, is at least as effective. Fans have identified this as Arcade Fire's grand statement against fickle music hipsters, but I'm more interested in the song's big, rolling sound, which finds yet another way to do what the band does so well: take the ordinary and build momentum until it feels apocalyptic.

Imogen Heap's 2009 album Ellipse is nowhere near as strong as her previous effort, Speak For Yourself, which includes the peerless "Hide and Seek." That said, "Aha!" is Heap at her best: fast, sly, and terrific in the chorus. The song mixes her trademark electronic sound with a slinky melodic line and an unidentifiable but massively catchy element (Middle Eastern? Eastern European?) that puts it over the top. It's a short track that doesn't waste a moment; you'll want to hit replay the second it's over.

Yes, the album's cover girl is suing the band, but what's more important is that Vampire Weekend pulled off what the Shins achieved with their second album: enough of the same to please fans, enough that's different to satisfy critics. Most of Contra sounds like pure summer fun; the band's signature wit is tucked into nooks and crannies along the way. "I Think Ur A Contra" takes a different tack, slowing things down and serving a few piercing critiques to the so-called revolutionary of the title: "You wanted good schools / And friends with pools / You're not a contra." Vampire Weekend is still playing with class and the cultural and political assumptions that accompany it; by varying their musical attack with this album closer, they've demonstrated a promising kind of growth. Plus, few songs are better to cool down with after a run.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


It's been a tough month for me. At the end of July, I made a pretty regrettable mistake, and the consequences were both predictable and appropriate, but also sad: I had to steer clear of my old stomping grounds, the Ravenna Kibbutz, for a while. Starting in September, I can go back to attending Shabbat dinners, movie nights, and the like, and I have to say, I'm looking forward to it. Spending even 45 minutes there reminds me why I fell in love with the Kibbutz in the first place: the people. My goal in the future is to treat those people as well as possible. Certain individuals might need space from me, and that's okay; I'd rather change my behavior to increase others' comfort than stop attending entirely.

After two years of weekly Shabbat dinners, doing something else on a Friday night punches a hole in my heart. I think it's safe to say that I've learned from this unfortunate episode, and that my knowledge of both myself and others has increased. And while none of this stuff may end up in the essays I write for my grad-school applications, I hope it'll help make the rest of my early thirties less dramatic and more focused on self-improvement and professional accomplishment. And so it goes.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The song that's stuck in my head this weekend, plus gelato

YouTube isn't letting me embed the music video for "Black Sheep," from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which I saw yesterday afternoon. Ah, well. The movie was loads of fun, and Brie Larson, as the title character's ex-girlfriend, delivers a stronger version of the song than Metric, the Canadian pop band that wrote it. Pity her rendition isn't on the soundtrack, which I hope to get at some point. I've already requested the Scott Pilgrim comic book from the library.

In other breaking news, I went to D'Ambrosio today and was blown away. Best gelato I've had since I visited Italy in 2000. Best flavor I've tasted so far? Fig-caramel. God, it's heavenly. About food and movies I'm still extremely capable of geeking out, which is nice to know. Why let yourself become jaded when you can remain an excited little kid inside a grown-up body?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The yummy and the profane

Few sites have as straightforward a domain name as this one. Just another iteration of the popular rule that if you can imagine it, it exists on the Internet -- and it's swearing at you for no good reason.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Neal Schindler was pretty damn disappointed by "Inception."

22 hours ago
    • Irina Litvin aww really? what was so bad about it?
      22 hours ago

    • Dain Michael Down You are the only person I've heard yet to say anything negative
      21 hours ago

    • Fai Sigalov I think the hype is now exceeding the goodness of the movie, so people's expectations are too high. but I thought the movie was reasonably good.
      21 hours ago

    • Neal Schindler Dain, the writing was strictly functional and mostly humorless, I didn't care about any of the characters (which has never been true before in a Christopher Nolan movie for me), and all in all I thought it was a muddled mess, visually exciting at times but mostly boring dramatically and narratively. And Nolan's "The Prestige" is just the opposite: lovely in nearly every way.
      21 hours ago

    • Neal Schindler I think he should get his brother to help him write screenplays again. Also, the editing was really bad. Like, unusually bad.
      21 hours ago

    • Tim O'Connor The three people I saw it with, and I, were all disappointed.
      17 hours ago

    • Reed Forrester
      ‎90% of the dialogue was like this:
      "We have to gobbledgook now or really bad blah blah will happen!"
      "What do you mean?"
      "Thank you for asking me that leading question! What I meant was yet another nonsense rule about why we have to do this ridiculous but visually cool thing set to tense music."
      "But what about your psychological drama that is putting us all in grave danger of something or other?"
      "I stoically deny that I am controlled by my deep pain, but don't worry because at the end of the movie I will resolve my dilemma in an emotionally affecting way and redeem myself."

      12 hours ago

    • Jason Vanhee Absolutely agree. It was almost impossible to invest in anything happening, the movie was internally inconistant in a terribly sloppy way, and in the end, it possessed no meaning at all.
      12 hours ago

    • Jessica Punta when it opened with leonardo decraprio on like a beached whale, i was like "Titanic 2" here we go.
      11 minutes ago

    • Neal Schindler I'm not a Leo hater, but this was hardly his best role.
      2 seconds ago

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Trailer of the year so far

With Jesse Eisenberg starring, Aaron Sorkin writing, and David Fincher directing, it could be pretty damn good. One of fall's must-sees for me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I'm starting to get the love/hate relationship thing. I began a Couch to 5k running class nearly two weeks ago, and our first in-class run was a shock to my system. The last memory I have of running for running's sake involves middle school, a mile-and-a-half trip around the track, a severe case of cotton mouth, and as close to a near-death experience as an eighth grader can have. I associate running with embarrassment at being the fat kid, or with envy of others to whom it seems to come so easily.

Now I know something about the gray area between the extremes: I, too, can run, and while it isn't easy, it isn't the hardest thing in the world. Tonight I alternated three minutes of running with a minute of walking -- I did five sets of that, for a total of twenty minutes in motion, plus the time to walk back from where I ended up. It made me feel good. It's not rocket science -- it's exactly like they say: Exercise makes you feel good. All the mental gymnastics someone like me has to do in order to actually get himself moving, that stuff's another story. That just makes me feel tired.

Another thing they say is true: Lace up your shoes and go outside, and you're 90% of the way there. 95%, even. Before my run tonight, I attended an open house at Antioch University's graduate psych program. I'm taking prereqs for a Bastyr University M.S., but I'm not done shopping around; the idea was for the prereqs to help me figure out whether I really want to do the three-year nutrition/psych grad program they offer. Antioch doesn't seem much cheaper than Bastyr, but I like their couples and family therapy track within the M.A.

Going to the event tonight helped me to realize that taking on eating disorders, especially in teenagers, will almost certainly require training in family therapy, since it's familial patterns as much as what's happening in the teen's mind that keep the disordered behavior going. I know full well that even well-intentioned parents who have nothing but love for their child can be confused about what to do, how to respond, in the face of a strange, wasting affliction like anorexia. They may be even less aware of the signs of compulsive overeating, or they may feel unable to confront them.

The prereqs for Antioch are simpler than those for the Bastyr program: three psych classes and 100 hours of "helping" work, either professional or volunteer. I've thought about volunteering at a crisis clinic in the past, and this would give me a good reason to do it. Also, I've already taken abnormal psych for the Bastyr program, and I might be able to do the other two classes online, making it easy to work while preparing for the master's at Antioch.

I ran into an old friend-of-a-friend at the open house, and she advised me against the MSW at UW, saying it doesn't provide enough clinical training. I was going to look into that program, partly because it's a good deal cheaper than either Bastyr or Antioch, and because another friend who's a therapist-in-training suggested I do so. In any case, the open house was exciting; even hearing about the Psy.D. program, which I'm unlikely to pursue, got my mind working.

Taking one day at a time has been a little harder than usual for me lately, as I try to incorporate exercise into my life, keep up with classes, do well in job interviews, and stay involved with Kibbutz matters while also keeping up my non-Kibbutz social life. Even without a day job, it's quite a balancing act, and I guess I needed to offload a few of my thoughts tonight. I hope to keep taking solo runs, even if I don't follow the instructor's "homework" schedule. Not giving up, in everything I try, is more important than doing things a particular way. That's one lesson running has taught me already. I bet it applies to my education and career planning, too.

Monday, July 12, 2010

R.I.P., Harvey

You were a giant in the world of underground comics and a genuine working-class hero, and you'll be missed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Winnebago Man" looks terrific

Dying to see this.

Missing Missy

I don't care if it's real or a work of fiction; the e-mail thread currently circulating on Facebook, in which a designer mercilessly mocks a lowly admin, is one of the funniest things I've read all year. I literally laughed until I cried. I hope even cat lovers can appreciate its greatness.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Comment of the week

From my college friend Melon, about a recent post regarding health and fitness:
A) In some cases, the Obie reunion just came at a really good time - if it had been last year, I could have been your Fat Buddy (grad school sedentariness in a place where we needed a car for the 1st time, depressed job hunting, celebratory job-acquisition feasts, etc.), but it happened to be this year, when I've lost 40lbs.

B) You can do anything you actually, really want to, whether you hate change or not. It's got nothing to do with it. Change you start yourself isn't the same as change forced on you.

C) I totally wimped out of Couch to 5k - god, I hate running. But I like lifting weights! :)
As you might imagine, I particularly like point B.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


My friend Sasha has written a stunning account of helping someone battle alcoholism. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The hippo cycle

While preparing for my upcoming move, I discovered a box of 3.5-inch disks filled with writings from my high school and college years. I hope to perform some of the poetry at a future Kibbutz Coffeehouse, but for the moment I have to be content with posting the choicest bits right here. And what could be choicer than my hippo cycle? I still remember the night I started working on it: My parents told me dinner was ready, but I couldn't tear myself away from the computer. I miss that creative intensity and the sense of playfulness that, almost paradoxically, accompanied it. Finding these 15-year-old relics also reminded me of an interview Sasha Frere-Jones did several years back with Fiona Apple, in which she recalled something very similar:
FA: I used to write stories and stuff when I was in my room. I constantly think about this time. This makes me so sad in a certain way. I don’t know why I always reference this moment. I can remember sitting at my desk in my room, up at my mom’s house. And I remember my mom calling me for dinner over and over and over again, and me saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” because I was writing a story. I made up a story, and I was writing this twenty-page story. It was great, and I was finishing it up and I wasn’t going to leave until I was finished because I was really enjoying writing the story. I always remember that: I wasn’t going to go and eat dinner because I was finishing writing a story.

SFJ: Why is that sad?

FA: Because I wouldn’t do that now. Because I wouldn’t even start a story, let alone not go to dinner because I was finishing it.

SFJ: I think you’re being a little hard on yourself.

FA: That’s my job. Jesus.

Naturally, when I read that interview, it resonated deeply with me. It's not always clear how we go from creative dervishes to people who can't be bothered to start a story, but it's worth thinking about. Not so we can beat ourselves up, but so we can try to reclaim even a portion of what we had: that eagerness to make something new, to experiment, to play. And now, without further ado, the hippo cycle:
An Ode to Hippos Everywhere

The hippo's a majestic beast
In ev'ry shape and way,
Yet still there seems some ignorance
About its life and play.

The hippo's gray (we all know that),
And rather large and round.
Still, some of us (I won't name names)
Don't know where he is found.

The hippomus mammalius lives not in your backyard.
He dwells in rivers, swamps, and lakes,
And life is rather hard
For something so filled up with lard.

Indeed, proceed, hunt hippos!
(With camaras, not guns)
Don't let a hippo flatten you, however:
They weigh tons!

To conclude my lesson to
You readers mid-sized, large, and small,
I'll admit I don't know much
about the hippo-beast at all!

Hippo Limericks

There once lived a hippo from Dover,
Whose lifestyle seemed quite incomplete.
Legend says he aspired
To opera, was fired,
And ended up out on the street.

There once lived a hippo from Texas,
Who chased endlessly after her tail.
After years of hard work,
With a sigh and a smirk,
She succeeded, and then posted bail.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The weight of the world

Since my last post, a lot has happened. I went to my college reunion, where I had the shocking realization that I'm one of those people who put on a significant amount of weight since college. I noticeably surprised at least a few former classmates, including one who pinched my abdomen and said, "What's going on here?" (I wasn't upset; he's a good enough friend that he gets to do that without incurring my wrath.) I walked around Oberlin in the muggy summer heat feeling like a big mound of fat. Many of my classmates seemed quite fit, and some looked younger than they had during college. I felt unappealing, regretful, and confused -- how had I let this happen to me?

Then I went to New York, where I began reading Frank Bruni's excellent memoir, Born Round. In it, the former New York Times food critic talks about his struggles with bulimia and compulsive overeating. I felt like I was reading my own story. In New York, I was walking a lot every day, much more than I do in Seattle; the same had been true in Oberlin. In both places, I had no other affordable transportation option. I huffed and puffed at times, but I survived. At the same time, I managed to eat more moderately than I had in many, many months.

The result: I lost weight. Even so, by the time I got to Virginia for an old friend's wedding, I once again felt fat and unattractive. It probably didn't help that Richmond was even muggier than Ohio and New York, and that the temperature was around 95 degrees. Also, weddings are a merciless indicator of how I'm feeling about my romantic prospects; in this case, I felt suddenly as though I'd be single forever unless I found a way to sustain my experiment in moderate eating. Being thin isn't the key to attracting a mate, but reining in self-destructive overeating would do wonders for my self-esteem (I know from past experience). In fact, I think getting a handle on my eating habits, and finding a way to exercise, would improve all areas of my life. Nothing can substitute for hard-won confidence.

I managed about five days of moderate eating after returning to Seattle, and then Shabbat dinner at the Kibbutz knocked me for a loop. (I wrote about this phenomenon recently for Carbs and sugar may not be the devil, but to someone looking to kick binge eating, they're diabolical enough. William Leith, in his food-addiction memoir, The Hungry Years, points out that carbs are many people's binge food of choice. Avoiding them entirely may not be practical or necessary, but cutting down, especially during communal feasts, is vital.

Focusing on fruits, vegetables, and protein has helped me feel healthier during the past couple weeks, and falling off the low-carb wagon last night was, well, instructive. I'm currently reading a book called 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, and it helpfully addresses the black-and-white thinking that can doom a moderate eating regimen. People trying to change their eating habits make mistakes. There's almost always something to learn from them, provided you're able to spend a few moments not emotionally beating yourself to a bloody pulp.

As Bruni points out in his book, one screw-up can lead to the following logic: "Well, I messed up; might as well get it all out of my system with a nice, long binge! Then I can start my diet again in the morning." When this becomes a daily pattern, any hope of actually returning to moderate eating begins to fade. As I told my mother in Virginia, what I have trouble holding onto is that essential thing, hope, the intangible quantity that keeps people doing and trying, day in and day out. Wanting to give up? It happens. Actually giving up? A bad idea. In that spirit, I've enrolled in a "Couch to 5K" running class that takes the out-of-shape and gets them ready to run a 5K without stopping. The process takes six weeks. My ex-girlfriend Kelly is taking the class, and she looks and feels great.

I'm not much keener on running than on any other kind of vigorous exercise, but the gradualness of the Couch to 5K program appeals to me, as does the fact that it caters to people who, like me, aren't very fit. Also, the group runs will probably make it easier for me to handle the solo ones (the class involves homework). I thought about trying the program earlier this year, but going it completely alone, without a coach or fellow runners, was just too daunting. That's the thing about change: It's harder in isolation.

Dane likes to remind me that I hate change, and I've recently started correcting her more fervently. I don't hate change as much as I hate feeling worthless and ugly and empty. I just hate not knowing what to do to achieve the kind of change I want. I hate not knowing where to put my energy. And I hate being depressed, because it undercuts the part of me that loves change, that craves it, that desperately needs it to survive. When people learn how to change while being gentle with themselves, they love it. That's all I want, and I don't think it's an unreasonable goal.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where "Lost" went wrong

Mike Hale had a nice piece today in The New York Times about Lost. It's a show I've watched every episode of but have never written about, perhaps because I felt there wasn't much there there. Hale feels more or less the same way about seasons two through six, but he manages to wax pretty eloquent anyway. He assesses the series unmercifully:
The show had one good season, its first. It was very, very good — as good as anything on television at the time — but none of the seasons since have approached that level, and the current sixth season, rushed, muddled and dull, has been the weakest.
I don't agree that only the first season was good, but it's true that the last has been awful. Lost is the kind of network show that's just edgy enough to make you feel okay about watching it, but conventional enough to become, ultimately, a soothing addiction. That's what network series are about, by and large: addicting you and keeping you hooked. Shows like Firefly and Freaks and Geeks weren't designed to drive viewers away, but they eschewed enough creaky TV tropes to actually make you think, feel, etc. beyond the usual network level. Hence: canceled.

I'm not cynical about all television, but networks make themselves very hard to like. Lost is like an airport paperback: entertaining, but without a soul -- by design. The show was mostly about plot, except when it paused, briefly, to be about character. As Hale mentions, only a few of the island's denizens truly managed to distinguish themselves:
(With a few exceptions, notably Terry O'Quinn, as Locke, and Henry Ian Cusick, as Desmond, the performances have been undistinguished since the first season, which may have as much to do with the conception of the characters as with the actors themselves.)
I did enjoy Michael Emerson as Ben and Elizabeth Mitchell as Juliet, and I think Hale is remiss to leave them out. However, there's little question in my mind that Lost is -- again, by design -- much ado about almost nothing. I doubt the show's creators knew where they wanted it to go when they crafted that remarkable first season. That's relevant, despite what Hale says, because their lack of overarching vision is what led to the disaster of a season we diehards are suffering through now. Hale hits exactly the right note at the end of his article:
The mood among many of the show’s followers as they confront Sunday’s finale seems to be a mixture of regret and relief. Whatever happens to Jack and Kate and Sawyer on Sunday night, we’re getting off the island.
As Sawyer might say, it's about time we all kiss that damn rock goodbye.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Red Blue Green quoted by Pew Research Center!

My April post about the British version of Scrabble that allows proper nouns apparently caught the eye of the nice folks at Pew, who proceeded to quote me in the recent article "Game Changer." To wit:

However, within a day, some bloggers and mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post did some investigating and determined that the BBC report was misleading. In reality, the Mattel company, which has international rights to the game but not the rights in the U.S., plans on releasing a new version called Scrabble Trickster, which will allow proper nouns. The original game will remain untouched.

Some bloggers updated their blogs accordingly.

"Reliable sources have informed me that the British version of Scrabble that permits proper nouns is, in fact, a gimmicky one-off rather than some kind of new world order," wrote Neal Schindler at Red Blue Green just hours after the initial news report surfaced. "The American version, owned by Hasbro, still bans proper nouns, as well it should. I feel better."

Needless to say, I'm honored. It's not every day a dedicated citizen journalist gets his name in lights. (I'm also thrilled, of course, to be mentioned in the same report as a blogger named Chris "Chugs" Taylor.) Hopefully I can show my appreciation by coming back to this blog, which I've been neglecting of late, mostly due to the demands of full-time work. Friends have noticed my absence and encouraged me to get back on the horse, and I appreciate that.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

R.I.P., Ernie

The legendary Tigers broadcaster, whose wonderful voice I grew up with, went today to the big ballpark in the sky. Thanks, Ernie, for so many years of making baseball exciting, and for your gentle, insightful point of view. You'll be dearly missed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Eat your heart out

My personal essay on Judaism and overeating is live at, complete with a luscious picture of pie. Allow me to wipe the drool off my screen...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Best one-line music review ever?

Rolling Stone, on Florence and the Machine's 2009 album Lungs:
The best bits feel like being chased through a moonless night by a sexy moor witch.
So true!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bleeding heart

I'm working on an essay for that promises to be the most personal thing I've ever published anyplace other than here. It's about Jewishness and compulsive overeating, which seem correlated, though mostly through semi-anecdotal evidence and studies from quite a few years ago. I mentioned in therapy today that talking about my struggle with food addiction is a way of cutting through the shame of that insidious, widely misunderstood problem, and I think that's true.

It's possible that opening my heart in a piece of writing that the whole world can theoretically see isn't the wisest move. But I think there are some advantages to our tell-all Internet culture; one is that if the majority of people give TMI, it's no longer such a faux pas. I doubt anybody will decide not to hire me because they Googled my name and found me waxing philosophic about my Lexapro use or disordered eating.

It's certainly possible, but I think the positive aspects of putting it out there outweigh the negative ones. It's not like there's anything online that truly impugns my character. Talking about struggle, making it public, means it's no longer a secret. It also suggests a readiness to deal with things directly, to come out of isolation and embarrassment and work with myself as I am, not as I wish I was. That's why I chose my friend Michelle's recent picture of me as a Facebook profile photo:

My decision to take off my glasses makes this a slightly strange portrait, but what I focused on when I first saw it was its unsparing nature. It's easy to see my weight here: It's in my face, my cheeks, my chin. This is how I actually look, and while I'm not doing cartwheels about it, I'm trying to view this image with clear eyes and a peaceful mind. This is what I'm working with, and it's hardly perfect, but it's not a disaster, either. It's a pretty decent place to start.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I Love the '90s

Did anything capture the decade's zeitgeist better than this beautiful, intelligent show? Doubtful. It still feels as fresh, funny, and insightful as it did in 1994, when I was around Angela's age and everything seemed new and scary and exciting. Thank heavens for Hulu.

Friday, April 9, 2010

When bad = awesome

This looks sweet. I'm a sucker for certain bad movies (e.g., Howard the Duck), and one of the reasons I love film in general is that it brings people together. Sometimes, deeply awful movies are better at that than extremely good ones, and this documentary is proof (as is David Schmader's long-running, unfailingly hilarious Showgirls shtick.)

Comment of the week

Julia responded to my recent post about antidepressants and weight gain:
You might want to try fish oil or flaxseed oil supplements instead of (or in addition to) meds. A Harvard study found that omega-3 fatty acids help with bipolar disorder and depression. I have used it for about ten years with no need for antidepressants or other meds to regulate my moods. And, whether or not it helps with moods, it's good for your heart and HDL. Good luck.
Good advice. Someone recommended St. John's wort before I started on Lexapro, but I've heard mixed things about it. Re: fish oil, I'm vegetarian, but flaxseed would work. I could even eat it on popcorn. Thanks, Julia!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

R.I.P., Hans

Hans Petersen was a ball of energy, a genuinely happy person, and a doer of good. That he died while installing solar panels on a roof reflects his commitment to improving the world.

I last saw Hans in 2006, when I was having a yard sale prior to my move to New York. He came by, chatted for a while, and advised me on a dilemma I was facing: whether or not to try antidepressants. Even when discussing such a potentially sensitive topic, Hans was upbeat, and his words stayed with me. He was one of a small group of people who actively encouraged me to take steps to improve my mental health, and for that I'll always be grateful.

I knew him in college as a dedicated communitarian, a lover of fun, and someone who cherished his friends and appreciated people in general. I'll miss his sunny outlook and his great sense of humor. You left us too early, Hans, and it's clear that you're already widely missed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lexapro vs. everything else

Someone responded to my most recent post about antidepressants by asking whether I'd tried non-Lexapro meds. The short answer: Yes, I gave Celexa a whirl, and it seemed to diminish my verbal abilities. This was upsetting but not entirely unexpected, as I'd been warned many years before that some SSRIs have that effect.

Lexapro is ridiculously expensive at roughly $100 per monthly supply, but I'm reluctant to mess with other meds when this one has worked, on the whole, so well. I also know that my weight gain is almost certainly due to a variety of factors -- Kibbutz food, waves of mild depression that elude the drug, etc. -- so I'd be more likely to drop meds in general than to go searching for a "better" one. It probably doesn't get a whole lot better than this.

Is nothing sacred?

Scrabble is, in this writer's opinion, one of the world's perfect games, yet Mattel insists on tinkering. I feel myself moving into cranky-old-man territory on issues like these, but I can't help it: When I was a boy, this kind of tomfoolery would be unthinkable. Capitulating to whiners who think the game is too hard, or too boring, isn't very classy, Mattel. Shame on you.

Update, 5:47 p.m.: Reliable sources have informed me that the British version of Scrabble that permits proper nouns is, in fact, a gimmicky one-off rather than some kind of new world order. The American version, owned by Hasbro, still bans proper nouns, as well it should. I feel better.

The contrarian

It's easy to rag on Detroit, but my good friend Rachel Lutz refuses to do so, as a great Q&A in the city's LGBT newspaper, Between the Lines (which I used to write for), reports. I should add that Rachel's knowledge of Detroit history is formidable, and she gives a fantastic tour that would make anyone see the place in a very different light.

The song that's stuck in my head this week

Your home for the LOLcat Passover story

I've been getting an unusual number of page views lately, and I owe it all to the feline version of Exodus. When you Google LOLcat Passover, my post from last Pesach is the top hit. Thanks, Talmudic LOLcats, for bringing this humble blog an unexpected wave of attention.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Antidepressants and weight gain

The other night at the Kibbutz's second-night seder, someone I know asked me if I'm on an antidepressant.

"Yep," I said. "Lexapro."

"I figured," he said. "That's no normal weight gain."

In the past I might have been upset, but he's right: I've gained a lot of weight since I went on Lexapro in October of 2008. Then again, my weight has gone up and down pretty dramatically throughout my life, and living at the Kibbutz exposes me to a lot of good food, and a lot of communal meals, where the social aspect of eating often gets the better of my willpower. Yet I do think that the antidepressant has something to do with my ascent to 225 pounds, possibly my highest weight to date.

While some Lexapro users attribute their weight gain to the drug's biochemical effects, I believe that, at least in my case, its psychological impact is just as significant. In the past, when I put on weight, I felt bad about it. I would eventually reach a point where I started feeling fat and unattractive, but I'd continue eating too much and not getting enough exercise until I finally snapped. Then I'd begin combating my overweight with a combination of exercise and self-deprivation, a tactic I learned as a teenager with anorexia. My weight would drop, and I'd feel better about my body on a superficial level, but I'd remain extremely afraid of relapse -- i.e., gaining the weight back. Since depriving oneself isn't a sustainable long-term strategy, I'd suffer the sad fate of many a yo-yo dieter: I'd end up even heavier than I started.

Even though unemployment is hard and I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to attend Bastyr (for nutrition and health psychology, of all things!) in 2011, I'm thinking about going off Lexapro on a trial basis, to see how I feel without it. I'm unlikely to start losing weight simply because I drop the drug, yet I can't help but be curious about what would happen. Not freaking out about being overweight is a double-edged sword. It opens up the possibility of more fully accepting my body, flaws and all, which is something I'm eager and determined to do. On the other hand, overweight isn't healthy in the long run, and being too okay with it -- indifference isn't the same as acceptance, after all -- might not be such a good thing. I'll consult my therapist about it and do some soul-searching, but I imagine that if I go without the meds for a while and I feel the weight of the world return, I can go back on them.

I'm pretty pleased, all in all, that I've been able to use an antidepressant without taking an absolutist view of a complicated issue: the question of whether the positive effects of SSRIs outweigh their downsides. In my 18 months of use, I've decided that they help, but they alone are obviously not enough. And no, they don't steal your soul or make you an unwitting slave to the Man. If anything, people who aren't completely demoralized are more likely to stand up for what's right and fight against what's wrong. There are few simple choices in this world, and to inhibit serotonin reuptake or not to isn't one of them.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The song that's stuck in my head this week

It's on Kate Silver's wonderful, fully downloadable March mix. The Ted Leo track is great, too. Collect them all!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Seven reasons I love "Greenberg"

The new Ben Stiller movie, written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), is almost certain to end up on my list of 2010's best films, just as Baumbach's two previous efforts did in their respective years. Here are several of the many reasons I adored it:

1) Ben Stiller. In Greenberg, Stiller finally takes on a role worthy of his dramatic acting talent after far too many years of doing broad comedy. Nothing wrong with comedy, mind you; I still laugh at Zoolander. But I also remember 1998's Permanent Midnight, in which Stiller memorably played troubled writer (and addict) Jerry Stahl, whose memoir inspired the film. Roger Greenberg is addicted to a negative worldview more than anything else, and Greenberg is both funnier and more nuanced than Stahl.

Stiller is best known these days as a prankster (see this year's Oscars, and last year's, and 2008's...) and the star of broad, slapsticky comedies (There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, etc.). He wears his age interestingly in Greenberg, looking not unattractive but definitely worn by time. His face has become quite angular, which fits his character's hard-edged emotional exterior to a T. Some critics have mentioned the humanity that Stiller brings to the film's unlikable protagonist, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with an Oscar nomination. Greenberg pushes people away more easily than he draws them in, but in one moving phone call, he proves his desire to change, and to be able to treat people as they ought to be treated, and as he wishes the world had treated him.

2) Greta Gerwig. She's been one of my favorite actresses since her engaging turn in Joe Swanberg's 2007 mumblecore romantic comedy Hannah Takes the Stairs, and in Greenberg she lights up the screen like the bright star she's bound to become. She's played sweet, aimless women like Florence Marr before, but here she reaches a new peak. Florence sees the best in Stiller's misanthrope, even though it'd be more convenient if she didn't. She begins to fall in love with him, but he resists. The fact is, Greenberg secretly loves Florence's positivity and kindness, but both qualities also scare him, as does any kind of commitment. From a clinic bed, she tells him he likes her more than he thinks he does, and of course she's right.

As Louis Menand once observed, some romantic comedies -- which is what Greenberg is, in a roundabout way -- make you fall in love with only one of the two central characters. We come to like Greenberg, albeit grudgingly, but we love Florence. Gerwig uses her mumblecore training to excellent effect, finding emotional beats-within-beats in a given scene, making every hesitation count. Florence may be confused and the victim of her own dysfunctional patterns, but she's hardly stupid. Maybe she too easily forgives Greenberg's childish tantrums, but one of the film's big questions seems to be whether some people are destined to go through life without healthy relationships. For better or worse, Florence can't believe that's true, at least of Greenberg. And her faith in him, though inexplicable at times, helps him find traces of new hope. The film ends, after all, on a genuinely hopeful note.

3) The secondary casting. Rhys Ifans is superb as Greenberg's best friend, who's understandably ambivalent about the friendship; Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wrote the story upon which the movie is based, is terrific as Greenberg's ex, who isn't buying his attempts at normalcy and isn't afraid to tell him so; and Chris Messina does great work in a small role as Greenberg's brother, whose conventional success conceals a mean streak that both belies his frustration with Greenberg and reveals that anger runs in the family.

4) The use of L.A. It was David Denby who commented that Los Angeles comes across in Greenberg as a pretty decent place to live -- nothing more, nothing less. It's so often depicted as a repository of airheads and soulless movie execs, or as a glittery wonderland, that it's nice to see it as a real place filled with people who aren't that different from the rest of us (except that they can't imagine getting around without a car).

5) Baumbach's smart, soulful, very funny writing. Greenberg's script is the opposite of lazy; it never rests when it can add another sharp detail. Late in the film, Greenberg picks up a small ruler in Florence's apartment and finds that it's covered with dinosaurs that move when you tilt it. I had that ruler when I was a kid, and the specificity of this prop helps us understand Florence's childlike view of the world even more precisely.

Similarly, we see Greenberg, in a low moment, pressing a crosswalk button with the end of his sleeve wrapped around his hand, so he doesn't have to touch the button directly. This also happens fairly late in the story; at this point, we already know about Greenberg's problems relating to other people, but we're only now seeing the pervasiveness of his obsessive-compulsive tendencies. This revelation not only makes sense, it softens our judgment of his sometimes atrocious behavior. At least it had that effect on me, since I, too, have OCD symptoms. Not since Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, have I seen obsessive compulsion rendered so sensitively.

Baumbach may put difficult characters at the center of his films, but he never does it merely to deride or make a spectacle of them. Jeff Daniels' pretentious academic in Whale, Nicole Kidman's chilly sister-of-the-bride-to-be in Margot, and now Stiller's Greenberg -- they're all deeply troubled people, but they're also undeniably human, and their humanity is never wholly obscured. Those who find Greenberg depressing may wish to reconsider the ending, which feels so right and conveys such hope, in spite of all that's gone before, that I nearly gasped.

6) The sex scenes. They're realistically awkward and revealing of character, not just skin. Maybe the French are still best at filming sex convincingly, but American indies are catching up.

7) The dog subplot. Baumbach found the perfect way for prickly Greenberg and sweet Florence to bond throughout the film: They both love his brother's dog, Mahler. (Greenberg's brother is, indeed, the type of person who would give a German shepherd a pretentious name.) It also happens to be the perfect way to humanize Greenberg, who valiantly scolds a passel of drunk college kids who feed Mahler pizza -- a forbidden food -- after the dog gets home from the vet's. Greenberg isn't exactly one of those people who prefer animals to humans. Instead, he uses Mahler to revive his own ability to care about any living creature; the affection he develops for the dog prepares him for the possibility of loving Florence, who so richly deserves to be loved. At one point, she observes that Mahler might be a person in canine clothing, and Greenberg seems to feel the same way.

I loved this movie so much that it made my heart hurt. I was surprised, quite frankly, that it lived up to my high expectations. It may not be to everyone's taste -- that's the way it goes with Baumbach's oeuvre, apparently -- but those with whom it resonates will find themselves thoroughly rewarded.