27 March 2005

The Power That Comes From Nowhere

Q: So what happened to New Directors/New Films?
A: Pfft.

Actually, the buzz on Darwin's Nightmare is growing steadily, so I may try to wheedle my way into that one tomorrow evening. But after walking out of the first three press screenings I attended—having previously walked out of an additional three films in the lineup at other festivals—I decided to cut my losses this year. Subsequent coverage from various sources suggests I'd already seen most of the keepers (Duck Season, Games of Love and Chance, Murderball, They Came Back), and my tolerance for mediocrity seems to be receding at a pace roughly commensurate with my hairline. My new Credo of Apathy and Lethargy: If it's any good at all, it'll come around again. I love these movies, and therefore I set them free.

That's Ed, I did stir myself to check out The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the only movie I got shut out of at Sundance. And I dug it pretty well, albeit not necessarily in the way its makers intended. Without rehashing a lengthy, semi-heated debate that erupted on the movie nerd discussion group vis-à-vis the merits of Johnston's music, let's just say that I remain unpersuaded by testaments to his songwriting genius, and firmly convinced that his cult status derives almost exclusively from his mental illness. Homeless lunatics who sing a cappella on the L train can be haunting and moving, too, but that doesn't mean I want them on my iPod.

Thing is, I was predisposed to like Johnston's work, since I have a soft spot for lo-fi solo homemade recordings. One of my all-time favorite albums, Michelle Shocked's The Texas Campfire Tapes, was recorded on a Sony Walkman, by someone who saw her perform at a festival and requested a private encore; you can hear crickets chirping in the background from start to finish, plus the occasional passing car. And this week my friend Chris—himself a member of a fine San Francisco old-time/bluegrass band, All Wrecked Up—introduced me to Dan Reeder, a middle-aged American painter/musician living in Germany. Reeder recently put together a demo, playing instruments he'd built himself (and generally harmonizing with himself); on a whim, he sent it to John Prine, who promptly released it on his own label without any tinkering whatsoever. This album kind of defies description, so I'll save myself the trouble and just give you a taste. Listen to this song twice and it'll be stuck in your head for at least a week, whatever your personal sense of propriety.

(IMPORTANT: This track is probably not suitable for the office environment. It is probably even less suitable for the toddler-coloring-Batman's-cowl-forest-green-on-the-other-side-of-the-room environment.)

(ALSO: I see where YouSendIt now limits the number of downloads for a given file, so if it's gone by the time you see this, my apologies. You can hear a few other tracks by following the link above.)

22 March 2005

miscellany, etc.

I fear I may be a little too "old school" for the blogosphere. The whole idea is that you're just supposed to spew out random thoughts as they occur to you, but after nearly three decades of relentless spit and polish, spewing doesn't come easily. Nonetheless, a few tidbits:

• Amy Taubin's remarks on Brick in her Film Comment Sundance report (not available online) speak to the heart of what I was getting at in my previous post (with attendant brief argument in the comments). After (mistakenly) rejecting writer/director Rian Johnson's high-school-as-noir-underworld conceit as fundamentally misguided, she allows that...

As a filmmaker, however, Johnson is clearly talented. He demonstrates a great facility with film language, a prodigious knowledge of film history, a knack for purloining the right images, and also an ability to create some ravishing ones of his own. What suggests that he's something of an idiot savant is the total absence of any kind of libidinal or emotional juice beneath the clever surface.

That's an accurate assessment, as far as it goes, and the film's emotionally stunted "idiot savant" quality is precisely what prevents me from embracing it as I'd like to. Ultimately, it's all surface—though the last line of dialogue, suggesting a bottled-up grandeur that's apparent nowhere else, still somehow manages to draw blood. (Cutting instantly to "Sister Ray" doesn't hurt.) But there are two kinds of filmgoers: those who can be thrilled by a dazzling surface, even as they acknowledge the hollowness it masks, and those who I find really fucking annoying.

• Here's a nifty no-limit hold'em strategy that's been paying big dividends for me of late: When you're on a draw, and the turn card provides you with a second draw—however marginal—play it fast. In early position, make a large bet out of nowhere; in late position, raise as a semi-bluff. You're doing this not simply because your odds of winning have slightly increased, but because you're liable to bust your opponent if your backdoor draw comes in on the river.

Example: In late position, I call a moderate raise holding 6s4s. Flop comes As 9s 5c, giving me a small flush draw. The preflop raiser makes a pot-sized bet; I choose to call. (Sometimes I'd raise here—depends on my image at the time, how I'm running, who my opponent is, the usual stuff.) Turn is the 2d, giving me four additional outs to a gutshot straight. He bets, I raise 3x, he calls. River is the 3h. I deliberately wait a couple of shit-what-do-I-do-now beats, then move all-in (for $400 or so). And he calls, because it looks for all the world to him like I raised the turn on a flush draw (which I did), missed (which I did) and am now trying to steal.

Yes, much of the time you'll lose the $50 or whatever that you spent on the turn. But the implied odds for the times you'll hit make it a profitable play in the long run. If you play no-limit the way I do, you aren't trying to win a series of small to medium-sized pots (though that's fine if it happens)—your goal is to hit one or two hands with which you can send someone home, or at least back to his wallet.

• I now live directly above a tiny little restaurant called The Olive Vine. This is a good news/bad news kind of deal. The good news is that the food is delicious (if you're in the neighborhood, I particularly recommend the merguez pizza) and the staff is unfailingly attentive and courteous. The bad news is that the Olive Vine moved to its current location—as I say, right underneath me—because they burned their previous location down the street to a oven-roasted crisp. (See the "update" in the link above.) Tell Needlenose Ned "The Head" Ryerson I'm ready to buy some fire insurance.

• Cats frequently sleep in positions that look as if they can't possibly be comfortable. Or maybe it's just my cats.

• When oh when.

05 March 2005


Not a lot of activity hereabouts lately, I know. My inadequate. I'd fully intended to do a post-Sundance rundown—even thought up neat little categories: The Pretty Awesome, The Pretty Okay, The Pretty Forgettable, and The Pretty Persuasion -- but the end of the festival coincided with the Skandie deadline and I just never found the time. And now New Directors/New Films press screenings are about to kick off, so I think I have to let that dream die. Hopefully I'll be reviewing many of those pictures for nerve.com now in any case; the best of them have all found distributors. Good job Focus Features picking up [PREMATURE HYPERBOLE ALERT] the year's most exciting directorial debut, a high-concept stunt so prodigiously stylish (and thrillingly clever, for that dwindling subset of cinéastes who appreciate the clever) that its ultimate lack of substance, while frustrating, is eminently forgivable.

Speaking of my newest employer, one of the advantages of writing for the web is that you don't really need to fit some predetermined layout. I do have a word count for the nerve.com reviews, of course, but it's not exactly a crisis if I get carried away and exceed the maximum by a sentence or two. Esquire, needless to say, is a lot less forgiving in this regard, and in fact most of my pieces for them have been edited for space (and sometimes for content, but mostly it's just "we need to lose 75 words, pronto"). In the case of the current Alternative Oscars column (which ran a page longer than usual), two entire items wound up being cut. For the two insane Del Angelo completists out there, here they are:

Best Argument in Favor of Maintaining a Status Quo in Which Privileged White Filmmakers Ignore People of Color Altogether: Spanglish

For years, critics have been bitching about the lily-white New York City depicted in Woody Allen’s increasingly hermetic pictures. Sure, it’s offensive by omission...but if the noxious portrait of multiracial Los Angeles offered by James L. Brooks in Spanglish is indicative of what good intentions will wreak, let’s hope the Woodman remains blinking in his cave. I’ll give Brooks a few brownie points for eschewing subtitles, but his treatment of Paz Vega’s unfailingly righteous, proud and noble housemaid is typical of the well-meaning condescension evinced by liberal filmmakers, who seem to fear that making a minority character recognizably human is tantamount to racism. Did Brooks fail to notice that Denzel Washington recently won a well-deserved Oscar for playing a cop so cheerfully, unapologetically corrupt that he made the dudes in Serpico and Prince of the City look like Officer Krupke? There’s no excuse for giving Vega the Poitier treatment, especially when it means that poor Téa Leoni has to portray enough flaws and neuroses for two.

Best Wasted Opportunity: The other saw, Saw

Anton Chekhov would be so pissed if he were disinterred and forced to sit through this high-concept horror turkey. “How did they talk Danny Glover into trashing his reputation like that?” he would ask, presumably in Russian. But the real issue would be the twin hacksaws allotted to the film’s dual protagonists, chained by a madman to opposite corners of a filthy bathroom. Clearly a fan of Mad Max, their tormentor notes that the saws are far too flimsy to cut through metal; flesh and bone, by contrast, would provide much less resistance. If dramatic structure dictates that a gun shown at the beginning of Act One must be fired by the end of Act Three, as Chekhov insisted, then the presence of two saws will find gorehounds salivating in anticipation of the inevitable climactic saw-off, with our heroes racing to amputate their respective limbs in order to beat the other to the gun or bomb or sharks with frickin’ laser beams or whatever the hell. Yeah, I got a little weepy at the end of Million Dollar Baby. But it was nothing compared to the tears of frustration I shed when one of the saws was immediately broken. That’s just not right.

Also, my belated thanks and apologies to Mike Wazowski, from whom I shamelessly swiped a joke about Sean Penn's Mystic River histrionics ("Is that my Oscar in there? Is that my Oscar in there?!?!?") that actually did run in the magazine. Good one bud.

And finally, apropos of nada, how the hell does C.C. Baxter have an apartment on 62nd Street that rents for only $85 a month? By my calculations, today that would amount to $516.77. Anyone have the number of that broker?