The 77th Annual Academy Awards weren't as deathly dull as last year's ceremony, although it came awfully close at times. No upsets in the major categories--yes, I know, when will Scorsese get his Oscar, etc; However, even though I haven't seen THE AVIATOR, I'm guessing it's more GANGS OF NEW YORK/CASINO than TAXI DRIVER/RAGING BULL.

I was half hoping SIDEWAYS would pull off a surprise win for Best Picture (a la its '70s equivalent, ANNIE HALL), and maybe it could have if MILLION DOLLAR BABY hadn't come from out of nowhere and stole its thunder. And though I didn't hate Clint Eastwood's film, I'm still having trouble accepting it as a Best Picture. Oh well, it's far from the worst film to receive that honor in the past decade.

Anyway, here's WHAT WORKED:

Chris Rock as host. At least for the first hour, until his momentum started to sag. Still, would Billy or Steve bluntly, honestly criticize Tobey Maguire, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and President Bush on the telecast, and top it off with a little self-deprecation (two words: POOTIE TANG)? Whoopi might.

Best Acceptance Speech: Jorge Drexler, who simply sang a verse from Best Song winner "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, and did so far better than Antonio Banderas, who had earlier performed an out-of-place electric version of the song on stage with Carlos Santana.

No cheesy Debbie Allen (or Allen Carr) assisted dance montages! Yes, they could be a(n) (unintentional) hoot, but they were filler, they padded the telecasts out to four hours, and I'll take a tasteful tribute to Sidney Lumet over a trotting out of the "Oscar Family Album" any day.

And here's WHAT DIDN'T WORK:

Requiring nominees for most of the lesser-known categories to stand in a massive throng; some were lucky enough to congregate on stage, others had to remain in their strategically-placed seats. Might've been done to give them a little more face time (or save broadcasting time?), but it just looked weird. They should've made all the nominated actors do the same so we could've seen the losers trying to hide their disappointment and contempt amidst their applause.

Beyonce, Beyonce, Beyonce. Once was bearable (loved the audacity of her key-lime eye shadow, but was she wearing True Star, her perfume?), twice was a tad annoying, thrice meant they couldn't get any other diva. Better her than Counting Crows, though (irritating vocalist Adam Duritz's white boy pineapple dreads continue to haunt us more than a decade after "Mr. Jones").

Humorless Sean Penn coming to Jude Law's defense. Both are fine (if occasionally overrated, and in Penn's case, overacting) actors, but please, don't try to stir up sympathy for someone who gets as much work (and press) as Law. Although I didn't think Rock was as stellar a host as Whoopi, I did like his comeback to Penn. Humor always triumphs over sanctimony.


Not necessarily the last ten I've seen, but close enough. Now with star ratings!


Hirokazu Koreeda’s films are as inimitable and challenging as Tsai Ming-Liang’s, even though stylistically, the two Asian directors are poles apart. Where Tsai deliberately slows down time to the point where a natural action seems like a distortion, Koreeda’s latest lets the action naturally flow as if the viewer were observing or eavesdropping something outside their bedroom window.

I make light of this because it’s essential to embracing/understanding NOBODY KNOWS. While the film’s unaffected pace should logically seem like the most approachable thing in the world, it’s different from most films. In other words, it’s slow, but not measured, arty, or self-conscious. I initially had so much trouble getting used to these rhythms that I kept dozing off during the first half hour. Fortunately, I adjusted to them and felt more and more involved during the remainder.

On the surface, this is a simple story that could’ve been the basis for a slice of post-war Italian neorealism: a family of four children ranging in age from five to twelve is abandoned by its mother and left to fend for themselves in a cramped Tokyo apartment. We follow them through a whole year as dirty laundry piles up, utilities are shut off and plants in used plastic microwavable noodle bowls grow on the veranda. The eldest child, Akira (Yuya Yagira, a deserving Cannes Best Actor winner) does what a twelve-year-old can to take care of his siblings. While the film is about perseverance, it’s not a Disney-friendly fable about these kids magically overcoming near-impossible odds, but something more realistic.

At times sweet and poignant and at others, disquieting and a little sad, this was a beautiful but difficult film to watch because you become so emotionally involved without feeling cheap about it. I was most impressed that Koreeda never sermonized or encouraged us to pity these children. NOBODY KNOWS isn’t a societal critique or a melodrama; I’m not really sure how to categorize it, as much of the film just follows a potentially tragic situation playing itself out with honesty and grace.


Wong Kar-Wai’s second feature feels like an obvious predecessor to his seventh feature (and masterpiece), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Set roughly in the same time and place, it’s a moody paean to its charismatic, smoldering star Leslie Cheung. The plot, which revolves around the various women he beds and him finding out that the prostitute he was raised by really isn’t his mother, is secondary. The film is more an evocation of an era, an attitude, a dreamlike world that may have never actually existed, yet it feels so real--some may accuse Wong of fetishism towards his actors and their surroundings, but rarely has a film’s style (particularly one this agile and sensuous) provided so much substance.


Watching first-time director (and it shows) Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s VILE BODIES was like a trip to the dentist’s, albeit one with lots of Novocain. As I took in the sumptuous camerawork, pretty faces and vaguely outlandish situations, all I felt was a little numbed. I’m not familiar with Waugh’s novel, but I’m assuming/hoping it has more substance and bite than this. By the end, I couldn’t care less about the fate of the two leads (strangely dull Emily Mortimer and even duller newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore). In minor roles, Jim Broadbent (who couldn’t possibly be boring if he tried) and the fetching Fenella Woolgar (her loopy joyride is a highlight) sporadically make this often silly, empty period piece nearly worthwhile.


A slightly more cerebral NAPOLEON DYNAMITE by way of CANDIDE? This quirky, occasionally clever Australian comedy is about the lengths some people will go to find acceptance and be “normal”, only to realize… well, you know the conclusion. Fortunately, that doesn’t distract from the fun of watching young rocker Ben Lee exude geeky charisma in the title role or Rose Byrne credibly act in a film bereft of CGI or even Miranda Richardson have a ball as Placid's emphatic (if oblivious) hippy mother. When the satire’s sharp-witted (most delectably in both equally uproarious versions of Placid’s award-winning student film), director Tony McNamara’s scrappy debut’s a hoot.


A perfect Best Picture Oscar candidate in that you moves one to ask, “C’mon, is this really the best film of the year?” Shallower than SIDEWAYS and less fun than ROCKY, it nonetheless features a trio of rightfully acclaimed performances: Hilary Swank as a 31-year-old wannabe boxer, Morgan Freeman doing what he always does well as the wise, aging voice of reason (in the guise of a failed boxer) and, most touchingly, director Clint Eastwood, another former boxer and gym manager who reluctantly takes Swank on and coaches her towards golden glove stardom.

Everything’s pleasantly entertaining (if a tad hokey) until something Tragic happens and the film morphs into a right-to-live melodrama. I don’t think this grasp towards significance sinks the film; on the contrary, I think Eastwood handles the material admirably well and without much compromise. That’s not to say I haven’t seen this kind of narrative told better elsewhere or that I didn’t cringe at Swank’s thinly-drawn trailer trash family. But Swank, Freeman and Eastwood are all remarkable, and the passion and articulateness they give their characters lends the final act its heart and soul.


Why can’t Americans make horror films as genuinely eerie (and intelligent) as this? Creepy goings-on at a Tudor cottage in the South Korean countryside, complete with ghosts, possessions, young girls getting locked in closets and a divinely wicked stepmother that could give the Queen in Snow White a run for her money. Of course, nothing is what it seems and most of the horror has a psychological bent, but even as director Ji-Woon Kim indulges in the sensational (sound effects, razor-sharp editing, more than a few blood-curdling screams), he does so with the finesse of prime Dario Argento. Comparable to a M. Night Shyamalan film, only good.


Surprisingly stirring documentary about a 1930s woman’s swim team formed at Hakoah, a Jewish sports club in Vienna. Given the place and time, you can guess that the team did not survive into the 1940s, but its members did as they escaped Nazi-controlled Austria, individually settling all over the globe. Director Yaron Zilberman not only documents this era through vintage photographs and imaginatively chosen stock footage, but also by interviewing seven living members of the team and bringing them together for a reunion in Vienna. Now all in their eighties, they range from Hanni, a vivacious, outspoken academic to Anni, a psychotherapist who lost her sight a few decades ago. Better than most documentaries of this ilk, WATERMARKS both surveys the triumphs of a group of outsiders and delves into the pain of being ostracized without seeming clichéd. When the women take a swim together at the film’s conclusion, it’s simple and profound, and rather powerful.


Something’s usually a little off in a Robert Altman film; viewers either love or hate him for it. However, every couple of years he turns out something that’s gloriously off. The public generally regards these efforts as bombs, they barely play in theaters and fall out of distribution for years, patiently awaiting elusive DVD release dates. A few of these lost efforts are genuinely bad (after reading a synopsis, I can’t conceive QUINTET or OC AND STIGGS possibly being any good), but most are ripe for rediscovery. IMAGES and CALIFORNIA SPLIT finally resurfaced last year, and I hope that BREWSTER McCLOUD is the next one to become available again.

Fat with M*A*S*H cash, the studio probably told Altman that he could do whatever the hell he wanted to for a follow-up. So, he took on a script written by the author of SKIDOO, and flew down to Houston to make a film about a disturbed young man (a pre-HAROLD AND MAUDE Bud Cort) who lives in the Houston Astrodome and is building a contraption that will enable him to fly. He also has a guardian angel of sorts (played by Sally “Hot Lips” Kellerman) that may be assisting him with a rash of aviary-minded murders where the victims are left dotted with dollops of bird shit. That’s not even mentioning Rene Auberjonois as an increasingly crazed ornithologist who interjects the film with his stilted lectures.

A fascinating mess, BREWSTER MCCLOUD doesn’t cohere nearly as well as THE LONG GOODBYE and lacks the visual flair and poeticism of his next (and arguably best) film McCABE & MS. MILLER. But, it’s an emblematic, at times enigmatic expression of New Hollywood at its most fearless. It gleefully trashes the establishment, cultural icons (dragging Margaret Hamilton out of the mothballs and paying fucked-up homage to her wicked witch persona) and, in the end, its own acerbic attitude towards its targets. It’s more comically dark than almost anything else Altman ever attempted. Plus, Shelly Duval makes her film debut as an alternate-universe Goldie Hawn who loves race car driving and freaky fake eyelashes.


I can see why some people couldn’t stand this award-winner from French Canadian auteur Denys Arcand. Taking Remy, a character from his 1986 feature DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE and giving him inoperable cancer, Arcand sets the stage for a meditation on mortality, the value of reading a good book vs. that of making a shitload of money, and the ineffectiveness of the Canadian public health system. It’s arty, a little smug, maybe even a little elitist; it’s also hard to feel much sympathy for Remy’s arrogant, estranged son. Yet, I wasn’t offended by these things. At times, it felt like an elegiac Bergman film. While ultimately sad, it also casts a rich, autumnal, life-affirming glow.

DOLLS (***)

Made before THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI, this is surely one of Takeshi Kitano’s unlikeliest features. Taking a cue from the Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppet plays, the film presents three intertwined love stories based on them. The first follows a fractured couple reunited through a failed suicide attempt, the second finds a yakuza looking for his long-lost love, and the third centers on a young female pop singer and an idolizing fan. Probably the most leisurely-paced Kitano film I’ve seen, brimming with gorgeous cinematography and a lot of interesting (if oblique) scenes that seemingly don’t add up. Or maybe they do, and I just need to see them again. Not as successful as the great, equally odd, similarly paced KIKUJIRO, but intermittently striking.



In honor of my birthday, here are thirty films I love and will probably never tire of, in no particular order:

Annie Hall, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation, Mulholland Drive, Waking Life, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Beau Travail, The 400 Blows, Bringing Up Baby, Vertigo, This Is Spinal Tap, Ed Wood, Harold and Maude, Stranger Than Paradise, The Sweet Hereafter, Trainspotting, Donnie Darko, Young Frankenstein, The Last Picture Show, To Live, American Splendor, Rushmore, McCabe and Ms. Miller, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Yi Yi, Waiting For Guffman, Judy Berlin, The Return, Dr. Strangelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), and Election.



Obviously, I'm not going to finish my attempt at an autobiography (re: What Music I Listened To) by my birthday. I don't want to toss off something just to meet a deadline (not that I haven't before...), so expect an ongoing project with intermittent updates. And I swear, this time it won't take me nearly two years to get to the next entry.

I couldn't help but look back at a post from a year ago. I was going to answer these brilliant little tidbits one by one, but that would get kinda obvious and boring. I will say I'm happy I accomplished both # 1 and # 2, disappointed I didn't get to # 15, 16, and 17, and will make another probably half-hearted attempt at # 11 again, when the weather improves.

As for worrying about turning *thirty*, well, I haven't thought about it too much until this week. Of course, it's pretty silly to assign significance to a particular number (unless it enables you to vote, legally buy booze, receive a senior citizen discount or get you on the Today show with Willard Scott). I don't want to fall into a funk where I can't get over "all the things I should've done by now", etc; However, I don't want to take for granted all the wonderful everyday things I can do, like making a chai latte or taking a stroll at the sanctuary near Amory Playground or browsing through the remainder tables at Brookline Booksmith and finding a good deal on a book like this.


I've seen a lot of movies recently (and for me, "a lot" means A LOT); maybe I'll get to writing about some of them after my birthday. In the meantime, check out former Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker's new blog; his thoughts on the just completed, somewhat disappointing sixth season of The Amazing Race mirror my own. Still riveting for reality TV, but it'll jump the shark for sure if the seventh season (starting in two weeks) features another couple as loathsome as Jonathan and Victoria or as inane as winners Freddy and Kendra. Maybe they need another midget (they certainly don't need these reality show slummers).


A SECRET HISTORY: 1989 - 1990

After my grandmother gives me a twenty dollar bill for my 14th birthday, it suddenly hits me: I can buy music with this! After much deliberation, I purchase Kick by INXS and Information Society. I listen to each of them constantly until I know every lyric by heart (or at least those I can comprehend). Those two cassettes, The Escape Club’s Wild Wild West, and my taped-off-the-radio tapes provide the soundtrack for a twenty-hour bus trip to Washington DC (my first time outside Wisconsin or Illinois). By the time we reach Pennsylvania, my friend Mike has listened to Salt ‘N Pepa’s “Push It” nineteen times in a row, thinking it was called “Smush It” until I told him otherwise.

Captivated by MTV’s Top Twenty Video Countdown, I start listening to American Top 40 (with Shadoe Stevens) every Sunday morning, scrutinizing chart positions, speculating and predicting what song will place where. When I find out these songs are actually part of a one-hundred position chart, I’m nearly overwhelmed. Whenever I’m in the mall, I stop by Musicland or JR’s and look to see whether they’ve posted the Billboard Hot 100 by the singles for sale--45’s rapidly giving way to cassingles by summer’s end.

I’ll only buy an entire album if I’ve heard at least two or three songs off it that I know I like. My tastes are populist, not too embarrassing for a high school freshman at the time: Fine Young Cannibals, Roxette, and Milli Vanilli (I admit it!). In August, I’ve discovered Dr. Demento. No one in Milwaukee carries it, so I strain each week to pick it up on garbled frequencies transmitting from a low-watt station in nearby Port Washington. By Christmas, I’ve worn out the “play” and “play-record” buttons on my boombox and have to get another one.

That second dual-cassette boombox sputters out by mid-year. Apart from occasional babysitting, I don’t have a job and thus no money. I live off my walkman until November when I’ve saved enough to buy a replacement, a more durable model that I hang to for a considerably longer time. I christen it with a brand new tape, Depeche Mode’s Violator (which I’ve already heard four songs off of, thank you very much.) Otherwise, I continue to do the things I did in 1989, only at a more fervent level.

I start buying Billboard magazine on a monthly basis, usually a two-week old copy from where I buy most of my tapes, Mainstream Music in the Point Loomis Mall. I usually stop by there on my way home from school, making my way through the swarm of elderly women attending the mall’s weekly craft bazaars until I reach my destination, a former pharmacy hidden all the way in the back next to the Ponderosa. I eagerly wait the new INXS album (the oh-so-cleverly titled X) and buy it on the day it comes out--my first time ever doing that. By the end of 1990, my favorite bands are Erasure and The B-52’s, which says a little about my budding sexuality. I might’ve repressed and denied being gay for another seven years, but I didn’t stop listening to music that would’ve identified as such.


A SECRET HISTORY: 1987 - 1988

Every May, my Catholic grade school concludes the year with an all-student picnic. Approximately 150 first-through-eighth-graders caravan nine blocks to Wilson Park for a day of jump rope contests, softball tournaments, jungle gyms, sloppy joes and generic brand “COLA” (in black print on plain white cans, of course). Unlike past picnics, however, this one simmers with defiant self-expression and youthful rebellion, stuff you only catch glimpses of within the school’s constricting walls. Out in the open, I hear Motley Crue, the Beastie Boys and even U2 for the first time. I don’t like everything I hear, but I realize I’m missing something by just listening to Weird Al. Unseasonable, sweltering afternoon heat erupts into an impromptu water fight. The upperclassmen kick it off and the melee gradually trickles down to us, all the while escalating nearly out of control. We’re scolded and the next two years, the “picnic” is held in the school’s/church’s basement hall, the same site used for assemblies and weekly bingo.

I receive a slightly larger black (the color’s important) dual-cassette boombox for my thirteenth birthday and I listen to the radio casually, but often. I go home for lunch every day at 11:30 (I only live two blocks away). When my mother’s at work and I have the house to myself, I drag the boombox out to the kitchen table and listen to “She’s Like the Wind” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” while I heat up soup or a Stouffer’s entrée in the microwave.

Apart from the latest Weird Al (Even Worse, which I’m totally oblivious about until my classmates mention it), I still don’t purchase any music. I do start taping songs off the radio, slowly, carefully mastering the art of capturing an entire song with as little interference from the DJ or a fade-in to the next song as possible. I also enjoy scrolling up and down the AM and FM dials in search of what weird shit I can find. My dedication and patience, however, is that of an ADD-rattled thirteen-year-old: I capture stuff in bits and pieces, not allowing enough time for anything to stick.

I finally watch MTV on a regular basis: I love the countdown shows, Club MTV (since the fashions seemed so ridiculous at the time, I can’t imagine how they must appear now) and Remote Control, the granddaddy of all hip cable game shows. Still, I can’t get into Closet Capsule Classics (a daily half-hour prototype for VH-1 Classic with daily Doors videos): I can't yet fathom why anyone would want to listen to anything old.


A SECRET HISTORY: 1984 – 1986

I receive a cassette player/recorder at Christmas, 1983, probably purchased from the J.C. Penney’s Catalog. Years later, I find a recording my mother and I had made around that time, the two of us belting out “Jingle Bell Rock”. We amusingly messed up that line tailor-made for karaoke-butchering, “giddy up, Jingle horse” (‘cause you see, the song’s called “Jingle Bell Rock”). I don’t know whatever happened to that tape… most likely, I trashed it in a fit of teenage embarrassment and revulsion, which I now regret doing.

I discovered Top 40 radio a month after I turned nine. One Saturday, my parents and I got together with longtime friends we would vacation with every summer. After dinner at Shakey’s Pizza on Loomis Road (the only time I ever remember going there), we went back to their suburban cul-de-sac. They had two sons, one my age, and we spent the rest of the evening listening to the radio. I heard a lot of stuff for the first time: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, Van Halen’s (not the Pointer Sisters’) “Jump”, Rockwell’s supremely horror-cheesy “Somebody’s Watching Me” (pretty much a Michael Jackson track in all but name). We kept scanning the dial in hopes to find “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Eat It”, but only caught it in spurts. It was so liberating to hear something other than my parent’s music. I ran around the orange-carpeted house, inexplicably wearing a Tinkertoy necklace, rapt in a sugar high fueled by Legos, Pepsi, and lots of disposable but fun pop music.

Alas, it did not take. My cassette player did not have a radio, and apart from a well-worn copy of the soundtrack to It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown!, I didn’t even think to start buying my own cassettes until more than two years later. By fifth grade, I became painfully aware of my tendency to play the goody-two shoes and decided it was high time I became cool. Not that I had any idea of how to accomplish this. For my 11th birthday, I knew I needed a bigass boombox, like the kind you saw in Run DMC videos. I’m not sure where I got this from--my neighborhood had finally been wired up for cable TV in late ‘85, but I watched a lot more Nickelodeon than MTV. So, my grandmother got me a boombox alright, but it was tiny, non-threatening and white with an aluminum handle. It fit all too comfortably on my shoulder. Nevertheless, it had the basics--a radio and a cassette player.

After a summer spent taking my first guitar lessons (at an all-woman’s college, no less) and watching daily morning reruns of Here’s Lucy, I bought a copy of "Weird Al" Yankovic’s self-titled debut album from Kohl’s Department Store. I’m not sure what possessed me to pick it up right there and then (perhaps a viewing of The Complete Al on HBO?), but I listened to it constantly, and gradually acquired Al's entire oeuvre over the next four months. I tried to keep my new obsession a secret from my Bon Jovi and Kiss loving cousins and classmates, which seems silly now; if there’s ever an appropriate age to admit you like Weird Al, eleven may as well be it.



...but will make an earnest attempt to do so over the next two weeks (at least before I turn thirty). Expect an autobiography of sorts with music as a focal point. I don't know why I put this on hold, since I think the first installment, written nearly two years ago, shows promise. Oh yeah, not long after this, I started writing for Splendid... and then came the time-sucking Ten Thousand Words, which itself ended up kind of a musical autobiography, although it lacks the chronology and pretensions of growth this one will (hopefully) have.

In the meantime, some reviews of recent acquisitions, only in fifteen words or less (more detailed assessments possibly to come):

THE WEAKERTHANS Reconstruction Site
Smart, literate, hooky underdog rock from Winnipeg that will never be the next big thing.

Still can't decide whether this Donovan disciple is compelling or annoying.

Collaboration results in discipline rather than compromise. Almost her very own SCARLET'S WALK.

ERASURE Nightbird
As familiar and comforting as a hand-knit afghan. Still uncool, and better for it.

Hype's settled down; minus the showy visuals, I think I could learn to like them.