An autobiography filtered through music, (mostly) year-by-year.

2004-2005 (Conclusion)


(As the year winds down, so shall this project. I’m finding it difficult to write about the near-present; I feel like I need more distance, more time to process how my tastes/habits have changed. Nonetheless, every autobiography needs a conclusion.)

By early 2004, I’ve fallen into a routine: for Splendid, I receive a box of CDs every five or six weeks. I rummage through them, looking for artists I’ve heard of (or think I should know), going to Google or AllMusic to ferret out genres, discographies, running times, release dates, trying to determine what could be a pick; after all, ideally, I was supposed to like one-third of what was sent to me. Ah, if only that were the case. Sure, occasionally (and seemingly from out of nowhere), I found a life-changing gem like Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans (which ended up my favorite album of that year). For the most part, though, it was a tough slough. For every A.C. Newman or Bobby Bare, Jr., there was a Billy Johnson’s Roadshow or a Mimi Ferocious. By the end of that summer, I realized I no longer enjoyed the weekly schedule, the time diligently spent researching each artist, or even most of the music itself. Guiltily, I resigned as my latest box o’ discs ran out.

In the time since, I have not written regularly about music for any other publication (although I spent most of 2004 counting down my top 100 LPs of all time in a separate blog). That’s not to say I’ll never do it again—just not something as rigorous and ridiculously comprehensive as Splendid was, were every artist of every stripe was deemed worthy of a review. It was a neat concept, but apparently not one sustainable forever: as I write this, Splendid is ceasing publication, its editors taking a hiatus, hopefully to return with a new site sometime in 2006.

Left with an excess of free time to always listen to whatever the fuck I wanted to, I’d ritually go through my music collection once a week, fill up my little 24-disc notebook, and take it into work with me, making sure I played everything once. Around this time, I discovered how easy it was to request items on reserve from the public library network: potentially thousands of discs at my fingertips. I caught up on all the great new music I missed while reviewing, and began checking the network’s website first before deciding whether I should buy something new (or used) at a record store.

As 2004 dissolved into 2005, I started using iTunes, first at work, then at home. I built up thousand-song libraries at each, reveling at how easy and fun it made making mixes. Then, I received an iPod for Christmas. Over the past year, it’s significantly altered the way I listen to music. Don’t get me wrong, I still love albums and the value of hearing one in the order its creators intended, from beginning to end. But iTunes introduced and encouraged the pleasure of hearing a random shuffle of songs, the thrill of not knowing what’s coming next, the happy accidents resulting from hearing two tracks you would never have thought of putting next to each other before.

I’m starting to feel alienated from current popular music more than ever: scanning over the Billboard charts, I increasingly don’t recognize most of the hit songs or those strange beings performing them. I guess it’s inevitable, becoming ever more the iconoclast as I age. Still, I have to believe that as music and the technology used to acquire and hear it rapidly changes, my tastes and perception of music will similarly evolve. Although I ended up pursuing a career in film, for me, music is more essential and personal. I can’t imagine a life without it—I’ll see one of my favorite films once every six or twelve months (or even less often than that) and glean a sense of satisfaction, but I can put my favorite songs or albums or mixes on repeat until they seep into my unconscious. And they never get old.

Go back to 2003



Two years after first hitting the festival circuit, this outing by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien finally gets a theatrical run in Boston (coinciding with its DVD release, oddly enough). Don't miss it--of all his films that I've seen, it might be my favorite.

Commissioned for the centenary of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu's birth, CAFE LUMIERE is somewhat a tribute to him. Hou's first film entirely set in Japan, it follows Yoko (Yo Yohito), a young woman researching the life of Jiang Wenye, a 20th Century Taiwanese composer who lived in Japan for many years. Apart from her parents and people she interviews for her book on Wenye, the only other primary character is her friend, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, from LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE and BRIGHT FUTURE), a quiet used-bookseller who loves to record the sounds of Tokyo subways.

As with most of the director's films, very little seems to happen (apart from one significant thing for Yoko) and it does so at a languid pace. At least 10% of the action is set inside or near a subway train. And yet, provided you don't doze off, what unfolds can be absolutely hypnotic. Hou studies the natural, unflashy rhythms of day-to-day Japanese life, subtly revealing beauty and grace in something as mundane as a storefront sign. Wenye's avant-classical piano music perfectly accompanies this, and, true to its title, the film often projects a warm, radiant glow. (4.5/5)




1. SAINT ETIENNE Tales From Turnpike House

Twelve songs spanning a single day in the life of a London apartment building, all of them painstakingly crafted miniatures seeking out little specks of brilliance in the most ordinary things. Actually, Sarah, Bob and Pete have made an entire career out of accentuating and celebrating those often mundane quirks that make a life transcendent and whole. Not to put down an impressive, voluminous back catalogue, this album reiterates everything great about them while somehow managing to create something more pop, delicate, poignant and stirring than anything that came before—especially in the final one-two punch of “Teenage Winter” and “Goodnight”, quite possibly the most beautiful, haunting songs they’ve ever recorded. Released in Europe last June and finally set to hit U.S. record stores January 24 (albeit with a rearranged track listing), this isn’t a perfect album (as I originally claimed), but it’s a perfectly lovely one.

2. KATE BUSH Aerial

On November 8, the dozen-year itch finally ceased. All that time spent wondering if she’d ever release another new album again: What would it sound like? Would it be any good? Well, Bush’s at-last-eighth album, a double, includes touchstones that beam in like satellites from various points of her career while never committing to just one era or style. But nothing is a retread: this is Bush moving on, giddily exploring the unknown whether she’s singing over a lone piano of doing the laundry or playfully conversing with birds. Speaking of which, her voice has only strengthened, not diminished, during her absence. A dazzling place to get lost in, with repeated listens, AERIAL reveals itself to be a dense and muted but ultimately exhilarating opus. I can’t yet say it’s her masterpiece, but it’s definitely of a piece with THE DREAMING and HOUNDS OF LOVE.

3. Sufjan Stevens ILLINOIS

Still thoroughly blown away by last year’s intimate SEVEN SWANS, I suspected this more outwardly ambitious follow-up wouldn’t have as strong a pull on me, and I was half-right. Regardless, it’s a substantial improvement on 2003’s similar MICHIGAN, and it bodes well for hope of even better things to come (provided he doesn’t freak out at his burgeoning success). A mesmerizing blend of folk, community theater, Charlie Brown music and symphonic experimentation, ILLINOIS, like all of Stevens’ oeuvre, meshes story songs and autobiographical essay into a daring, demanding gestalt. For many months, the surging, stunning “Chicago” was it for me, but that’s before I succumbed to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, a gentle, weirdly jaunty song about death that’s not maudlin or morose but, in its own affectionate way, joyous—even as you helplessly tear up during the final, wordless chorus.

4. THE GO-BETWEENS Oceans Apart

Leave it to this long-underappreciated Australian duo to buck the dreaded reunion curse. This is their third effort after a decade apart, and the first to hold its own with any of their seminal ‘80s work (and at times, it even rivals the stuff). From the first jangle of the veering ever-so-slightly out of control opener “Here Comes a City”, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan exude the passion and drive of power-poppers half their age. But their age is also the key here, especially for Forster: his “Born to a Family” and “Darlinghurst Nights” brim with a wisdom and resonance that only comes with time, while McLennan’s not-in-the-least-silly love songs bespeak an ecstasy you wouldn’t expect to find in most geezers.


Occasionally, taking time off to record a solo album does a band good. Witness this Canadian collective’s exemplary third album: following leader A.C. Newman’s transitory, self-explanatory 2004 release THE SLOW WONDER, it retains all the hooks and smarts of their previous efforts, but also refines them, allowing for some much needed room to breathe. The title track, “The Bones of an Idol”, “Use It” and the tremendous “The Bleeding Heart Show” make for a most spectacular first-four-track run, and the quality rarely flags thereafter. They’re still cleverer than you (who else could “Sing Me Spanish Techno”?), but on this record, Newman and company also let their vulnerable sides surface, the heart gradually, touchingly surpassing the mind as their impetus.

6. IVY In The Clear

Their best since APARTMENT LIFE (1997), and, coming from someone for whom that is a perfect album, that’s not faint praise. It barely throws any new ideas into the band’s template—just ten more tracks overflowing with dreamy cadences, perky melodies, and Dominique Durand’s arresting, tuneful Nico coo. Sharpening up their songwriting (and their guitars) while losing not one hint of beguiling ambience, they continue to rise above and beyond the lounge-pop tag they’ve been branded with for over a decade. Taking a cue from its evocative cover, it ought to be piped into every commercial cross-country flight.

7. ANDREW BIRD and the Mysterious Production of Eggs

Drifting even further away from the revivalist swing he used to play with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, this violinist/guitarist/whistler resists categorization: imagine a more sexually ambiguous Rufus Wainwright minus the operatic bombast, singing enigmatic ditties about “Measuring Cups”, “Opposite Day”, and, um, “Fake Palindromes” (still trying to figure out what those are), crafting subtle, intricate arrangements that at one seem familiar and not of this world. I don’t think I’ve heard anything else this year that sounds so baffling, and at the same time, oddly reassuring.

8. SPOON Gimme Fiction

This indie-rock outfit from Austin, TX has been kicking around for years, but I suspect most people (myself included) have never heard of ‘em until this, their fifth (and I’ll bet best) album. They don’t skimp on the melodies; nor do they lack any literary prowess (the first two songs are called “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”). However, this concise, immediate set is most noteworthy for its rhythms, from the blissful shuffle of “I Summon You” to the sparse, taut funk of “I Turn My Camera On”, which shows the flashier Franz Ferdinand how such things should be done.

9. TOMPAULIN Into The Black

I raved about this obscure Brit band's excellent singles compilation when I had to review it last year; on this follow-up, they’re unexpectedly a touch more somber and dour, eschewing feedback (except on the opener) and sunny choruses for contemplation and resolve. Fortunately, the change of pace suits ‘em well. When Stacy McKenna sings “I’ve got darkness in the morning” at the onset of the stark, remarkable “Brave”, you just stop dead in your tracks; when she languorously duets with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid on “Seams”, you know they’re what you always hoped/dreamed Mazzy Star would become.


James Murphy has no shame. He gleefully traffics in one-word choruses on ten-minute long songs (“Yeah”), dumbs down weird Prince for the indie-rock kids (“Disco Infiltrator”), liberally cribs from Eno (“The Great Release”) and late Beatles (“Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up”) and throws in a gratuitous cowbell solo or two. And all of it is fan-fucking-tastic, straight down the middle between stupid and clever—never more so than on “Losing My Edge”, a self-deprecating minimalist masterpiece that heads off the bonus disc of collected singles, which by itself is enough to secure a spot in this top ten.


Startling, genuine, impossibly beautiful—makes the cut for “Hope There’s Someone” and “Fistful of Love” alone.

FIONA APPLE Extraordinary Machine
Neither the Jon Brion-produced version nor the “official” version is definitive (or better than WHEN THE PAWN…); I’m just happy it was finally released.

EMM GRYNER Songs of Love and Death
While I wish she’d get around to recording some new songs, this idiosyncratic set of covers (celebrating her Irish heritage) is a fine appetizer for the eventual main course.

SHIVAREE Who’s Got Trouble?
With a name like Ambrosia Parsley and a voice like a hip Jill Sobule, you have to be this good.

STARS Set Yourself on Fire
Canadian equivalents to Belle and Sebastian deliver a charming, electro-orchestral epic that could’ve made the top ten if I had more than two weeks to process it.

Starts off incredibly strong with a literal *splash!* and retains most of its laid-back effervescence thereafter.

As distinct and impressive a talent as her brother, her long-gestating debut shows considerable promise, most so when she’s ruthlessly chewing out her famous father.


TORI AMOS The Beekeeper
ERASURE Nightbird
AIMEE MANN The Forgotten Arm
ORANGER New Comes and Goes


Critics who never paid much attention to them before inexplicably went ga-ga over this atypically bloated murk, which doesn't help anyone who misses the gals' no-nonsense, no-bullshit economy. I'll still buy the next one, though.



December 2005: Two CD-Rs


1. Depeche Mode, “Precious” (single*)
2. Saint Etienne, “Stars Above Us” (from Tales From Turnpike House)
3. Calexico / Iron & Wine, “He Lays In The Reins” (In The Reins EP)
4. Erasure, “Here I Go Impossible Again” (Nightbird)
5. Doves, “Almost Forgot Myself” (Some Cities)
6. Kate Bush, “How to be Invisible” (Aerial)
7. Carla Bruni, “Quelqu’un M’a Dit” (Quelqu’un M’a Dit)
8. Tori Amos, “Sleeps With Butterflies” (The Beekeeper)
9. Ivy, “Four In The Morning” (In The Clear)
10. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, “Heading for a Breakdown” (Origin Vol. 1)
11. Emm Gryner, “Forget Georgia” (Songs of Love and Death)
12. Martha Wainwright, “When The Day Is Short” (Martha Wainwright)
13. Oranger, “Haeter” (New Comes and Goes)
14. Natacha Atlas, “You Only Live Twice” (The Best of Natacha Atlas)
15. Shivaree, “Mexican Boyfriend” (Who’s Got Trouble?)
16. Fiona Apple, “Oh Sailor” (Extraordinary Machine—leaked vs.)
17. Mike Doughty, “I Hear the Bells” (Haughty Melodic)
18. The White Stripes, “Blue Orchid” (Get Behind Me Satan)
19. Antony & The Johnsons, “Fistful Of Love” (I am a Bird Now)

* purchased on iTunes; have not heard parent album Playing the Angel


1. The Mountain Goats, "This Year" (from The Sunset Tree)
2. Spoon, “I Turn My Camera On” (Gimme Fiction)
3. The Go-Betweens, “Here Comes A City” (Oceans Apart)
4. Paul McCartney, “Jenny Wren” (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard)
5. Super Furry Animals, “Atomik Lust” (Love Kraft)
6. Marianne Faithfull, “Crazy Love” (Before the Poison)
7. LCD Soundsystem, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” (LCD Soundsystem)
8. Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day” (Illinois)
9. Ani DiFranco, “Recoil” (Knuckle Down)
10. Sleater-Kinney, “Wilderness” (The Woods)
11. Aimee Mann, “Clean Up For Christmas” (The Forgotten Arm)
12. Fiona Apple, “Parting Gift” (Extraordinary Machine—released vs.)
13. Tompaulin, “Brave” (Into the Black)
14. The Decemberists, “16 Military Wives” (Picaresque)
15. Stars, “Reunion” (Set Yourself on Fire)
16. Ben Folds, “Landed” (Songs for Silverman)
17. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes” (The Mysterious Production of Eggs)
18. Saint Etienne, “Let's Build A Zoo” (Up the Wooden Hills EP)
19. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show” (Twin Cinema)

Instead of posting my forty favorite tracks of the year (as I did in 2004), I’ve assembled two seventy-minute mixes of songs I’m not bored with yet. Each artist gets one song, with two exceptions: Saint Etienne (whose album came with a limited-edition bonus EP that’s ostensibly a preview of a children’s LP set to come out in ’06) and of course, Fiona Apple, whose record exists in two versions: the first, which you had to (illegally) download and the second, a radically different re-recording that was the “official” (if not, in my opinion, definitive) release.

I haven’t rated the songs in any order; if I did, at least six or seven of the top ten would be from, like, two albums. I’ve assembled “Best of the Year” mixes in the past, and had a slightly easier time doing so when I reviewed CDs for Splendid! ‘cause I acquired so much stuff. However, even without that “luxury” (it really wasn’t one), I didn't exactly struggle to fill up two CD-Rs. If I had jettisoned my one-song-per-artist rule, I could’ve made a third disc, possibly a fourth. At the very least, I salvaged a few tracks from LPs I rarely listen to all the way through.

I’m finding it hard to step back and find any discernible trends or patterns in the music I listened to this year. Each disc’s running order isn’t all that significant—I could’ve holed up in my room all weekend playing around with transitions and such, but opted to socialize (and drink) instead. I knew that “Fistful of Love” and “The Bleeding Heart Show” would make good closing songs from the get-go, and thought it was a cute idea to put “Atomik Lust” next to “Crazy Love”. Otherwise, you could probably play these discs on shuffle and be perfectly fine.

Actually, I find listening to these mixes a bit overwhelming: hearing one of your favorite songs after another doesn’t allow for much breathing room; it almost leaves one prone to skipping the highlighted track if you were to play the parent album immediately afterwards. Still, I like holding on to some documentation of what I loved in a given year; it’s even more fun a few years down the road, when I can either bask in the nostalgia of what I used to love, wince at it, or just simply keep on loving the song(s).

Sometime next week: The Best Albums of 2005.


Top Ten Films About MOVIES

1. Mulholland Drive (dir: David Lynch, 2001)

You could argue that Lynch’s seductive mind-melt is more about dreams (or dream logic) than movies, but to that, I say silencio—the brilliance of this rejected/reconstructed TV pilot lies in how it fearlessly explores connections between dreams and movies, and all the possibilities within them. Oh, and don't miss the spectacular scene where Watts (and her character) proves she can really act.

Betty Elms (Naomi Watts): It'll be just like in the movies—pretending to be somebody else.

2. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
3. Singin’ In The Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)
4. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)
5. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Anderson, 2003)
6. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
7. American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)
8. Living in Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995)
9. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
10. Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998)


Top Ten Films About THEATRE/DANCE

1. Waiting For Guffman (dir: Christopher Guest, 1996)

I know, another mockumentary. But in this silly, scathing film (and all his subsequent efforts), Guest ever-so-carefully walks that fine line--not between stupid and clever, but parody and affection.

Corky St. Clair (Guest): It's a Zen thing, like how many babies fit in a tire.

2. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
3. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
4. Cabaret (Fosse, 1972)
5. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)
6. OT: Our Town (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, 2003)
7. Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich, 1992)
8. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
9. Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
10. The Tango Lesson (Sally Potter, 1997)


Top Ten Films About MUSIC

1. This is Spinal Tap (dir: Rob Reiner, 1984)

Just how awesome is this, the mother of all mockumentaries? Well, for starters, the DVD commentary track features the actors, in character, grousing about how poorly the film depicted them.

Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer): We're very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they're like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They're two distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.

2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1987)
4. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
5. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)
6. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
7. The School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003)
8. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
9. A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003)
10. Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998)


Top Ten Films About LITERATURE

1. American Splendor (dir: Shari Springer Berman/Robert Pulcini, 2003)

This innovative biopic could've easily made both the Films About Art and Films about Movies lists; it pops up here because Harvey Pekar is first and foremost an author, and it fully captures the essence of his autobio-graphic novels, while adding intriguing layers only film can.

Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis): Harvey, may I have a glass of water and an aspirin?
Harvey (Paul Giamatti): Why, do you have a headache?
Joyce: No, but I want to avoid getting one.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
3. Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)
4. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)
5. Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)
6. Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
7. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
8. Swimming Pool (Francois Ozon, 2003)
9. Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997)
10. The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)

Top Ten Films About ART

Last year, I compiled a list of my 25 favorite foreign language films for Chlotrudis. This year, we're supersizing from one list to five, but with a twist--each list contains our favorite movies about a different artistic medium: art, literature, music, theatre/dance, and movies themselves. I have to submit my top ten films for each category, and while I'm not going to write a clever little paragraph for fifty films, I'll post a picture and at least something about my top choice in each category. So, to kick it off, it's art, man.

1. Ghost World (dir: Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

So biting, hilarious and eventually poignant that it hurts.

Rebecca (Scarlett Johannson): This is so bad it's almost good.
Enid (Thora Birch): This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again.

2. An American In Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
3. Crumb (Zwigoff, 1994)
4. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
5. Caravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1986)
6. Love is the Devil (John Maybury, 1998)
7. I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996)
8. How to Draw a Bunny (John W. Walter, 2002)
9. In the Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, 2004)
10. Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996)



I've been wracking my brain trying to think of exceptional lead actresses to nominate this year. Just in time, Felicity Huffman slaughters any potential competition in a brave, absorbing turn as Bree, a 40-ish pre-operative man-to-woman transsexual.

One week away from gender reassignment surgery, Bree receives a call from 17-year-old Toby (Kevin Zegers), the son she never knew she had fathered back when she was a young man named Stanley. A hustler and drug addict living in New York, Toby contacts Bree (asking for Stanley), needing someone to bail him out of a juvenile detention center. Against her better judgment, Bree flies to New York to meet Toby, but doesn't tell him who she is, instead posing as a member of a Christian charitable foundation. She offers to drive Toby cross-country back to her home state California, where he hopes for a career in gay porn.

Despite the contrived set-up, a few dry patches, and Zeger's limited acting capability (he comes off as a young Michael Pitt, who would've been better for the part), director Duncan Tucker's first feature is an affable character study: it concludes plausibly and avoids the sentimental abyss. But Huffman, wow--even if you already thought she was spectacular on Desperate Housewives and Sports Night, she's just a revelation here. Convincing and nearly unrecognizable in her physical appearance and deep, low voice, she plays Bree as the dignified, multi-faceted being she deserves to be, and the conflicting concerns she has throughout feel real and affecting. Never shying away from the emotional and psychological ramifications of someone in Bree's situation, TRANSAMERICA is still very much a comedy, but it's no tranny joke. (4/5)



As much as I'd like to post a 1000+ word essay on how shockingly great DOWNFALL was (much less something twice as long about a particular new album I'm loving more with each play), I just don't have the time, man...

Sally Potter's latest highbrow experiment isn't all that different from the only film of hers I've unconditionally loved, THE TANGO LESSON, except it's not about dance. And all the dialogue is in iambic pentameter. While I wasn't completely taken by the love story between an American biologist (Joan Allen, who could act the phone book out and still compel) and a Middle-Eastern chef (Simon Abkarian), I thought the film's language (both literal and visual) was daringly poetic and not as pretentious as I feared. Shirley Henderson is a hoot as a one-woman chorus of sorts who's easily the most human figure here. (3.5/5)

I've never sat down and watched THE TAO OF STEVE. Guess I should, since Donal Logue seems like a nice enough regular dude in this, his shaggy, low-budget directorial debut revolving around B-actors and lots of the title sport. Won't make anyone's year-end top ten list, but harmless and even fun in spots. Jason Isaacs (unrecognizable to those who know him as Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER films!) steals scenes as a vain, lacerating asshole of an actor. (2.5/5)

Why, why, why do I get all hyped up about adaptations of my favorite books, since they're rarely any good? Steve Martin's novella surprised not only by being so unexpectedly bittersweet, but also in the way it painted such a vivid portrait of an arty, intelligent girl in a harsh, post-college environment. You get a sense of that here, thanks mostly to a radiant, thoughtful Claire Danes (finally living up to the promise of MY SO-CALLED LIFE from a decade ago). But the score's embarrasingly shlocky, the direction heavy-handed, the pacing awkward, and Martin's just too close to the material to pull off his integral role. Docked a few extra notches for totally eschewing the novella's devastatingly poignant final sentence. (2/5)

Don't say you're not interested in watching an epic film about Hitler's final days. Oliver Hirschgbiegel's dramatization of the documentary BLIND SPOT: HITLER'S SECRETARY is a riveting, intense work whose appeal reaches far beyond World War II history buffs. Much of this is due to the superb cast: Bruno Ganz plays Hitler as the ferocious, maniacal dictator you'd expect, but he's never a cartoon, and he comes as close to humanizing the man as much as one possibly could. Also great is Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, a fearless woman who is at the center of the film's most agonizing, wrenching scene. An epic often set in the most intimate spaces, it both reinacts and tries to understand a harrowing event, with an immediacy that's usually beyond the reach of historical epics. (5/5)



I never had any desire to read Arthur Golden's obscenely popular novel. At first, this adaptation confirmed my worst suspicions: a sumptuously filmed but middlebrow Hollywood take on a subject that deserves better. Still, despite a slow start (and hearing many of my favorite Asian actresses speaking in somewhat fractured English!), I have to admit the results are far from an abomination. For director Rob Marshall, this makes perfect sense as a follow-up to CHICAGO: its theatricality suits him well.

As a girl sold into slavery who blossoms into an improbable but fetching geisha, Ziyi Zhang is more than adequate--she even has a killer scene where she does a dance that rivals any of the fight sequences in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It's also fun to see an evil Gong Li as Zhang's nemesis (even if she's a little old for the part), Best of all, however, is Michelle Yeoh as a demure, no-nonsense benefactor who takes Zhang under her wing.

Yet, despite this film's obvious Oscar aspirations, none of these women will likely get a nomination; nor will Marshall or the film (except probably for its cinematography and costumes). As breathtaking as GEISHA intermittently appears, it's mostly just surface--an exquisite, dazzling surface, to be sure, but one, unlike Marshall's previous film, without much of a dynamic dramatic arc (or a believable, well-conceived romance) to prop it up. Come for the fabulous kimonos; as for insight, don't expect more than what you'd find in your average fortune cookie (yes, I know fortune cookies are Chinese--just like most of this film's actresses).