Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Blogging Break


Been a bit busy and tired this week, so I'm taking a break today. I should return tomorrow. Maybe Friday night. We'll see. And no, I haven't forgotten to update the blog rolls for the Axis of Weevil and the Rocky Top Brigades. Really, I promise. Check's in the mail; no, it's not broken; I'll respect you tomorrow; all the girls do it....

Quick bit of content for you: I saw the DVD of "A Mighty Wind" last night. So/so movie; like the last two from this bunch ("Waiting For Guffman" and "Best Of Show") but slightly weaker in the jokes department. Even with a solid plot structure, it still manages to be a tiny bit flaccid. I guess it helps a lot to be a folkie and I'm not.

Some of the actors seem a bit tired; some are at the limits of their improv ability and it shows. That said, kudos to Parker Posey, who maintains a relentlessly perky attitude throughout which had to be brutally taxing to maintain; to Jane Lynch, who makes chipper maturity look sexy; to John Michael Higgins, who plays her husband with equal parts religious fervor and wary fear; and most of all to Eugene Levy, who gives a career performance.

Levy plays a burned-out space case who lost it when his duo partner (Catherine O'Hara, also great) fell out of love with him and broke up the team. He usually plays his character, Mitch, as baffled (think a confused Jerry Garcia channelling Gordon Lightfoot) and a little scared. But when he practices again with Mickey (O'Hara), you suddenly see the man he was: confident, wise, a bit controlling. Sometimes, during their songs, he shoots this bemused, paternalistic, loving look at Mickey that is so perfect, it takes your breath away. Then the song ends and the mentally damaged Mitch returns with a sudden shocked look. And you laugh. When he predictably wanders off right before the performance, his excuse why is both charming and surprising. Damn, he's great.

Not only that, but the songs of the movie are terrific! "Do What The Good Book Says" is Christian religiosity made absurd, but eerily familiar. "A Mighty Wind," the movie-closing anthem sung by everyone, actually is a rousing tune, not unlike "This Land Is Your Land," but with slyly twisted lyrics. ("A mighty wind blows you and me.") Guaranteed that you'll tap your toes to this one and want to join in. The Mitch & Mickey songs are suprisingly beautiful. The parody is the inherent sappiness of "our love is forever and perfect." But the songs really will tug your heart and the music doesn't disappoint.

The real surprise, though, can be found in the DVD extras. Look under "Television Performances" for the Folksmen tune "Children of the Sun." From their disastrous "electric" era, it is still a perfect evocation of the late Sixties. The lyrics are the solemn "listen to your children you square parents" kind that sounds so silly today, but the song is a note-perfect wonder. The melody soars, the chords hit the right minor note at the right moment, the guitars chime and ring. Very Byrdsian, in a way. It's almost worth the whole DVD price alone.

Anyway, later on, y'all. Be good or be careful.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Movie Review: Thirteen


**MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING** If you haven't seen this movie, I will be discussing it in thorough detail that will spoil it for you. You have been warned! If you want to skip ahead to the next post, click here.

Thirteen is a new movie, still playing in theaters, that is getting a lot of buzz for its "honest and brutal" portrayal of early teens today. I disagree, though it's a powerful if flawed movie. One thing is clear, though; it shows that Evan Rachel Wood is an actress to watch, one who will undoubtedly become one of the top ranking American actresses. She is that good.

I first saw her on the ABC show "Once and Again," about two divorced families that come together. It was by the same group that did "Thirtysomething," and shared a lot of the same deep examination of that show. But "Once" had strong and flawed characters and wasn't afraid to let them do stupid things, which made it very, very good. It also had one of the best casts ever assembled. Wood played the pre-teen daughter of Bill Campbell. Her character developed bulimia as a result of all the stress. But the real kicker was her character's slow realisation, late in the last season, that she was a lesbian. I still don't know why conservative Christians didn't leap all over this, but they didn't. The scene where she slowly, over the silent course of five or ten minutes, realised her deep attraction to another girl, and how she acted on it, was some of the most subtle, stunning and moving acting I have ever seen. And it was by a girl who was maybe all of twelve at the time. It was then I knew this was an actress to watch.

So that's why I wanted to see Thirteen. Well, that and Holly Hunter, who I'm sad to say is not looking all that good these days. She's still a kick-ass actress, but her wiry, taut body and her wrinkled, sun-blasted skin makes her look like a hard-scrabble Appalachian back-country girl. Ewww.

Wood plays Hunter's daughter, Tracy, who is just now entering middle school. She finds that some of her peers have blossomed over the summer and the boys are reacting. She's on the vulnerable cusp of growing up. She's feeling alienated and awkward, out of control. It doesn't help that her mother is divorced and pretty flawed herself, being a slipping recovering alcoholic with a bad choice in men. The movie shows us how this stew is ripe for stirring.

Enter Evie (Nikki Reed, who is also co-credited with the script), the stirrer. Evie is more mature physically, but years ahead of her age, being into petty theft, casual sex, drug use, piercing and tattoos, and emotional manipulation of the highest order. Evie doesn't have a mother, but her "guardian" is a real mess, too absorbed in her own bad life and completely unaware of Evie's activities. Over the course of the film, we'll come to see that Evie is where Tracy is headed and that Evie is the force pulling her along.

Evie comes into Tracy's life like a vampire. She latches on and bleeds everyone dry. Evie flatters Tracy's mom, Melanie, constantly but in an Eddie Haskell kind of way. She throws around the phrase "I love you" in a way that shows you she has learned to use it as a tool, but has no real understanding of it. "Love" seems more about guilt and clinging when she says it. When Evie sees how easy it is to invade this family, and how she can use them to her advantage, she tries to finagle a change of guardianship.

We see Tracy change into the prototypical teenage parents' nightmare. Tracy is constantly looking to Evie throughout the course of the movie for cues on how to act, but as she's still inexperienced, she doesn't understand what she's getting in to. She keeps skirting the edges of true disaster, which is a flaw of the movie, a kind of protective cowardice if you will. When the end is reached, Evie turns on Tracy, setting her up for the fall but acting the whole time as though they are still best friends. Evie is covering every angle; Tracy is devastated.

I have to say that this movie was another of the cinematic experiences I've been having in recent years where critics just rave about a movie, but I say "Eh." The same thing happened with Punch Drunk Love. I can see how the me of just a decade ago would have agreed with the critics, but now I see the tricks the film makers used, and the slightly exploitative nature of the subject matter, and realise this is just critic bait.

There were two major problems for me. First, was the hand-held twitchy camera work. It just makes me slightly nauseated and a bit pissed, not alienated as they assume. I take it as a sign that the director didn't completely trust her material and felt the need to jazz it up. Same goes for a lot of editing tricks -- quick cuts, and using multiple takes of the same scene rapidly intercut to make time stutter. Just clutter.

Another was the schematic nature of the story. I've read some on the effects on teens of being raised post-divorce by single moms, and this film seemed to hit every step and problem of the process of badly handling it. It seemed to click right along, which contributed to the feeling that this movie seemed to take place within a week, and not over many months. This also gave a freight-train sensibility to Tracy's destiny. But where they hit most every nail pretty hard and clear, they left the issue of Tracy "cutting" herself a bit out there. "Cutting" is usually interpreted as a teen trying to take control somewhere in their life, using the pain as an anchor. But this was shown as clearly predating her movie-shown downslide, so I may have missed something.

Lastly, was the ending. There's the confrontation scene, which goes badly for Tracy. I thought Evie's guardian being the kind of parent who blindly and reflexively defends her child, regardless of the facts or truth, was stunning and hilarious. It left Tracy out in the cold and even threw Melanie.

But then Mel the mom tries to embrace her crushed daughter and I found that scene distinctly creepy. Hunter kept pawing and clutching and kissing Wood as she begged Mel to be left alone. It came off as clingy somehow and vaguely disturbing. I have to admit to great discomfort watching them. Not in any erotic way, but in the sense of a very bad acting choice.

Then, strangely, they lie together in Tracy's bed, like a withdrawal watch over a heroin addict almost. The whole day and night passes in montage until we see Tracy rise from the bed. The movie cuts to a blurry shot of Tracy twirling around on a child's round-and-round (I thought those things were banned these days.), looking a few years older, until she tips her head back and screams. Huh? Is Tracy past the worst now, and salvageable, or is this her cry for help? Or a cry of frustration? You're left unsettled and confused, but not in the good way.

It was interesting how all the adults in this film were bad people. I doubt any of them would see themselves that way, but all were selfish. Every one put their own needs and wants ahead of the children's. Every one had a bit of self-righteousness in their view of themselves, but all were constantly making bad choices for lame reasons. It's a commentary on today's parents, but I wonder how many will see it correctly.

I noticed several times in the movie that an inferior grain stock was used. Whether this was intentional, accidental or what I don't know. It didn't seem to be an artistic choice as it appeared randomly.

The soundtrack for this album was phenomenal. It was a mix of rap/rock, rap, nu-metal, grrl-rock and some alt that I really enjoyed. I may have to look for it in the stores.

I was troubled by a few other things, too. For one, most of the girls in the movie are pretty clearly white. Evan Rachel Wood was by far the palest and thinnest of the girls in the movie, Hollywood lookism at its worst. But the only guys they interact with, outside of Tracy's brother, seem Hispanic and black, or "black-acting" scruffy whites. There seemed to be a deliberate effort on the part of the director to show PC multiculturalism, but it felt wrong, forced and not natural. Kids are certainly friendly across color lines, moreso today than ever before, but this was way past anything I've seen in real life. Even today, kids still tend to stick "with their own." That part of the movie rang badly false.

While the movie did try to minimise the "teen porn" aspects of having two thirteen year old girls go bad, there was a scene involving a neighbor that cut it close. The neighbor finally put an end to it, but not before we saw maybe a bit too much of what might have happened. There were some implied sexual elements, but they were rather well handled. One scene, meant to imply a blowjob, managed to do so with only a pulled zipper and a camera pan. You knew exactly what was about to happen, but not because of anything directly shown. Nicely done. Another scene of Wood bending over a counter, with her thong hanging out of her low-cut jeans, and the boys (including her brother!) barking all over her until they realise who she is, was also great.

My recommendation? Go see it if you want to see a young actress astonish you. Even Rachel Wood might be her generation's Grace Kelly. Her range and power are unbelievable, already on a par with any adult you can name. You wonder where someone so young can pull all this from. She's already a beauty, although as I noted earlier, she's waaaaaaaaaaay to thin. She is going to be a star.

Otherwise, this movie is as I said earlier. Eh. It's a great examination of what divorce and single-motherhood and self-absorbed adults with bad parenting ideas can do to a young girl. It has some great points to make about how children today are swimming in a sea of sexy commercialism. Watch for them. But it's flawed in its execution and that left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Wait for the DVD and rent it.
Now They Are Coming For Your Name


Interesting story on the front page of the Commercial Appeal today, about how "black-sounding" names are the new frontier of job discrimination. The article reports from two studies, one showing no effect and the other showing an effect. The article accepts the reality of the effect study and proposes a remedy, of course: removing names from applications. Or, alternatively, having applications handled initially by someone not connected to the hiring process. Sounds like a nascent government program to me!

The study purporting to show effect had some suspicious methodology:
The authors took the content of 500 real resumes off online job boards and evaluated them, as objectively as possible, for quality, using such factors as education and experience. Then they replaced the names with made-up names picked to "sound white" or "sound black" and responded to 1,300 job ads in The Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune last year.
There's room for subjectivity there. They also don't seem to have taken into account the race of the application evaluators, which might show more clearly a bias. No doubt more than a few of the 1300 jobs they applied for in chicago and Boston had blacks in the decision-making role. Are they arguing that blacks would discriminate against black-named blacks? It requires more investigation before we accept the results.

There was another fascinating passage:
Researchers who have looked at Census records have found that 100 years ago, the 20 most popular names were largely the same for black people and white people; now only a handful are among the most popular with both groups. Names like DeShawn and Shanice are almost exclusively black, while white people, whose names have also become increasingly distinctive, favored such names as Cody and Caitlin.
One can argue, based on the results of the other study, that when you don't have much but your name, you want it to stand out. Also, they note that the trend increased since the Sixties, when Black Pride came to the fore.

Too early to accept, but some interesting reading, anyway.
Careful Photography Makes The Story, or
Come See The Liberal Oppression! Come See The Liberal Oppression!


Back on Saturday, I blogged about the living wage movement coming to Memphis and the sudden, heavy Commercial Appeal coverage, including some comment on the groups involved. One was the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, a small but active group, part of a larger, more general movement of Liberals in the old Seventies "To the barricades!" and street-theater mode.

They are involved with the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a bit of theater trying to take on the aura of the old days of civil rights demonstrations. The Riders arrived in Memphis on Saturday, at the National Civil Rights Museum, and it made the news, sort of. The television story I saw this morning on Channel 5 (NBC) only showed the "crowd" from a ground-level angle, making it hard to tell how many folks were there. The CA story had a tightly focused shot of the crowd, also making it hard to judge numbers. But look closely at the people in that crowd and I'd bet money it was almost entirely folks from the Ride busses.

The paper said they "had plenty of support from Memphis civil rights activists and immigrant workers." But the CA put the attendance numbers at 200. Considering that the Riders are said to number around 100 this means that the NCRM and the unnamed (but you know who they are now) "activists" could only scare up another 100. Pretty lame support, I'd say.

And for those ninnies who are insisting that no one on the Left ever calls Bush or Republicans Fascists or Nazis, I leave you with this quote, from one of the Riders speaking to the crowd:
Shirley Smith, a home care worker in Los Angeles, also spoke about the buses being detained last week by the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas.

Though some are apparently illegal immigrants, all 100 riders were released after questioning and reboarded the buses for Dallas, then Memphis.

"We were lined up like they were in Germany when Hitler killed everybody," Smith said.
Interesting how she talks so well, for a dead woman. Note that they were questioned and released, unmolested, and no one was deported. Note, too, how again historical accuracy is missing ("Hitler killed everybody"), but emotionalism runs real high. For a dead woman, of course.

Sheesh, and they expect to be taken seriously by thoughtful people.
Fresh Eyes, Part Two


I blogged a bit yesterday about the "Fresh Eyes" project of the Commercial Appeal, and some of the shortcomings that have been evident. Today's installment continues to argue my case.

It's about ZIP code 38115, part of the Hickory Hills area. It's a vast area full of industry, commercial and retail stores, and a changing mix of black and white. So what does the CA "Fresh Eye" see? Why the 20 Hispanic members of an area church!

Ask most folks, and the big story of that area has been white flight as more blacks move into the area, and a continuing rise in crime. Most folks accept that the two are related. But, the CA wants to note that there are Hispanics in Memphis now -- no! really? -- so here's where they choose to do so.

Anyone who drives out along Jackson Avenue, or parts of Summer, already knew that.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Whoa!


While waiting for "Alias" to come on ABC, (I'm a huge fan. You should be too. Fast, frothy, high octane. And sexy.) I'm watching some other program on another network, "Cold Case." In the space of just a minute or two, one character uses the words "asshole" and "prick" and shoots the bird! Network television, just before 8PM CST! Is this what television is these days? Lord, I'm glad I choose my viewing. I make a point of trying to catch about four shows, down from seven last year. (One series ended; two others dropped from the schedule.) I might watch another two or three if the television's on. That's it.

After this display on "Cold Case," I remember why I started down this path.
Fresh Eyes, Or Same Tired Eyes?


The Commercial Appeal, in yet another of new Chief Editor Chris Peck's moves to "get in touch" with the community, sent its reporters, photographers and other staff out into the ZIP codes of the Mid-South to talk to the folks there, to see with "Fresh Eyes" the people and problems of the community.

It's part of Peck's ideas to make the paper more a part of the lives of the readers and to make the readers more a part of the paper. I think this is a terrible idea, as the paper is devoting more and more space to the opinions of those readers and, in the process, devoting less and less space to the very things that only a newspaper can do. For every "Readers React," "Fresh Eyes," or reader television review they print, we've been seeing less and less coverage of Tennessee and Mid-South news.

The CA has long had a heirarchy: national and international news in the front, A, section, except very important or heart-tugging local news. Even then, the local items only carry over to Page Two, for completion. Everything else is New York Times stories; AP, UPI and Reuters wire stories; or stories pulled from other prominent papers.

You have to go to the Metro, or B, section for most local stories. This slim section carries the Op-Ed pair of pages (columnists, editorials, letters to the editor, guest columnists, etc.), obituaries and formal notices, regional news/crime briefs, etc., as well. In the tiny space that's left we get news from Mississippi, Arkansas, Nashville and the rest of Tennessee. The CA used to do a moderate job of state coverage, but no more. Things have gotten slim since Peck came aboard last Fall.

So, any space stolen from this pinched allotment is a valuable theft. How does "Fresh Eyes" compare? Let's look at today's example -- Somerville. It's a great, small town due east of Memphis and one county over. It's been rural Tennessee until a few years ago when the most adventurous of Shelby Countians began to filter in, the first scouts ahead of the hordes of suburbans looking to move farther and farther from the very sprawl they create.

The article talks to three people and they all seem worried about the encroachments of Memphis and Shelby County. It's the main focus of the article. The people interviewed are all worried about managing it. You'd think this was the big worry out there, that "Fresh Eyes" have looked anew and this is what they've found.

Until you look at the three folks interviewed: a bank vice-president, the manager of the local airport, and the Mayor. Well, changes things a bit, doesn't it? Naturally, these are the folks who would likely most have this near the top of their minds, especially when the Big Local Newspaper comes a-calling.

One wonders what might have happened if the "Fresh Eyes" team had just knocked on some doors, talked to the regular folks, gone to the local small stores, or hit up a church or two. I'd wager the story might have turned out differently if they had.

This series is not a confidence builder in the ability of the CA to connect to the average Memphian.
Undocumented Legislators


The next time some politician comes out in favor of social services or governmental services for illegal aliens, note what office they hold. Then, show up at that House or Senate or City Council meeting and just take a seat with the rest of them. When they look at you funny and ask what you're doing there, tell them you're an "undocumented legislator."

Vote, take part in the questions, make motions, do it all. Act just like you belong. Before the police pull you out, make a point that just because you aren't there legally doesn't mean they can deprive you of your rights as a legislator! When they point out that you aren't a legislator, ask them "Sez who? I have as much right to be here as anyone. You can't throw me out."

Of course they will, since you violated the law, or at least the law they care about, the one that negatively affects them. But your point will be made.

Try to get your pension before they toss you out.