Archive for February 2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake Review

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Originally published at The 405

Record Label: Island
Release Date: 14/02/11
Link: Official Website
Buy: Amazon

When PJ Harvey announced Let England Shake, her eighth album, I was excited. When she said she was going to probe the darkness underpinning modern England, I couldn’t wait to hear it. The idea reminded me of Scarlet’s Walk, Tori Amos’ concept album about finding America. The two had fairly similar musical sensibilities in their early work, but they’ve had such different career trajectories that I looked forward to seeing how differently Harvey would address the concept.

Amos found the heartland, the forgotten people of America, the natives tucked away into reservations and porn stars tucked away in film studios. She uncovered all the people hiding in plain sight, trapped by their public identities. They are not lost people; they are the people right in front of you who you choose not to see.

Harvey’s search, on the other hand, is more coloured by longing; she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, and laments what she does find – a history of violence, boundless despair, and faded glory. This is the England of the Brontes, not Dickens or Austen. This is the England where any hope or prettiness is merely a veneer, a delusion made acceptable by calling it ‘nostalgia’.

All this makes it sound like Let England Shake is a dreary album, when really it’s anything but. As ever, the music is front and centre, and Harvey infuses the album with tremendous creativity and thought. She’s not content with throwing polemics in our face; she seeks to shock us of our complacency. That’s what makes the album so surprising, so unique, and so whole. The music is carefully crafted to mirror both the dull acceptance of middle class society and the occasional uprising; trumpet stabs come out of nowhere, reggae beats filter into musical soundscapes evocative of Dover.

There’s no better expression of this odd dichotomy than ‘This Glorious Land‘, where rise-and-shine bugles are set against moody guitar and bass, amid chants of “O! America! O! England!” Even songs like ‘Hanging in the Wire‘, with its straightforward beauty and simple melody, are coloured with darkness. There’s no getting past war in this land.

But through it all, true love shines through. Maybe that’s what makes the record so compelling; Harvey faces up to all these dark truths about her homeland, and then, almost despite herself, she feels joy and pride. Check out ‘The Last Living Rose‘. She sings of drunken beatings and dead sea-captains, but this is not a dirge. The melodies would lead you to believe that it’s a celebration. Even though you're celebrating through your teeth.

Reflecting On A Year In Movies

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It's that special time of year; the Oscars are tonight! For the first time in my lifetime, it actually promises to be fun, given preview footage of Anne Hathaway and James Franco getting prepared for the gig.

I have always been a movie fan, but this past year and a bit marked a different relationship to the movies. Thanks to newfound duties in creating this website and reviewing for The 405, I have been forced to think more critically about what I watch, why I like certain films, and why others don't work for me.

It's been an interesting exercise, given that my preferred approach to reviewing is to find the positive (hence the title, The Oncoming Hope). I love movies more tenderly perhaps than I love human beings; the flaws add to the attraction; the unpredictability makes our relationship constantly exciting. My expectations are simple, and I have but one requirement: under no circumstances are you allowed to bore me. That is the ultimate sin.

2010-11 has been the year of the independent movie; even studio films adopted filmmaking conventions and pacing more commonly found in the Angelika than in the Cinemark. Independent films also became more accessible than ever before; this is the crosspollination that produced The Kids Are All Right.

2010-11 also brought highly ambitious (but flawed) auteur projects like Inception and Black Swan. While it's no secret that I am harsh on the latter, I do not regret that it exists, or that I spent time watching it (more than once even!). Both films are probably better in concept than in execution, but its a wonderful world where films of this ambition and scale are made and given tentpole placement, no matter their failures of logic or imperfect narratives.

So given the generally acceptable quality of movies this year, the dichotomy has not strictly been between "bad movies" and "good movies," but between "movies that I enjoyed" and "movies that make me glad to be a film fan." The former rarely has distinguishing characteristics, but the latter consists of performances that bring you joy to watch, or a narrative conceit that makes you wish you could be that clever. So after all the thinking, and writing, and arguing, and analyzing, I am left with one very important question. Which movies will I want to watch again two years from now, once the film exists in the dvd universe, divorced of its original hype? Which will be like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, viewed so many times that I can predict the notes in the soundtrack?

In no particular order, here are my personal standouts. There is a common theme uniting them (unintentionally), but I'll leave it to you to figure that out.

True Grit

This one brought me straight back to my childhood; it reminded me not only of the movies I loved as a kid, but also the books I loved. You know what I mean: stories of adventure, courage and pluck, where the danger is all too real, but even a young girl might find the inner strength to face up to her enemies and do what she considers right. All that and it's got a cracking script too.

Winter's Bone

This one shares a few traits with True Grit, it doesn't shy away from the horror of circumstance, but the performance of the lead adds levity and hope that stop the films from transforming into outright bleakness. Winter's Bone is definitely the darker of the two; Ree Dolly's odyssey through meth dealers and crooked policemen was born of harsh necessity, and what she finds along the way is a lot of meanness and brutality. But she doesn't lose sight of herself or her responsibility to her family, and manages to preserve herself in the process.

Easy A:

I've already written extensively about this elsewhere, but it still stands. I've already seen it at least 5 times, and fully expect to see it many, many more times over the next year or two.

Blue Valentine

Michelle Williams is so good in this movie that it hurts. There's no overacting, no big character set-pieces, but you feel like you're right there with her the whole time. It's a remarkably difficult movie to watch, more of a horror movie than many actual horror movies. But somehow, through all the destruction, you're left with a bit of hope; there's always a way to fix the problem, and there's always a way out.


I'd like to thank this movie for proving that romantic comedies can in fact be both charming and hilarious. Just not in Hollywood apparently. There's an gentle wit in this movie, and all the actors look like they're having a great time.


Tequila Tasting at Wahaca




It wasn't until I moved to London that I ever had Jose Cuervo. You don't wanna sip Jose Cuervo. You want to shoot it and then kill it. But courtesy of a Texas university education, I was exposed to many better (and usually cheaper!) tequilas, so I was lucky not to be put off tequila for life.

However, I never really learned anything about tequila until I attended a talk by Wahaca's Thomasina Myers at the British Museum. She gave a short introduction to the differences between mixto (tequilas like Jose Cuervo which are 51% blue agave and 49% blech) and tequilas that are 100% blue agave. From then, I became curious about these better tequilas, and Wahaca was the only place you could get high quality tequila at a reasonable price.

It's probably thanks to that commitment to quality that the Mexican government sent over about 30 exclusive tequilas to Wahaca, which are being rotated through different tastings to determine which to stock as guest tequilas. Wednesday night's tasting was comprised of ten tequilas, all 100% blue agave. Our tasting was guided by the expert palate of Henry Besant, tequila guide extraordinaire.

We began with the blancos. The first, Don Vallente, was unmemorable. The second, Don Cosme, was impossibly sweet. Henry informed us that this is based on the original recipe for tequila, and is probably closest to what Mexicans drank in the old days. (I for one, was disappointed that badasses like Zorro apparently drank the tequila equivalent of a pink martini.) But the third was my favorite, the Gran Orendain. It was smooth all the way through, and lacked the rubbery finish the others had.

Orendain won the reposado category as well, with Orendaino Itas. But I got the impression that no one was particularly impressed with the reposados on offer, one of which had a chemical taste, and the other tasted watered down.

We had to race through the anejo category, which was unfortunate as we didn't have enough time to fully appreciate their flavors. These are the cadillacs, the tequilas that have a roundness and depth of flavor to rival the best of single malt Scotch.

Finally, Mark from Wahaca was kind enough to bring around a bottle of Don Julio's El Tosoro (their current stock) to compare to the new offerings. Fortunately or unfortunately, it easily bested the upstart competition. We also got to sample Mezcal in authentic terracotta shot glasses (the Mezcal was my personal favorite of everything we tasted).

All in all, it was a good time, and it was great to meet some of the minds that make Wahaca such a great place. My liver has yet to forgive me my indulgence, but hey, at least we had fun. And I look forward to reliving the experience over a nice pipian mole sometime in the near future.

When Vegetarians/Vegans Come out of the Cave

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Disclaimer: I am vegetarian, so when I snark, I snark with a bit of love. But like any microcosm of humanity, foodism has its share of cranks. This is for them.

This afternoon I was offered the splendid opportunity to sample manufactured gourmet vegetarian food and feed back to the companies that produce it. This translated in my mind to "free food! On a Sunday!" Little did I know that I was to be thrust into the market research equivalent of Parks and Recreation town hall meetings.

Our journey began with great promise. Many of the presentations had to do with items that were traditionally non-vegetarian, but for no obvious reason (i.e. wine, cider and cheese. The finer things in life.) So much of the time was spent explaining chemical and manufacturing processes (some might find this screamingly dull, but I thought the hour on cheese-making was fascinating. Not just because he gave us free cheese, of course). Apparently the Italians use robots to cut and shape their parmesan. Robots! More importantly, did you know that wheels of cheese are acceptable collateral to Italian banks? (at this point, theoncominghope desperately seeks puns about Berlusconi, predatory lending and wheels of cheese. She fails. Help her out in the comments).

But on the other side of the room, there sat Nemesis. "Well, let me start off by saying, I personally see everything as living things, even vegetables." Oh boy. This was gonna be a doozie. My soapbox-shield protected me from the rest of her diatribe, but I knew, at that moment, that this wouldn't be the last time I'd face her: Nemesis.

We hapless babes harnessed our newfound strength, derived from the manna of free samples big enough to comprise three meals, and launched ourselves at the next event, with a manufacturer of frozen breakfast/snack foods called GoodLife. But, little did I know that this wasn't to be a presentation, but rather an impromptu focus group (though when I say focus group, I mean focus village).

First comes the warmup. They passed around freshly baked "dippers," lovely breaded and fried things filled with mozzarella cheese and spicy sweet potato. Mmmmmmm and least until the first nut crawled out of the woodwork.

"Why do you feel compelled to use animal product in your product?" said one lady, oblivious to the clunkiness of her sentence. I was confused as to what she meant, and so was the host. Then a light bulb went off. Cheese! Vegan Encounter 1.

The host hemmed and hawed and quickly changed the subject. New topic: Do we prefer vegetable based products, or products designed to imitate meat. Seems like a straightforward question. But no.

Up sprang Nemesis. "Well, for me, because I am a moral and ethical person, being a vegan ties into that. My motivations for being vegan are 100 times more honorable than yours! And also, carnivores should die."

"I doubt there are many carnivores here--" interrupted the Peanut Gallery.

Said a new lady, "Well I'm vegetarian, but I eat seafood and fish--"

"Pisser-caterians!" shouted Nemesis. Da-ha! Such wit!

And so it went. We spent the rest of the afternoon running in abject terror from judgmental vegans. Now I cease to regard the 'vegan police' scene in Scott Pilgrim as comedy. Nay, it is horror.

I thought the day couldn't get more strange. But then we went to the "medieval cooking" hour. Yes, the speak was in period dress, but that wasn't that strange (relatively). Not as strange as our new companion.

With an untraceable central European accent she introduced herself: "I'm really into big game, you know, fresh fowl, reindeer, even bears." Craig and I just looked at her, flabbergasted, like what are you doing here, lady? Throughout the talk, about how basic peasant cuisine in ye old days were overwhelmingly vegetarian (and VERY strange), Ladyhunter regaled us with tales of conquests made on Russian steppes. One could only hoped that she would write her own fictional masterpiece, The Fat Woman and the Deer, for high school kids to pretend to read for generations to come.


Review: Fringe "6-B"





Fringe rips off a new-Who plot wholesale, but they did it with grace and originality so I don't really care. Olivia tries to set a record for how many times she can replicate the exact same conversation about Fauxlivia with Peter (maybe Walter's right! She's been replaced with an android! Liv-bot Smash!) until finally they're both tired of it and decide that making out would be more exciting for the viewers (they're right!).


Fringe is not a show renowned for its small talk; whether in plotting, dialogue, or characterization, nothing is extraneous. Everything happens for a reason (lets leave season 1 out of this). So when the show opened with like ten minutes of small talk by random characters, we knew that the longer they bored us, the more horribly it would all end (karma-Fringe!*). And they're sucked through the floor of the apartment balcony and tossed to their deaths.

Then Walter connives to help Peter seduce Olivia using the magical power of breakfast. Olivia and Peter doth protest, until they get called to investigate the apartment deaths.

So it turns out that the apartment building in question is all wrong; it shakes unexpectedly, water pipes burst when there's no reason, holy lights shine down on all the residents, etc. Walter figures that the Rosencrantz building is the first evidence of damage done to Earth Prime following his earlier shenanigans (I would have loved it if the building was known as the Guildenstern in the alt-Verse). Walter's solution? "AMBER THAT BITCH LIKE MY NAME IS WALTERNATE!"

Olivia and Peter wisely decide to continue investigating again (but can I say, WOW has the power of Massive Dynamic gone to Walter's head?). Peter, however, gets bored before they even start, and suggests they hit the nearest bar instead. Lending credence to my theory that Ourlivia has been replaced by a robot, Olivia does not immediately jump in the air shouting 'yay scotch!' But then they get to the bar, and I swear to God I thought Olivia was going to browbeat Peter again, but she kisses him instead.

But Olivia doth protest (this seems to be her chief role the past few episodes). Peter, annoyed, looks like he's trying to figure out why he ever liked OurLivia in the first place. (Frankly, after last week's awesome Fauxlivia episode, so are we. Remember the wonderful days when OurLivia was incredibly awkward instead of incredibly emo?). Apparently, Peter glimmered, and unlike every other female or gay male in history, this does not add to the magic of the moment, and instead makes her run out of the bar. Where she conveniently notices that...

...One room in the building is especially well-lit, and there we meet Alice Merchant, who literally sits through earthquakes to catch astral glimpses of her dead husband (now repeat after me, "a footprint is not a boot." Of course, as cranky as David Tennant could get, he does not hold a candle to Walter.)

Walter believes this is a sign that the two universes are crashing into each other (or whatever), so he still thinks they should amber that shit up. Then he and Nina make sex eyes at each other, as they do so well, even while discussing the destruction of the universe.

Peter and Olivia converse pointlessly to reveal something the audience already knew: that the alt-version of Alice's husband lost Alice. And then we get 'spooky action at a distance,' aka Einstein also made up shit when he felt like it. But once again, I am impressed because Fringe at least pretends to be grounded in the laws of physics. Except that Olivia decides that the rift is not caused by Walter's actions, but by the strong pull of emotion between Alice and her alt-husband, and that breaking that connection will stop the growth of the vortex (or whatever).

So that's fine then. It's a beautiful and emotional scene as Peter and Olivia try to break the connection between the two, but thankfully alt-husband handily finishes the job for them.

And then Peter and Olivia have sex (I know!). Apparently, the world's most successful pickup line is: "I thought you were Walter."

*Be grateful you're not me, because when karma-Fringe came to mind, karm-Olivia soon followed. And now I'm imagining the ten incarnations of Olivia coming to save the Universe. Don't tell NBC, or they'll make it into their latest attempt to recapture the audience of Heroes.


This has been my favorite episode of the New Year, because it's gotten back to one of the things that made me love the show: its heart. For all of Olivia's awkwardness, she had an amazing talent for empathizing with the broken and the weak and the sad and the despairing. She is so full of understanding, for so many things, that it felt out of character for her to keep harping on Peter like she has been.

Also, as we learned a season ago, no matter how different you are from your alt-self, you do think in exactly the same way. So of course Walter will end up thinking in the same way as Walternate. And it's possible that they're both wrong. Olivia may yet save the day by focusing on the details (each case, each person harmed) while the Walters struggle with the larger questions and start making decisions based on 'logic' and 'strategy.'

Theatre Review: A Brief History of The Children's Hour

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Did you know that a play about lesbians played in New York City in 1934? One that wasn't based on vaudeville cliche or silly stereotypes? Children's Hour comes with a hell of a history. And that history touches on the entirety of 20th century life, certainly life in the arts, but also the more sinister aspects of American life.

LIlian Hellman based the play on the sordid real life tale of two Scottish schoolteachers who opened a finishing school for the daughters of aristocrats (read this for more information on that original case). The entire school was brought down by the idle gossip of one of the school's more dangerous students; she accused the two teachers of showing "inordinate affection" with each other, in bed. As you may imagine, chaos ensued, lives were ruined, and the school was shut down.

Hellman adapted the play from an essay she wrote about the original law case. And now things get interesting. Due to the sordid nature of the storyline, she couldn't get anyone to produce it, until her then-friend Dashiell Hammett (I know!) introduced her to producer Herman Shumlin. (Afterwards, Hellman and Hammett embarked on a relationship that lasted over 30 years, until his death by cancer. Also? You know Nick and Nora? Nora was based on Hellman.). Shumlin didn't regret his decision; the play set all kinds of records on Broadway (longest run for a start).

But in the end, while the Scottish instance occurred in 1810, its story was no less scandalous to 20th century USA. It opened on Broadway to wide acclaim, but was banned in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. As a result, they couldn't find enough actors who were willing to work on a play with such sensational subject matter. So, then as now, there was one recourse left to them. They took the play to Paris, where audiences LOVED it.


Hellman later said to Samuel Goldwyn that "It's not about lesbians, it's about the power of a lie." The two movie adaptations lend some credence to this statement. The 1936 adaptation by William Wyler, produced under the strict auspices of the Hays Code, made a subtle change to the story where Martha longs not for Karen, but for Joe. (The Hays Code was so strict that they couldn't even use the original title, renaming it as These Three instead.) Hellman approved the new storyline and even wrote the screenplay, and the movie is widely recognized as a masterpiece.

After that, the play went through a little bit of a lull, until Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to turn her friends in (Hammett was a well known commie and was aready in jail). She eloquently refused, and was subsequently blacklisted. The play was then seen as a parable for the horrors of moral certainly perpetrated by Joseph McCarthy and had a successful revival.

The second adaptation in 1962 (the superstar one with Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley Maclaine), was also made by Wyler. Hellman declined to write this screenplay, and that decision had its toll. Despite its restoration of the original lesbian subplot, changes were made to the basic chemistry of the story, reducing the impact of the single lie. (for more on the key differences between the two films, go here:

And that's that! Stay tuned for my review of the LATEST production of The Children's Hour, starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss.


Oscarbait 2010: True Grit




And they say remakes aren't any good.

I was expecting a lot of things: superior performances, Coen-wit, gruff and tough Jeff Bridges, and so on. I was not expecting a wonderful family movie in the manner of Disney adventure movies of the 1950's. It's got all the classic elements - a plucky heroine, bruisers with hearts of gold, cartoon evil villains. But combined with a simple yet engaging story and a crackerjack script, the Coens made a film with enough joy and heart to remind you why you fell in love movies in the first place.

And what a script!  This is a worthy sequel to O Brother Where Art Thou, with the same sharp wit and attention to character. It's the latest set in historic Coen-land, an Old West where it's best to keep your friends at arms length and your enemies in another county.

In the midst of all this desolation, in walks Hurricane Mattie, who's going to change at least a few men's lives wherever she goes. Quick-sharp, we learn at once that she's no wallflower, as she verbally decimates the hornswaggling horse merchant trying to take advantage of her. Bad move, bucko. If Jane Austen lived in Tennessee instead of Bath, she might have written this young girl into existence; for what is Mattie Ross but a younger, grittier Elizabeth Bennett?

Little Mattie Ross (can I just say, WOW Hailee Steinfeld) is in town to avenge the death of her father, armed with nothing but smarts and a whole lot of spunk. (I would root for her for best actress, but in an utterly bizarre turn of events, apparently you can be in every single scene of a movie and somehow be eligible for best SUPPORTING actress.)

The cinematography was also wonderful. It's impressive how the Coens found parts of Texas that are as barren and unforgiving as anything in arid Nevada, and they've sussed out snowy locales that breathe cold through the screen the way the Ozarks did in Winter's Bone.

But all throughout, there's a black sense of humor shining through bleak scenes of violence and death. Whenever things threaten to get too dark and scary, in walks Matt Damon, playing against type as a dilettante U.S. Marshal with one hell of a superiority complex, despite a lack of courage, achievement, or wit. If Mattie is Elizabeth Bennett, Marshal LaBoeuf is the Mr. Collins of the bunch. His buffoonery, combined with Mattie's bravery and Rooster Cogburn's desert pragmatism make for one hell of a trio.

There's nothing really to say about Jeff Bridges, except that he's terrific as always. I suspect it's the lack of vanity in his performances that stop him from being considered an 'acting powerhouse,' even though he gives his all in pretty much every role given to him (even Tron: Legacy). I suspect they gave him the Oscar last year only so the Academy could say, "see? We know that not all acting has to be big and emotional," and then wash their hands of Bridges and another generation of actors who are contemplative instead of showy. But as we all know, he is One Cool Dude. (And one day I'll get around to writing about Starman, one of the best movies you've never seen).''

It's a crying shame that this movie is a dark horse contender for the Academy Awards, but unlike certain other films I could name (the one about dancing crazies, the one about the voiceless King), at least it deserves its place at the awards table. It's a fine piece of work, and you can tell that it was conceived out of love and not a cynical need to impress.

An Ode to Emma Stone, Easy A and the Accelerated Velocity of Terminological Exactitude

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It is a well-established fact that when pre-judging the quality of a teen movie, you can make fair assumptions based on the actors playing the adult characters. Exhibit A: Mean Girls and its featuring of every great SNL player of the 2000s as parents to the various characters. Easy A has, in order of appearance, Thomas Haden Church, Malcolm Mcdowell, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow and Fred Armisen. It's like a Rogues Gallery of indie film Oscar winners! But none of that even matters compared to the show-stopping, scene-stealing, world conquering force that is Emma Stone.

Easy A's greatest strength is that it's not afraid to have a little fun. Take the early "Pocketful of Sunshine" scene, a bit of random silliness that shouldn't be funny, but really really is. Only because it's true. It's a peculiarity of Hollywood that filmmakers believe that when teenagers are alone in their rooms, all they do is stare dramatically at their ceilings or ponder their social lives and body image issues. But no. Sometimes we just dance like idiots to absolutely ridiculous songs without any shame or self-consciousness. (Another truth: normal girls who don't have social lives to speak of often have excellent relationships with their English teachers).

Olive, likewise, is not afraid to have fun, which is part of what makes her such a wonderful character. When a rumor runs amok, rather than go all mopey and philosophical about it, her Olive Penderghast throws herself straight into the fray, milking the recent rumors of her sluttiness for all they're worth. She's a great character; she doesn't get along with people her own age, but her defense is not open hostility, like so many outcast characters past. She protects herself with wit, humor and a healthy belief in her own superiority (which we, and she, gradually learn is fairly unjustified).

But from the beginning you can tell that she does what she does not because she's an opportunist (or at least not JUST because of that), but because on some level she thinks she's helping the downtrodden. So when things go inevitably wrong, it grows organically about of her growing discomfort with her fictional identity, which takes on a life of its own.

One thing I like about the movie is how important the adult characters are; we all know the silly trope that teen films and fiction exist in a void universe that adults cannot penetrate except as monsters or caricatures. But Olive is who she is because of her parents; it's clear that they gave her the confidence to do some things that are frankly insane. And there's an easy poetry about how her favorite teacher gets sucked into the story.

That said, the movie's not entirely perfect. There's a strange (but still funny) subplot about Olive searching for a higher power to give her a conscience, and the romance, while touching, is a bit shoehorned in. But hey, at least it doesn't drag. After all, it's a John Hughes homage at the end of the day, and you can't have that without a kiss at the end.

I know it's a little hyperbolic to say this based on one movie, but I don't think I'm wrong in saying that Emma Stone is going to be one of the great comedienne's of our time. She has an odd attraction that's not exactly classical. She's got a wonderful deep voice that hearkens back to the stars of the 1930s, not the high pitched teens that seem to have dominated for the past couple of decades. But unfortunately, her rocket ship is heading straight up into big Hollywood drama (she's the lead in the film version of The Help and in the new Spiderman reboot). But I bet she'll make a great Gwen Stacy.

Favorite scene: When Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci play a guessing game to find out which swear word got Olive sent to the principle.


Poem of the Day: Robert Hass "Meditations at Lagunitas"

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For today's edition of Poem of the Day, I bring you Robert Hass. Hass is the closest thing we have to a 'household name poet' in the U.S. (excluding rappers and musicians of course). He was poet laureate from 1995-1997, won the Pulitzer Prize, and regularly publishes in mainstream newspapers.

This one's from 1979, and says everything about love, loss and the persistence of memory. Hass plays with language in order to hold it more accountable, in order to say that, no matter how hard we try, the use of words reduces the magical to something more mundane, and "everything dissolves".


Robert Hass - "Meditations at Lagunitas"
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.



It's Happened! Mubarak's On Permanent Holiday

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I've refrained from commenting on this issue, despite the fact that democratic transition is my bread and butter (you might not know this given all my pontificating about films and television and pop culture, but in my other life I have a Masters in Global Politics). But of course I've been following the goings on in Egypt with bated breath, shaking my fists at the jingoism of the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, reveling in the in-depth news coverage by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Aaron Bady at zunguzungu. (If you're not familiar with Zungu Zungu, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Bady holds the entire world to account using nothing but facts).

Prognosticators blindly leap to identify the 'zeitgeist' of the protests in the region; all are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole of historical precedent. Everyone's guessing at 1000 number patterns when they have only the first 5 numbers in the sequence. I don't want to be guilty of that, of empty intellectual exercises in guesswork (though apparently I'm ok with exercises in metaphor!).

I think that in good faith, this is what we in the West are qualified to comment on:

1. The human stories of the people on the ground.

2. The substantive differences in Egyptian infrastructure from other transitional states

I'd like to think that at some point I might add something substantive to the conversation. But for now, all I can do is share in the Egyptian triumph, which brought a tear to my eye because it was a triumph for populism and for democracy, and for the firm belief that if any government's endgame is nothing more than power, than it will lose the faith of its people and it will crumble.

So what happens next in Egypt? I don't know for sure. But what I do know is, we're seeing a systemic fallout. Protests have begun in Algeria and in Yemen, and governments are taking steps to prevent this sort of dethronement in Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan.

I love that this has happened without the official assistance of the US; victory belongs to the Egyptian people, with their honest and effective exercise of democracy and peace.

What's most exciting is the ass-kicking this gives to realpolitik, aka the breakfast, lunch and dinner of United States foreign policy (with occasional tea breaks for human rights concerns. Sorry, it's America, therefore, coffee breaks). Decisions cannot be made based on choosing 'the lesser of two evils.' In all the study we make of the Middle East, never once was it suggested by anyone in the US media that democratic transition could be brought from within (nay, many prognosticators still hold that they cannot be trusted to vote for the right people!).

This despite the fact that, around the world, every democracy that has ever succeeded (and lasted) has come from revolution within (exhibit A, the United States).

I know I'm rambling incoherently, but mainly I am thinking aloud. It's a very exciting time, and nothing excites me more than peaceful overthrow of the status quo, whether its the Velvet Revolution, Gandhi, MLK, or indeed, Egypt. I am still anxious to understand exactly how this series of protests came about, and I am even more excited to see what happens next. Best of luck to all.

Music Video of the Day: Black Keys "Howling For You"

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While I do believe that this video exists for the sole reason that the band wanted to be in the same room as a half-naked Tricia Helfer, it's still monstrously entertaining. Basically it's a send up of Tarantino films, no easy feat since sometimes Quentin's films are send-ups of themselves. But it's worth watching for the random quips of Not!SamuelLJackson (aka Sir Todd Bridges).

Go watch now! (oh and it's a great song, but that seems irrelevant somehow).


Review: Cassandra Clare's "Clockwork Angel"





Clockwork Angel is a fun, fast read. It's not a perfect novel by any means, but you're guaranteed a few hours of escapism (escapism of the best kind, Victorian London + clockwork robots).


So I have rule (though since it's not written in stone, I suppose it's more of an enforced pattern). It's about keeping the momentum going with reading fiction; once I finish reading a mammoth "literary" novel I need to follow it up with something short, whether that means a short story collection, a novella, or, let's be honest, young adult fiction. It's a good exercise I think, because while young adult books rarely have prose that will set your intellect on fire, successful YA authors tend to be better at creating tight plots with strong forward momentum;  you enter the world in question from page one, and you can dip in and dip out without sacrificing enjoyment. (Or you can finish them in one sitting, which is also satisfying).

Clockwork Angel sets itself in Victorian London, where babe in the woods Tessa has travelled to join her brother Nathaniel, her only remaining family. As soon as she arrives, she is captured by the cartoonishly evil Dark Sisters, who hide her away to train her to use an ability she didn't know she had.

When she escapes, she falls into the care of the Brotherhood of Nephilim, supernatural warriors charged with keeping the peace between "Downworlders" (vampires, werewolves, etc) and humans. It's a nifty conceit, because Tessa literally knows nothing about any of these beings, so Clare gets to have fun introducing long familiar tropes to the viewer through Tessa's eyes.

Which brings me to the main criticism of the novel, that Tessa is a "blank-page" character, borne with no personality of her own but has one impressed upon her through the course of the novel. I think there is some merit to that, but it didn't overly trouble me. And once we do get a sense of what she's truly made of, I was satisfied that I hadn't wasted time concerning myself with her fictional fate.

It was sort of odd that I enjoyed the book really, given that at any given point before the last 1/4th, I wouldn't have been bothered if any of these characters were run over by a bus. But by the end, I did care about Tessa and her adopted family (though in the case of "tormented bad boy" Will, I still hope for some sort of horrible death, preferably by cliche).

It's been a long time since I've read a novel that had a cliffhanger ending, that didn't tell a self-contained story of its own. In fact, Harry Potter is the last one I can think of. Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart Trilogy, which this book reminded me of on more than one occasion, still told perfectly whole stories while tying in to a larger mythology. It's frustrating because the next book's not out until September 2011. But Clockwork Angel was certainly enjoyable enough that I look forward to the next book, and the one after that.

If you've read the books, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Where do you think the next novel will go?


When I heard the name Cassandra Clare, it rung a bell that I simply could not place for ages. I did a little bit of research, and she is in fact THAT Cassandra Claire, of the legendary Harry Potter fanfic-world meltdown. This bothered me a little while I was reading the book, I re-familiarized myself with the fact of that case, and have concluded that it's a combination of honest mistake and fandom politics run amok. So I'm over it.

Review: Bones "The Daredevil In The Mold", or Bones Is Back

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One of the unique things about Bones has always been the fact that it's compelling to watch despite the lack of overt tension between the main characters. It's completely believable given what these people have been through together, and it's part of what makes this show so comforting to watch. To a large extent, these are normal people having normal problems, and they face them with humor and panache. Last season it all paid off; relationships reached breaking points organically, inertia naturally transformed into drama. All the tension that was bubbling under the surface gradually broke out.

But this season, the writers chose to hit the reset button. And restoring that lack of tension has had two effects. One, it's made the show kind of boring. Two, it's made Brennan's story all the more heartbreaking. You get the sense that everyone has settled into their roles, but for her it's a rut, and she's miserable, and she can't get out of it. Increasingly, our characters' emotional lives take place outside the workplace, and so Bones is left out of it. And given that she's always been the character with the most agency on the show, it's become a little difficult to watch her spinning her wheels. Her character arc has become all too realistic (not something I would normally complain about, but Bones is escapist entertainment).

This episode goes a long way to returning the show to its former glory. It's not just because Booth/Hannah ended, but because the writers showed their hands brilliantly. In the absolutely heartbreaking scene in the end, the writers encapsulate everything that's wonderful in the show and everything that's gone a bit off this season. What Booth asks of Bones is precisely what we, the viewer, have been getting this season. And seeing Bones' disappointment in being allowed so much, and yet not enough, exactly mirrors how I've been feeling about the show. Yes the glories, and the cases, and the laughs and the drinking, they're all great, but they're not enough. A spark has been missing. And in this episode, for the first time, I feel like the writers have relit that spark.

And oh, my, god, David Boreanaz. His subtle work when Hannah rejected him was fantastic; he didn't have to say anything because it was all there in his eyes. If his speech didn't put a tear in your eye, you're not human. It's those flashes of season five Angel coming through, that endemic sadness underlying the heroics.

And now I'm super excited for the rest of the season!

In-Depth Review: "Room" by Emma Donoghue




Brilliant, brilliant book, so clever you almost wish you'd written it yourself, except that you know that you could never have written it so well.


Room is a tightly written, unpredictable and harrowing account of one young girl who strives to keep her child safe from the monster that locked them both into a single room for seven years. Donoghue's writing will place you right there, suffocating you, bewildering you, tormenting you, even though you're seeing through the eyes of a chlid who barely understands what's happening.

Jack describes only what he sees and hears, as a child might. All that occupies the room become characters to him, like Room and Wardrobe and Table and Meltedy Spoon. To him, weekly deliveries of supplies to Room are Sunday-treats. It's brilliant how Donoghue captures the language of a child, the terrors and observations and weird little obsessions and tantrums. He's just a five year old after all, whose biggest fear remains the ogre waiting for him at the top of the beanstalk (this was also my greatest fear as a child; I couldn't sleep if I could hear my heartbeat, as all I'd hear is "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum"). When captor Old Nick comes by each night, Jack hides himself in the wardrobe and counts the creaks of the bed "till he makes that gaspy sound and stops."

Donoghue cleverly lets us make the leap between Jack's innocent observations and the harshness of reality in Room. This limited perspective sets up an important contradiction: for his "Ma," Room is place of terror, but for Jack, it's the only home he knows, where all his imaginary friends live. And no matter how she tries to get him to understand, he cannot comprehend the horror she's been through, and how she longs for the outside. For to him, Outside is just another word for Outer Space. At each step of the way, Jack can only comprehend situations of horror through the stories he loves and absorbs; Ma has to place the two of them into Alice in Wonderland so he understands their predicament, she has to place them into Dora the Explorer to give him the courage to escape. It's not just childish innocence on display here; its life and death. It's one terrified woman battling the clock, forced to explain everything to an alien creature who operates on a different wavelength. Whether or not Ma can get through to Nick is, at one point, more frightening than Old Nick himself.


Much of the book is pure genius, but none more so than the decision to place the great escape at exactly the halfway point of the book. Had it ended there, Room would still be considered a fantastic novella. But by taking it into the aftermath, Donoghue shows the true horror about these experiences, addressing the question of "what happens next" directly, rather than leaving it as an open question to ignore. As a reader, I could not have stood another moment in the claustrophobia of Room, everything's horribly wrong, and even as a reader we are torn between Jack's desire to stay where he feels safe and for Ma to escape and return home).

And the truth of "what happens next" is difficult to face for all characters concerned. From the moment of their rescue, Ma and Jack are hounded by reporters, doctors and un-accomodating family members. In many ways, we see how Room represented safety to Jack, while Outside is where life is truly terrifying, where he doesn't get to be with his mother 24/7, where people are strangers and bees actually sting.

In the second half, Donoghue also introduces a welcome element of satire; since all Jack knows of the outside world is what he sees on tv, he cannot relate to anything in the outside world unless he imagines them as characters on animal planet, on fitness planet, on cartoon planet, etc. He is an alien taking his first steps onto the human planet.

Another target of Donoghue's subtle wit is the cult of motherhood. A bigger mommy dependence has never been seen than in the boy who lived in a single room with his mother, breast-fed well into his sixth year. I admit it's shocking even as a reader, but you have to know she had no other choice. But yet she keeps trying to wean him off and fails. Until Barbara Walters (at least I think that's who it is) steps in, and interrogates her live on national TV about the breastfeeding, of all things.

In the end, Donoghue leaves us with two opposing thoughts. On the one hand, we see Jack finally adjust to Outside, to all the stimuli assaulting him from every direction, to becoming an individual of sorts. On the other hand, when we leave Ma, we are left with the uncomfortable sense that she will merely be moving from prison to prison for the rest of her life (metaphorically speaking of course). Even more disturbing, there are suggestions that she might have been consigned to that fate even if she hadn't been kidnapped.

There are a number of intimations that Ma never loved little Jack the way she loved her unborn daughter, dead thanks to the ineptitude of Old Nick. In a telling sequence, she mindlessly relates the old psych experiment about the monkeys separated from their mothers and fed only by a drainpipe, how they withered away due to the absence of love not the absence of basic needs. Later on, even she agrees with Jack's assessment that even the love of their human captors might have been enough to sustain those monkeys. But what's truly horrifying about this exchange is that in this metaphor, Jack might stand in for the human captor.

They serve each other mutually as machines of love, but once they're released from captivity, Ma realizes how clinically she's approached the care of her child, ignoring the actual emotional needs of herself or her son. To an extent, she feels that she used him (though perhaps she would never have thought this without the accusing interrogation mentioned above).


People kept referring to Jack as "her" or "she," and I kept waiting for some other shoe to drop (even though he had his five years old version of frustration with his 'silly penis'. Just wait until he's a teenager.) If you've read it and it's just something I've missed, please let me know!

*PS. Please read it before Hollywood ruins it. It's already been greenlighted. Why do moviemakers think they can translate books whose chief selling points are unique literary voices?

Filling the Gaps: Wings of Desire





For whatever reason, the name Wim Wenders hadn't really entered my radar until quite recently, so all I knew about this film was that it was the film that was remade into City of Angels. I never saw that one either, due to the fact that a) NIC CAGE!, b) mawkishness alert.


If you may recall from my New Year's Post, one of my goals this year is to develop a more holistic understanding of German culture after World War II, which seems to have subsumed its identity entirely, and in my opinion, unfairly. But I have a closet Germanophile friend who read that post and has made it his mission to point me to relevant pieces of literature and film to try to answer that question, for which I am much obliged. We started last week with The Edukators, which I would have written about but I was not then, nor am I now, in the mood for being unkind. But I am eternally grateful for him sitting us down to watch Wings of Desire.


The movie is bound by the story of angels walking the Earth to observe humanity, or perhaps less to observe than to absorb the essence of what makes them human. But in the way of such films, the angels are gifted with omnipotence but yearn to experience humanity itself. Bruno Ganz's Damiel, a kindly onlooker for the first half of the film, slowly becomes consumed  by a lonely trapeze artist (Solveig Donmartin), and he follows her through rehearsal, through performance, and through her life.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that in the first half of the movie, nothing happens, to the point that we were all falling asleep. The thoughts that our friendly angels overhears are all poetic, often mundane, but never exhilarating. Brief entertainment is provided by Peter Falk playing himself, whose role becomes unexpectedly and amazingly important (though I won't spoil it here).

Then, like flipping a switch, the movie changes. Damiel has followed the trapeze artist into a goth club, where a bunch of Berlin hipsters bob their heads to Crime in the City, a spinoff band from Nick Cave's The Birthday Party. All of a sudden we viewers are no longer constrained to a disaffected higher plane; we join Damiel in his yearning to be there. Just to be there and feel what everyone else is feeling.

Unexpectedly, the film reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, Neil Gaiman's Death: High Cost of Living. It's a universally beloved spinoff from the Sandman series, where he personified Death as a continually perky goth girl with endless compassion and unerring faith in humanity. She maintains that compassion by coming to Earth and becoming mortal for one day in every 100 years, and always finds kinship with the most downtrodden. (Aside, just talking about this makes me want to run and read the whole series again...) There's something in the tone that matched Wings of Desire; it oozes love for humanity despite all its warts.

Throughout the film, even through the slower bits, Winders gives us absolutely stunning imagery, from Daniel's brief sojourn on the top of a statue to loving shots of the circus and of that most mundane of places - the public library. Every decision Wenders makes radiates love, love of film, love of humanity, and love of life itself.


Oddly enough, while Tom vaguely knew of the existence of City of Angels, he knew almost nothing about it. Once I started to convey what I knew of it, he let out an anguished cry of "WHY DO THE AMERICANS RUIN EVERYTHING!!!" But nothing I could say held a candle to actually watching the trailer for it. Once the laughter passed, the first thing he said, then, was, "How odd. Just a 90 second trailer and they mentioned God."

All four of us present just nodded our heads in amazement, like, "Wow, go Wenders, way to make a movie about angels that actually has almost no religious subtext whatsoever!" Well I did a little research, and Wenders was apparently inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Angels, modeled on the concept of Islamic angels, intangible beings characterized by their lack of free will.


-Nick Cave. Speaks for itself.

-Berlin-porn. Seriously, it's astonishing how different Berlin looks now from the Berlin of the movie, and Wenders adds another layer of context by comparing 1987 Berlin to what existed before the war. And if you've had the pleasure of visiting Berlin since the Wall came down, you can have a fun time in the slower bits identifying what stands now in the open spaces of the film.


-First movie I've seen with Wim Wenders, but assuredly not the last. I've wanted to see Paris,Texas for ages, and also Until the End of the World, even though that one's regarded as a little bit of a disaster.

Music Video of the Day: New Pornographers "Moves"

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Alright guys, time for a new feature! I love music videos, and so should you. It's easy to forget about them now that MTV isn't the cultural tastemaker it used to be, but I am a total geek for music videos.

So let's kick things off with the latest single by The New Pornographers, who have seemingly gotten every hip comedian of today into a single video, beating the crap out of each other. It's mindless and entertaining. And seriously, it has John Oliver, Wyatt Cenac, Kevin Corrigan, Horatio Sanz, Donald Glover (<3), and many more. Go forth and conquer.


Movies You Missed: Night Catches Us

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Have you ever seen something and gone, "My GOD! Why has no one told this story before?" It doesn't happen often in the realm of film, and when it does happens, it almost feels subversive. Night Catches Us tells of an African-American neighborhood in 1970's Philadelphia, where race issues haven't gone away entirely, but fighting the good civil rights fight has given way to middle class compromise. We soon learn that the scions of the community were formerly Black Panthers, and despite the systematic dissolution of that group, the members still betray their past lives in uncomfortable ways and in slips of the tongue. But there are no illusions; the movement is dead. It was lost, lost when politics gave way to violence and rage.

It's amazing how much is crackling just beneath the surface of these people's lives - fighting the revolution now means nothing more than keeping the kids out of trouble and out of the hands of the cops.

The story centers around two in particular: Kerry Washington as Patricia, an attorney for the underprivileged, and Anthony Mackie as Marcus, the man accused of betraying the group to the cops, leading to the death of one of its members. He knows better than to show his face, but had no choice when his father died. When they meet, sparks of history fly; these sparks do not go unnoticed by her daughter, constantly searching for an answer to the question of why her father was murdered.

The beauty of the film is that writer/director Tanya Hamilton passes no judgment on the Panthers themselves; she neither lionizes nor demonizes them. She focuses on the conflict within, how even within a particular movement there are conflicting ideologies, economic differences, philosophical differences. When we learn about history, we are taught to see movements of people as solid blocs. Hamilton reminds us otherwise, that in the end there were only two broad movements fighting for civil rights, and just as in politics, there's no way that every single person agrees with every core tenet of the movement they join.

But this is a love story, not a polemic. The peculiarities of Black Power politics certainly set the stage, but it doesn't make the story. The story is about what happens after. What happens when reality is forgotten and a younger man decides to take up the mantle without any understanding of the failures or the challenges, and only hawks the talking points and brandishes the gun. About what happens when someone you once regarded as a brother or sister has mutated beyond recognition, either warped by inner darkness or compromised to society.

It's a fascinating rewrite of history; for every peaceful revolutionary movement, there is an equal and opposite violent movement, but the second is omitted. We learn about Martin Luther King but not about the Black Panthers. We learn about Mahatma Gandhi but not about Subhash Chandra Bose. There's a strong case to be made that both sides are necessary for a movement to succeed.

Finally, it's been a dreadful year for diversity in the Academy Awards. I have now seen Kerry Washington in two stellar performances from last year, and am shocked by the banality of the best actress nominations this year (and am strongly fighting the urge to make another dig on Natalie Portman's horrendously flat performance in Black Swan). Anthony Mackie is also terrific. I think that the lack of diversity speaks as much to the quality of mainstream films made about and for minorities; they are loud, melodramatic and hysterical.

That's why it's doubly important to draw attention to movies like Night Catches Us, where no one needs to shout to get your attention, where no sobbing is necessary to leave the audience devastated. That's why this story is so surprising, and so valuable. It's not a perfect movie by any standard; it's more slight than perhaps it needs to be. But for what it illuminates, it's precious.

King's Speech, Or, King By Default But You Should Still Care About My Sad Childhood

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At what point can you separate feelings about the 20th century British monarchy from actually enjoying the damn story? The Queen managed it beautifully, not making its subjects to be saints (in fact they're downright callous). Stephen Frears found humanity in a set of people who are intriguing precisely due to how unknowable they are. The King's Speech, on the other hand, fails to really find that humanity. Put simply, I don't care about the monarchy, but The Queen was still compelling. The King's Speech did not sway me in the slightest.

I was very grateful that they made Winston Churchill a bit toady, even though the movie somehow sent the false message that placing Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister was somehow a "Strong Statement Against Hitler." In fact I'm generally a bit confused about the chronology of the whole thing, but I won't linger on that. I'm not one who believes that art loses value when it is less than faithful to the truth. (Nor are most people these day, see "Social Network, The.")

The first half of the movie, a family drama where George agrees to humiliate himself and improve his speech, makes sense. He's embarrassed not at his inability to make moving speeches, but to communicate confidently to his family, to his precious daughters. All so well, all so moving. The tension between George and Lionel Logue is powerful and watchable; these are two completely different animals facing off in the cage. But everything goes off the rails as the possibility of becoming King becomes eminent and real, and the drive of the story changes from 'help George to stop stuttering' to 'help George to stop stuttering so he can be an awesome King.'

The problem of the whole thing is motivation. It's a tale of a man finding his 'voice,' but what does finding his voice actually achieve? He's hardly one of the oppressed. He's royalty, for godssakes. All he has at stake is his self-esteem. Gaining his voice only helps him to be slightly better at the job he has by default and cannot actually be fired from; he's a figurehead with an enormous salary who doesn't actually have anything to do at all but make pretty speeches and shake hands. God forbid the monarchy find itself incapable of its symbolic role and find a useful justification for its continued existence and exorbitant salaries.

I've been harping on that point because that's the narrative the movie fixes on: can George learn to stop stammering and what? Govern? No. Make military decisions? No. At one point, the dialogue acknowledges this problem, but the film doesn't attempt to answer it. We are not offered any real insight into why this is so important to George, except that he just can't wait to be King! But why? People want things for a reason, whether concrete, external, or purely internal. But that's not clear here.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it, but I can't help but feel that this sort of movie exists as a cynical calculation to win Oscar nominations. I'm also not saying that there isn't a story worth telling in that era of British royalty, but this one isn't it. And I feel truly horrible in thinking that Madonna's upcoming film about Edward and Wallis Simpson will probably be far more compelling (the horror!).

However, I can't be too upset with this movie, I didn't go in thinking it would be anything more than a calculated farce, so I wasn't disappointed. More importantly, how could I stay mad when it had an exquisite moment between Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle? Nearly two decades later, the chemistry still crackles.

All in all, it's a well-made movie with excellent performances, but it lacks a moving narrative, or at least one with clear motivation and drive. And for GOD'S SAKE will somebody give Guy Pearce a leading role? This is the 5th movie in a row where he shows up for five minutes and disappears.

Perhaps I am a bit harsh, but my feelings are tempered by the fact that the 3/5 of the movies I've seen this week have told stories of people who are not given an honest voice in society, in media or in their lives, and that lack of voice has genuine repercussions. They were not perfect movies, but at least they told unfamiliar stories highlighting fresh perspectives. So perhaps I would have enjoyed The King's Speech more on any other week, but this week, it just felt stale.

Too Crazy To Be True: Unapologetic Racism on the BBC



Well isn't racism fun! Especially from a taxpayer funded television network! These weren't mildly offensive, like Stephen Fry's statement about women. Frankly it makes the whole Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand thing look like well-mannered jousting.

But I'll let you judge for yourself. If you don't feel like watching the video (or can't at work), it's all transcribed below. Such a stellar display of wit and wordplay has seldom been seen.

The worst part? IT WAS SCRIPTED IN ADVANCE!! So you have to imagine - somebody wrote it and thought it was fine, an editor read it and thought it was fine, the BBC suits signed off on it, and then these idiots read it aloud. At least we can take solace in the fact that Clarkson might actually be fired for starting an actual diplomatic incident by being a complete c**t.

May: Have you ever wanted a Mexican sports car?
Clarkson: Yes, I have!
May: It’s good news, because there is one, and here it is [points to display] and it’s called the Tortilla.
Clarkson: It is not – it is not called the Tortilla! What is it?
May: I can’t remember, it’s something a bit …
Clarkson: So you just made up the name, then, there you go.
May: I’d forgotten, sorry
Hammond: Why would you want a Mexican car? ‘Cause cars reflect national characteristics. So German cars are sort of very well-built and efficient, and Italian cars, a bit flamboyant and quick. Mexican cars just gonna be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.
May: It is interesting because, they can’t do food, the Mexicans, can they? ‘Cause it’s all like sick with cheese on it.
Hammond: Refried sick!
May: Yeah, refried sick.
Clarkson: How much is this Mexican sports car?
May: The refried Mexican sports car is 33 thousand pounds.
Clarkson: That isn’t enough. It isn’t enough because somebody’s paid for that to be developed and it’s gotta be shipped. That’s 800 quid to the car right there.
May: You say that, though, but they do say in their blurb it’s got rack-and-pinion steering.
Hammond: Wow, it’s got steering!
Hammond: I’m sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican.
Clarkson: It’d be brilliant! It’d be brilliant ’cause you could just go straight back to sleep again.
Hammond: ‘That’s all I’m gonna do all day.’
Clarkson: That’s why we’re not gonna get any complaints about this – ’cause the Mexican embassy, the ambassador’s gonna be sitting there with a remote control like this. [Clarkson slumps in his seat and starts "snoring."] They won’t complain. It’s fine!

Please Give, Or, How to Make Characters Look Like Saints by Filling Movies With Cartoon People

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I waited a while to see this movie, not because I'd heard particularly bad things about it, but because a friend and I were talking about a perplexing and irritating new trend in movies (and in books, but that's a topic for another time): New York stories about New Yorkers doing upper class New York things and basically being...New Yorkey. It's the land of Sex and the City, where no homeless people exist except as ways to demonstrate what kind of people our characters are, where everyone is white, and the most pressing drama is always existential, never concrete.

Please Give doesn't quite go that far, but it veers very close. Of the main characters, all but Rebecca Hall are truly horrible, and not just horrible, but really the most horrible people in the world. Are we really expected to feel any sort of sympathy for a girl who literally takes money from her mother's hands when she's trying to give it to a homeless man? A teenager who wants  $200 dollar jeans and hates that her mom gives the money to the needy instead. Horrible. But so OBVIOUSLY horrible.

And Amanda Peet. Also very obviously horrible, asking Catherine Keener about what she's going to do with the place when her grandmother dies, IN FRONT OF HER DYING GRANDMOTHER ON HER GRANDMOTHER'S BIRTHDAY. And did you know she's horrible?

Not that Peet is capable of playing any kind of role other than bad, of course. I can imagine her having conversations with her agent:

"Oh, Amanda, you're so bad!"

"Oh agent, I hate you and you're a dirty cocksucker."

"Oh Amanda, you're so bad! Let me get more roles for you so you can annoy people other than me."

I would formally request Hollywood to ban Amanda Peet from acting, ever again. She's a soul-sucking vacuum that draws life and reality from any story; a plastic mannequin standing in place of what should be challenging and compelling characters. Oliver Platt is equally guilty in this film, but I give him a pass as he has been great in past roles.

Catherine Keener, who's normally impossible to hate, gets the most abjectly boring story - she feels guilty. Not guilty about anything real, but that irritating white upper class guilt, where she feels bad about being rich (but not really), about not being disabled (but again, not really). She does in fact have real problems in the form of her sociopathic teenage daughter and lecherous husband, but somehow those things don't matter. Her existential guilt is what matters to director Nicole Holofcener. And the moral of her story? It truly is better to buy her daughter $200 jeans than to, say, teach her to be a better person.

It's a non-wacky movie that tries desperately to be wacky, turning humans into ciphers instead of real people (again, with the exception of Rebecca Hall). I just don't know how I feel about a movie where everything that happened is totally inevitable. Where everything that happens is not only foreshadowed, but fore-highlighted. As irritating as it was, you just KNEW Keener was going to buy acne-brat those jeans. You knew that the grandmother was going to die, and that Amanda Peet would continue to be crass and horrible. There was not a single surprise, and not a single instance of forward momentum.

The only thing to recommend this movie is that it does have genuinely funny moments. But skip it, unless Manhattan Malaise is your cup of tea.

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