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by Bill Gibron

8 Mar 2009

It seems like, every year, the Academy Awards introduces us to a new actor or actress that we should have heard of already, but for some reason (not wholly our own fault), we haven’t. In 2006, it was Felicity Huffman. In 2008, it was France’s Marion Cotillard. And in 2009, the new name messing up Oscar pools everywhere was Melissa Leo. Though she’s been in the business since 1984, few of her films have been mainstream successes. And when she does appear in wide release efforts - Mr. Woodcock, Righteous Kill - she’s never the recognizable lead. Still, Leo is the very definition of a working actress (her IMDb page boasts over 80 appearances in her two decade career). Right after Frozen River, the title that would come to define her current higher profile, she traveled to South Africa to make the thriller Lullaby - and it’s a good thing too. Without Leo, this shallow suspense film would be wholly forgettable. 

Stephanie is a waitress living a dead-end life in the middle of nowhere America. Every week, she travels to the local Western Union station and wires money to her beloved son Stephen who is currently holed up in South Africa. What Stephanie doesn’t know is that her boy is a crackhead, in debt to a drug dealer who doesn’t take such matters lightly. Along with pregnant girlfriend Tina, the strung out kid is in a lot of trouble. One day, Stephanie receives a call at work. It’s T-Boy, the aforementioned South African mobster. He wants a ransom and he wants it NOW. Instead of simply wiring the cash, Stephanie calls in a few favors, grabs her passport, and travels halfway around the world to help her child. When she arrives in Johannesburg, the culture shock is overwhelming. But that’s nothing compared to the personal sacrifices she will make to help everyone - Stephen…and expecting gal pal Tina as well.

Lullaby is a flim flam flick. It wants to substitute local color for actual thrills and standard crime drama dynamics for evocative foreign flavor. In the hands of native Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina! , Cry the Beloved Country), this South African take on typical ‘innocent in a world of vice’ is not effective enough to get us involved. Like the recent, redundant Lake City, Lullaby provides its audience with no real rooting interesting in the outcome. We have some compassion for Stephanie, especially with the amount of emotion Ms. Leo invests in the role. But since nothing is really set-up - not the relationship with the son, not the backstory as to how he got to South Africa, not our heroine’s histrionic move to simply pull up stakes and head across the Atlantic - that by the time the bad guys appear, we don’t know whether to hiss or yawn. The inherent bond between mother and child is inferred and exploited, but never to a successful end. By the time the plot demands payback, we are simply going through the mechanical movie motions.

It has to be said that Leo is electrifying here. She really invests Stephanie with a desperation that practically overwhelms this tiny film. Eyes consistently filled with fear and tears, and body bent from a life of serving others, this scrappy matriarch should really make us care about her plight. But screenwriters Donald Barton, Ivan Millborrow, and Michael Sellers don’t know the first thing about empathy. They simply start the story and hope our feelings eventually catch up. This is particularly true of the Middle Act meet-up with prostitute Tina. Stephanie is supposed to see a kindred spirit in this waste of a working girl, someone struggling to survive, but the callous, cynical nature of this whore undermines any sympathy. And when they suddenly turn into Thelma and STDS, robbing the locals to raise T-Boy’s payment, the myriad of unanswered questions subvert any suspense.

The rest of the performances are rote, to say the least. Joey Dedio has clearly spent far too long in cornrows to be this cavalier. His T-Boy is about as menacing as a man in bad hair can be. Similarly, Lisa-Marie Schneider’s Tina is an ambiguity looking for some kind of filmic focus. She’s bad-ass, she’s battered. She sold out Stephen (?) but then wants to help him (???). Elsewhere, Roodt loads the screen with lots of amateur actors, people who absolutely look the part, but who don’t necessarily know how to play it. There is nothing subtle here. Everything is frontier, “in your face” grandstanding. Even the minor roles tend to overstay their welcome, taking away from the movie’s desire to place you directly on the edge of your seat.

Still, Lullaby languishes in the mind, not because of Roodt’s skill behind the lens, but because of the numerous loose ends left dangling. The relationship between the criminals and the victims, the reason Stephanie is so broken up about her son, the boy who she visits when first arriving in South Africa, the reason she seeks no assistance from anyone in authority or legal power, who she turns to for money, why the diner owner makes a pass - all of these things are introduced, dramatized, and then left to dissipate and decay. Of course, even if they were all wrapped up in the neatest of bows, Lullaby would still lack a solid connective core. The more and more Ms. Leo moves away from the rational and the reasonable, the less and less we care about the outcome.

Indeed, the independent realm was not the right medium for this kind of movie. A lo-fi approach to high tension material only derails the proposed spectacle. Since everyday people usually don’t find themselves locked in cat and mouse conflicts with the criminal element in their town, such heighten reality (and production value) is necessary. Not every film can be One False Move. Not every effort can house a performance like Leo’s. In combination, the incongruity between manner and Method negate each other, resulting in a dull and rather tedious experience. Sadly, it looks like this recent Oscar nom will go the way of so many “here today, forgotten tomorrow” talents. Melissa Leo will still make a living as a solid, sometime superior actress. Here’s hoping Lullaby doesn’t ruin her resume too badly.

by Bill Gibron

7 Mar 2009

Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Some may call them “bros”, or the more high school appropriate “tools”, but eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life.

This formula has been followed in several recent very successful laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and even Superbad. Each time, the taint of testosterone unfettered overwhelms the notion of subtlety or clear substance. Now there’s another name to add to the ever-growing genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models (new to DVD in an Unrated edition from Universal) provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. It’s also one of 2008’s most consistently surprising sleepers.

When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously. 

Rapidly becoming the MVP of the entire Bro-mance genre, Paul Rudd has rapidly become a consistently comic foil. The last time we saw the actor and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if somewhat structure-less, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.

The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down…“Ben Affleck”).

The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.

So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.

As part of the new DVD package, we get more saucy, scandalous material. The Unrated moments are no bluer or ballsier than the original, but the added anarchy really swings. So does the commentary track from director Wain.  Insightful without being insipid, he brings a lot of humor and wit to the track. Equally entertaining are the numerous bits of added content, including deleted scenes, bloopers, improvisational bits with the cast, and some anarchic behind the scenes sneak peeks. Clearly, as with most comedies, Role Models was made up of the best bits of pieced together hilarity. The results definitely speak loudly for Wain’s continuing success as a filmmaker.

Oddly enough, Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.

by Rob Horning

7 Mar 2009

Nicholas Carr has two good posts (here and here) about the hegemony of “realtime.” The upshot is that technology is eradicating the cultural time-space for contemplation. In the first post, Carr points out the atavism in this.

Pretty much the whole history of civilization has been a war on realtime. Culture, we’ve been taught, is what goes on in the blank spaces, the mind-holes that open up when we exit realtime. Before the civilizers came along to muck things up - to put things in perspective, as they’d probably say - the universe was entirely realtime. There was no before. There was no after. There was only the instant in which stuff happens.

Realtime is our natural state - it’s what we share with the other animals - and now at last we’re going back to it. Listen to the birds. They’ll tell you all you need to know: realtime is a stream of tweets. Yesterday, when he announced the twitterification of Facebook, the realtiming of the social network, Mark Zuckerberg said, “We are going to continue making the flow of information even faster.” The first one to remove all the spaces wins.

Accelerating the flow of information is tantamount to commodifying it, effacing the differences between things. It all becomes data to process; if it slows us down, it is an inconvenient datapoint that warrants a more careful calibration of the information stream—the appropriate response in the realtime world would be to put in place a better filter to remove such troubling material.

Speeding up information consumption for its own sake plays into the fantasy that technology permits a kind of ubiquity, lets us be present everywhere through online interconnections, so the maximum potential opportunities are available to us. We can see what all our friends are doing at all times and receive news from every corner of the world as it happens and so on. But it seems that this ubiquity of online presence is counterbalanced by surfeit of information, which flattens it all and renders no opportunity any more compelling than any other. As Carr explains in the second post, “Realtime, you see, doesn’t just change the nature of time, obliterating past and future. It annihilates real space. It removes us from three-dimensional space and places us in the two-dimensional space of the screen - the “intimate portable world” that increasingly encloses us. Depth is the lost dimension.” He call the two-dimensional space “realspace,” the companion to realtime.

Optional paralysis, indifference and solipsism loom, as the coping strategies for the onslaught of realtime and realspace. When our social reality is ironed out into a stream of broadcasts on a feed, mediated by devices that guarantee each of us an isolation in an environment that gratifies our fantasies of total control, the illusion that friends can be monitored entirely on our own terms grows; the requirement of reciprocity begins to seem provisional, old-fashioned, a signal of a breakdown of the better technologies for person management. As Carr suggests, efforts to accommodate “realtime” amount to a regression into pure reaction. Reasoning become passe, particularly when it extends beyond 140 characters. The triumph of realtime takes the celebration of snap judgments (a la Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) to its logical conclusion, where we operate by instinct, confident that it inherently can’t be wrong. That’s a scary thought, if you believe that what we experience as instincts can generally be shaped more easily by exogenous forces, and that only conscious consideration of our impulses subjects them to our internal value system.

We know what gets us into realspace; it seems to me a continuation of the space of consumerism—of impulsiveness, instrumentality, convenience for its own sake, and ersatz individualism. And obviously it is not just going to go away. We are all complicit in it, eventually. At some point it suits our purposes and we go along, as though we control the terms by which we interact with it. We don’t notice the creeping ways in which it begins to dictate terms to us.

So it seems imperative to keep in mind points of resistance, the ways in which we escape realspace and realtime, the periods when we are out of the dataflow that is imposed on us by our devices and are instead in the flow generated by our absorption in our own activity.

by Deanne Sole

6 Mar 2009

Weeks ago I came across a secondhand one-dollar copy of a hardcover Everyman’s Library anthology named Minor Poets of the 18th Century. The old Everymans make a beautiful set of books: small, neat, studious, green. The covers, with their blunt-edged knots, are plain enough to suggest surprises.

The surprise here was a blank-verse four-part poem called The Fleece written by a man named John Dyer. I’d never heard of it before. Searching online for a version of the poem that I could link to this post, I found nothing more than a single old, scanned copy at Google books. Not all of the poems in Minor Poets are that obscure. Etexts of William Collins’ “Ode to Fear” are available in several places, and Anne Finch’s “The Owl Describing her Young Ones” was once the Poem of the Week over at the Guardian‘s book blog. Even taking its age and minor status into account, it seems safe to suggest that The Fleece is not well known.

Welsh by birth, Dyer tried his hand as a painter and parson as well as a poet before dying in 1758 at the age of 59. His one great success came in 1727 with the publication of a nature poem named Grongar Hill. The idea behind Grongar Hill is simple. Our narrator climbs a hill and admires the countryside, which, he tells us, is a place of “Pleasure” where “Quiet treads”.

“Now, even now, my joys run high
As on the mountain turf I lie”

“Dyer,” remarked Samuel Johnson, “is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism. Grongar Hill is the happiest of his productions.” Wordsworth liked the poem so much he wrote a posthumous ode in Dyer’s honour. The Fleece is wobblier than Grongar Hill, but it’s also more ambitious, an attempt to take the idea of Virgil’s Georgics and re-mould it to tell the story of the contemporary international trade in British wool. Dyer was not alone in his inspiration—other poets of the same time wrote georgics on the subjects of cider, sugar cane, and hops—but as far as I know he was the only one who chose sheep.

He introduces himself to us in a deliberately classical tone, like this:

“The care of sheep, the labours of the loom,
And arts of trade I sing. Ye rural nymphs,
Ye swains, and princely merchants aid the verse.
And ye, high-trusted guardians of our isle,
Whom public voice approves, or lot of birth
To the great charge assigns: ye good, of all
Degrees, all sects, be present to my song.”

This introduction lets us know that The Fleece is not going to be a small-scale poem like Grongar Hill, taking place on a single spot of countryside. This is going to be an epic that will embrace as many people and parts of life as possible. Trade is society, Dyer suggests. The shepherds and merchants are not only subjects of the verse, they also “aid” it. Buried under that self-conscious ‘ye’ is a basic egalitarian cry—come one, come all, gather round, listen, this poem is yours. The unsteadiness that runs through The Fleece has its origins in the contrast between Dyer’s heightened language and the hucksterish sociability of that cry, and between his abstract ideas of Ancient Rome and the concrete fact of a sheep. Between, in short, simplicity and artifice. Sometimes he lets one swallow the other. A ram’s head “is fenced

With horns Ammonian, circulating twice
Around each open ear, like those fair scrolls
That grace the columns of the Ionic dome.”

In lines like this his attachment to the classics—to the ideas they stood for at the time, to scholarship and respect, to the invisible footnote that pipes up like a schoolchild, “I’ve read Latin!”—uproots him from himself. The horns like column scrolls are falsely conceived, not felt, not seen: forced. This is part of the reason why the poem is not completely successful, why it has been assigned to a book of minor poets. Dyer doesn’t completely trust his own experience. He can’t free himself from this self-consciousness, or find a way to merge with it as other poets have found ways to reconcile themselves with their uncertainties. Parts of his own work have been allowed to fight against him.

by Sean Murphy

6 Mar 2009

John Cepahs, R.I.P.

Sad news coming across the wire this morning.

A nice appreciation in today’s Washington Post.

Of course, it gets tiresome adding another name to list of indelible artists whose departures leave us shaken, and much worse off without them. When it comes to John Cepahs, we are not only losing great voice, we are losing a type of language, a way of communicating that, once gone, will never come back. This is not something to unduly or excessively mourn, it is (to invoke an odious but inevitable cliche) the proverbial cycle of life. It is a facet of evolution; of course it has happened going back as far as people have created. But it still hurts. And it seems right, or at least respectful, to selfishly want more while being grateful for what we already received.

Here is Cephas, along with his partner Phil Wiggins doing an incandescent take on Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”.

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