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Fantasy Film League, Take 3

The Julen Film Institute

The feature film AFFLECKTION, which will hit theaters this weekend, is
a cinematic tour de force about the psychological trauma caused when a
man is tormented by the thought of his best friend exposed to romantic
temptation – this docudrama, set among the glittering klieg lights of
Hollywood is unusual in that its chief character – the tormented man -
is never seen, nor heard in the film.

Indeed, Sissy Spacek, no stranger to cinematic madness, narrates the
film as the man (whom she refers to as “Ben”)’s chief psychiatrist.
The docudrama covers a three month period in which the best
friend, played by Matt Damon, bounces from the arms of one leading
lady to the next. Much has been made of his romances with Natalie
Portman, Christina Applegate, and Hillary Duff, but it is the June-
September romance with Julie Andrews that drives “Ben”’s madness to
new shocking extremes.

Sam Raimi directs a searing indictment of the love that dares not
speak its name, and Matt Damon’s performance will make you want to
eat even more popcorn.

I've just entered my third film over at Fantasy Film League. Artichokes and Almonds: A Love Story has made $87,367, 500, placing me atop the Quartzleague for the January season, and at #62 overall. Harry Potter and the Toyota Matrix has made $42, 467, 500 (#7 Quartzleague, #225 overall) in the April League.

* June 30, 2004 Movies

Fahrenheit 9/11

This movie will make you angry (either at or with Moore). It also made me cry, avert my eyes in horror, and seethe. I'm not a big fan of Moore's docupinary style - He fires almost randomly, pairing his strongest, biggest points with scattershot coincidence, innuendo, insults, and peripherally related facts and thoughts that become very easy for his opponents to latch onto and focus attention on those minor, dismissable points, rather than the larger, more troublesome issues. This is not an easy movie to watch: Moore pairs political outrage with grisly war footage of injuries, death, and napalmed faces; there's footage of a beheading that I still saw out of the corner of my eye, and a woman whose grief over losing her son is raw and right there.

* June 30, 2004 Movies


It looked so promising from the previews and commercials - a good-natured satirical take on a religiously enthusiastic teen community - but those previews contained most of the best parts of the movie. The movie simply runs out of steam halfway through, but chugs through the inevitable teen comedy situations and inevitable Big Question of Independence to end up at happily every after. Jena Malone is charming in a surprisingly famous or near-famous cast, but everything else in this movie is blunted - any edge is displayed and then carefully smoothed over with a cliche. Most of the cast soar below the radar in the movie (Martin Donovan and Mandy Moore have good moments, but they too spend a lot of time gliding through the movie).

* June 16, 2004 Movies

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Alfonso Cuaron captured the spirit of the Potter novels far better than his predecessor, even as he cut back on the story (purists buzz about the lack of backstory on the Marauder's Map) and simplified other elements. This movie is mysterious and magical and different; he's recast the world around Hogwarts to be wilder and craggy, it feels part fairy-tale, part kaleidoscope shift, but mostly, it feels right. The story has been simplified for the purposes of filming, the villain is telegraphed a little too broadly, and the CGI characters are thinner and less satisfying as they could be, but this is still the best of the Harry Potter movies so far. Cuaron isn't afraid to use the subtleties in the periphery (his indications of seasonal change, approach of the dementors, the magical world around them are pleasing details), and he focuses on the essential story of the piece.

* June 16, 2004 Movies

RIP, Ray Charles

The first concert I ever went to was Ray Charles and the Raylettes. I was 16, and my parents came with. U-Hall was full that night - people of all ages and colors swaying and singing and clapping along. He sang two of my favorites, Hit the Road, Jack (a song he makes extraordinary; a song others make triter than trite), and Busted, using the Johnny Cash arrangement (instead of Harlan Howard's original arrangement), that night, and it was a razzle-dazzle evening. I can still see him, swaying as he played his piano, rocking out as the Raylettes sang saucily behind him.

The thing about Ray Charles is that he was interested in the music, and brilliant in the ways he explored different genres. Heck, the man essentially created the soul genre by combining gospel and R&B. He was so good because he tapped into the soul of the music. His Country album was as brilliant as his soul classics - swing and Nashville Sound and country-pop and classic American folk songs. His songs that delve into jazz and the blues are revelations. He sang what moved him - and his ears were open to everything - famous, infamous, unknown - from any genre.

His renditions of America, the Beautiful are time and again the best public performances of a patriotic song in decades. They weep and they soar and they bind us together. He turned Georgia On My Mind from an obscure song into a state's anthem and a cabaret standard.

The man made great music. I'm going to miss him.

* June 11, 2004 Music

Local Girls Made Global

I finally finished James Fox's paen to his grandmother and her sisters, Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, last night. The sisters - who include the archetypical Gibson Girl and Lady Nancy Astor, the first female MP in the British Parliament - spent much of their youth at and adulthood spinning myths about Mirador , the ugly estate their father bought in their youth. I grew up about ten minutes away, and even as the twentieth century closed, the echoes of these Langhorne sisters lingered in the air long after they and their children ceased returning to their family fold.

The title is something of a misnomer - Lizzie, the eldest and most traditional of the sisters is treated glancingly (although her daughters make frequent appearances in the book to inform the depictions of Lizzie's four sisters), and Nora (she put the mad in madcap) and Irene (archetypical southern belle in the NY social scene and wife of the artist Charles Dana Gibson) both fade into the periphery of this book, emerging only for Phyllis Brand (the author's grandmother, and wife of a British power broker) and Lady Nancy Astor to try and control, manipulate, fret about, snipe at, and fight with.

Something was definitely screwy at Mirador, but it is hard to identify just what in this modern version of that favorite family pastime: Redefining History. Fox lays out the flaws and mistakes but never connects the dots; he describes with one hand and excuses with the other, but he never explains what caused the sisters to react so extremely to emotion and to love and to the control of that. The most electric moments in the books come from the letters widely quoted within; there you feel emotion and circular despair and hurt, there are the knives and the manipulation, there are the willful blindness and misunderstanding, and always the reshaping of world, family, and relationships for the letter writer's aggrandizement.

For someone who knew most of the significant players in the novel, Fox depicts them like cardboard, and shorthands the bits that should be explicated. Nancy's second husband, Waldorf Astor, is always slightly out of focus and frame, while Fox turns the spotlight on his grandfather, Bob Brand, making him into a nebbish Cassandra, more prescient than other powermongers Nancy collected around her, more capable of handling Nancy than almost everyone else, and ultimately sadder than the rest. Nora's husbands are an enigma, and Gibson - who defined the styles for the world is barely mentioned.

* June 1, 2004 Books

Mean Girls

Tina Fey took a vaguely pop-sociological book and turned it into a teen flick by wrapping the interactions and status in a thin and colorless romance that literally paled in comparison to the real theme of the movie: battles for power, place, and status among teenage girls. Some imaginative staging (at several points the students actually emulate the animals the lead character compares them to in her voice-overed journal-esque entries) and a strong grasp on the ways girls interact make for the strongest parts of the movie. The weakest parts come in the wrapper that made the movie palatable to a major movie studio: the broad stereotypical supporting characters, bits of broadly crass humor, and pretty much most of the male characters. On the plus side, you can spend your time during those portions of the movie playing "Hey, it's that guy! Where do I know him from?"

* May 24, 2004 Movies

Jane Austen Book Club

Several people have recommended Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club , the reviews have been good, and the blurbs practically swoon in adoration. I, on the other hand, am not impressed. Alice Sebold may want to eat this novel, but I have no desire to even see it again.

I did like bits and pieces of it - the concept of "personal Austens" is interesting but too quickly dealt with; occasional turns of phrase were charming, but I think I was supposed to be more charmed throughout. The dialogue flattened out, and the plot was thinly clad. Some semi-primary characters are sketched into place without a sense for their personal animus (she short-hands much of her characterization).

Invoking Jane Austen is dangerous when you set yourself up for the inevitable comparisons; I would have expected to put this book down and want to pick up Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice, but she didn't even put me in the mood for Austen.

* May 12, 2004 Books

Fantasy Film League Update

Since my first film in the Fantasy Film League (Almonds and Artichokes, a Love Story) is doing so well, I thought I'd take another shot at it:

--- julen news ticker --- Industry insiders were shocked this morning when Alfonso Cuaron, the director of the upcoming Harry Potter movie revealed that he had slipped slightly off-canon in this film. "Although I know I was supposed to make Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," he said, patting a large suitcase, "I could not resist going in a some- what different direction. " He then tipped his waiter ten thousand dollars and looked thoughtful. 'Harry Potter and the Toyota Matrix' will make history, he said confidently. "Sure -- we've had some casting problems..." he said, referring to the original cast walkout upon reading the new script. "and some nattering nabobs of negativity have a problem with Toyota's belief and support for this project, but they're all fools." "Once I got Chris Walken to play Harry, I was set. The rest was gravy." Cuaron said, pulling out a cast photo. "You see, Kate Beckinsale will be playing Hermione (I know how much J. K likes her British actors) and Will Smith will upgrade Ron Weasly nicely. As they set off for Japan to rescue the 2007 concept model of the Toyota Matrix from the evil Whonda executive, Draco Malfoy (played by Brad Pitt) will chase them down to prevent them from learning that Lord Valdemort (Jude Law) has taken over the Whonda company and has reduced the gas milage on their hybrid Citycs and wants to do the same for the hybrid Matrix planned for 2007. Valdemort, of course, now has a sexy henchwoman who will battle with the boy wizard. That's Naomi Watts." Cuaron paused. "This movie has megahit ALL over it."

This is, of course, a fake "news" release. I'm sure Alfonso Cuaron is in real life a true artiste who would never sacrifice his artistic visionfor money. However, he probably is a good tipper. And I bet he loves all the animals of the world, and if he had one wish, it'd be world peace. Blah Blah Disclaimer Blah Blah Disclaimer Blah Blah

* March 30, 2004 Movies

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine... actually exceeded my expectations. I like the way Charlie Kaufman structures his stories, and creates his inverted worlds where meaning, character, and reality intersplice, and I find it astonishing how he find different stories and methods to do that.

This tale - of a man who goes to a high tech doctor to erase his ex-girlfriend from his memory after learning that she has done just that - is a tale of regret and fear, of the impact of life and its experiences, of the beauty and pain of hindsight, and the nature of choice. The performances are universally good, but Jim Carrey in the lead doesn't mug; he uses his flexible face instead to inhabit a man who is alternately morose, angry, scared, desperate, and devastated. He's actually acting here, and it's nice to see. He should do more of it.

The other standout in already good cast is, surprisingly enough, Kirsten Dunst, whose subthread turns out to be a fascinating contrast to the main story. Kate Winslet - the ostensible costar - did well with a difficult shifting role, but as a reflection largely of Carrey's memories, it was hard to cotton onto her, even as she is taken advantage of.

The visuality of this film was fascinating. It drew from the frustration of the visual world in dreams, where things get toppled down on each other, and things melt away and out of reach, but it added layers of meaning to the fragile permanance of memory. The scenes of memories being erased and altered are interesting to watch, particularly when Carrey pushes out from memory into some alternate thought. I really liked this movie. It is easily the best one I've seen in months: smart, twisty, original, and visually stimulating.

* March 29, 2004 Movies

The Ladykillers

I should preface this by saying that I have never seen the original movie, but I have seen every Coen Brothers movie ever made. This movie makes Intolerable Cruelty (which I had problems with) seem like a great movie. The casting is uneven here (although directors automatically get bonus points for casting Irma P. Hall). The thievery is thinly presented, and the wit is decidedly dumb - profanity, the clash between Hall's religious, gentile woman, and the foul-mouthed pistol-flashing thief played by Marlon Wayans, and juvenile violence-tinged humor.

The star is - of course - Tom Hanks, and I expected more than this broad over-the-top shallow performance. He was all drawl and snorting titter, and you never saw anything deeper in his character - a unfortunate facet that was only highlighted by the deeper performance (of a simple character) of Hall. The gang of thieves left me cold, but it was nice to see Diane Delano and Stephen Root in small roles. The Coen's dialogue goes overboard regardless of style, and Hall's the only one who makes it feel real and meaningful. She's the real reason to see the movie.

* March 29, 2004 Movies

Jersey Girl

I saw Jersey Girl this afternoon, and let me assure you all that not only are the first fifteen minutes the worst fifteen minutes of any Kevin Smith film ever (I just wasn't buying anything about Lopez's performance, and especially not the alleged romance of her relationship with Ben Affleck), the script is so obvious and cliche'd that a truly heroic acting job in the lead role would be required to save the movie.

Affleck does not deliver. (In fact, I amused myself by imagining how much better this movie'd have been if Stephen Root had been cast as the lead, not the 3rd supporting player.)

Without Smith's two-twists-off-mainstream version of New Jersey (we are treated instead to a "real" New Jersey that is thinner than stage sets) as the great unspoken character, there's little texture in this movie. The humor is in the previews; most of the heart seems to lie on the cutting room floor or has been over-practiced into a stale performance.

* March 28, 2004 Movies

Office Swap

It was a very good day for music here at chez Julia. I picked two Erykah Badu and a Roberta Flack cd off the river, and then found myself handing off Dolly Parton's Little Sparrow in a straight swap for Chris Cornell's Euphoria Morning.

"The River" is the flow of CDs that roughly goes from person to person to person in our small group of music mavens. We have a pretty good intersection of taste/shared faves and high standards, so it's exploring other musical worlds is usually better than worthwhile. You have to restrain yourself from walking into someone's office and demanding they hand over the goods.

The straight swap was completely organic, and rose out of comparing notes on the new Norah Jones album (which I like and he loves). Something I said about lyrics reminded him of Cornell; I raved about the ways Norah and Dolly's voices fit together, and how much I just love Dolly (We did agree that the 80s weren't her best years).

I really, really like the Cornell. I didn't listen to Soundgarden much in my callow youth; I hadn't yet really started diversifying what I was listening to, at that time (instead, I'd go through stages of influence that didn't really open my ears to variety or a great deal out of the realm of what my brother referred to as "that hippy crap"). It's been playing all day, and it's going to suck to have to return it in a few days.

* March 11, 2004

Little Literary Epiphanies

I love it when the literary circle closes; I'd been hearing variations on this phrase for years:

"Sometimes Gertrude was witty without even lying."

I found the original (I think, I assume) in Randall Jarell's Pictures from an Institution tonight. A door closed, a bell rung, an answer appeared serendipitously. I feel a little bit of sunshine, even in the middle of the night.

* March 10, 2004 Books

Eat at Joe's

As I was driving to work this morning, it occured to me that you could make a whole mix tape just about songs that involve Joe and dining/booze establishments:

Nina Simone, The Gal from Joe's
Matraca Berg/Suzy Boggus, Eat at Joe's
The Folksmen, Old Joe's Place
Nat King Cole, I Keep Going Back to Joe's
Joe Nichols, Joe's Place
Phil Ochs/Joan Baez, Joe Hill
Harmonious Wail, Eat at Joe's
The Coasters, Down at Papa Joe's

That's a short list, but I could always cheat and add songs from the musical Smokey Joe's Cafe. Hrrrrrm.

* February 20, 2004 Music

Super Bowl Redux

While the NFL is never, ever, ever, EVER hiring MTV again to produce their halftime show*, I wish they'd make a similar vow never to let the Network of Bland Sports air the Super Bowl again. From their panel of experts (Yes, Deion, I just called you bland. And you try too hard without succeeding. I know four year olds who need less attention.) to their cliched jingoistic crap-ass staging (oh look, you are using a vast landscape to set the tone, and let's trot out the local culture to frame this show!), CBS did their best to drag the show down.

Phil Simms? C'mon! Sir Blandy McDull-Bland can mouth weak platitudes with the mediocre of 'em, but is that what you want in a game like this one? Me, neither.

There were moments during the pre-show when I laughed, and moments when I nearly cried, but neither of them happened when I was supposed to.

The lingering cheerleader camera shots, for example (or, as I like to call them, Breasts a-plenty!) were used to set the stage, which was good, because there's nothing like breasts to segue into the tale of Trent Dilfer's son's death! My favorite cheerleader shot was a long pan, where you could see a red carpetted path along which the pom-poms and breasts were arranged on display. The (alleged) local yokels were walking down this carpet very sloooooowly, mouths-gaping, heads rivetted to the area of bulbous breastage. All male, of course, because most women could have made it down that stretch in 2.5 seconds.

The commercials were largely suckariffic. I did like the "resting" NFL players (plus Parcels and Jerry Jones) singing Tomorrow and the Staples/cream puff ad wasn't bad, but there was nothing really daring or interesting or special about any of the commercials. On the plus side, that means that nothing will distract America from Janet's nipple piercing or the legion of New England fans dancing a jig and yelling "I told you so!"

*so totally staged.

* February 2, 2004 TV

An Open Letter to America

My Fellow Americans,

I come to you today not as a candidate for higher office, a television talking head, or even as an overcosseted pop star whose opinion we raise to mean more than people who know what they are talking about. No, I'm just someone who knows and appreciates quality television.

What in the holy heck are you people doing at 9:30 pm on Sundays? If the answer isn't watching Arrested Development on Fox, than you need to reconsider what you do. This is smart, off-beat, and funny television, and unlike most sitcoms, there's a lot that is original and funny about this show.

Give it a shot - there's a little funny for everyone in this show. It's in the details and in the broadness of the comedy. The humor is character and situationally driven.

It's the story of a family after the patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) has been carted off to jail for a variety of financial wrong-doings. His middle son, played wonderfully by Jason Bateman is trying to keep the company together, raise his son, and deal with the fact that much of his family is living together in a model home. His family is selfish and snobby, not at all used to being cut off from power and family, and fight wars amongst each other with changing loyalties and impacts.

The cast - from the regulars like David Cross, Jessica Walter, and Portia DiRossi (in a fabulous comedic turn) to the special guest stars like Carl Weathers and Liza Minelli (who is wonderfully odd and funny as the rival of the matriarch and the girlfriend of the youngest Bluth son) - is excellent. The storytelling is rich, detailed, smart, and consistant.

It is the best thing on television right now, and of course (even though it was nominated for a Golden Globe and has gotten widespread critical praise from both ends of the spectrum), it is hovering on the edge of cancellation because "enough" people aren't watching it - yet.

So, please, watch it for me. Give it a shot. Love it! LOVE IT!

* January 26, 2004 TV

Win a Date With Tad Hamilton

First, let me emphasize that it was not my idea to see this movie.

That said, do let me urge you to avoid it. It's a flimsy shell of a movie dreamed up by what I think is a malfunctioning cliche-ridden AI program in Hollywood. The story is weak. The cliches are obvious and dull. The actors seem to be performing in individual silos, and seemingly had their performances spliced together with the magic of CGI. That's the only explanation that makes sense. Kate Bosworth is both bland and empty, and Josh Duhamel stands around and preens. His reactions vary in degree from 0 to 0.2. The most exciting thing about Topher Grace was his spiky hair. Gary Cole was wasted. Sean Hayes and Nathan Lane felt tacked on in a failing attempt to inject humor into the movie.

I was left with one burning question: did the writer/producers/creator of this movie ever realize that a) West Virginia is a different state than Virginia, and b) that if they had actually talked to real West Virginians, they might have actually set it in a place that felt like West Virginia (they filmed some of the vistas there; would it have been so hard to do a little research?)

* January 25, 2004 Movies

Dear BBC America,

Hi. Love ya. Love the network. Can't get enough of Ground Force and The Office (when are we getting those Christmas episodes?), not to mention classics like Black Adder.

But please, for the love of all that is decent, lose the I'm a BBC American campaign! It's a horrible promotional campaign. It makes the network look too fluffy and plastic. The people strike me as idiots, and I'm assuming you don't identify your target audience as the Idiots in America. It's a phrase that is too ludicrous to honestly believe anyone would utter voluntarily. It's awkward and silly, and a clear rip off on the I'm A Pepper slogan craze of my youth.

So... gag Maitland McGonnigal. Tell that waitress from California to keep her opinion that everyone British is better than any American, simply by dint of where they were born, to herself. (don't make me start compiling a list of British losers!). Focus on your strengths. Fire your advertising agency.


I'm begging you.

* January 21, 2004 TV

A Musical Year in Review

Heather's discovered Kathleen Edwards (whose Failer album is an excellent piece of work), and this got me to thinking. I've been listening to Edwards for almost a year now, and I could have shared the love earlier. After all it was a recommendation from a friend that turned me onto her; I should have shared the favor earlier.

Heather's got great and varied taste; she's the one who introduced me to Monica Schroeder, and reignited my affection for Peter Gabriel.

So these are the things that I really loved this year:

I've written elsewhere about my love of Johnny Cash and of the Cash IV album (featuring the remarkable "Hurt", the best version of "Desperado" ever, and a lovely "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), so I'll forebear from gushing again. But this - like the other American recordings - is a great piece of work.

As you would expect, Johnny is all over the late June Carter Cash's Wildwood Flower, her musical autobiography filled with her family and friends. Their poignant version of"Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" has a fantastic arrangement and a feisty sweet sound. Easily one of my favorite songs of the last year. June was in failing health when she recorded the album, and it comes through clearly on the album. Her voice was weaker than I've ever heard it, but the inestimable June-ness is intact.

Speaking of favorite songs, Patty Loveless' title track from On Your Way Home is infectious, beautiful, and smartly co-written by one of my favorite mainstream Nashville songwriters. It's a ballad about infidelity that is sharp, sweet, and sad. The album itself is a bold step forward, in which Loveless combines the three sides of her musical personality without sacrificing the mountain tones, the rock energy, or the mainstream country-pop radio appeal.

My summer was all about Suzy Bogguss' Swing, featuring new and classic songs. "Cupid Shot Us Both With One Arrow," a duet with her producer and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, is a charmer. Light but not insubstantial, the album is a delight.

My coworkers (who have diverse but interesting musical tastes) introduced me to several great things last year. R lent me Kissed by Nature by Eliane Elias, and I played it non-stop for about four days before I could bring myself to reluctantly give it back. She's a Brazilian pianist and vocalist, and her lush music infuses samba, jazz, and bossa nova.

P dragged me along to an Eddie from Ohio concert and pushed me from casual fan to fan in the process; they need to finish up the live album they're working on so I can buy it and have the new songs they performed there on it!

I asked D for guidance on Donnie Hathaway, and she was a fantastic guide. What a remarkable voice and interpretation! I think my favorite album was the duet album he did with Roberta Flack (Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack). Their voices were brilliant together, and the album features his remarkable "I Who Have Nothing" and her "Killing Me Softly". Genius.

D's brought me all sorts of good stuff to listen to - Floetry and Teena Marie leap to mind - and in return I've lent her Cassandra Wilson and Nina Simone and Eva Cassidy, and my favorite Aretha album of all time (The Delta Meets Detroit).

I'm still processing Jolie Holland's Catalpa and Cassandra Wilson's Glamoured, but both albums demand to be listened to again and again (always a good sign) I quite liked new albums from Caitlin Cary, Joss Stone, and Eva Cassidy (but didn't fall down in love with them).

I meant to check out the new Aretha and Shelby Lynne, and to dig up old Freakwater and Louvin Brothers (specifically Tragic Songs of Life) albums, but never got around to it.

* January 19, 2004 Music
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