Sunday, March 27, 2011

Move Sunday: Winter's Bone

Image from here

I have to admit that the people and places in this movie are more familiar to me than is really comfortable. I had not-distant-enough relatives in Forsyth, Missouri, where the film was made, and a significant fraction of my extended family are scattered around the surrounding area. And there was a lot I recognized, in type if not in particular.

Winter's Bone is the story of a young woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence) whose meth-cooking father has put up their homestead for his bond. When it looks like he may not show up for his court date, she has to go find him, all the while caring for her two younger siblings and crazy mother.

There are several things I like about this movie. For one thing, it's refreshing to see a contemporary story populated entirely by people for whom neither the S&P 500 nor E! television have the least relevance. The dead simplicity of these characters and their lives is something that's worth noting, especially when we consider how much of our population might be represented by the characters in this film. And the film at least attempts to portray this small world without portraying the characters as stupid or unimportant.

Winter's Bone also features an interesting cast of characters, despite the cultural homogeneity of the people in the film. And it manages to stay surprising, in spite of a straightforward plot. Since it's an independent film, the local people and actual locations add to the authenticity.  The production values were quite good, especially for an independent film. The DVD edition includes an extensive "making of" segment that illustrates some of the challenges they faced.

The film does have a little too much of the Walking Tall style hillbilly mafia to ring 100% true for me. But just a touch. And some of the dialogue is a little over the top. But overall, it's a well-told and personal story, and a very engaging drama. I wouldn't exactly call it the feel-good movie of the year, but it's definitely a drama worth watching.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Just when you thought they couldn't get nerdier

I went to a popular retail electronics outlet the other day to a pick up another of the tablet computers that we have been using extensively in our research at work. I've always had mixed feelings about this particular store, not least because I have issues with customer support people who refer to themselves as geniuses. I used to have a job like that, and believe me, nobody there was a genius.

Anyway, I do admire the way that this particular company can make geek toys chic, and I'm consistently amazed at the things that become cool simply by bearing the logo. So I was only a little surprised when they delivered my new purchase in a bag that doubles as a backpack.

The best way to carry all your camping electronics

Don't be surprised if you see these things all over the place pretty soon. But of course the new ones will be half the size and have a camera.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Movie Sunday: The Station Agent

Image from here

By now you've probably realized that I have a soft spot for quiet little movies, and they don't get much smaller and quieter than Thomas McCarthy's The Station Agent. A small story, told in a small place with a small cast, it reminds me of a hand-painted postcard. I think McCarthy is a much better filmmaker than actor, having also directed The Visitor, and directed the just released Win Win, which I really look forward to seeing.

The Station Agent provided a breakout role for Peter Dinklage playing Finbar McBride, a solitary hobby store employee who loses his job and simultaneously inherits a tiny abandoned train station in rural New Jersey.  Though looking forward to living in isolation, McBride is beset -- or befriended, depending on your point of view -- by the local denizens. The ensemble includes Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, Raven Goodwin, Joe Lo Truglio, John Slattery, Richard Kind, and Paul Benjamin.

This film is both comedy and drama, with a heart that is tender and sad. Like The Visitor -- and I suspect Win Win -- The Station Agent explores the path from isolation to community, and the hazards inherent in the journey. It's a wonderful little film. Watch it. You'll like it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Behind the swell

Have you felt a change in the blogosphere in the last six months or so? For one thing, I don't think anyone says blogosphere any more. But more significantly, blogging seems to have passed its peak as a medium, or at least the phase of rapid growth and rabid press that typifies popular new things. There seem to be fewer new blogs, fewer new readers, and fewer posts. The mantle of all things to all people seems to have passed to Facebook and Twitter. This was confirmed for me in a recent NY Times article.

It's like when you're surfing*, and you ride the swells, waiting for the right wave, and eventually you see it coming and you start to paddle. Sometimes you start too late, and never really catch the break. Sometimes you go too early and it crashes over you. When it's perfect, you ride and cut and sometimes you even get tubed. But no matter what happens, eventually the wave passes and you're left behind, watching it go (if you're lucky), and you have to paddle back to catch the next one.**

Life is a little like that. Sooner or later, you notice that you're not thinking as much about changing the world as finding a way to enjoy the time you have left in it. You see the younger generation raising their kids, worrying about their careers, and making all the same mistakes you did, and realize that the peak has passed. At least, you do if you're paying attention. And whether you kicked ass or never really got started, there will be no paddling back for another.

It can be a jarring realization, and depressing or frightening for many people, but I find it strangely comforting. In blogging and in life, the pressure is off. Sort of. At least, I know what I've got to work with, more or less how I'm going to handle it, and I feel more comfortable working to my own purposes.  Sensing a decline in something is realizing that nothing lasts forever, including screw-ups.

It doesn't mean we have to retire to the porch and blog about knitting. I'm starting a brand new career, for crying out loud. But I am doing it with a different attitude than most of the twenty-somethings who comprise my competition. No matter how far I go, or where I end up, I will try very hard to treasure the experience.

Who knows, I may even take up surfing.

* I have never surfed, but I liked the Beach Boys okay. If I ever did hang ten, I would definitely call myself "Moondoggie."

** Yes, I know sometimes you can surf right to the beach, and chicks will run up to you as you pick up your board and toss the water from your hair, and you will all run up the beach to the bonfire and play guitar and do the twist, but I'm trying to build a metaphor here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh, sweet mystery of life

Anyone who has been paying even a little attention knows that my life has been sweet beyond imagining. From the beginning, I have enjoyed good love, good fortune, and good health. Practically every dream I've had has come true, with opportunities to find new ones and fulfill them. What challenges and misadventures I have had were generally the type that befall most of us. And while I didn't enjoy the 80's as much as the rest, my days now are more enjoyable and fulfilling than I think they have ever been.

So why then do I seem to feel the need to find one disappointing aspect of my life and dwell on it, sometimes to the point of letting my dissatisfaction obstruct my enjoyment of all that I have? It's one of the grand mysteries of the universe. And by universe I mean the one with me at the center. To make matters worse, it is often the same issue recurring, which assures me that the fault is my own.

It's a small albatross, as such things go. A tiny pendant, really. At a time when the level of suffering that others endure is so plain before me, I am ashamed to even consider it. On good days I assume that the restlessness and mostly benign ambition that drives me to be a serial dreamer also keeps me from ever being totally contented. In less charitable moods I feel like a sort of defective, self-created Tantalus, full and surrounded by sustenance, but never satiated.

If you're getting tired of listening to an obviously over-priveliged white guy wax morose about his self-imposed misfortune, you're not alone. It was the same reaction that prompted me to write this post. But it will get better. It always does.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Movie Sunday: Grey Gardens

Images from here. And here.

Like many young people, I experimented with thespianism in high school and college. I wasn't really very good, but it left me with an appreciation for the difficulty of professional acting. And I've always liked crazy people. So this pair of movies was right up my alley.

That's right, there are two movies called Grey Gardens, and if you accept this mission you need to watch them both.*  Both are about Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived like hermits in a rambling mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, and got crazier by the day as the house fell down around them. They had a lot of cats, and raccoons that they may or may not have thought were cats.

The original film is a documentary made in 1975. Some press in the early seventies had caused enough  family embarrassment that Jackie O and her sister dumped enough money into the place so that it would meet code. It also got the Maysles brothers interested enough to come follow them around the house with cameras. But even having a film crew there apparently didn't convince the Edies to pick up after themselves or take out the garbage.

HBO made the second Grey Gardens two years ago, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore cast as the Edies. Many of the shots in the film mirror scenes from the documentary, but the story covers much of the two women's lives.

The acting is what fascinated me about the HBO version. Actors almost always pull traits or behaviors from real people when they are building characters. But building a character who is a real person, especially one who has appeared on film, must be a special challenge. Both women do an excellent job. They are as good as Brian Keith's Teddy Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion, which is high praise coming from me. I have to give a slight edge to Jessica Lange. Critics really loved Drew Barrymore's performance, and it was certainly very good, but I didn't think she was quite able to capture the East Coast intensity of the real little Edie. It's not her fault. She's from California.

So if you like old crazy women, this is the pair of films for you. If not, just watch The Fifth Element again. You really can't see that too many times.

* Actually, there are a number of plays and books as well, but let's not go overboard.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Watch watch

So I've been wearing two watches for two months now, mostly just to see what people would say. Know what people have said? Nothing. Nothing at all. Not a single person has made a comment. I think I've caught a couple of people noticing, but mostly I think we pay so little attention to each other that most people don't even realize that there is anything different.

Also, I got a paper accepted to a conference someplace really nice, which is a first for me. The best I've ever done before was Tampa. Typically I end up going to Dallas, or Alabama somewhere. I won't say exactly where this one is, but they have poi. And our President claims he was born there. My ex-wife was also born there. I guess no place is perfect.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Movie Sunday: Secondhand Lions

Image from here

So my movie selections may have been a little Duvall-heavy lately, but that is because he is currently my favorite actor. And Secondhand Lions is one of the most enjoyable movies I have seen in a long time. It's almost a perfect story. And by "perfect story," I mean the story is ridiculous and awful. Or could be awful, if it weren't so well executed. It's a coming of age story built of cliches and decorated with ridiculous boyish fantasies. It could easily have devolved into a National Lampoon's Vacation movie.

But using the magic of talent and vision, the people who made Secondhand Lions instead perform magic. It was written and well directed Tim McCanlies, without resorting to film school tricks, which is apparently quite tempting for new(ish) directors. But McCanlies has been around movies for a long time as a writer, and was apparently paying attention.

The acting was just superb. Duvall should be in the Smithsonian or something, and Haley Joe Osment shows depth well beyond his years. I really look forward to seeing him grow up. Michael Caine is, well he's Michael Caine. And the chemistry between these three is what really makes the movie. If you're not a little verklempt by the end of the film, you probably weren't paying attention.

So if you are a person who has a hard time with unrealistic stories, and all of your favorite shows are CBS crime dramas, you might want to skip this one. On the other hand, if you love good acting, and you can put up with tall tales and larger than life characters, Secondhand Lions is one you will want to see.