A Thanksgiving Weekend of ’07 Films

This weekend, other than spending some quality time with gf, her family and my beloved , turkey-loving dog, and spending an unhealthy amount of time discovering the bottomless diversions of Facebook, I managed to watch four new films. I rate them all about the same – each are solid and recommendable, though none would make my top 10 for the year – but between the four of them there’s a world of emotional responses covered.

Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)

screened Thursday, November 22, 2007 in Exton PA IMDb

I liked this somewhat more than The Squid and the Whale. Editing is still too choppy and rushed at times for my tastes, the embarrassments and family dysfunction heaped upon with excessive preponderance, and yet it comes together. It’s much better paced than its predecessor and as such it helps the dystopia-on-the-Hamptons congeal into a credible-if-hyperbolized world through which flow constant streams of neurotic lava. Performances are first rate – Nicole Kidman ably takes the mantle of bitch-goddess like a 21st century contemporization of Davis/Crawford, and a game Jennifer Jason Leigh her hapless foil. Not to everyone’s tastes, it may seem to some that Baumbach still has an ax to grind against his family let alone humanity as a whole – but somehow I don’t disbelieve that such people as these exist. In fact with each year I live it becomes easier to see it.

Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

screened Friday, November 23, 2007 at the Regal Cinemas Downington IMDb

Came into this one hearing both raves (i.e. Todd McCarthy for Variety) and razzes (Robert Wilonsky at the Village Voice).  Easily the most entertaining film of the weekend, it’s a lot of fun for the most part, with revisionist fairy tale twists more clever and less slight than in Shrek (the “Happy Working Song” number with cockroaches, pigeons and rats doing cleanup work a la Snow White on a posh Upper West Side apartment is the highlight for me).  As far as substance, the film takes as many of its cues from Pretty Woman (girl with heart of gold redeems callous knight in business suit) as any of the old cartoons.  And as with Julia Roberts’ winsome hooker, if it weren’t for Amy Adams I suspect the proceedings would be unbearable; it’s her unironic relish as the irrepressible storybook heroine that carries the proceedings.   The film’s last act doesn’t quite hold up to what precedes it; Adams’ arrival at a costume ball in an elegant modern dress doesn’t have quite the stunning effect it aims for; and the expectedly climactic showdown between Adams and evil stepmother Susan Sarandon (who doesn’t get nearly enough screentime) is uninspired; as a result the film as a whole doesn’t linger much afterwards.

Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelley)

screened Saturday, November 24, 2007 on DVD in Astoria, NY IMDb

I was chiefly interested in this film after reading a couple of accounts that this was the feminine corrective to Knocked Up – so it surprised me that this film gives even less consideration towards abortion as a viable option for unwanted pregnancy (and I don’t buy that the film’s Southern milieu has anything to do with it, since the characters seem pretty removed from any Bible Belt pro-life influence).  That aside, the film is a winning portrait of a woman’s coming into her own, endowed with Shelley’s direction, not dissimilar from her old mentor Hal Hartley in its boxy dialogues (Nathan Fillion seems to be Martin Donovan reincarnate), though with a touch more warmth emanating from the fine ensemble, offsetting the cold diffidence of Kerri Russell channeling Kelly McGillis of yesteryear.
No Country for Old Men (2007, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)

screened Sunday, November 25 2007 at the City Cinemas 1,2,3 in New York, NY IMDb

“This may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it left me feeling rotten.”  This is what Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Fargo, and while I don’t agree with him on that film, I’m apt to  say as much about this comeback effort from the Coens.   I wouldn’t rate this film as low as he does, and I find his theory that American audiences embrace psycho killer characters during times of war more provocative than persuasive (personally I think these movies have a perennial appeal, like it or not).   All the same I share his concern that this film is as morally empty as it is exquisitely crafted.  Viewers can make their own mind up as to whether the impeccable detail realized by the makers – visual, aural, dramatic – serves in its own way (not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s prose) as a redemption via aesthetics to the horrors they recount.  Geoffrey O’Brien’s article in Film Comment is as good an argument for this as any I’ve read so far.  I had a good conversation with Ed Gonzalez before Thanksgiving (as of now it’s on his top ten list) where he was casting doubts on the many  ideological readings that have already sprung up on the internet, whereas he thinks it’s a masterpiece of style and genre execution (no pun intended).  I agree with him that the Coens probably don’t intend any more deep reading into this film as they have with any of their previous works (I think Raising Arizona is as deliberately symbolic as you’ll get with them); at the same time, I’m uncomfortable to chalk this up as a exemplary genre piece, as it’s clearly taking delight in burning some crime genre mainstays to the ground.  For one thing it seems like a rebuttal to the justice wins out, salt of the earth prevail sentiments that concluded Fargo.  But in relinquishing those old comforts, the Coens leave nothing left but stylized death and bleakness.  For god’s sake, even Salo had a happier ending. Fascinated with scenario and surface and nihilistic to the core, there’s something about this film that’s as rotten as the trail of corpses it leaves behind.

Kanye’s Show Goes On

Paris, Nov 17 (7 days after his mother’s death):

Kanye breaks down during show
Stuff.Co.Nz | Monday, 19 November 2007

Kanye West broke down in tears during a concert in Paris after dedicating a song to his late mother, it has been reported.

People.com said Kanye returned to the stage in Paris on Saturday night and performed for an hour before the intro to his song Hey Mama began.

“This song is for my mother,” West said, before breaking down in tears and leaving the stage.

An onlooker told People: “He just cracked. He was at the end of his concert and had just started to dedicate the song and then he just lost it completely.”

West returned after a 15 minute break to finish the show with his hit single Stronger.

Brussels, Nov 18 (8 days after his mother’s death):

Part 1:

Part 2:

watch them (and related clips on YouTube) before corporate pulls them off — from what I can tell these might be some of the most electric moments in recent live music.

Extras, extras

One of the reasons I’ve been absent from blogging post-marathon is that I’ve been spending a fair number of hours working with Cindi on editing the video extras for New Yorker’s upcoming DVD of Moolaade, the last film by the great African director Ousmane Sembene. This marks the fifth DVD that I’ve worked on with Cindi and New Yorker (the others include Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day, Hong Sang-soo’s Woman Is the Future of Man, and Abdherramane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness). I haven’t seen too much press about these extras on the web or elsewhere, though I’m glad to see an increasing number of reviewers like Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver and others praise Cindi’s efforts at raising the video transfer, audio and extras quality of New Yorker discs (long a target of derision among discerning DVD enthusiasts).

I’m glad that DVD Talk offered an enthusiastic review of a recent and underpublicized African film, Adanggaman by director Roger Gnoan M’Bala. He singled out for praise the 10 minute video I produced with Cindi and Dr. Fritz Umbach, professor of history at John Jay College in New York:

An informative 10 minute lecture by the occasionally didactic Dr. Fritz Umbach gives some illuminating background information on the historical context and imagery of the film. In fact, I’d recommend watching the documentary before the feature, as it gives away no spoilers and provides in-depth information that only augments understanding the film. There’s also an excellent interview with director Roger Gnoan M’Bala contained in the insert.

Cindi points out that “didactic” as defined in Merriam Webster is “a: designed or intended to teach; b: intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment” and that is certainly the case with this video. It was a pleasure working with Fritz, and I learned a lot about the cultural and economic subtexts behind the Colonial-African slave trade while editing his elucidating introduction to the film. I hope you get a chance to see our work on this disc.

Back from the five boroughs

It’s been two Sundays since one of the most unforgettable days of my life, running in the NYC Marathon. I’m still at a loss as to how to account for the experience here, but here are some photos – see if you can spot me on the left among the thousands running up Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn.

I’ll just bullet point some highlights and reflections —

– First off, I beat most of my goals, which were a) to finish; b) to finish ahead of Diddy’s 4:14 finish time from 2003, as well as my friend Eric’s time of 4:04 from 2003, and the big mark of 4 hours. My final finish time was 3:56:26, not bad for a first timer. My roommate Ed made an even more impressive debut – 3:28, which beat his original goal of 3:30 (though he was aiming for the 3:10 which would have landed him an automatic entry in the Boston Marathon).

This photo was clearly taken towards the end of my run – at least I’d like to think that I didn’t look this grim throughout the entire run. On my left wrist are my iPod, which indeed proved an invaluable motivation throughout the race, recent ban on iPods in marathons be damned. Highlights include “Baba O’Reilly” in Brooklyn and “Run Like Hell” in Greenpoint. And I wasn’t so tuned in to my music that I was tuned out to what was around me – I heard plenty of cheering throughout and high-fived a dozen or so kids along the way. There really is nothing quite like the spectacle of running with a sea of thousands of heads bobbing in front of you in one massive flow of humanity, and there were moments when I felt truly connected to a force much greater than myself moving me forward with everyone else. Those were definitely the best parts of my run.

Otherwise I, being a marathon novice, probably spent too much time in the first half of the race fighting my way past the sardine-packed field. I did go slow at first, taking the advice of many running sites and runners, but I still felt the impulse to run past people. At mile 9 I was feeling so good that I started running alongside the 3:40 pace team, and kept up with them for about 3 miles. I think that proved to be a mistake as I peaked by midway in the race and gradually dissipated my stamina, especially when I got to the grueling uphill stretches going both up and down Manhattan. Here is a chart from the Nike+ website of my pace throughout the race (it shows 27 miles as my Nike+iPod kit was slightly miscalibrated, but you still get the general idea of how the race went for me).

You can also go to http://nycmarathon.org/training/simulation.php to view a simulation of my run and compare results from other runners from 2001-2007. (Try looking up “Sean Combs” from 2003 to see me match up with Diddy).

At mile 21 I started my way up the most dreaded stretch of the race, 2 miles of steady incline along Fifth Ave leading to Central Park. Fortunately Cindi and my buddy Eric were waiting for me at the start of this brutal stretch, and Eric (shown to my left here) actually joined me at this point wearing the NYC Marathon jersey and a name tag to blend in with the pack. Eric was a real ham, waving at the crowd and egging them on to yell and cheer along the way. Best of all he was wearing a name tag with my name on it so people were cheering my name for the last five miles. This wasn’t as motivating as one would expect though, a) because at this point I was so mentally numb that not much was registering with me — that look in my eyes says it all. The music I was listening to at this point (Ramones live and Kanye West’s “Stronger” – may he and his mother find peace after her tragic death this past week) was the best I had going for me but I couldn’t seem to run any faster no matter how much I tried. Secondly, having strangers yell your name isn’t as powerful as seeing or hearing your friends — as was proven when I spotted my friends Will and Joyce in my old neighborhood of Boerum Hill, leading to my fastest five mile stretch of the race.

There was a bit of comedy near the finish as Eric and I turned the corner at Columbus Circle and entered the Park for the final 500 meters. People on the sidelines started pointing at Eric and yelling that he didn’t have an official number. Finally a volunteer ran out and grabbed him by the arm to pull him off the course. I was slightly distracted by the incident but at this point I had to finish the race, and pushed through the longest 400 meters of my life to cross the final marker. I was happily reunited with Cindi and Eric an hour later outside the park and hobbled home victorious.

That evening I watched the marathon highlights with Cindi and roommates Ed and Sal, checking if we might spot ourselves in any of the coverage – no luck but it was amazing to see Paula Radcliffe run a brilliant race after two years away from the sport to have her child. Later I tried to leverage my victory into a free meal at the Park Avenue Grill near my apartment – but all I got was a couple glasses of ice to put on my knees as I ate my one pound burger, the most indulgent thing I’ve had to eat over the past several weeks of pasta dishes.

I haven’t been on a run since November 4; I’m enjoying sleeping a little bit longer in the mornings, drinking beer and tending to other parts of my life. I thought I’d be back to blogging regularly but I’ve had to focus on getting the seventh draft of my script done. I have three video essays and reviews for the Shooting project on tap, one involving a special guest. I’m hoping Turkey day will afford some time to get me up and shooting again. In the meantime I’m still basking in the victory of November 4. I’m not sure if I’ll do it again – it’s a matter of having time to do it. If I do it again I will probably bring a camera along to capture as many sights and sounds of this amazing event as I can.

Lastly I’m very happy to report that as of now I’ve raised over $3,600 for Team Continuum, a charity that aids cancer patients with their daily living needs as they fight illness. That’s over $1,000 more than my goal of $2620. Thanks to all of you who pledged and donated. (btw for anyone who took me up on the Diddy Double, pay up! I am Diddy’s daddy). You can still donate by going to my page on Team Continuum. Alternatively, my roommate and Slant Magazine editor Ed Gonzalez is still about $300 shy of reaching his fundraising goal for Team Continuum, and he finished a half hour faster than I did, so he deserves support for his tremendous effort. Please go to his page on Team Continuum and donate if you please.

Thanks everyone. Looking forward to posting about movies again…