June 3, 2008

Artist Discovery: Glasvegas

Posted in Music at 12:41 am by Calico Jack

Glasvegas is a new band hailing from Glasgow (note the influences in their name), and they’ve been getting quite a bit of buzz on the other side of the pond. Their debut album will be released sometime this fall — until then, they’ll be performing at pretty much every music festival in the UK. Here’s a video of their recent performance at Later…with Jules Holland:

February 4, 2008

Artemis Eternal

Posted in Movies at 11:51 pm by Calico Jack

I’ve talked before about my friend Jessica Stover, how her commitment to excellence in Hollywood — something oft lacking in an era of sequels and endless remakes — has gathered passionate fans from all over the world to support her work. Now the website for her latest project is up and running, and I encourage everyone to check it out and financially contribute if able. Artemis Eternal is a short sci-fi film currently in preproduction, and — more importantly — is being financed independently. There is no Hollywood studio backing, no focus-grouped control over thematic elements, and no slavish adherence to the lowest common denominators in mainstream film. For many of us, that is reason enough to support Artemis Eternal; but I have something more: I know Jessica, and I believe in her work. I believe in her strongly enough to lend financial support to a film that I know nothing about, save the title. You might think this is blind faith, but it’s exactly the opposite. I’ve read Jessica’s blog for years, and I’ve talked to her quite a few times about Hollywood and about filmmaking. We’ve debated, discussed, and praised films, not only in a general sense but also their structure and coherence and writing and technique. And one thing has always been abundantly clear: Jessica Stover is an exceptional filmmaker.

So go check out Artemis Eternal‘s gorgeous website. Follow the timeline, and learn how a movie is created and made. And if you find that you believe as much as I and many others do, consider making a donation to this project, as you’ll be making a difference in the most literal of ways. Declare your support for a revolution in film. And, in Jessica’s own words,

“So forget everything you know about filmmaking, take a moment to examine your lifestyle and how much media and story you consume, think about what that means to you, give it all a moment…. And give it all up: All the years of marketing and E! News Live and red carpets and merchandizing and disappointing opening weekends and poor theater experiences. Give it up, walk with us and imagine the wider world that exists outside that conglomerate-controlled island.

This is the art of the possible.”

Are you in?

February 3, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Technical Awards, Take 1

Posted in Movies at 2:47 pm by Calico Jack


Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men
Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman for Juno
Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

We’ll have to eliminate Julian Schnabel immediately, since it’s rather unlikely that he could win Best Director without having his film nominated for either Best Picture or Best Foreign Film. Jason Reitman has had absolutely no buzz for Juno; the same goes for Tony Gilroy. It ultimately comes down to a clash of the titans, to use a tired cliché. My money is on the Coen brothers, since it’s long overdue for their award. But the Academy might feel the need to share the love and give Anderson the director nod while recognizing No Country for Old Men in the picture category. It’s happened many, many times before…


Brad Bird for Ratatouille
Diablo Cody for Juno
Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
Tamara Jenkins for The Savages
Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl

I personally think this is Juno‘s strongest category, as the tale of a performer-turned-screenwriter is just the kind of rags-to-riches story the Academy likes to highlight. “See, you can do it too!” There is a dark horse potential for Brad Bird, since Ratatouille has gotten nearly unanimous praise; but Diablo Cody is the one to beat. I’m personally happy to see a nod in there for Lars and the Real Girl; I know some despised the film, but I’m glad it wasn’t completely overlooked come Oscar season.


Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Sarah Polley, Away From Her

I’d prefer to throw darts at a target than try to guess the winner of this category, and I doubt someone could make a stronger case for one of these films than any other. I do think it’s unlikely that voters will give the same nominee(s) both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; therefore my completely tentative pick goes to Anderson. There is a lot of Atonement-hate going around, and I think that Away From Her‘s screenplay was actually one of the weaker parts of that film going around. Once I see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tomorrow, I’ll be able to make a more educated guess about its chances.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

I’m hoping against hope that the first film on this list gets the Oscar, but there is a strong possibility that Roger Deakins might split the vote against himself, since he’s nominated for both The Assassination of Jesse James… and No Country for Old Men. I’d be quite happy with a win by Seamus McGarvey for Atonement, however; and Robert Elswit’s work for There Will Be Blood is also quite astonishing. Consider this pick wishful thinking, although I think that there isn’t a film listed here that I would be disappointed with.


American Gangster
The Golden Compass
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

This category encompasses both art direction and set decoration, but does not include costume design. My money is on Atonement, although I’m wondering if Sweeney Todd might pick up the win instead. There isn’t anything particularly striking about American Gangster‘s designs, and The Golden Compass is a piece of terrible filmmaking any way you want to look at it. And I just don’t think that There Will Be Blood‘s spare set decoration likely to be rewarded in a category that previously gave the statue to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Moulin Rouge!, Pan’s Labyrinth and Chicago.

January 26, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Acting

Posted in Movies at 11:34 pm by Calico Jack

And the nominees are:


George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

Having just seen There Will Be Blood last night, I must say that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar to win. He is the best part of a good but somewhat underwhelming film, and his teetering-on-madness performance is riveting in every scene. George Clooney suffers from the same problem he always has, in that he never seems to come across as playing anything but a version of…George Clooney. Sometimes the script manages to wrangle in his natural charisma, such as in the Ocean’s trilogy, but Michael Clayton didn’t deserve a Best Actor recognition. Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen were both quite good in their respective films, and would probably be a decent contender in any other year; but there simply isn’t any way they’re going to compete against Day-Lewis. My pick for dark horse, however, is Tommy Lee Jones’ mournful, haunting portrayal of an Army father searching for clues to his son’s disappearance. In the Valley of Elah is unnecessarily didactic, but I hold Jones’s acting in the highest regard.


Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney in The Savages
Ellen Page in Juno

My pick for Best Actress is based mostly on the goodwill that Ellen Page seems to have engendered amongst even the most hardened and cynical of critics, who acknowledge that she sparkles in this titular role, regardless of whatever problems there may be with the rest of the film. But there are several other noteworthy performances here, including Marion Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf and Julie Christie as an elderly woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t seen The Savages, so I can’t comment on Laura Linney’s performance, but I will suggest she is owed an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Cate Blanchett is her own worst enemy in also being nominated for a supporting actress role for I’m Not There. Ellen Page, however, has all of the momentum, and this is one of Juno‘s strongest categories.


Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

My projections here are based mostly on wishful thinking, rather than a grim acceptance of what will happen on Oscar night. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely adore No Country for Old Men, one of the finest films I’ve seen in many years; and Javier Bardem’s characterization of ruthless killer Anton Chigurh is a wonderful piece of acting. Yet for this award, my heart belongs to Casey Affleck’s performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His is a utterly complete, startling immersion into a character unlike anything else depicted this past year. I’ll be shocked if he wins, but sometimes you have to cheer for the underdog. And any of the other three actors winning would be an enormous upset. I simply don’t see that happening.


Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Ruby Dee in American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton

Of the four categories here, this one is the most difficult to predict. Every single one of these performances is tremendous, and I have a feeling this award could swing any different way without it being considered unjust or an upset. I do think Ruby Dee, Amy Ryan, and Cate Blanchett have a slight edge over Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett, the former because it’s Vanessa Redgrave’s soliloquy which seems to leave Atonement‘s most indelible impression, and the latter because, well, she’s split her own vote. My tentative pick is Amy Ryan’s searing performance as a Boston mother looking for her kidnapped daughter; it’s full of the kinds of things Academy Award voters look for in an acting role. However, she faces stiff competition from Ruby Dee, who might get the nod based on lifetime achievment (she’s long overdue for something); and Tilda Swinton stands a decent chance of scooping up Michael Clayton‘s only acting award. I think the momentum lies with Amy Ryan, even after Blanchett grabbed the Golden Globe earlier this month. But I’m quite prepared to be wrong on this one.

January 23, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Best Picture

Posted in Movies at 3:32 am by Calico Jack

It’s that time of the year again; this morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the February 24th awards show. And as an aside, do most people realize just how ridiculously complicated the nominee-picking process actually is? I always assumed it was based on a simple formula that prioritized someone’s first choice over their fourth or fifth. And it does — except that’s only the first step in a very involved procedure. For more, check out Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch blog. One would think there could be a simpler way…

Anyway, now is the chance for every film critic to rub his or her hands in glee and prognosticate the Academy Awards winners. My personal track record has been decent but not great over the past five years or so that I’ve been doing this seriously, but I’d like to think that I’m getting better each awards season. This year, however, gives us some categories that are nearly impossible to predict, and I suspect that we’ll see a few surprises come Oscar time. The list of nominees follows, with my prediction in bold (if I feel comfortable making one).


Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

This one is quite tricky, and I’m certain that an excellent case could be made for any of the five to receive the top award. The only way that Atonement will win, however, is if enough voters split their ballots between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, leaving the British period piece as the winner by default. It fits neatly into the “epic, romantic, sometimes-war-related drama” category that the Academy seems to embrace (see: The English Patient, Braveheart, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, Return of the King, Titanic, etc.) But I really don’t think it has a good chance of getting the award on its own merits, since almost nobody (myself included) thinks that it truly deserves to be called the best picture of the year (Golden Globe winner notwithstanding).

Juno has captured the heart of America over the past month, and if this show were left up to the public it would be the hands-down favorite. But there has been a growing critical backlash against the film in recent weeks, partly because Fox Searchlight overhyped it instead of letting box office receipts grow based solely on word of mouth. It’s also accused of having the most unrealistic dialogue of the year, if you believe the hyperbole. Yet Juno‘s biggest problem is that the Academy has been historically biased against comedies, and I’m not sure that will change this year.

Michael Clayton gained a huge amount of momentum over the holiday season, even though it flew under the radar of most people when it was released back in October. In my opinion, it’s one of the more overrated films of the year; I found nothing special about its hackneyed story of a conflicted corporate lawyer. But I will admit that it is well-made, and it has the prestige credentials to please the more conservative members of the Academy. And with its best director, actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress nominations, I’m going to pick it for a possible dark horse upset.

This leaves us with the two giants of the field: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I hope to (finally!) see the latter this weekend, which would leave me in a slightly better spot for making predictions. However, I know that quite a few critics seem to regard There Will Be Blood as straining for greatness but not quite reaching the goal, and its explosive performance by Daniel Day Lewis might help his Best Actor chances but actually hurt the film’s Best Picture chances. The Academy is, if nothing else, a staunchly conservative organization that has never truly embraced the immoderate, and There Will Be Blood might just be a little bit too bizarre to wholeheartedly recommend.

This leaves me with my money on No Country for Old Men, a film that I’ve hailed as the best of the year. It has the key supporting nominations — director, adapted screenplay, editing, cinematography — that often help a film’s chances for receiving the Best Picture award, and its nearly universal acclaim can’t hurt either. Even those who dislike the film recognize its technical brilliance and flawless filmmaking, which is about as good as one can get from a negative review. No Country for Old Men has been endlessly discussed, dissected, and debated over the past several months, and critics are still finding new ways to approach the film — something that can’t be said for any of the other nominees. It has everything the Academy is looking for in a Best Picture: powerful, layered performances, technical mastery (this will get overlooked by many, but the sound design is absolutely stunning), a thought-provoking final act, and the immaculate attention to detail, tone, and scope that the Cohen brothers have at the zenith of their career. No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films of the decade, and it should be celebrated on Oscar night as 2007’s masterpiece.

Now, I just realize that I listed a bunch of reasons why it should win, not why it will win. But I’m going with my gut on this one; I can’t help feeling this strongly about its chances. The only thing that could provide an upset is if it somehow gets conflated with There Will Be Blood; if voters are undecided between the two front-runners then neither might gain enough votes to take the top spot. Keep in mind that the entire Academy is eligible to vote for the Best Picture nominee, and it’s a well-known “fact” that quite a few people who vote in a category never see all of the nominees. There is a possibility of voters being undecided between the two front-runners and splitting the vote; then it becomes a free-for-all. I’ll be watching the buzz over the next month to see which of these five films will gain or lose momentum. But I’m crossing my fingers that the existentialist No Country for Old Men gets the recognition it deserves.

January 20, 2008

Noteworthy Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 2:47 am by Calico Jack

In my earlier post I mentioned that there were quite a few films that didn’t quite make my top 10 list, but which deserved recognition in their own right. They are presented here in alphabetical order, with a few comments after each:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — This is a quiet, reflective masterpiece about the mental deterioration of our nation’s most famous villain. Its cinematography is gorgeous and its plot exquisitely paced, and it missed my top 10 list by the thinnest of margins. It is quite probable that this film will actually grow stronger as the years pass and may eventually be remembered as one of 2007’s best movies.

“Away From Her” — Julie Christie deserves a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of a woman compelled to deal with the knowledge that Alzheimer’s is gradually stripping away her life, most poignantly her relationship with her longtime husband and soulmate. Their love for each other is the center of this moving, heartbreaking film, even as they lose nearly everything that held them together for so many years.

“Breach” — One of 2007’s most underrated films was this true-life story of Robert Hansen, an FBI agent who sold his nation’s secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. Chris Cooper is fascinating as a psychologically indecipherable agent and traitor, certain that he is smarter than everyone else but too proud to realize the trap being laid for him. Even knowing the eventual outcome does little to remove any suspense from this tightly crafted thriller.

“God Grew Tired of Us” — This inspiring documentary about several Lost Boys of Sudan focuses less on the deplorable situations in Africa from which these young men escaped and more on the struggles that they faced after being relocated to America. As they strive to adjust to a place where electricity and plumbing are common and closely-knit communities are nonexistent, the three young men also desperately try to retain their culture that they left behind. Their dreams, anxieties and frustrations are eloquently expressed in a film that ultimately shows how the power of hope can transform lives.

“Grindhouse” — This double feature doesn’t work nearly as well on DVD as one might think; splitting apart and expanding Tarantino’s car-chase “Death Proof” and Rodriguez’s zombie thriller “Planet Terror” only highlights each film’s weaknesses. But the original three-hour experience in a darkened movie theater is one of the most enjoyable of the year.

“Gwoemul” (The Host) — I really hope that this Korean monster film is eventually recognized for what it is: a smart, partly-satirical, always-entertaining thrill ride about a dysfunctional family forced to pull together after one of their own is kidnapped by a rampaging monster. There is more genuine emotion and human conflict here than any ten monster films put together, and the first ten minutes of this film show one of the best monster-on-the-loose scenes of all time.

“Hot Fuzz” — Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright top their beloved 2004 rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) “Shaun of the Dead” with their hilarious British sendup of buddy cop movies. This film works as both a satire and a worthy addition to the genre; it has explosions, guns, an inept small-town police force, a renegade swan, sea mines, and a host of other plot elements that combine into one extremely funny, thrilling homage to action movie clichés.

“La Doublure” (The Valet) — The French make light farcical comedies better than anyone else, a perfect example of which is this deftly plotted and utterly charming film about a valet who is paid to pretend he’s dating a supermodel in order that the model’s billionaire boyfriend keep his infidelity secret from his wife. As befitting a film drawing many of its inspirations from classic 1960s sex comedies, the various plots thicken with remarkable alacrity as nearly every character masquerades as something he or she is not.

“Lars and the Real Girl” — Ryan Gosling is one of the better actors in cinema today, and his skills are put to excellent use in this admittedly odd film about an painfully shy, insecure young man who comes out of his shell only after ordering a life-size doll off of the internet and imbuing it with a full-fledged personality as his supposed girlfriend Bianca. Her sudden appearance frightens and confuses Lars’s friends and neighbors, especially his brother and sister-in-law with whom she shares a house; but they eventually decide to play along with Lars’s delusions in order that he might break out of his self-imposed shell. This is a deceptively complex film whose quirkiness and oddball comedy never quite eclipse the underlying sense of tragedy and loss as Lars must deal with his past to face his future.

“Paris, Je T’Aime” — Twenty-two highly acclaimed directors from around the world each contributed to this wonderful collection of short films celebrating the city of Paris. Each of the eighteen selections is set in a different one of Paris’s many districts, giving a wildly diverse look at the culture, neighborhoods, and lives of the city’s residents. Not all of the shorts are as good as one might hope, especially with such prestigious names attached to them; but there are at least five or six gems in this montage (and a double handful of other good ones as well) that more than make up for the few that fizzle. This collection is full of romance and love, sadness and melancholy, hope and laughter — and above all else, life.

“3:10 to Yuma” — This remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford classic is a welcome return to the classic Western, where men lived by codes of honor and the lawless West still held challenges for those struggling to make a living in those harsh conditions. Christian Bale is marvelous as a financially desperate rancher paid to transport a notorious killer to a train bound for the Yuma prison, and Russell Crowe brings a particular kind of intensity to his role as the black-hatted outlaw with his own peculiar sense of honor. Those two performances elevate this film beyond the pedestrian and help to resurrect the genre that many had written off as nearly extinct. Between “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “No Country for Old Men,” it has been an amazing year for Westerns.

“28 Weeks Later” — The best horror film of the year is also a sequel to Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking 2002 film “28 Days Later,” managing to keep all of the dystopian terror of the original while adding a fair amount of political content by pointedly critiquing nation-building. That, however, is mere icing on a very bloody, very scary cake that never lessens its frantic, brutal pace to allow room for breathing. And it also does what only the best horror films are capable of: utterly embodying bleak hopelessness and despair.

“Waitress” — This bittersweet comedy-drama by the late Adrienne Kelly stars Keri Russell as a waitress and renowned pie-maker in a roadside diner trying to save enough money to enter a pie contest, thereby enabling her to leave her lout of a husband. But Jenna must also deal with two problems: her newly discovered pregnancy and a handsome young doctor seemingly more interested in her than in her pies. The decisions Jenna is forced to make, and the alternately hilarious and poignant ways in which she deals with her frustrations, make this film one of the most heartwarming of the year.

“Zwartboek” (Black Book) — Paul Verhoeven has directed the most complicated and involving film of his career with this tale of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Carice Van Houten is astonishingly vibrant as Rachel, a young woman forced to go undercover with the Nazi regime after her entire family is brutally murdered. Although it bears some of the trademarks of a Verhoeven film with its rather unsubtle emphasis on sex and violence, this film sheds most of its potential luridness by focusing on Rachel’s enormous internal struggle as she tries to balance her commitment to the resistance with her growing affection for a German officer. This is a lushly beautiful, compelling, and ultimately thought-provoking tribute to those who walked the thin line between heroism and treason.

Films I didn’t get a chance to catch in theaters in 2007: “There Will Be Blood,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Persepolis,” “I’m Not There,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Romance and Cigarettes,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Savages” and “American Gangster.”

Those will have to wait for a wider theatrical expansion or a DVD release, unfortunately.

December 31, 2007

Top 10 Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 3:39 am by Calico Jack

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not terribly fond of numerical lists — not in film criticism, at least. It seems rather insulting to ask someone who’s spent an entire year watching, dissecting, and discussing films to take those collected experiences and write a small paragraph for each of his or her favorites, as long as those favorites number exactly ten — no more, no fewer. Even more egregious is wanting a numerical ordering, as if one’s preferences can be so easily digested: I liked this movie slightly less than three others this year, but more than everything else, and this much more than the one immediately preceding. Voilà! Now you have number four on the list. If you’ve only seen a dozen or two movies during the past twelve months, ranking films shouldn’t be terribly difficult. But my unofficial count stands somewhere around 127 for the year, and picking and ordering the best from what I’ve seen is slightly more daunting.

The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity; but come December, nearly every critic dutifully produces his or her list to be analyzed and argued over. Some, like Tony Scott of the New York Times, manage to skirt around expectations and provide a fresh take on a rueful tradition. Others such as Roger Ebert carefully hew to reader expectations, but have quite a long list of other worthy films. And as much as I despise this practice of ranking movies, it won’t be going away anytime soon. In the most positive light, it can be a way to encourage a critic’s audience to watch movies that they might not otherwise bother to check out, since appearing on a top-ten list is a sign that the film is well worth seeing. It’s simply a byproduct of living in a sound-byte era, where many prefer their news and opinions given in small, easily-digestible chunks. And I must admit that compiling a list such as this is quite enjoyable, regardless of what my inner critic distastefully recoils against.

There are two caveats before I begin: First, all of the movies featured have had a U.S. theatrical release in 2007. Several were shown overseas last year before coming to the States, but I have to draw the line somewhere. And secondly, if you ask me whether these are my favorite films of the year or the ones I consider “best,” my answer is both. It sounds disingenuous, but there you have it. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens after viewing a film that expertly combines technical mastery (direction, cinematography, sound editing) and human emotion (screenplay, acting, scoring) into one great experience. Even the categories I listed just now aren’t nearly complete; and can in fact be detrimental if relied on too heavily while critiquing a film. Movies are often something greater (or less) than the sum of their parts, and those in the list that follows are the ones that holistically affected me the most.

10. “Ratatouille”

Pixar’s most recent film is also one of its best, surpassing even the excellence seen in “Toy Story” or “A Bug’s Life.” It might be a slight to call director Brad Bird an auteur of animated films for writing and directing both “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” because his latest work deserves to be recognized on the same level as anything else released in 2007. Endlessly inventive and visually lavish, “Ratatouille” has some of the most beautifully depicted vistas put on film this year. It also contains a few gentle but well-aimed jabs at the insularity of jaded critics, urging them to remember that love and passion for one’s work are just as important as technical merit. And the story of a rat who reaches for excellence, even when his friends and family are content to settle for mediocrity, will inspire those both young and old.

9. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”

This searing, gorgeously shot period piece set during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s was glaringly overlooked by audiences when it reached American theaters back in March. As rural Irish brothers fighting first against the British, then against each other, Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney give two powerful performances in this tale of a family tragically divided by differing views on the nature and obligations of freedom. Directed by Ken Loach, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” never shies away from depicting war in all of its brutality; but its focus lies elsewhere, demanding that the viewer consider not only why ordinary citizens decide to take up arms and give their lives for their country, but also how difficult it can be to stop the cycle of violence once supposed peace is achieved.

8. “The Bourne Ultimatum”

The kinetic third installment of the Jason Bourne trilogy is also the best action movie of the year. This series has grown steadily better with each film, and “The Bourne Ultimatum” ends the titular hero’s quest with a knockout punch to the audience’s jaw. As Matt Damon violently dispatches his enemies while searching for the truth behind his training as an assassin, director Paul Greengrass ensures that the audience feels every punch and every hit through frantic editing and jarring camera cuts. Jason Bourne is shown as increasingly haunted as the film progresses, sunken eyes set deeply into a hollow face and a tangible air of exhaustion hanging over his every gesture. But when Bourne needs to go into action, so does the film — pulse-pounding car chases, intelligent characters and wincingly visceral fights provide more thrills than any other blockbuster this year. Yet the biggest strength of “The Bourne Ultimatum” lies in its scriptwriting, which never relies on exposition to propel its complicated plot forward but instead prefers its revelations to come through the eyes of Bourne himself.

7. “Atonement”

The World War II-era Ian McEwan novel about class divisions and betrayal from whence this movie is adapted might, on first glance, seem nearly unfilmable. So much of the drama and emotion that defines the story comes not from conversation or action but from inner thoughts and, more importantly, misinterpretations of other characters’ motives. It is an astounding relief to discover that with “Pride & Prejudice” director Joe Wright at the helm, virtually all of the thematic elements of McEwan’s novel are preserved whole and unblemished. “Atonement” is a study of the repercussions of a young girl’s impetuosity and thoughtlessness, and how one single action can destroy the happiness in the lives of everyone it affects. Wright is a master at highlighting the struggles of his characters through lush cinematography and careful focus on body language, and a wonderful score by Dario Marianelli serves as a subtle foreshadowing to the events that lie ahead for the film’s characters. There are two scenes in this film that any movie would kill to have: an epic, minutes-long tracking shot of the British evacuation at Dunkirk, and a powerful coda that that asks whether one can ever truly atone for long-ago sins.

6. “Juno”

First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody penned this witty, heartwarming tale about a sixteen-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her best friend. Ellen Page is a marvel as the titular character, who shows a surprising level of maturity when faced with a difficult choice but isn’t quite as smart about the larger world as she thinks she is. After deciding to give her baby up for adoption, Juno forms a tentative relationship with the prospective parents, a yuppie couple fantastically played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Much of what makes “Juno” such a treasure lies not with its hilarious, quirky hipster dialogue but the way this film lets its characters develop from beginning to end, leading to quite a change in how the audience views several characters’ actions. “Juno” expertly mixes hearty laughs with touching observations, and it well deserves its place as best comedy of the year.

5. “The Lookout”

This gem of a film was released back in April and never quite gained the traction it needed to seep into audiences’ consciousness. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a star-making role as Chris, a former high school jock who suffers perpetual short-term amnesia after being responsible for a tragic accident. Years later he’s rooming with a sarcastic blind sage played by Jeff Daniels in one of the strongest performances of his career. Chris is still trying to adjust to his changed life when he meets a ready friend and seemingly helpful buddy in Matthew Goode; but like so much else in “The Lookout,” everything is not as it seems. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, but know that writer-director Scott Frank has crafted an utterly absorbing, unpredictable character study masquerading as a thriller, aided by some of the strongest dialogue of any film this year.

4. “Zodiac”

Unlike so many other procedurals that rely on quick crime-solving and tidy confessions to give an audience a sense of resolution, “Zodiac” focuses instead on the relentless and deadening efforts of those tasked with solving the series of brutal murders that occurred in the San Fransisco area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It isn’t a film driven by suspense but by obsession: obsession with details, obsession with geographical places, obsession with chronology and time. Each scene in “Zodiac” is carefully timecoded in order that the audience knows exactly how everything fits together, how each scene plays off of the one preceding and sets up the one to follow. It is also merciless in showing how even the most experienced of police officers and reporters can become so overwhelmed with details — murder scenes, aisles of evidence boxes piled on top of each other, eyewitness accounts, innumerable phone tips, handwriting samples, the killer’s own coded messages — that even with thousands of individual points of data, assembling those pieces into a coherent whole becomes nearly impossible. David Fincher has directed the best work of his career with “Zodiac,” a film which reminds the viewer that tidy closure is something oft found only in the movies.

3. “Once”

It will be very difficult to overpraise this small, low-budget Irish musical, but I’m going to give it my best shot. “Once” is set in Dublin over the course of just a few days, where street busker meets a Czech immigrant working as a flower seller. The two forge an instant bond, and together they produce some hauntingly beautiful music together. This film has been billed as a romance, but it’s a marketing mistake: any romance in “Once” is far purer and much less sexual than the meaning behind the term today. Both characters remain unnamed to signify the ordinariness of the situation they find themselves in, and it also helps to keep the focus on the achingly tender songs that they perform. Unlike most musicals, the songs in “Once” flow naturally in and out of the dialogue; they never feel forced or misplaced. In fact, nothing about this film ever strikes a false note; even the ending could have gone so many different, lesser ways, but the one shown is absolutely perfect. This is a film that deserves every positive adjective that can be given; it’s inspiring, heartfelt, charming, sweet without being cloying, and utterly uplifting.

2. “Das Leben Der Anderen” (The Lives of Others)

This film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film by narrowly beating out the superb “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which was my top film of last year. But due to a February release date in the United States, I’m able to put this moving and profound film on the list this year. “The Lives of Others” is a cautionary tale set in Berlin before the end of the Cold War, when the East German government kept careful watch on its citizens deemed most likely to fall prey to the dangers of free thought and capitalism and no one was immune from state scrutiny, especially not those of the artistic class. There are two central characters in “The Lives of Others”: one a socialist playwright, Georg Dreyman, who outwardly espouses all of the necessary ideals for staying in the good graces of the ruling class while secretly harboring revolutionary ideals; and the other a career Stasi officer assigned to surveil Dreyman after a corrupt bureaucrat decides he wants to have Dreyman’s actress girlfriend for himself. The two characters are never seen on-screen together, but it is the choices that they both make — and the reasons behind them — that give this film such an enormous emotional punch. As Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Mühe gives a deceptively minimalist performance, barely revealing any emotion save for quick, slight facial adjustments. It is a classic study in understatement, essential for showing the growing humanization of his character; while he continues to spy on Dreyman and his friends and family, he gradually starts to understand how corrupt the current political system is. “The Lives of Others” is a powerful indictment of the repressive political system that was so cancerous to eastern Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, serving as a sobering reminder that even today, we must be vigilant against internal threats to our freedom. And the moving final scene of this film is one of the best of the decade.

1. “No Country for Old Men”

There really wasn’t any difficulty in deciding which movie should be my top pick for best film of 2007. This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse novel is both a mastery of filmmaking and the most haunting, engrossing film of the year. I find myself pondering this film weeks after seeing it for a second time; its images and statements about human nature and the futility of fighting Death are indelibly etched on this critic’s brain. Joel and Ethan Coen have directed a stark, meticulously crafted film that plays out like a fascinating, unnerving West Texas chase thriller before transforming into something more existential in the third act. “No Country for Old Men” may well be the most unpredictable film of the year for reasons for which I will not describe here, but every single twist and turn is all-consuming. Josh Brolin plays a machinist who stumbles upon $2 million in a suitcase after a drug exchange turned sour in the desert, and Javier Bardem is utterly terrifying as Anton Chigurh, an implacable killer hired to recover the cash regardless of who gets in his way. Tommy Lee Jones gives his most world-weary performance as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a longtime Texas lawman unable to cope with the increasing brutality and random violence of the world around him. These three men circle around each other for much of the film, each with his own way of looking at the world but never quite able to prepare for that which does not fit neatly into their patterned lives. It isn’t until the end of the second act that “No Country for Old Men” fully embraces its allegorical leanings with an unexpected twist that questions much of what has come before. And the final act’s coda is reliant on two scenes that utterly frustrated many in the theater, but which I think are absolutely essential for understanding the film as a whole. “No Country for Old Men” is utterly magnificant, with powerful performances and lyrical dialogue that has so much meaning beyond the mere words spoken — a bleak, sober masterpiece that should be regarded as one of the great films of the last thirty years.

This was a very strong year for cinema, and I have at least ten other films that deserve honorable mentions on the list — but that will have to wait for its own entry. Also, there are still several films I haven’t been able to catch yet, most notably “There Will Be Blood.” But the previous ten films are my picks for best of the year, and each is well worth your time. “Ratatouille,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Lookout,” “Zodiac,” “Once,” and “The Lives of Others” are all available on DVD now.

December 25, 2007

Artist Discovery: Battles

Posted in Music at 2:11 pm by Calico Jack

Perhaps this is a tentative step back into blogging after yet another hiatus. Either way, the single “Atlas” from Battles’ LP Mirrored is one of those songs that I suspect a lot of people simply won’t grok, for lack of a better term. It’s prog-rock at its most rhythmic, with a pulsing drum that accentuates…oh, just watch it yourself:

I can understand how off-putting it might be to those trained on top-40 blandness. For sheer exuberance and stomp-along thrill, however, it has my vote as single of the year. It’s as addictive as my favorite song from last year, Kasabian’s “Shoot the Runner”:

November 6, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 6

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 6:58 pm by Calico Jack

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I got off of the elevator at the fourth floor and headed down the Davy’s gray-colored corridor to my office at the end of the hallway. I would have taken the stairs, but I didn’t want my client to see her potential future employee not using the elevator. Some people are insanely weird about trivial things like that. They view everything in terms of power, and my walking up the stairs could signify that I was a non-person, a grunt of no consequence who was fit only for carrying bags and parking cars. Like I said, it’s absolutely ridiculous, but I had learned my lesson over the past year or so. Those with the fame, power, or money to spare tend to view everything around them in terms of themselves. And if you’re not careful in presenting exactly the right kind of image, one false step could mean the end of your contract or even your career.

The woman standing in front of my doorway turned her head as I approached. I slowed my pace a half-step or so to give me a few extra seconds to analyze her-the more information you have when dealing with a potential client, the better you’ll be able to play to her strengths and weaknesses, such as using tonal adjustment to subtly alter your client’s emotions and get her to agree with you. Sometimes it means playing a foil to whatever kind of impressionistic persona they’re giving off, or even (depending on the circumstances) doing a ridiculously valiant attempt at sucking up. These are well-used forms of manipulation, and although I had a quiet distaste for underhanded persuasion, I wasn’t about to let my feelings get in the way of a good job.

It’s odd how much information you can gather just by viewing someone’s appearance. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I was trained in the art (that sounds awfully pretentious, doesn’t it?) of collecting and analyzing personal details, and this woman was sending me quite a few. Not quite middle-aged, probably in her late-30s or so, with artfully dyed brunette hair piled up in a messy concoction and the kind of preternaturally smooth skin around her eyelines that suggested more than a few injections of Botox. Wealthy, then, although she made no effort to be flashy, with unassuming jeans and a lightweight viridian coat that was at most a year out of style. She had a wedding band on her finger, and an engagement ring with a diamond large enough to let me live quite comfortably for several months. Perhaps she married into money and never quite embraced it? A small designer purse was at her side, and her sunglasses were perched just above her forehead, even though there wasn’t a hint of sun outside. As I came closer she started rubbing her purse strap, most likely a nervous tic that had never been eliminated. Put all of that together, and I had a pretty good idea of what she was going to say.

I reached her and held out my hand, giving her a confident smile. “Hi, I’m Tyler McKinley. My apologies on your wait; shall we come inside?” One of the important things to avoid was any sort of excuse for waiting clients, even if they arrived twenty minutes before their appointment. Just apologize briefly and move on; if you need to do some fawning the time for that will come later.

She shook my hand, not timidly but not firmly either, and had to consciously force herself to meet my eyes. I slid my key card through the door lock (if I ever lose that I’m going to be in big trouble), and pushed open the heavy wooden door with my nameplate affixed to the front. Instead of the usual black letters on faux gold look that were ubiquitous in corporate America, I had spent a fair amount getting my name and title laser-etched into an acrylic block. It was quite impressive to look at, although most likely a bit too flashy for what I needed. Still, every time I opened the door and saw “Tyler McKinley, Private Investigator” I felt a little rush of pride.

She followed me inside and received her first look at my office: a mere two rooms (three if you include the half-bathroom). The one she entered was my main office, a relatively sparse room with a large glass desk facing away from the window. I usually tried to keep my desk clean and orderly, although I had lost that battle a long time ago and was now merely fighting a delaying action. I had several plush chairs for my clients to sit on to give them a sense of relaxation, and a five-door cabinet against the far wall. Most of my files are kept online, with data backups in several offsite locations, but for some reason clients expect private investigators to have a filing cabinet where they store all of their sensitive data. It’s another one of those quirks you have to deal with in this line of work. The back room wasn’t for clients to enter, and it was actually where I did most of my office work. There was a mini-fridge stocked with both soda and alcohol, and a microwave and Foreman grill where I could do a slapdash bit of cooking if I were staying late-o r early, depending on the assignment. I had a 42-inch plasma TV hanging from the wall opposite the fridge; it was a gift from a client after I found out which of his employees was embezzling over a hundred thousand dollars from the company. That job hadn’t been difficult; after eliminating most of the obvious suspects (including my client himself), all I was left with were a few employees who, with a little bit of skill and luck, could put themselves in a position to misappropriate funds. One person I tracked had recently gotten a new girlfriend; and as the old cliché says, “Follow the money.” She wasn’t wealthy, but she was sporting a rather expensive purse and had just leased a BMW 3-series, neither of which she could afford on her own. Put that together with a few other odd things, and I had my suspect. Actually, my client could most likely have pieced all of that together on his own, but those with enough cash to burn to hire my services usually prefer to have someone else do their legwork. So I received my usual fee for the job, and the plasma arrived at my door a week later. I’m not complaining.

My new client only sat down in one of the chairs after I had done the same behind my desk. Like all potential clients, I never ask for their names over the phone when they are making appointments. It is more of a convenience to them than anyone else; if they decide not to use my services, there is no possibility that I could go to the press with a story like “Famous actor X seen talking with private investigator; what possible secrets could he be hiding?” Of course, what I don’t mention is that even with email and phone anonymizers, it wouldn’t be too time-consuming to find out who is really on the other end of the line. But I don’t get paid for that, and there is usually another client waiting to take the first one’s place, so I almost never bother to do any digging.

The woman took a deep breath and, pasting a not-very-convincing smile on her face, asked “Tyler McKinley-are you by any chanced related to President McKinley?”

With a surname like that, I’d had long practice at giving people an answer of just the right length. It was time for me to simulate cheeriness, and pretend that I had never been asked that particular question before. “As a matter of fact, I am-but not directly. My great-great grandfather married his sister and took her name. McKinley himself had two daughters, but they both died in early childhood.”

She smiled and nodded, but her attention clearly wasn’t on my oft-rehearsed explanation. So I decided to press the issue a little bit. “Is there something I may help you with, Ms…?”

Ms…? looked a bit startled, then regained her composure and faced me directly. “Jackson, sorry. Emma Jackson .”

“You don’t happen to be related to our third president, do you?” I suggested with a smile. She mutely shook her head no, and lapsed back into her pseudo-funk.

I’d learned not to be irritated by clients’ unwillingness to divulge whatever it was they were in my office for. Sometimes you just had to be patient and let them reveal slowly. Other times, however, you could sense that they were just waiting to explode all over you, leaving a sticky verbal mess. Emma Jackson was the latter. So I slightly leaned forward in my chair to give her a sense of intimacy, like she could feel comfortable telling me whatever it was that was troubling her, and quietly suggested, “Ma’am, I can’t start to help you until I know what your situation is.”

That obviously did the trick, as the words started torrenting from her as if she felt she would never again get the chance to recount her story. “I’ve been married for seven years, and I think my husband is cheating on me. He works for Health Net as a clinical accounts executive in Woodland Hills, and he’s normally traveling all over the country for his job. But the past several months he’s been gone on more trips than normal. He kept making excuses, saying that work was keeping him busy and he was being considered for a promotion. But something about it doesn’t feel right, and I want to know what is going on.”

Bingo. Now I had to figure out exactly what Emma Jackson knew or didn’t know about her husband’s possible infidelities. “Have you already talked to your husband about this?”

“No, I can’t afford to. If he’s cheating on me, then I need to be sure before I file for divorce. Our pre-nup has a clause in it that a false accusation of cheating forfeits the accusing party’s rights to our assets, and knowing Mark, that’s exactly what he’ll do to me.”

“Okay; next question. Have you ever suspected him of infidelity before? Or has he ever given you any reason to question?”

Emma shook her head resolutely. “No, this is the first time something like this has come up. He’s just acting so different than normal. He’s grouchy when he’s home, and he isn’t even being nice to Madison. That isn’t like him at all.”

“Madison’s your daughter, I take it?” Emma nodded. “How old is she?”

“She’s four.”

Too young to know what might be going on, thankfully. If Mark was cheating on his wife, at least his daughter would be spared some of the pain of knowing exactly what he was doing. Now came the tough question: “How’s your sex life? Is there anything different about that than normal?”

Emma glared at me as if she would refuse to respond, but I pressed forward. “I’m sorry, but this is an important question to ask. I need to be able to see as much of the big picture as I can in order to help you best figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t essential, trust me.”

She hesitated, then nodded acquiescence. “If by normal you mean once or twice a month, then yes.” Emma paused, her eyes unfocusing slightly as she internally debated what to say next, then plunged ahead. “Look, Mr. McKinley, I didn’t exactly marry Mark because I was passionately in love with him. He had money and a certain amount of charm, and for a twenty-eight-year-old girl from Milwaukee, that was enough. He’s always been a good father to Madison-before the last several months, at least. And I have enough money to work at a job I really love without worrying about how much I’m making. It’s been a good arrangement so far, but if he’s cheating on me then I deserve every single penny I can get from him.” She had a certain calculating look in her eyes that belied the sorrowful expression on her face. She was good, this one. It had taken a while, but we’d finally narrowed down the reason for her discomfiture: not because of passionate love or even simple jealousy, but because she was hoping to strip her husband of his likely-considerable assets. And I was going to help her do it.

November 4, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 4

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 11:57 pm by Calico Jack

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            However pleasant my apartment might be, the one thing we do not have enough of in Santa Monica is parking. Unless you’re willing to pay outrageous monthly fees for a spot in a parking garage half a block away, all of the tenants in my apartment must fight over far too few spaces surrounding the building. Only two dozen or so are covered, and I’ve never seen an empty space last longer than a few minutes. In the early evenings it can feel like college all over again, endlessly circling the lot in the hope that someone, anyone will pull out at just the right time to open up a space before someone else gets there first. But about six months ago, I did a favor for the owner of the popular Thai restaurant next door. In exchange, he lets me use his parking lot for my car whenever I need a parking space. So I walked over behind the restaurant, waved at the manager who was chattering excitedly on his cell phone while trying to heave the enormous trash bags over the side of the dumpster, and got in my Cosmic Blue Mazdaspeed 3. That car was a gift to myself a year ago after successfully switching careers, and overall I’m fairly impressed with my taste in presents. Admittedly, it isn’t a car that will turn too many people’s heads, but that’s just the way I want it. I have a thing for hatchbacks, and with a 2.3 liter, 263 horsepower direct injection turbocharged engine, it’s as sporty a car as you’ll find under thirty grand. The Mazdaspeed is an absolute blast to drive, but like all good things it suffers from a serious drawback: the fuel economy sucks. The willfully naïve salesperson at the dealership gave me a figure of something like 18 mpg/city and 26 mpg/highway, but I’m lucky if I get two-thirds of that on any given tank of gas. And with the 263-horsepower engine requiring premium fuel, the car puts quite a large strain on my budget. Regardless, it’s fun, fast, and roomy; and I’d be more than willing to test it against anyone’s car on a twisty mountain road.

            The drive to my office was surprisingly quick for 9:15 on a Tuesday morning. I usually take Santa Monica Boulevard all the way into West Hollywood, since I rent space off of North Highland Street. Sometimes the seven or eight-mile drive can take upwards of an hour depending on traffic, but today I zipped through the row of green lights and arrived in front of grey, nondescript office building about 9:40. The four-story parking garage attached to the side of the edifice is reserved only for tenants and their “privileged” guests, and full-time security guards Andy and Sheldon take that responsibility very seriously. In Los Angeles it isn’t your wealth which determines status; it’s your parking space. This morning Andy was sitting in the security booth, and he smiled at me as I pulled up to the checkpoint at the garage’s entrance.

            “Hey, Tyler,” he greeted jovially. “Haven’t seen you in a few days. Take a weekend vacation or something?”

            I mock-glared at him. “You know my vacation schedule’s pretty much out of my control, Andy. But no, I finished up a job for a client last Thursday, and I didn’t have another appointment until this morning.” I passed him my key card; he inserted it into the scanner to log my arrival in the garage. The sole tenant of my office building’s third floor is a company that deals in private security (read: bodyguards) for wealthy clients and stars, so as an accommodation the owners stepped up the security both inside and outside the building. I’m not entirely comfortable with having all of my movements tracked, but I can see why some people would require extra security measures. As a result, I don’t make a fuss about it, and the security guys are most appreciative.

            Andy handed me back my card, double-checked the sticker tag on the front windshield of my car to ensure it was legitimate (their training is permanently ingrained, even when dealing with a long-time client. It’s what makes them good at their jobs), and pushed the button to raise the black-and-yellow bar that blocked my way inside. “Good luck with the client,” he grinned. “Hope it isn’t a looney.”

            “Yeah, me too,” I responded with a quick, tight smile. “Say hi to Monica for me.” Every year the building’s owners host a Christmas party for the tenants and all of the building’s employees—everyone from the janitorial staff to the security guards. I think it’s supposed to be a way for everyone to forget about class distinctions and enjoy socializing with each other, even if only for an evening. Last Christmas was the first time I went (the previous year I had just moved into the building), and I saw a lot of socializing…but the class snobbery was very much in effect. I quickly grew tired of the schmoozing that was going on amongst the other tenants, and instead joined the security guys and their wives/girlfriends in a riotous game of poker. I received no love from my fellow tenants, but I didn’t care; they weren’t my clients and as long as I paid for my own office space they were welcome to impotently look down on me as much as they liked. But the other side of that evening was that I became casual friends with most of the security department and their families. Now I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only clients on a first-name basis with them. We’re not drinking buddies, but they’ve done favors for me before, and I always make a point of asking about their significant others when I see them.

I pulled into the garage and started circling my way towards the top. As one of the tenants renting the smallest amount of space in the building, I wasn’t exactly privileged to a parking spot on the bottom three floors. But even the top floor wasn’t all that bad; it had a roof and a spot reserved just for me. However, one day I crunched the numbers and figured out that I was paying well over seventy-five dollars every single time I parked in that space. It rather quickly sucks any of the fun you have seeing your name on the sign in front of your spot. But the lease deal doesn’t have an opt-out clause for the parking garage; if you want to rent their space you’ll have to pay for parking as well. Sometimes it feels like I got the raw end of the deal, yet in my line of work it looks good to be able to tell a client “I’ll put your name on the approved list for parking; just tell the security guard when you arrive.”

After taking the parking garage’s elevator down to the main lobby, I walked up to the front desk and greeted the two receptionists working there. Why this building needs more than one I don’t really know; during my more cynical periods I’ll suggest that it is merely another way to charge extra on top of the already exorbitant fees we pay to rent space out of this building. Nevertheless, both Ryan and Kara are a lot of fun to talk to, and very competent at their jobs (although I suppose I would be as well if there were two people doing the work of one). And it’s plainly obvious to everyone that they have quite the crush on each other. They just haven’t figured it out themselves yet.

I swiped my key card on top of the lobby desk, waiting for the soft chime and the flashing green light to tell me that I was cleared for entry into the building. Behind the desk, Kara finished talking to someone on the phone and excitedly looked up at me. “Tyler, you just missed Tom like five minutes ago! He came in here for the White Shark guys, and they whisked him away really quickly! I should have had him sign the guest sheet, but I wasn’t thinking. I wonder if he’ll come back downstairs soon so I can introduce myself—wouldn’t that be so cool?!” The above was said with nary a pause between sentences, in the rapid-fire chatter of someone who had obviously been waiting to share her excitement and simply couldn’t hold it in any longer.

I spent half a second mentally decoding the words Kara had shot at me, then asked, “Which Tom are we talking about here? Tom Hanks? Tom Cruise? Tommy Lee Jones?” Next to Callie, Ryan rolled his eyes and stifled a laugh. He obviously knew what was going on, but there wasn’t any way he was going to spoil Callie’s excitement in retelling the story.

Kara gave me a look as if I were a big blockhead, then exasperatedly cried out, “No, you fat monkey!” At this I unconsciously moved my hand towards my stomach to make sure I had miraculously added twenty pounds since I left the apartment less than an hour ago. “MySpace Tom! You know, the first friend that everyone gets on MySpace? He’s upstairs on the third floor!”

Now I understood the reasons why Ryan had been trying to contain his mirth. I tried to give a Kara an enthusiastic response, but I found it rather difficult to get excited over someone who was directly responsible for unleashing forces that set the internet back ten years. I never had a MySpace account, and found it hard to understand why so many people flocked to its mediocrity. Ultimate personalization sounds like a great thing; but when 95 percent of the people on there have absolutely no sense of taste or decorum, or even know what a unified color scheme should look like, I’m going to stay away. And I would like to personally shoot the person who thought it was a good idea to both allow music on people’s profiles and—even worse—set it to play automatically.

Kara, of course, cared about none of that. She was busy chattering away to Ryan about a movie she’d seen last weekend, and I was about to head up the stairs, when she paused suddenly and pointed at me. “Wait, a woman came in about ten or fifteen minutes ago; she said that she was one of your clients. I asked her to take a seat here in the lobby, but she said she would rather wait for you upstairs.”

“Thanks, Kara.” Those people who come in early for an appointment and refuse to wait in the lobby are usually either very concerned about their privacy due to fame or have something to hide. I was about to find out which one.

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