Beers I Have Known — 3 Sheeps Brewing Fresh Coast

fresh coast

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

As summer slowly wobbles to its inevitable topple and stillness, I’ve been thinking of my happy discoveries from the past few months, especially those beers that seemed to taste especially good when offering myself a reward for working up a sweat in the out of doors. I have a few beautiful standbys that fulfill that particular hankering, but there’s always room for a few more.

That brings me to Fresh Coast, billed as a “juicy pale ale” by the fine people at 3 Sheeps Brewing, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It is what it claims to be, delivering one of those bursts of refreshment that can set the tongue and soul reeling with equal rapture. With cunning undercurrents of complexity, the beer adheres to the compelling tenet of drinkability.

I’m don’t mean to imply that this beer can only be enjoyed in the summer sun, but I know when the calendar circles around to this season again, my craving for it is going to fiercely reassert itself.

 

 

From the Archive — The Fountain

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On the occasion of a new film from Darren Aronofsky, arriving to acclaim and debate, and as I eagerly await my opportunity to screen said film and join in the carousing argument, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most of the director’s films simply aren’t very good. This was written for my former online home. As a nifty bonus of “From the Archive” timing, the review contains an offhand reference to a 1990 medical-based thriller that will see its remake hit theater in just a couple of weeks. 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Fountain is like What Dreams May Come altered so it’s less for a Mitch Albom crowd and more for a Chuck Palahniuk crowd. If all those references muddy the water a little too much, let’s put it this way: just because it’s arty and edgy and self-referential, all steeped in anger and darkness and blistering imagery doesn’t mean it’s not still a laughable piece of junk.

The film is about eternal love and endless life with science and mythology engaging in a tentative dance together around these subjects. The film moves willfully back and forth in time and between the fiction of the film and the fictions within the film. Aronofsky handles his multiple plot threads nimbly enough. It’s never especially confusing, but nor is it compelling. At its worst, the film is layered in woefully hoary conceits, stranding a talented cast to strain and emote or beam and twinkle. Poor Ellen Burstyn is reduced to the scientific equivalent of the tough precinct captain, berating obsessed doctor Hugh Jackman as “reckless” as he frantically tries to cure his wife’s illness by toiling in the most poorly lit operating rooms to grace a screen since Julia and Kiefer played with defibrillators.

Aronofsky had a wonderfully warped debut with 1998’s Pi, the wildness of the story secured by being grounded in ideas that felt right. With 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the ideas and humanity were buried by his relentless addiction to his own techniques. It took him six years to craft a follow-up and he’s only managed to compound the misjudgments of his prior film.

One for Friday — Grant Hart, “2541”

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During my first academic year at my college radio station, from the fall of 1988 through the spring of 1989, there was one song I was desperate to hear, even as it remained agonizingly elusive.

Before I showed up at the station, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü was a mere abstraction to me, an oddball name and a few stray music reviews that strained to convey the tuneful thunder of their sound. Once I heard music from the band, I fell fast and I fell hard. Other albums in the band’s catalog were considered more important — more seminal — but I adored the swan song Warehouse: Songs and Stories above all others. There was an amazing sense of agitated exchange across the four album sides, a feeling of aggrieved competition engaged by the band’s two songwriters, creative visionaries both. When I first listened, I didn’t realize the levels of contentiousness that existed in the relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart, but I heard it, I felt it.

Hüsker Dü was over by the time I got my FCC card and flipped on a radio station microphone for the first time. Hart was the first one to extend the creative argument past the confines of the band. His debut solo single, “2541,” was released on SST Records in 1988. At the time, “2541” was speculated to be all about the dissolution of Hüsker Dü, its lyrics wistfully remembering better days at a certain address as a sad ending has arrived. “Now everything is over/ Now everything is done/ Everything’s in boxes/ At 2541,” Hart sings, announcing the close of a relationship with a ruefulness tinged by anger.

My station got serviced with records from SST all the time, but we didn’t get that single. I ached to hear it, wanting to extend the drama I found on Warehouse. On some level, I just wanted more Hüsker Dü, and the best possible option in the wreckage after the breakup was a song about the band from the man who wrote nearly half its songbook, including stellar entries “Books About UFOs,” “Green Eyes,” “I Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” and “You Can Live at Home”.

Of course, all the speculation was wrong. “2541” wasn’t about Hüsker Dü. Hart supposedly had at least the foundation of the song as far back as the recording sessions for New Day Rising, the band’s third studio album, well before the end. He gladly disparaged lore around the song and the residence within it. “I don’t want to bust any bubbles or myths, but it was just a fuck pad,” he informed the audience at a show earlier this year.

The emotional rawness and highly fraught personal exposure that some saw in Hart’s songwriting was equally up for disparagement by the creator himself.

“I DON’T PUBLISH SONGS THAT I DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO HEAR,” Hart wrote in a Facebook Q&A. “I HAVE TAKEN STEPS TO PREVENT ANYBODY FROM EVER HEARING ‘MY FEELINGS OF INADEQUACY’ AND ‘MY DADDY’S PEE-PEE’.”

Whether he liked it or not, some of found deep, resonant truths in Hart’s songs. That was part of the skill he brought to his craft. He wrote in such a way that it was easy to find whatever was needed within his lines, his melodies, his beats. The lyrics were just specific enough to lap over into the universal, open to interpretation and then assured application.

I eventually heard “2541.” We never got the single, but the track was included on Intolerance, Hart’s first solo album, released in late 1989. I played it on the air many, many times, usually offering my own mistaken reading of the song. I may have been wrong about the particulars, but I think I was basically correct about the core of the song, its fierce and fervent heart. Deep down, we’re all looking for that place that has windows big enough to let in the sun.

Listen or download –> Grant Hart, “2541”

(Disclaimer: Hart was instrumental to the creation of a load of great music that can bought right now at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the designated recipients of all proceeds due to the artist. If nothing else, you could inquire about Savage Young Dü, the entirely atypical archival project on Hart’s most famous band. Hart was a key contributor to the project’s assembly, and it is already being cited as a jaw-dropping bit of legacy-building. I offer this song in this space as tribute and encouragement to engage in commerce, not as theft. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with authority to make such a request.)

Greatish Performances #31

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#31 — Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

When Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was released, in 1998, it was revelatory in about a half-dozen different ways. It introduced the artful showman side of Soderbergh after a series of increasingly agonized indies. It set the template for proper screen adaptations of the fiction of Elmore Leonard, an author who’d been notoriously ill-served by Hollywood to that point. (I’ll leave to another theoretical piece of writing my arguments about the suitable but still severely compromised Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.) It liberated George Clooney from rancid popcorn hellscapes of the likes of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker. Maybe most impressively, the film showed that Jennifer Lopez had great acting within her.

Truthfully, Lopez’s sterling work was one of the less surprising triumphs of the film. This was before she was J. Lo, before she was Jenny from the Block. This was before she was a pop singer and an internet-rattling fashion icon. Basically, Lopez wasn’t a brand. She was an actress who’d often been the best part of lousy movies. She also had one fiercely impressive star turn to her credit, in the 1997 biopic Selena. There was cause to believe she’d be very good in Out of Sight. She’s even better.

In Out of Sight, Karen Sisco is a tricky character to play. A U.S. Marshal based in Florida, Karen is highly capable at her job, fully prepared to stand up against thugs trying to intimidate her and psychologically astute enough to coax information out of the dim bulb aspirational criminals who are the most widespread constituency of any story that sprung from Leonard’s typewriter. She also needs to be vulnerable, a little damaged, prone to questionable decisions when it comes to the men in her life. These two pieces are wildly different, and yet they need to fit together in a clean, relatable whole. Leonard niftily achieves that on the page, with the added benefit of gentle dips into internal churning thoughts and telling hints of history. Onscreen, with a more threadbare safety net, Lopez needs to show how a person can make decisions that have a clear risk of disaster to them without necessarily being a disastrous person.

Lopez finds the needed balance by embracing understatement. She isn’t snapping off her dialogue with bravado-bolstered authority, in the manner of so many actors who are blessed with variants on Leonard’s words. She speaks them with restrained deliberateness, signaling how caution and certainty can coexist. Her Karen Sisco is never showboating. She’s just smart, which in turn heightens the power of her devotion, whether to her father (Dennis Farina) or, in the film’s chief relationship, the intriguing prison escapee Jack Foley (Clooney).

There’s a suggestion that Karen’s attraction to Jack is for little other reason than he engages her senses in a way the rest of the world doesn’t, that he can keep up when she lays out who she is and what she believes to be true. (And, yes, he looks like George Clooney in the late-nineties.) Whether sharing a car trunk during the prison-break getaway (Karen briefly lets her guard down and winds up a hostage) or indulging in a fantasy of mundane lives intertwining in a Detroit hotel restaurant, Jack wins Karen over by stepping up to her and fully expecting — and appreciating — that she’ll do the same to him. It’s one of the rare instances in which falling in love in the movies is believable, gradual, grounded in the experience presented to the audience. Clooney is strong in these scenes, but he still sometimes leans on his natural charisma to carry a moment. Lopez does something different. She shows every nuance of Karen’s emotional journey.

I haven’t seen Lopez reach this sort of gratifying intimacy with a character since. Tempting as it is to attribute the performance to the magic Soderbergh can sometimes spin, especially with actresses (the talent shown by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies, and videotape is so drastically different from that seen in any other performance in her filmography that I wouldn’t argue with a conspiracy theory positing she was replaced, Paul-is-Dead style, circa 1990). But, as noted, Lopez was good in other films before this. Instead, it seemed as though, after Karen Sisco, she simply lost interest in digging this deep. She remained invested in being a star, maybe not so much in being an actress. What I wouldn’t give to see the performer from Out of Sight return. I’d follow her anywhere.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move

Playing Catch-Up: Good Morning; The Big Sky; The Witness

good morning

Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959). I’ll admit to being underexposed to the work of the revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. (It’s not a good excuse, by any means, but I’ve devoted most of my relevant geographically-based cinema self-schooling to films of Ozu’s countryman Akira Kurosawa.) And since my primary connection to Ozu’s oeuvre is through the masterful Tokyo Story, I think of the filmmaker as a crafter of delicate, relatively sedate art. As that preamble suggests, Good Morning proves how wrong I was in my reductive assumption. A loose remake of a film Ozu made over twenty-five years earlier, Good Morning largely concerns a couple of young brothers operating with escalating bratty behavior in an attempt to bully their parents into purchasing a television set. Around that, Ozu expertly stages a subplot that shows how animosity and suspicion moves with stealthy passive aggressiveness throughout tight-knit community. Ozu’s film is bright, cunning, and delightfully rambunctious. It’s also beautifully structured in every way, including unfussy perfection in the staging of shots and depth of psychological understanding of all the characters that evidences warmth and wry judgment all at once.

 

big sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This Western centers on a group of ramshackle fellows who race against a menacing trading company to form an agreement with the Blackfoot tribe in the commerce of the day. Along the way, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) find themselves in a bit of a love triangle with a Native American woman named Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt). The story isn’t always compelling, but Howard Hawks, as usual, builds the film with personality spilling out of its sprocket holes. It’s especially entertaining to see him bring a bleak humor to the depiction of the physical horrors that routinely befell those who took it upon themselves to tame the frontier. Arthur Hunnicutt received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical hand who provides a moral compass, albeit one with a slightly bent pointer. It was a deserving nod; Hunnicutt’s performance is the highlight of the film.

 

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The Witness (James Solomon, 2015). Increasingly, I find it likely that Ezra Edelman’s terrific O.J.: Made in America points to the future of documentary filmmaking, if only because so many features seem to be straining for the same exhaustive examination of interconnected concerns. Director James Solomon covers an immense amount of sociological and deeply personal sub-topics in The Witness, but must largely for doing so in a glancing fashion, finishing with a film that is both impressive ambitious and mildly dissatisfying. First and foremost, the film is about the murder of Kitty Genovese, infamous more for the documented indifference of her New York City neighbors to her cries for help than the street-side crime itself. As Solomon painstakingly shows, the circumstances of Genovese’s death have become emblematic of social apathy, help as a metaphorical tool to make points about everything from day-to-day small town lawbreaking to the devastation delivered against the city of Aleppo. But Genovese was more than a social studies lesson. She was a person, and she left behind a heartbroken family. One of those family members, her brother William Genovese, is the heart of the documentary as he obsessively seeks understanding and closure. (The latter goal contributes to the film’s one flat-out terrible stretch, a sequence in which William hires an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams on the street where she was killed, an inexplicable gesture that Solomon treats as so logical it requires no further exploration.) Solomon has an immense amount to say with him film — some of it powerful, some of it challenging, much of it deeply insightful. In the end, more than anything else, I wish he’d had more time to say it.

The Art of the Sell: “Major Points of Interest in Wisconsin”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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In recent weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some quality time in the small Midwestern town where I attended college. Among the many old favorites I revisited was the Stevens Point Brewery, the local crafters of fine beverages (well, I think they’re fine, anyway). One of the oldest continuously operating breweries in the U.S., the business is one of the true stalwarts of the community, feeling embedded in the culture in a way that exceeds that of all the many upstart competitors that have cropped up in the recent craft beer revolution.

And Stevens Point Brewery operated with that sense of local camaraderies when I was a squeaky little student in that town, many, many years ago. That included advertisements in the university’s student-run newspaper, which I remember with deep fondness. It’s not so much that the ads were the pinnacle of cleverness — though I do find the gag of “Major Points of Interest in Wisconsin” to be charming — but they felt like a commitment to the student media of the university as much as a stab at getting the kids to throw back Point Specials instead of Miller Genuine Drafts.

And I like the beer. That doesn’t hurt, either.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

From the Archive: Running with Scissors

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I really should be dropping an old review of a Stephen King adaptation into this space, but I believe I’ve exhausted my supply of writing on the often-dire translations of the prolific author’s work. Instead, I’ll take as my prompt the season debut of the latest sprawling exercise in lavish provocation from Ryan Murphy’s television empire. I have no informed opinion to offer on Murphy’s recent television creations, except to say that I’m grateful to the FX Network for keeping him busy enough that he doesn’t have time to make more movies.

You can probably pull out any two or three scenes with Annette Bening from the new film Running With Scissors and make a case for some splendid acting going on, but the performance doesn’t really cohere within the film. That’s certainly due in part to the character Bening is playing: the mentally ill mother of future writer Augusten Burroughs. She is a writer, enchanted with her own creativity and consumed by her own misery. She’s also under the sway of a psychiatrist of questionable merits who keeps her well-stocked with mind-altering pharamaceuticals, so, to a degree, it makes sense that there’s not much of a through-line to the character. But just because something is understandable (or within the scope of audience rationalization) doesn’t make it satisfying. What’s worse, the problems hindering Bening’s performance are apparent elsewhere. Inconsistency and offputting exhibitionism may be suited to her chracter, but those are also apt, unfortunately descriptions for the rest of the film.

Ryan Murphy, creator of the FX series Nip/Tuck, wrote the screenplay (adapted from the bestselling memoir by Burroughs) and directed the film, demonstrating little facility for either task. It’s easy to pick out individual directorial transgressions — Bening pops her first pill in import-heavy slow-motion so preposterous and cliched that it must be awkward and ill-chosen parody; a time transition achieved through a fast-motion static shot of a movie theater exterior — and dismiss them as the missteps of first-time feature director anxious to create something artistic and challenging and different. What’s really dreadful is the mangled tone that the script and the direction conspire to create.

For the bulk of the film, Augusten Burroughs (played adequately if unimpressively by Joseph Cross) is in his early teens, and the life he’s living is a series of horrible challenges. Besides the fragility of his mother’s psyche, his departed father wants nothing to do with him and he’s dispatched to live with the warped therapist in a giant, filthy house stacked high with the discarded detritus of life, from empty food cans to ancient Christmas trees. He bonds with one of the man’s daughters and falls into a sexual relationship with another adopted son, a disturbed man in his thirties. This is a troubled and troubling journey, but Murphy clearly strives to balance the discomfort with a sort of bleak humor (consistent with the approach Burroughs took in the original book, I believe). Those sort of tone shifts require great deftness, and Murphy just doesn’t have it. The resulting wreck relies on sitcom-style set-up and punchline gags, cheap scatalogical jokes and pushy art direction to squeeze laughs from the 1970’s costumes and decor (look there’s a can of Tab! And avocado-colored appliances! What a riot!) The humor is too self-satisfied to be funny and it leeches any power out of the dramatic moments. These are sick, lost people, and its sometimes hard to sympathize when them after the movie had so aggressive prodded us to laugh at them first.

Early on, the voiceover narration announces this is based on a true story, adding that without that assurance no one would believe it. There’s some cause for this as the film never does feel authentic. It’s not because of the extreme circumstances, though; it’s because of the incredible bungling of the filmmakers.