Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to build on the collective joy that Trek fans felt at the reset of the film franchise in 2009. That first film provided a context for many things we’ve come to love about the Enterprise crew, including Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) Vulcan/human conflict and the sometimes roguish behavior of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), At the same time, the time-travel plot involving the destruction of Vulcan allowed director J.J. Abrams (who returns for Into Darkness) to begin to write a new history for the franchise while also being able to draw upon mythology and incident familiar to a hypercritical fan base.
Into Darkness is working in the tradition of Trek as social commentary, or at least it attempts to. A bombing at a secret Starfleet facility puts Kirk and Spock on the radar of an Admiral (Peter Weller) hoping to militarize the fleet in anticipation of a war with the Klingons. The attack is blamed on a rogue officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), but Harrison is soon revealed to be a familiar and beloved villain from the Trek universe. The central question of Into Darkness is whether the Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet will abandon the values familiar to those who cherish the Trek world in the name of unbridled militarism. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that the film chooses the side of order, but this theme provides Abrams an excuse for several well-staged action sequences. There’s a close fight with a Klingon patrol and an old-school brawl between Spock and Harrison on top of moving vehicles. If there was ever a film franchise that needed glossy action less than Star Trek then I’m not sure what it is, but the success of the new films cannot help but make each succeeding installment more of a product. Though the Enterprise may be outgunned when it goes up against the mega-starship of Weller’s Admiral, there’s little sense that Kirk and the crew won’t succeed at what they set out to do; even the obligatory scene of an engineer - Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov puts on the red shirt as most of Mr. Scott’s (Simon Pegg) scenes take place off ship - telling Kirk that something is wrong comes about as a result of sabotage. Yet at least the supporting crew members are better developed that in the older films. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a few good scenes before being pushed to the background, but a scene in which McCoy (Karl Urban) operates on a torpedo is a little too much to bear.
Action sequences aside, what are we left with? Chris Pine plays Kirk as a man discovering himself, and the biggest climax of the many to be had in Into Darkness involves the Captain learning that there are bigger things than Starfleet regulations or his desire to subvert them. Zachary Quinto as Spock gets to play with the logic/emotion duality that’s in the character’s blood but was rarely more than discussed in the older films or series. One of the best ideas of the Abrams-era Trek is the relationship between Spock and Uhura, and here the scenes between the two give us a chance to see a more well-rounded Spock than Leonard Nimoy ever got to play. Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise crew assembled for the 5-year mission that started it all. As the film continue I’ve no doubt that we’ll encounter familiar villains and planets again, but I hope we’ll also follow these characters as they grow in new directions.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Here's a promising Cannes review of the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, another step in a long journey. (HND)
What's particularly interesting about this film, and it's a theme that has coursed through the brothers' career from the start, is that Llewyn doesn't mature or change much at all though his travels, trails, and tribulation. When we meet him he's a bitter, somewhat entitled singer-songwriter, and when we leave him he's mostly the same, though perhaps more resigned to his fate than a struggling musician should probably admit. Not even impregnating his ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, in a fantastic and unexpected comedic turn) raises much of fuss inside Llewyn, who'd probably rather be miserable with a girl who despises him than go out of his way to meet anyone new. The Coens don't offer a structured narrative in any typical sense, instead following Llewyn as he makes mistakes (he spends a good portion of the film chasing after a lost cat named Ulysses, raising an obvious parallel between himself and James Joyce's quintessential vagabond), burns bridges, and alienates everyone that supports him. In other words, he's a classic Coen antihero, and he stands alongside A Serious Man's Larry Gopnick and The Man Who Wasn't There's Ed Crane as fascinating, unsettled, yearning characters searching for answers which may never arrive.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
With a technical rehearsal for Hamlet on the horizon today I don't have time to search out new music, but here's an old favorite to tide you over.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Under the heading of "I love New York, New York drives me crazy," read this account of a screening of Frances Ha. (The Lo-Down)
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig joined the audience for a Q&A after the screening. A young audience member was the first to ask the question, “I saw the film mainly as a character study but I was wondering if it had any sort of larger social context… besides only being about middle- to upper-class white people?”
Two responses to Janelle Monae and her new single and video Q.U.E.E.N; one asks whether it matters if the song is really Monae's coming out:
Every once in a while she'll give answers to her questions: like the title question, is it true that we're all insane? (I just tell them no we ain't and get down). But mostly, she leaves it for us to decide. No matter the answer, I will always love freaks--like a real deep love--so just the question pulls me into the song. And not a freak as in, "Let your freak flag fly because nobody understands me," Gaga-style; but more a freak in the sense of blending past and present, funk and protest, which many of us have long embodied.Another blogger puts Monae in the context of iconoclastic African-American female singers:
Janelle Monae may never become a mass cultural icon. There's something about her defiance I can't see catching on. She will, however, be a pivotal figure for young, black women. We flock to her. While Beyonce and Rihanna are fantasies, Janelle is your home girl; a reflection of your fly best friend; a young woman who sets her own rules in a way few of us have seen before. That's Janelle Monae's revolution.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
I'd love to see Christopher Durang win a Tony for Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, but even if he doesn't his friend and Tony-nominated actress Kristine Nielsen will be there for the next go-round.
Ms. Nielsen’s Tony nod may owe to a first-act scene in which she appears resplendent in a beaded gown (cheekily similar to the one she wore in “Ubu”), announcing that she will attend a local costume party as “the Evil Queen from ‘Snow White,’ as played by Maggie Smith on the way to the Oscars.” To watch her deliver a speech that is at once a declaration of burgeoning confidence, a jab at her glamorous sister, and a perfect caricature of Ms. Smith’s performance in the 1978 film “California Suite,” is to know that here is a comic actress who can do anything. And in a tiara and sequins, too.
Ms. Nielsen didn’t necessarily plan an exclusively comic career. Chatting in the orchestra section of the John Golden Theater before a Saturday performance, she described a serious theatrical education, which included an undergraduate degree from Northwestern and a masters from the Yale School of Drama, where she played Sonya in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” among other classical parts. She made her Broadway debut in a 1985 revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” hardly a knee-slapper.
I know Thile was in this space a few weeks ago, but this one feels right for today.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
If you pay any attention to the discussion of current films then by now you know the story of Shane Carruth. The writer/director/star of 2004’s micro-budget Primer spent a frustrating decade trying to get another project going, but he was unable to find anyone willing to finance his vision despite the support of some major Hollywood names. If you know Primer then you can understand why a studio executive might be afraid of Carruth; the film is full of dense, authentic-sounding scientific dialogue and lacks a clear hero or villain. So what does Carruth have in store for a second film? The new Upstream Color is a significantly more abstract and challenging work than Primer, and that’s saying something. It’s a genuinely experimental work, low on dialogue, with no regard for conventional ideas of motivation or resolution; at the same time there’s a beating heart to the film thanks to the actors and the scope of the ideas Carruth engages . While Primer was a film Carruth wanted to make, with Upstream Color Carruth has a produced a film that it feels like he had to make. In short, it’s thrilling.
What plot there is in Upstream Color can be quickly summarized. A woman named Kris (the excellent Amy Seimetz) is assaulted and implanted with a worm that makes her susceptible to suggestion. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) drains Kris’s bank accounts and she loses her job; her squirm-inducing attempts to remove the worm lead her to a character known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who in a bizarre surgical procedure transplants the worm into a pig. Later Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), whose has been through a similar experience and shares Kris’s sense of something missing. The rest of the film is the story of their relationship and search for meaning. Trying to describe the plot of Upstream Color makes the film sound like some sort of bio-terror horror movie. Carruth’s meditative style, stark locations, and sparse dialogue suggest a bigger ambition though; he’s not interested in cheap shocks but rather the flexible nature of identity itself. There’s a remarkable montage (the editing is by Carruth and David Lowery) in which Kris and Jeff argue about which of them actually experienced a childhood memory. Are there ties between us that are deeper than we understand? What happens when Kris and Jeff begin to look for answers could be interpreted as Carruth commenting on religion, but the ambiguity of the ending (Kris has found at least a temporary peace) suggests to me that Carruth thinks our biggest problem as a people is what we do to each other.
Upstream Color would be as exciting as a dorm room bull session if it weren’t for Amy Seimetz, who invests Kris with a great pain and need to connect with someone (or something). Seimetz doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with (and a chunk of it is taken from Walden) but her face does a lot of work; Seimetz is magnetic in the scenes where Kris undergoes various indignities to restore her identity. Shane Carruth isn’t required to show as much range as Seimetz, but he ably conveys the emptiness at Jeff’s center. The next film Carruth wants to make is reportedly called The Modern Ocean. I have no idea when we’ll see it or who will finance it, but the existence of Upstream Color is a cause for celebration. This is what the product of an original mind looks like, and though I have no idea if I’ve parsed the film correctly I am certainly glad I had the chance to try.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
This site will continue to be a repository for writing about the music of my formative years. Here's the story of an almost-forgotten Replacements song and what it says about the band's transition from brilliant, drunken loons to (semi-) mainstream stars. (Aquarium Drunkard)
In 1988 the Replacements headed to a studio in Woodstock, New York in an effort to record their follow up to Pleased to Meet Me. They enlisted Tony Berg as the producer and set to it. And although the band allegedly laid down an album’s worth of material, it was all scrapped as Paul Westerberg felt like the album was turning into a too-typical Replacements album. While very little of this session has been bootlegged, two of the songs did eventually end up on the 1997 collection All for Nothing/Nothing for All and again on the 2008 reissue of Don’t Tell a Soul. The best of the two, or at the bare minimum the one with the most story behind it, is “Portland.”