Monday, December 31, 2007

The last NP pic of '07

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(Photo by Bruce Weber - Teen Vogue 12/07)

Organizational changes

I have reorganized the right-hand column of this blog. The "creative crush" picture is now on top, followed by visitors and the archive (in a hope you'll browse through older posts, though I really should do a better job with post titles). I have ditched the "What I'm reading/hearing/seeing" list in favor of lists of the movies/music/books etc. I consume in the year to come, so that next December I won't have to scratch my head and try to remember. I hope this helps, and Happy New Year!

I couldn't resist...

...this political item. From Slate, the 10 dumbest legal arguments of the Bush Administration.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

...and he used to date Fiona Apple!

Paul Thomas Anderson explained, with relevant YouTube clips. (Slate)

The gushers of oil in his new film, There Will Be Blood, are an apt visualization of how all his films function: They're designed to erupt and spill over. The larger the canvas, the grander the theme, the higher the volume, the wilder the emotion, the more inspired the filmmaking.

Sunday Music: Wilco



For the last Sunday Music of the year, my favorite song from my top CD of '07. An "official" clip of Wilco performing "What Light."

Have you seen this?

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Here's a Top 10 list from Andrew O' Hehir of Salon that demonstrates why I don't make such lists (but instead enjoy reading other people's). O'Hehir doesn't find much to cheer about in the films we're "supposed" to like - There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, etc. Indeed, the whole fall-centric system of releasing award-worthy movies strikes him as pedestrian:

OK, comparing a Coen brothers movie, especially one as bloody and fatalistic as this one, to the drive-through window at McDonald's is pretty harsh (even if Javier Bardem's hairdo is nearly as silly as Ronald's McFro). Stehlik's point was more that "No Country for Old Men," whether you find it terrific or sucky or in between, arrives in a familiar package, one that in its own way is just as well defined as the packaging for Hollywood's summer-sequel blockbusters. It's presented with a festival pedigree, rave reviews and tons of advertising as a "complete and satisfying" entertainment product aimed at upper-middlebrow adult viewers. Its aesthetic aims may be to thrill you and disturb you, to provoke pity and terror, perhaps even to spur a certain degree of thoughtfulness or introspection. (All of which are noble aims, by the way.) But it's not trying to uproot anybody's ideas about what movies are for, or how they should behave up there on the screen, or what watching them should feel like. It's not challenging the idea of moviegoing as a "consumer-driven experience."



There isn't exactly a lot of James Cameron-directed fare in the films getting award heat this year. If you happened to go to the restroom at the moment (spoiler!) Llewellyn gets killed in No Country For Old Men, upon your return the film might seem incomprehensible. (Not to mention that film's extraordinarily bleak view of human's control over their own lives) I haven't been fortunate enough to see There Will be Blood yet, but a film about the American nightmare of a megalomaniac that doesn't have any dialogue for the first 20 minutes won't break any box office records. I'd love to see most of the films on O'Hehir's list, but there's a willful snobbery to the list, an insistence that these films have to be seen at one of those funky old theatres in New York. I was there this summer, and those seats aren't comfortable.

National FIlm Registry

How was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance not in there already? This year's inductees into the National Film Registry. (Dave Kehr)

A toke(n) of our affection

Gregg Araki on Smiley Face and the charms of his leading lady Anna Faris. (Greencine)

She has such amazing gifts and her timing is so incredible that the producer, Alix Madigan and I used to talk after dailies and just say, "Thank God for Anna," because I don't think there's really anybody out there who could have really pulled off this performance in the way that she does. She kind of makes it looks deceptively easy. There were people at Sundance who said, "Oh, was she just stoned the whole time?" The performance is much more difficult and tricky than it looks. It's really a challenge to be able to pull of a movie like Smiley Face, where you're literally on-screen every frame of every scene.

Strike talk

Golden Globes broadcast in jeopardy....(NY Times)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Auteur Shmateur?

How far do we stretch the "auteur" theory? Director William Richert - best known for playing the Falstaff figure in My Own Private Idaho - makes a case for the film that became A Night In The Life of Jimmy Reardon. (Chicago Reader)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Oscar

Terry Teachout remembers the late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson....(About Last Night)

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson's peers knew better. He was very, very popular--every great virtuoso is--but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

What does he want for a retirement gift?

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum announces his retirement. (Time Out Chicago)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Am Behind

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A few notes:

  • If I Am Legend hadn't starred Will Smith and had a whole December release week to itself I probably wouldn't have seen it. Sci-fi and apocalyptic horror aren't usually my thing. But I thought much of the film was pleasantly tense, especially the sequence in the dark building when Smith is looking for his dog. I'd agree with those who say the introduction of the vampires is a bit of a letdown, and others have pointed out that not enough is made of the fact that the vampires are capable of learning. Two questions: why was Smith's character more capable than anyone else of stopping the virus, and wouldn't the military have ordered him out of Manhattan so he could work? (The Emma Thompson cameo was a welcome surprise)

  • DVDs: If there's a director whose work needs the Criterion treatment it's Terrence Malick. One down, three to go Criterion. If you know Malick's work then you know that at its best the marriage of sound, image, and voice-over narration is sublime. "How did he think of that?" is the obvious question. So it's refreshing to hear on the commentary track (by the editor, production designer, costume designer, and casting director) of the new Days of Heaven that the process of wedding the tough street-kid narration of Linda Manz to the images involved plenty of trial and error. A story about the apocalypse that Manz's character relates early in the film was apparently the her version of a Bible story told to her by someone she met on the film's Canadian set. Manz repeated it to Malick, who recorded it and found a place in the film for it. Part of the reason for the years spent editing the film was the difficulty in deciding what narration went with what scene. It's inspiring to think of Malick (no American director gives less of a damn about the audience) making choices, having them not work, and trying something else.

  • Is there a lovelier face in American movies than that of Elizabeth Reaser (see left hand column), star of the indie Sweet Land? Ali Selim's drama of a German immigrant's (Reaser) arranged marriage to a Norwegian (Tim Guinee) in
    post-WWI Minnesota. Sweet Land avoids period-piece nostalgia by having a double framing device involving an older version of Reaser's character (Lois Smith) relate her history to her grandson and then an older version of that grandson decide whether to sell his grandmother's home. Most people know Reaser as the disfigured amnesiac on Grey's Anatomy, she has also appeared in The Family Stone, the bisexual romantic comedy Puccini for Beginners, and an episode of The Sopranos.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2007

    Go for it!

    Matt Zoller Seitz of House Next Door (an encourager of this blog) reviews the new National Treasure movie and calls it like he sees it. Link to full review here. (Hat tip: Vulture, American Scene)

    Sunday Music: Christmas edition

    Videos like this are the reason You Tube exists. The King Singers serenade Julie Andrews with a German version of a tune I think you'll recognize. The Spanish subtitles really add something.

    Friday, December 21, 2007

    Who's in and out...

    ...of the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations? Lots of love for Into the Wild, No Country For Old Men, and Cate Blanchett. Juno underachieves. (Carpetbagger)

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Where did it go?

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    Remember Premiere magazine? It seems odd not to see it on the newsstand and there's far too much competition online for its site to stand out. Of course, the magazine's orientation was thoroughly mainstream but it also filled a void that is still out there, giving its readers a 101 course in film history with its "oral history" articles on classic films, DVD reviews, and director interviews. I miss it, and the cover photos like the one above from 2002. I read Film Comment regularly, but the other mags out there are firmly centered in the indie niche.

    Mingus Rules!

    The best jazz albums of '07. (Slate)

    I'm thinking of...

    ...topics both large and small I might like to blog about in '08. I'd also like to know what you regular readers would like to see more or less of, and I'll probably post a list next week and invite your comments. More movie reviews? Less Natalie Portman? (No way) Let me know...

    The envelope please

    There Will Be Blood wins the IndieWire Critics' Poll....

    You've gotta have faith...

    The Namesake, too faithful to its source....(The Man From Porlock)

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Wednesday Music: Okkervil River



    Okkervil River performs "Unless It's Kicks" from their Stage Names CD. Harp Magazine named it the best CD of '07.

    From the director of...

    A trailer for David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell and out in March...

    Awards...

    ..from Toronto (No Country For Old Men) and Austin (There Will Be Blood). (Movie City News)

    Mr. White, part deux

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    I'm not sure that a review of a film based on a Stephen Sondheim musical absolutely needs to include the phrase "....too analogous to Abu Ghraib," but judge for yourself. (New York Press)

    "You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole."

    A three-part conversation with critic Armond White here, here, and here. The interviewer's naivete at the financial considerations behind moviemaking is a little shocking, but then in the third part White's own biases bleed through. A fun read. (Big Media Vandalism)

    A banter-free Oscars?

    How the Writers Guild strike could affect the awards shows. (NY Times)

    The Writers Guild of America West said late on Monday that it had turned down requests that would have allowed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to use guild writers on its Golden Globes show next month, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to include historical film clips on its Academy Awards broadcast.

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    So...

    ...my Christmas job required some early hours this week, cutting into my blogging energy. I shall return, and this week brings a wave of new movies....

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    Crowded field

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    I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with the Golden Globes nominating seven films for Best Drama. Of the nominees that I've seen to date, all are to one degree or another worthy of the wider recognition that the nominations bring. I would have loved to see Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James..., or Once (in the musical/comedy category) make the cut; but isn't some measure of disappointment a winter ritual for the discerning moviegoer? And I'm hardly the first blogger to note that this lineup of films will ensure a star-studded ceremony, with A-listers (Clooney, Jolie) and hot newcomers (Ellen Page) much in evidence.

    But on the other hand, doesn't nominating this many films devalue the awards? Again, I've yet to see all the nominees - and The Great Debaters looks like pretty formulaic stuff, if well-made. It's an old saw to decry the conservatism of the Oscars, but I think the Academy is actually (in some years) much smarter about what's good than the audiences. We flock to the films we're supposed to go see, and I'm including the good ones liked Knocked Up. But to regard box-office success as a measure of quality when determining awards is clearly ridiculous. Those who complain that the Oscars ignore films that people actually see should watch Seth Rogen's performance in Knocked Up alongside, say, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. It's the difference between hamburgers and vitamins folks. The Oscars are not only a media pageant but a celebration of professional excellence. That's why predictions about who's going to win usually aren't very interesting. Blogs will go crazy trying to forecast the winners, but I'd seriously question the credibility of anyone who claims to understand how an Academy member decides to cast his vote.

    But I started writing this post because the acclaim and nomination for American Gangster really bothers me. The film is a self-conscious attempt to make an "important" picture, to say something grand about how many ways there are to achieve a measure of respectability and importance in America. I think it was David Denby who framed what is also my central issue with American Gangster. The question of whether or not an intelligent and driven African-American man can do something illegal better than the Mafia simply isn't compelling. I'd add that the fact that the real Frank Lucas flipped and revealed massive corruption in the NYPD doesn't balance things out. I'm sure that the climatic scene between Washington and Crowe is to some extent fact-based, but it merely plays like an aria of rationalization. I can see why the film would appeal to the Hollywood Foreign Press; it's got stars, a name director, a hip soundtrack, and a period setting. But it's with American Gangster that the HFPA gets the most starry-eyed this year. Seven nominations for Best Drama will make for a sexier ceremony, but I hope the choices won't be the films someone wanted us to see all along.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    I'm hoping...

    ...that I Know Who Killed Me gets shut out. A Golden Globe wish list. (Carpetbagger)

    Cruz Noir

    Almodovar's next film.....(Variety)

    Paging a Director

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    I just read one of those Entertainment Weekly "Can This Career Be Saved" pieces on the stars of the movie Awake. I didn't see Awake, the story of a wealthy man (Hayden Christensen) who wakes up during his surgery, but I was initially surprised to see Oscar nominee Terrence Howard listed alongside Christensen and Jessica Alba as needing some career advice.

    I don't know what's going to happen to Christensen; Alba is charming enough to skate by, especially when she's opposite low-wattage guys like him or Dane Cook. Howard's nominated turn in Hustle & Flow heralded the arrival of the next great African-American leading man. What has happened? This year Howard has appeared in half a dozen movies, and in only one (Pride) did he play the lead. He has played the world's worst NYPD detective in The Brave One and barely registered in August Rush. His bizarre role as "Bah Humbug" in The Perfect Holiday, in which he and Queen Latifah literally sit around and watch a Christmas romance unfold, is almost too much to take. Who is this guy's agent? What happened to the actor who played the self-loathing ladies' man in The Best Man not to mention the racially insecure TV producer in Crash?

    Howard is 38 according to IMDB, the age at which Denzel Washington starred in Malcolm X. So where is Howard's Spike Lee? Will Smith has got the blockbuster arena locked up and for the moment Jamie Foxx's Oscar has got directors fooled into thinking he has more range than I think his career reveals. Are you listening Spike? Mike Nichols, Jonathan Demme, Paul Thomas Anderson, anyone? The next great American actor is waiting for you....

    Camera Obscura

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    Zemeckis, Beowulf, and "special" effects...(David Bordwell)

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    From the vault

    Philo Farnsworth - the subject of Aaron Sorkin's new play - on TV in the 1950's. (About Last Night)

    What's the problem with....

    ...the American essay? (Truthdig)

    “The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of “The Norton Book of Personal Essays” and the author of nearly two dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. But it is also—as anyone who has spent time with these volumes knows—eye-crossingly dull.

    To a lady's defense...

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    (...and a gratuitous excuse to post a picture). How Britney's "Piece of Me" turns it all back on us. (Jane Dark)

    The Wire is coming....

    ...back for its fifth and final season in January. One can argue about whether its the best show ever, but it's definitely one you need to see. (Matthew Yglesias)

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Elizabeth Hardwick

    You can link to the NY Times obit of New York Review of Books co-founder Elizabeth Hardwick here. I've been a NYRB reader since college - can you imnagine how great my social life must have been then? I own a copy of Robert Lowell's collected letters and will post something interesting about EH when I find it. (One Letter At A Time)

    You Will Dare

    Jim Walsh, author of the new Replacements history, gives a reading. (Angry John Sellers)

    Prizes

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    No Country for Old Men has won Best Picture from the National Board of Review. The biggest surprise for me is the naming of George Clooney as Best Actor for Michael Clayton; I liked Clooney's work but he's not going anywhere that Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah) and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) don't go. (IFC)

    Pantheon

    South Dakota Dark begins its roll call of TV's 100 best shows. Follow it. I'm rooting for Homicide, Once and Again, My So-Called Life, and Arrested Development.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    "Fill It Up" - Life, episode 1.11

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    "Fill It Up" cuts away the first layer of Life's central mystery. Why exactly did Charlie Crews wind up in prison 12 years ago for the murder of his friend and business partner Tom and his family? The actual killer is a man named Kyle Hollis (Titus Welliver, a Deadwood alum and longtime member of the Steven Bocho repertory company), who before undergoing a religious conversion had been an informant and muscle for the very, very dirty cop Jack Reese. Tom was laundering money for Reese through the bar he owned with Crews; the murder was an attempt to "straighten Tom out" gone awry.

    I can't recall an episode of a TV series this side of HBO that allowed its protagonist to behave as unsympathetically as Crews does here. All of the "interview" segments cut into the main story were really asking the same question. Yes, Charlie is innocent, but how did prison affect him? The answer appears to be: not for the best. Picking up where the last episode left off, Charlie reaches out to Rawls, a convict we met in the pilot (Michael Cudlitz) for information on where to find Hollis. Learning he's now a minister in a rural community, Charlie bails on Dani Reese at a crime scene to find the man he believes has all the answers.

    Damian Lewis has been terrific throughout the season, and in "Fill It Up" he shows he's more than capable of going deeper as Charlie discovers the truth about his setup. Lewis shows more range than usual this week. With Rawls he's hard, a fellow con. But when he arrives at the Hollis place and discovers his daughter wounded, he's a comforting presence as he waits for the ambulance to arrive. Things quickly take a turn, as the woman realizes her father has more than one set of pursuers. She blames Charlie for wounding her, forcing him to flee from the fast-arriving cops. Hollis makes contact by phone, wanting money and protection from Crews in exchange for information. (Everyone seems to know everyone's cell number in this episode). Charlie has no intention of paying Hollis off; the extended sequence during which Hollis is a captor in the trunk of Crews' car is the point at which Crews must decide whether or not to give in to his anger. Events take a turn when a couple of gun-toting goons ram Charlie's car in pursuit of Hollis. Charlie manages to shoot them while being suspended upside down in the wreckage of his car; if he had any doubt that his setup goes beyond the murders he certainly doesn't now.

    The squadroom ovation that Charlie receives at the end of "Fill It Up" would seem to indicate he's back in the full good graces of his colleagues. Most importantly, he has the trust of Dani and his ex-uniform partner Stark. The two bond at a crime scene in search of a gun-eating giant snake (I'm not going to take time to explain), and Stark's blames his not backing up Charlie at his murder trial on Internal Affairs pressure. When Charlie asks for their help once he's gotten Hollis's confession, both are ready to back up their partner.

    Jack Reese remains elusive. We know who killed Tom and his family, but who set Charlie up and why? Who were the men Charlie shot working for? Reese refuses Charlie's invitation to turn himself in and drops one final bombshell: the wounded girl Charlie found is actually Rachel, Tom's daughter and the survivor of the murders. (She's vanished from the hospital) While I thought "Dig A Hole" was bloated and choppy, the lean and tense "Fill It Up" bodes well for the future of this show and one of TV's most unusual leading men. The episode's most significant scenes? An angry Charlie tosses his Zen tape out the window, but later returns and (improbably) finds it by the roadside. He keeps it but doesn't put it back in the player. Life returns in 2008. Stay tuned....

    No Pirates 4...

    ...for Keira Knightley. (Cinematical)

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    A good explanation

    ...of what Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books (the basis for The Golden Compass) are and aren't. (Parabasis)

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    "Dig A Hole" - Life, episode 1.10

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    After the season-long incremental release of information about the 12-year old murder that wrongly sent Charlie Crews to prison, the last two episodes of Life have felt like a rush to revelation. Ever since the arrival of Jack Reese (Victor Rivers), ex-cop and father of Charlie's partner Dani, it has felt like the show was in a hurry to get the who-set-Charlie-up storyline out of the way. Last week I wrote that Jack was awfully big with his threats for a man with something to hide. Jack also appears to know something about the missing money from that Bank of L.A. shootout we've heard so much about. Wouldn't it make more sense for him to play it cool?

    Halfway through tonight's episode Charlie learns from his lawyer-turned-D.A. Constance that he's no longer a suspect in the killing of Ames, the cop who put him away 12 years ago. Jack is immediately in the office of Lt. Davis, demanding to know why Charlie is no longer the focus of the investigation. I had been bracing for a revelation that Davis had some old skeleton that would affect her judgment in matters regarding Charlie, but from the way Robin Weigert played this scene I think that Davis is beginning to realize Jack is wrong.

    The audience gets a strong signal that Jack is dirty, and Charlie gets one too. There's a cute LAPD crime tech who has eyes for Crews, and in the closing musical montage she simply hands him Jack's confidential personnel file. Just hands it to him. A local news bulletin cut about 90 seconds off the episode for me that the rest of you saw, but unless it happened during that time we never even saw Charlie mention Jack around her. It doesn't take Charlie long to discover that Jack had a registered informant who bears a more than passing resemblance to the drawing done by Rachel (the daughter hiding in the house during the murders) of her family's murderer.

    The choppiness of tonight's episode may have something to do with the fact that (according to my onscreen guide) it's the first of two parts. Charlie is off to prison to visit Jack's informant; we'll see that Wednesday night. The murder case that Crews and Reese worked had a similar rushed feeling to it. A construction project unearths decade old remains. The victim was a Zen master found underneath what had once been his center. Thanks to the fact that records can be pulled from the Zen master's comically enormous dated cell phone, Crews and Reese have no trouble finding his students. This arc of the episode works in a martial arts expert, two dot com geeks, the Zen master's penchant for masochism, and a decadent L.A. party (fans of Sarah Shahi's L Word tenure will enjoy her girl-on-girl kiss) before a key piece of evidence turns up in plain sight. It all felt like an attempt to develop the interest in Zen Charlie used to get through prison. If that was the intent, it didn't pan out.

    Even though I've knocked past episodes for some improbable twists, this was the first episode that as a whole just didn't flow for me. There's also filler about Charlie's ex-wife, a horse, and conversations with the murder victim. Still, the show is going somewhere at such a speed that I think the writers have an idea for the next phase of Life. I can't wait.

    Look for me....

    ...the comments thread of this observant but overwritten post on "boredom." I'm into it up until the author starts talking about Pan's Labyrinth. (The Cine File)

    Politics, for a moment

    Who knew Robert Reich had a blog? He's concerned about the tone of Hillary's attacks on Obama. (link from Daily Dish)

    NP Talks!

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    The NY Times "T" magazine page has NP content here, here, and here (a 4 1/2 minute video). Enjoy. (Photo by Raymond Meier)

    Sure-Fire Awards Magnet

    Diablo Cody, ex-stripper and hot screenwriter (Juno) (NY Times)

    "...the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical."

    About Last Night likes Sweeney Todd.

    Monday Music: The New Pornographers



    The New Pornographers perform "Myriad Harbor" in Seattle this September.

    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    Thanks TCM!

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    My Sunday afternoon viewing: Barefoot in the Park with Fonda and Redford. Has there ever been a less convincing onscreen drunk than Redford?

    Bangers and...

    Sasha Frere-Jones hears mashups everywhere he goes....

    Kelly!

    I want to weigh in on this at greater length this week, but here's a good note on the brilliance of Kelly Macdonald's work in No Country For Old Men. (Humanizing the Vacuum)

    Busy Season

    This list of Spirit Award nominees reminds me that there are still good films out there in this overcrowded season. Any thoughts on the Angelina Jolie v. Ellen Page race for Best Actress? (IFC)

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    The Late Greats

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    We're blessed to have a great radio station here in the Carolinas that plays a mix of roots, alternative, and other eclectic new music. At the WNCW website you can listen online and more importantly vote for your Top 10 CDs of the last year. Prizes are available. My Top 10 CDs of 2007:

    1. Wilco- Sky Blue Sky
    2. Ryan Adams- Easy Tiger
    3. Josh Ritter- The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
    4. New Pornographers- Challengers
    5. Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
    6. Feist- The Reminder
    7. Avett Brothers- Emotionalism
    8. Joe Henry- Civilians
    9. Rilo Kiley- Under the Blacklight
    10. Steve Earle- Washington Square Serenade

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    "Serious Control Issues" - Life, episode 1.9

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    The fruit is back. I'm talking about the fresh fruit that Det. Charlie Crews ate and talked about compulsively in the first few episodes of "Life." When Crews stopped talking about fruit some weeks ago I had thought that it was a case of the show still trying to find its voice, to take some of the quirks out of its main character as the two-tiered formula took hold. But in "Serious Control Issues" the fruit (oranges and a very small pineapple) returns along with an angrier and slightly darker Crews, and the results are one of the season's best episodes yet.

    The last new "Life" was two weeks ago; the major plot point was the murder of Ames, the now-retired detective who put Crews away 12 years ago. In "Farthingale" Crews observed Ames arguing with a man who turned out to be Jack Reese, father of Crews's partner Dani. Crews wastes no time in baiting Jack with the photos, leading Jack to charge into the lieutenant's office for a confrontation. Once the two men are alone they both show their hands. Crews knows that Ames lied about the 12-year old murder; he fudged a report to make it appear the victim's young daughter was not in the house during the crime. Jack (being perhaps a touch too broad with his threats) intimates that if Crews continues to pursue his investigation he's putting his life, liberty, and career at risk. An odder and perhaps just as ominous note was struck by Lt. Davis. She warns Dani that getting too close to Crews could result in a drugs-in-car evidence plant. Davis is the most opaque character on "Life." She seems to have some vague idea that Crews is the target of forces beyond her control but is unwilling to take a side. I find myself wishing that "Life" was on cable just so we could hear Robin Weigert as Davis bust out a few Calamity Jane-style "Deadwood" profanity riffs.

    The loyalty of Dani Reese has been called into question in earlier episodes, but tonight she seems to have taken a side. Dani isn't close to her father; she tells Crews that she's never figured out whether Jack was bad or just mean. Crews and Reese aren't exactly friends, but Reese is beginning to trust her partner. She tells him she doesn't think he's one of the bad guys, and more importantly returns the knife she took from him in "Let Her Go." Reese is given an opportunity to request a new partner even after IAD says Crews can stay on duty during the Ames investigation. She doesn't. Crews may have an agenda, but Reese knows that it isn't the same one that her father, Ames, Davis, and whatever other LAPD power players involved are pursuing.

    The last couple of homicides that Crews and Reese have worked turned on bizarre plot twists, but tonight's case was well conceived and gave us the welcome sight of a rattled Charlie Crews. A young girl who was living on the streets is murdered, and her movements are traced to a nearby grocery store where she played guitar for change. In the course of solving her murder (the pervy truck driver who killed her is well played by Michael Gladis of Mad Men) the cops meet a teenage boy with an overly protective father. The boy, Nate, lives in apartment with with bars and locks on the windows. Crews correctly deduces that Nate is being forcibly kept by his dad, and when Nate's true origins are revealed the connection to Crews's situation becomes clearer. "Serious Control Issues" reveals just how far Charlie is away from being adjusted to post-prison life, and how hard he has to work to hold on to what makes him an above-average cop. Charlie has made mistakes (confronting Ames) in his covert investigation into the 12-year old murder, and tonight I believed that as he fights to clear his name in the Ames case he could make more if he's not careful. Though the quest to find out who framed him feels like a story that can play out over 1 season tops, we now know that Charlie could get a good deal darker before things get better.

    I'm not an obsessive follower of Neilsen ratings, but (writer's strike or not) I think it has to be good news that NBC is showing two new episodes of "Life" next week. I'll be blogging about a new episode Monday post-"Heroes" and Wednesday as well. See you then.

    Track Heaven

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    No great commentary or insights here. This post is more in the nature of a lament that I haven't been able to do a better job writing about music on this blog. Yes, the name is "Mostly Movies," but I always wanted this site to be an account of whatever was exciting me at any given moment. A couple of years ago I wrote an as-yet-unproduced romantic comedy screenplay about a love triangle between a record store owner, an art teacher, and the leader of an indie rock band. The character of the rocker was vaguely inspired by a woman I knew who worked as a cashier at a health food store. She wore her hair in great red dreadlocks and had a real "indie rock look," whatever that means. In my head the music that the fictional band played sounded something like Throwing Muses, and of course was wildly popular.

    Writing that script somehow made me more aware of music again. I started seeking out new bands on advice from friends, family (my sister turned me on to The New Pornographers, pictured above), magazines, whatever. I had gotten out of the habit of looking for what was new and just keyed in on following the same artists I had been listening to forever. It was like being a freshmen in high school again, when I went (almost literally) overnight from Casey Kasem to R.E.M.'s Document with just a brief layover in classic rock along the way. I was pleased to discover there's a pretty broad subgenre out there of what I believe is now called "adult alternative" music, with several smaller umbrellas crammed underneath.

    I like to imagine that all these Adult Alt (AdAlt?) fans are people like me in their early 30s who were always the ones seeking out the most interesting stuff in music, film, books, whatever. But of course that isn't true. I'm not going to be the millionth person to write about the democratizing influence of the Internet. it's easier than ever to discover new music, blah, blah, blah. But why does it still feel like I'm in on a secret? Britney Spears, Timbaland, The Fray, whatever; VH1 and Rolling Stone are marketing to someone else and are more interested in the buying power of the audience than hipster elites.

    It actually wasn't my intention to write about how corporate music stinks, forgive the digression. As I write this I'm listening to "The Bleeding Heart Show" by the aforementioned New Pornographers. You've probably heard it in movie trailers or commercials. I want to write about why it resonates with me, and the same for songs like "The Underdog" by Spoon (geeky yet soulful) or "These Girls" by Ryan Adams (fragile, reminds me of a friend). What I'm really talking about here are the limits of language. I can describe these songs with words that are in effect a code, they have meaning only to me. You the listener can't really know what I mean, and when you hear the song I'm talking about it's certain to hit you in an entirely different way.

    This entire post is a very long way of saying that in the interest of continuing to make Mostly Movies more personal (a quest I've been on since this summer) I'm going to try to blog a bit more about the music that moves me. It will be subjective and messy at times, so bear with me and feel free to weigh in. Sitemeter tells me that the number of people visiting per day is steadily increasing, so thank you. It's good to know that this weird mix of stuff I'm putting up on an irregular basis is connecting with someone.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    NP

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    Natalie Portman won't do a sequel to The Professional and is conflicted about nudity. (MTV, NataliePortman.com)

    Easy R.I.P.

    This news has been out a little while, but One Letter At A Time provides a link to a story on the "passing" of Walter Mosley's private eye Easy Rawlins. (Yahoo News)

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    1,2,3,4...What Are We Thankful For?

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    (Yes, I'm blogging on Thanksgiving morning. Don't worry, I do have a family and a Thanksgiving waiting for me)

    Leaving out the obvious, and the things that would be expected by frequent readers:

  • I'm thankful for Sarah, Caitlin, Mariana, Trevor, and the rest of the group I studied with in New York this summer.

  • The fact that the kids all my friends are having seem to like me.

  • The emotional outlet, self-expression, and opportunity for great friendships provided by theater.

  • See above, except change subsitute "writing and blogging" for the word "theater."

  • Big, fat books of people's collected criticism and essays. I'm the critic I am because of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, Martin Amis, Nicholson Baker, and many others.

  • Music from Canada. Seriously, why is it so good? The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, Feist, Neko Case, Cowboy Junkies, heck even Rush....

  • The movies "Once," "Into the Wild," "The Lives of Others," and (most of) "Sunshine." Good enough to renew one's faith in an art form that also produces "Good Luck Chuck" and "August Rush."

  • Getting to see They Might Be Giants perform "Birdhouse in Your Soul" live.

  • The Criterion Collection.

  • and, as always, the future.....
  • Monday, November 19, 2007

    Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

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    Under the department of "You Knew This Was Coming," I probably wouldn't even have seen Zach Helm's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium if it weren't for the presence of a certain actress with initials NP. That said, I wanted to like the film more than I did. There's absolutely nothing here that would be inappropriate for your child, but I think Magorium's is a long way from being a family classic.

    Zach Helm was widely celebrated for writing Stranger Than Fiction, which was released shortly after a Vanity Fair piece in which Helm declared his intention not to waste time working on studio assignments but instead to work on his own projects. Despite the presence of a top drawer cast including Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, I couldn't really warm up to Stranger than Fiction. Will Ferrell's IRS agent, trapped in a novel, was an Everyman who had all his agency taken away by Helm's insistence that people behave in life in the same way they behave in works of fiction.

    Although it's substantially different in tone and subject matter, Magorium's is hurt by the same insularity. Hoffman plays Mr. Magorium, the owner of a "magical" toy store in which children's books come to life and stuffed animals have personalities. The store is managed by Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), who irritatingly is referred to as "Mahoney" throughout the film, and staffed by the prematurely grown-up nine-year old Eric (Zach Mills). Hoffman plays Magorium like an exaggerated version of your slightly eccentric uncle, and his daffiness isn't surprising since he's apparently 240+ years old. This entirely arbitrary conceit gives Magorium license to dispense maxims to Mahoney on the importance of self-worth. We're told Magorium made toys for Napoleon; wouldn't a flashback have been funny?

    Surprisingly little happens in Magorium's. Mr. M tells Mahoney he's "leaving" (dying) and wants to leave her the store. An accountant (Jason Bateman) shows up to audit the store and is slowly won over by all the magic. Mahoney, a frustrated composer, gradually learns what she's capable of if only she believes. That's about it, aside from special effects and a Kermit the Frog cameo. Helm seems to have forgotten that a children's story is only "magical" if the fantastical elements are placed in relief against something else. There's no real-world tension in Magorium's. Eric is slow to make friends and likes to bury himself in the world of the store, but Zach Mills is too self-possessed to suggest the desperation a lonely kid would feel. If we didn't know something about the children's life before the wardrobe, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe would just be a story about a faun and a talking lion.

    And Natalie? Mahoney is a child piano prodigy who has never realized her potential, as we can see from an awkward encounter with an old college friend. If you don't want to know how the movie ends stop reading now. Helm won't let Mahoney out of the magic box; it might be moving to see her become a composer or a teacher, but instead it turns out her destiny is to run the toy store. Again, if we had a sense of how the store existed in the world around it this would matter more. Portman doesn't have much to do except twinkle and beam with the cuteness of a character trapped in a story whose ending has already been written.

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Buy this card

    Sasha Frere-Jones on a weird new Starbucks/iTunes partnership. I blogged about Frere-Jones's article on the lack of funkiness in indie rock; now a member of the Arcade Fire responds. (New Yorker)

    A photographic journey....

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    ...through Natalie Portman's career. (Entertainment Weekly, photo from Everett Collection)

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Picket blogs

    Two unofficial WGA blogs - United Hollywood (West) and Strike Points (East)

    "Farthingale" - Life, episode 1.8

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    Charlie Crews sits in his car, taking pictures of two men arguing. One is retired Det. Carl Ames, the cop who put Crews away 12 years earlier for the murders he was later cleared of. Ames, who has spent most of his retirement drinking, is exchanging angry words with a middle-aged, silver-haired man we haven't seen yet. As Charlie conducts his illicit surveillance, the meditation tape in his car reminds him and us of the interconnectedness of all things. By the end of "Farthingale," Charlie will learn how the forces arrayed against him may affect parts of his life that he hadn't even imagined.

    This week's murder case takes up the now-cliched idea of a man leading two lives. When the Crews and Reese arrive at a nondescript empty house they discover a body that thanks to a deliberately set gas explosion has been turned into merely a torso; everything below the waist was vaporized. Do people who leads two lives always have two ID's in their wallet? It doesn't take Crews and Reese long to figure out that the victim, a Rudolph Farthingale, had two wives who were ignorant of each other's existence. Each wife thought that her husband (who went by Farthing with one wife and Gale with another) was a government agent, thus accounting for his long absences. I had the same problem with "Farthingale" that I had with "A Civil War" last week. Each episodes murder case turned on an improbable and underexplained fact. In this case it's revealed that in his real work as an IRS analyst, Farthingale had (apparently by examining thousands of individual tax records) discovered the identity of the next Unabomber.

    If the stand-alone plot felt rushed it's because there were big doings in the puzzle of the now unsolved murder Crews went away for. Not long after Crews takes his picture, Ames turns up shot dead in the LAPD parking garage. Crews has an alibi, he was with Reese in the lieutenant's office when it happened. But as Lt. Davis points out, that doesn't mean Crews wasn't involved. When Crews's police union rep shows up, two things become clear. First, someone at Life must have worked at Deadwood because actors from that show keep popping up. (The union rep is played by Michael Harney, who played the loudmouthed drunk Steve) Second, the rep tells Crews "off the record" that if someone had put him away for twelve years he would have killed him too. Charlie is presumed guilty, at least by the other cops. This point is underscored by a private conversation between Davis and Reese in which the lieutenant tells Dani that Crews now has "nothing to lose," meaning she thinks his vengeance has only just begun.

    A few episodes ago we said goodbye to Charlie's smitten lawyer Constance; she was leaving for an extended business trip to New York. Back she comes this week, since Charlie has called her after the shooting. But wait! Constance has taken a job with the DA's office, who apparently would love to see Crews go down for the Ames murder. It's not lost on Crews that Constance was offered a job a week before the murder, but after he Zens out in front of Internal Affairs it looks like he should have gotten another lawyer. Constance's inside knowledge of the DA's office proves useful though when, loyalties still conflicted, she tips off Crews about a police search of his house. The huge flow chart on the wall that Charlie was using to unravel his case goes away just ahead of the cops, with an assist from Ted.

    The big reveal at the end of the episode is that the man Ames was arguing with at the top was Dani Reese's ex-cop father Jack, who was intimately involved in the Bank of L.A. shootout we've heard so much about. I've written in other posts about the pace at which information is revealed on this show, and I liked the balance between the stand-alone and mythology arcs this week. Crews may not even completely understand the reasons he was set up for murder 12 years ago, but he now has a potential ally in the D.A.'s office and a potential enemy (Reese's father) closer than he ever imagined.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    Margotmania!

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  • Noah Baumbach talks about working with his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (and other issues) in Margot at the Wedding. (IFC News)

    Q: You worked with your wife for the first time, which I'm sure was a real pleasure, but was the transition ever awkward in maintaining a professional demeanor?

    A: No, I found it really easy. That's why we did it — because we thought it would be fun, collaborative and great. It's a continuation of the marriage; things that come from marriage also come into the work.


  • Leigh is a "Big Gay Icon." (The Advocate)
  • "It is the sound of mediocrity."

    Christopher Hitchens at the National Book Award finalists reading. (Critical Mass)

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Ugly

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    At About Last Night, Terry Teachout uses the occasion of Norman Mailer's death to mention an old essay he'd written pondering just why Mailer is still revered. The post also includes an email from a reader wondering just why Teachout took this moment to haul out his old criticisms. I don't know what Mr. Teachout thinks of say, John Updike, Philip Roth, or David Mamet; but if I were a writer with any degree of Pulitzer-level regard I'd be worried. For some reason Teachout likes to take the passing of an artist as an occasion to remind us that the deceased really wasn't all that. Arthur Miller and the (admittedly on a different level) Johnny Carson have received the same treatment. Teachout writes (about his Carson obituary):

    Which brings us back to the late Johnny Carson. To those readers who didn't like what I wrote about him, I say: what's it to you? Why do you care? I'm just a guy with a blog. If you don't like it, start one of your own. That's the wonderful thing about the blogosphere--it puts all its participants on a potentially equal footing, something that was never true of the mainstream media. By all means feel free to get into the game.


    Thanks for your permission. Indeed, About Last Night was one of the first blogs I stumbled across when I was attempting to find an outlet for my writing greater than weekly movie reviews. But to say that blogs put "...participants on a potentially equal footing" isn't right. Teachout writes for the Wall St. Journal and other publications; he never fails to inform his readers of where his subsidized travels take him and just how important he is in the critical establishment. All the while, he cheerfully disregards the fact there are many people reading ALN who watch television, enjoy films (and I don't mean mass-produced Hollywood slop), and listen to music written by people who are alive.

    Am I calling Teachout a snob? Maybe, but everyone is snobbish about their own personal obsessions. To get back to the question of the timing and tone of posthumous critical appraisals, Teachout as why "we care" about when his Carson obit comes out. On a literal level he's right; it doesn't make the slightest difference if it's today or next week. But the repeated dancing on ashes of the recently deceased betrays the chilly heart of the genial blogger who in recent days has delighted in telling us about his wedding and the libretto he's writing. It's true that Norman Mailer's relevance and critical regard have long been on the wane, but for years he was a popular, decorated, and listened to American writer even when his behavior verged on the homicidal. I can almost forgive the Carson obit; Teachout obviously just didn't think the man was funny. But pillaging Miller and Mailer, the latter with a decade-old essay, immediately postmortem feels like claiming victory in an ugly game of artist v. critic chicken.

    Whether Teachout likes it or not, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller were important American artists (Miller for far longer) who had their share of fans and detractors. Both were products of multiple personal and artistic influences, and both had careers with declining second acts. I go bananas when critics pan an artist because their work isn't just like that first, early, thing that won their reputation. Both had the right to experiment and to fail, something that we forget when talking about the arc of a career or a life. Maybe neither batted .500, but one doesn't have to in order to make the big leagues. Now that both are gone, Terry Teachout just wants you to know he was right after all.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    Sunday Music: Paul Westerberg



    Paul Westerberg plays "Can't Hardly Wait" in 1993. (Looks like SNL to me)

    Weekend pleasures

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    (I am still here people, I promise.)

  • Seeing Nickel Creek at one of the final (for the moment) performances in a small club. It was my second time seeing the band, which was fortunate because I had to leave after an hour due to an early alarm clock the next morning. Although I'm fortunate to live somewhere with a club that gets great alt-country and rock acts, I wish they hadn't booked another show right before NC. This led to a delay in setting up the stage, a delay in opening the doors, and Nickel Creek not hitting the stage until after 10.30. All of this still wasn't as frustrating by far as knowing that if I had stayed in New York one more week this summer I could have seen NC and Fiona Apple in Central Park.

  • Getting the My So-Called Life DVD set at half price, thanks to my membership in and coupon from a nationally known chain store. (Yes, I know I'm being a heretic here...)

  • Starting to read the new oral history of The Replacements by Jim Walsh. Although I'm perfectly happy with my age, sometimes it occurs to me that if I were a few years older I would have been in high school or college during the high-point of the pre-Internet college rock scene (R.E.M., The Mats, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., etc.) I also might be slightly more like John Cusack, but hey what can you do?
  • Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    "A Civil War" - Life, episode 1.7

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    In this week's Life we heard the satisfying click of pieces falling into place. The relationship between Detectives Crews and Reese deepened last week after Reese fended off a serial rapist intent on preying on her alcoholism. Tonight the episode's central revelation was also Dani-centric and maybe relevant to Crews' bogus murder conviction. After Reese reacts to an offhand remark by Charlie's old partner Stark, Crews (in an illicit search of a secure LAPD server) learns that Dani's father Jack was the SWAT captain at the much discussed Bank of Los Angeles shootout. This of course means that the comment two episodes ago by the Russian mobster Roman that Crews should "ask his partner" about the shootout was misunderstood. Crews naturally thought Roman was referring to Stark, since Dani was only twelve years old when the shooting occurred. I have a guess about where this is going, but for now I'll just say that if you recall the 1st season of NYPD Blue you might be able to figure out a plausible explanation for Dani's behavior. (Remember, Roman seemed to have an unusual amount of personal information about Dani when they met)

    The stand-alone plot clipped along well enough, but turned on a last-minute and somewhat improbable connection between two characters. Two young Persians are found shot and stuffed in a convenience store cooler with the words "Go Home" written in oil on the glass. Since the cops have to diffuse a riot outside the crime scene, anti-immigrant sentiment is almost immediately settled on as a motive for the murders. The two victims were drug dealers; a third Persian, Amir, who has gone missing is believed to be in league with them. Amir's mother and sister hover around the cops and declare that he couldn't possibly be involved, but after a spreadsheet is discovered on Amir's video game console it's clear he was the dealer's accountant. Computers played a major role this week. There's a funny LAPD computer geek character that I could see coming back in future episodes. and the unlocking of the spreadsheet only happens after a slightly overlong montage in which everyone stands around and watches Amir's sister get to a certain level on a video game.

    The case turns on the fact that the mother of the kidnapper (Sarah Clarke of 24) is apparently in love with Amir. I say "apparently" because we don't know until Crews explained it to us. This plot twist felt very forced, as if a writer was just trying to do what wasn't expected for its own sake.

    Last week I complained that Adam Arkin's Ted had too little to do, and my cries were heard. Crews decides (after a dream) to buy a "solar farm." On a trip to check one out Ted winds up in the company of Olivia (whom I didn't realize in her first appearance is played by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men), the bride-to-be of Crews's as-yet-unseen father. The trip goes comically awry, and Arkin sweetly reveals his attraction to Olivia and his awkwardness around women. This week Ted worked as a nice counterpoint to the serious main plot.

    Although the Persian murder/drug plot left me a little cold, this was a very strong episode of Life. It was good to see the nutty side of Crews come back out, and great to see Reese's character get more complicated (Oh, she's half-Persian and speaks fluent Farsi). I hope the show goes further with the idea that Charlie's eccentricity heps him figure out all crimes aren't as simple as they first appear - Lt. Davis tells him most crimes are about "drugs and money." Charlie is still working on that flow chart, trying to figure out who set him up. As Reese's history and the connection to her father came out the chart went in some new and unexpected directions. We'll see whether Reese's place on the Wall of Shame is justified, but for now trust no one.

    Union Label

    How is Tina Fey spending the writers' strike? (One Letter At A Time)

    Mr. Sullivan

    Andrew Sullivan on Obama, faith, and whether blogs will replace print media:

    I don’t think so. In fact, one of the interesting things about coming to The Atlantic in the last year or so has been realizing just what a fantastic and important future there is for a print magazine like The Atlantic. However, the online world is a different medium. It requires a different set of rules and a different set of expectations.

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Stoppardalia!

    The new Tom Stoppard play, Rock 'n' Roll, gets a mixed review from Terry Teachout. If only I could think of a way to get to New York to see this one. (About Last Night)

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    The Irony-Free John Cusack

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    With all due respect to Mr. Ryan Gosling (whose genius we may be only beginning to appreciate), the performance I was was most affected by in Lars and the Real Girl was that of Paul Schneider as Lars' straight arrow brother Gus. If you haven't seen the movie, it's the story of Lars (Gosling). Lars is an emotionally retarded Midwesterner who one day brings home a sex doll called Bianca and announces she's his girlfriend. Lars claims to be able to converse with Bianca, and Gus and his pregnant wife Karin (the equally good Emily Mortimer) have no choice but to let Bianca "sleep" in the extra bedroom.

    Playing an aberrant character is one kind of acting challenge, and the tradition of actors being recognized for creating a coherent character who's in the grips of a physical or mental disability shows no sign of ending. Lars's problems (which we're told stem from his mother's death while giving birth to him) are psychological, and as Lars gets treatment from an eccentric doctor (Patricia Clarkson) Gosling palpably makes him more engaged with the world as the film goes on. It's another kind of challenge to play the normal, workaday, responsible character through whose eyes the audience views the story. At any given moment, Gus has to be skeptical about the doctor's advice to treat Bianca as a real person, guilty about leaving Lars with their widowed father as a child, preparing for fatherhood, and self-conscious about the way the town perceives his family. (It's the conceit of the film that the town bands together to make Bianca part of the community, she even gets elected to the school board)

    Schneider somehow pulls all of this off without it even being apparent that he's acting. Gus is one of a growing body of good-hearted if clueless characters on Schneider's resume, the most notable being the compulsive philanderer Paul in David Gordon Green's All The Real Girls. Paul has cut a wide swath through the ladies in his small North Carolina town because there's nothing else to do; when he meets a friend's sister (Zooey Deschanel) and falls in love for the first time his awkwardness is completely genuine. He's literally never felt this way before and his inept behavior has lasting consequences. In Elizabethtown Schneider plays a man completely incapable of handling his young son; his character also sets fire to a hotel ballroom during his cover band's performance of "Free Bird." The Assassination of Jesse James... sets Schneider in more dramatic circumstances, but the character arc is the same. Schneider plays a member of James's gang whose desire for self-advancement blinds him to what James is capable of.

    The title of this post isn't meant as a slap at Cusack; his warm & dark cynicism will always be a draw for guys of my generation. But to see a character so believably embody characters who not only aren't reflexively ironic but who wouldn't get along with people who are is a splash of cold water for anyone who enjoys a bit of humanism in their cinema. IMDB has Schneider's writing/directing debut, Pretty Bird, out next year.

    Sunday, November 04, 2007

    Sunday Music: The Decemberists

    The Decemberists play "O Valencia!" last year on Letterman...

    Casting Call

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    There's a strange bit of business in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that presents a problem I've not encountered as a critic before. The jealous Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has provided the authorities with information about James and his gang and is now ready to meet the Governor of Missouri in the company of his former co-conspirator Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). The governor, Thomas Crittenden, will tacitly give Ford his blessing for the killing of James. According to Wikipedia he actually offered $10,000 for James dead or alive.

    Now here's the problem. Crittenden is played by strategist/commentator James Carville. I could find no conceivable reason online for Carville's involvement with this movie, maybe he's friends with Brad Pitt. But the scene Carville is asked to play (his acting is serviceable but he looks nothing like a man of the 1880's) is the moment when Ford realizes he might gain more by killing Jesse than by being part of his gang. It's a key moment in the film and in Ford's character arc, and it's completely bungled because you're thinking about Carville. What were they thinking? It's not like Linda Bloodworth-Thomason directed this; director Andrew Dominik is an Australian. Celebrity non-actors are a slippery slope, usually best used when the film in question references their own fame. In Resurrecting the Champ from earlier this year, Josh Hartnett's sportswriter has lied and told his young son he's buddies with John Elway. Later, a chance encounter with the Broncos great QB reveals the lie. That crude but pointed plot twist is closer to the way someone whose fame doesn't come from acting should be used in a movie. I'll be looking for Carville on CNN. (His best screen performance of course, was this)

    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    Still Sonic

    I'm enjoying Thurston Moore's new (heavily acoustic) solo CD Trees Outside The Academy, but would I like him in concert? (Chloe Veltman)

    Why We Need James Gray

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    I thoroughly enjoyed James Gray's We Own The Night, the story of a 1980's Brooklyn nightclub manager (Joaquin Phoenix) named Bobby whose brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) are both high-ranking members of the NYPD. When Bobby is approached by his relatives early in the film about the possibility of providing intelligence regarding narcotics at his club, he says no out of jealousy towards his brother. Wahlberg's Joe is being feted on the occasion of his promotion to Captain, and Bobby can't hide his feeling that no one cares whether he's there or not.

    Fans of Michael Bay, stop reading now. If you just want to see an action movie where stuff gets blown up, We Own The Night isn't for you. As much as the spot-on action sequences (a gunfight at close quarters so vivid it seems plausible for a moment that Bobby might get accidentally shot and a rainy car chase), it was the communal scenes that lingered with me after the movie was over. The opening celebration of Bobby's promotion could only have been shot by someone familiar with the classic family gatherings at the beginning of the Godfather films. Joe's wife tries to control the kids, a woman dozes at a table, a couple of NYPD lifers trail Duvall around (as they do throughout the movie). The close air in the crowded room might as well have been piped into the theater, so specific is Gray's idea of this place and these people.

    Later there's a welcome home scene for Joe in a living room so overcrowded with people I expected someone to bump into the camera. Lumbering cops look vaguely ridiculous plotting strategy around a dining room table. I mention these scenes because Gray brings a quality to We Own The Night that I think is lacking in far too many American big studio films: a sense of place. It's obvious that Gray knows these halls, these houses, and these living rooms. It's an obvious point, but far too often it isn't clear enough or important enough where a movie takes place. Do you know where Things We Lost In The Fire is set? (Washington State) I haven't seen Dan In Real Life, but does it matter where it's set? The setting of Feast of Love was changed from Michigan to Oregon for no apparent reason. (Cheaper to shoot? More coffee houses?) I knew I was going to like We Own The Night when I saw the opening montage of black and white photos of NYPD uniform cops in action.

    Go ahead, James Gray. Luxuriate in those precinct houses, Queens front yards, and nightclubs. We'd appreciate it if you didn't take 7 years between movies, but we're glad there's a place at the table for you.

    "Powerless" - Life, episode 1.6

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    When the promos for this week's episode promised that Det. Reese and her addictions (which so far cover alcohol, drugs, and sex with strangers) would be at the foreground of the story, I was hoping for some hard backstory on how Reese ended up at the bottom of the detectives' food chain and partnered with Charlie Crews. After all, most of what we know about Reese's background came from her encounter with the Russian mobster Roman last week, and he's not exactly a reliable narrator.

    That was probably too much to expect from a show that is going to depend on doling out information slowly over the course of a season. Instead what we got was something darker, more troubling, and a little less credible. On her way to an AA meeting, Dani stops in for a cold one and makes eye contact with a handsome stranger across the bar. The guy, Rick, introduces himself and it turns out they're both headed for the same meeting. Just as Dani is about to bail on the meeting early, Rick gets up to share. (Sneaking out of AA meetings is the new shorthand to denote a well-meaning character who hasn't pulled it together yet; see Things We Lost In The Fire) Rick shares that when drunk he had previously assaulted a woman, but he's suspiciously vague on the details. Dani nails Rick on his withholding after the meeting, but Rick correctly figures out that Dani isn't opening up about her history either.

    While Charlie and Dani search 911 records for Rick's victim, Charlie is also trying to figure out how the 15-year old Bank of L.A. shootout (and the disappearance of millions of dollars afterwards) might relate to his false imprisonment. Last week Roman had hinted that Charlie's ex-partner Stark might know something about the case. Stark had always claimed to have been at the center of the shooting, but Charlie learns from Lt. Davis that the shooting was done by SWAT and the uniform cops merely manned the barricades. Stark admits his exaggeration and the whole thing seems for the moment to have been a red herring. Brent Sexton continues to play Stark with an overgrown-boy energy that makes the idea of his being a cop just a little scary.

    The ending of "Powerless" zig where it should zag; Rick (after making bail on that old rape charge) pays Dani a visit. He doesn't attack her, instead he forces her to drink and open up about her history. We know from "What They Saw" that Reese's insight into other addicts' behavior is pretty strong; she plays into Rick's vanity and need to see himself as troubled while the cavalry pulls up outside. At the end, we find Dani back at AA admitting her powerlessness.

    Could the character of Ted (Adam Arkin), Charlie's ex-con financial advisor/boarder, be traded to another show? Maybe to Big Shots for Nia Long's character. This week Ted is stranded in his own story when his ex-partner in crime writes a tell-all book. I hope someone figures out a way to integrate Ted into the central stories. Adam Arkin does have one very good acting moment when it appears he's about to wallop his old friend.

    I'm mixed on "Powerless." Sarah Shahi got more screen time, but the show spun its wheels on the central mystery. Next week Dani goes up on Charlie's wall, as he continues to untangle the mystery of his murder charge.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    Watch what space

    David Thomson is cool on Wes Anderson. I disagree - I think The Darjeeling Limited is his least ironic and most effective depiction of stunted emotional growth. Thomson refers to the characters' lack of interest in their Indian setting; surely that's because what's actually important is the brothers' reliance on each other. (The Guardian)

    Why Jeff Tweedy isn't black enough

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    So I'm grateful to Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker. If it weren't for him I wouldn't have bought the new Spoon CD and discovered "The Underdog," the song that has run through my head more than any other this year. But I can't get behind his recent article lamenting the lack of "soul" and "rhythm" in "indie" rock. What is indie rock anyway? Frere-Jones admits the classification doesn't mean much. On Wilco:

    Wilco’s 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which won that year’s Pazz and Jop national critics’ poll in the Village Voice, is one of the most celebrated indie-rock records of the past five years. (It was released on Nonesuch, which was a subsidiary of the major label Atlantic—further evidence that “indie rock” has become an aesthetic description, and no longer has anything to do with labels.)


    What's the point? A group of bands, linked not by any particular stylistic similarities but rather by an arbitrary media-driven distinction, aren't soulful enough for Frere-Jones's taste. Frere-Jones goes on to say that Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot features "plodding" rhythms and "formless" music. (He obviously didn't listen to the song "Heavy Metal Drummer") What we have here is a case of personal preference dressed up as theory. It's reductive and insulting to assume that all good music must come from the same place. I'm reminded of Ken Burns' Jazz, which draws a line from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis while pretending that Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett don't exist. In the opening paragraphs of his piece, Frere-Jones describes a trip to an Arcade Fire show:

    In January, at a less elaborate show in a small London church, the band’s members had called to mind Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas—their execution was ragged but full of brio—and I had spent the evening happily pressed against the stage. At the United Palace, even though the music was surging in all the right places, I was weary after six songs. My friend asked me, “Do they play everything in the same end-of-the-world style?”


    Well, that night they did. We buy CD's and go to concerts expecting a certain experience and when we don't get it it's often frustrating. Frere-Jones has a right to be disappointed in the Arcade Fire, but not to construct a grand social theory about the racial influences on a entire genre of music. Why ruin it for the rest of us? This week I'm going to see They Might Be Giants for the first time; I'm guessing that "They'll Need A Crane" won't sound entirely like I remember it. But that's OK, since I'll still be hearing the band live with a posse of my friends. Where is the joy in Frere-Jones' s concert-going?

    In the same attack on Wilco, Frere-Jones mentions that the band's album Being There is one of the few "alt-country" records he listens to regularly. Alt-country is only a slightly more helpful term than "indie," but to complain that Wilco or any other band should conform to what we want them to be betrays a lack of understanding about the sum of any artist's influences. Don't review the music that wasn't made, to paraphrase an old professor of mine.

    I don't pretend this a heavily intellectual or reasoned response to what I view as a killjoy manifesto for music fans. Think of it as a cry for the joys of subjectivity, of giving bands the right to try, to change, and even to fail. Thanks for Spoon, Mr. Jones. I hope you have a better time at your next concert.

    Monday Music - Ryan Adams & Norah Jones



    Ryan Adams and Norah Jones perform "Dear John" in 2006.

    Green gripes

    The environmental blog Grist reports on how factions of the movement are reacting to the climate change bills moving through Congress.

    Sunday, October 28, 2007

    Which movie...

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    ...does Natalie Portman regret being nude in? (Ireland Online)

    I'm back

    Now that my show has ended (successfully), I plan to get back to a more regular schedule of blogging here. Thanks for your patience. Among the things I plan to write about are the novel The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta, The Darjeeling Limited, and the pleasures of Rilo Kiley. I've also got a They Might Be Giants show this week to look forward to.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    "The Fallen Woman" - Life, episode 1.5

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    If you're the sort of TV fan who spends his or her time worrying about how networks interfere with good shows to make them more marketable, then "The Fallen Woman" might upset you. The Zen-loving, fruit-eating, Det. Charlie Crews of the first couple of episodes is gone, in his place we have a slightly offbeat cop whose spiritual focus this week shifts from Buddhism to angels. This episode also dials back the who-set-Charlie-up overarching storyline in favor of a meditative, stand-alone hour that deepens the connection between new partners Crews and Reese.

    A gorgeous young woman wearing angel wings is pushed out of a hotel window. The case attracts heavy media attention and a parade of nuts shows up at the police station to offer various theories about the dead "angel." One diffident man knows the truth. A frightened glue factory owner named Jasper (Steven M. Porter) met the deceased, Lena, in a bar frequented by young Russian women. (Jessica Pare is terrific as a friend of the victim who helps out the cops despite her fear of Roman) The two had married after a happy year together, and that's when Jasper was visited by Roman (Garret Dillahunt, another Deadwood alum checking in). Roman is the sort of Russian gangster people attribute paranormal powers to. Judging by his calm (sociopathic) demeanor and knowledge of the detetctives' personal lives, something is going on with this guy.

    It's not surprising Roman would know about Crews, everyone else seems to. But he also provides the first real backstory we've gotten on Reese. Although we don't know where he's getting his info, it's still a genuinely chilling moment when Roman asks Reese about her drug addiction while undercover, affair with a junkie, and subsequent rehab. Reese is appropriately rattled, and (the promos for next week suggest) might be headed back to the bottle. She also seems to have lost her religious faith, and is seen in a closing shot pondering a cross necklace. Sarah Shahi hasn't gotten the hype given to her costar Damian Lewis, but this episode proved to me her acting chops are more than up to the challenge. I'm looking forward to next week, which the promos the suggest will be a Reese-centric episode.

    Roman is eventually tied to the murder, but the ending of the episode is bungled thanks to a plot twist I won't reveal. Let's just say the resolution of this case will be familiar to anyone who has seen "The Departed" and Roman is free to return in future episodes. I was looking forward to a good interrogation room face-off between Roman and the cops, though I did enjoy the scene of Reese giving a Homeland Security agent some attitude.

    In the subplots, Charlie's lawyer Constance was wrong to take on that shady client Neil Cudahy last week. Neil gets rough with her and Charlie eventually gives him a smackdown in a restaurant bathroom, leading to a look-in-the-mirror moment as Charlie gives into the violence of his prison days. Constance, married but in love with Charlie, is headed for New York on a case as the episode ends. Robert Stark (Brent Sexton), Charlie's partner from his pre-jail uniform days, is back this week. Stark (who let Charlie go down for the murder 12 years ago) has always seemed a little too eager too see his old buddy; at episode's end Roman drops a hint Stark may know something about 15-year old missing money. More to come on that....

    "The Fallen Woman" feels like an episode of a show that wants to be around awhile, that wants to put character on an equal footing with story and isn't always about the payoff. I'm not saying its Homicide or anything, but in five weeks Crews and Reese have become very rounded, appealing, and yet believably flawed characters. Life continues to be my favorite new show of the season.

    Enablers - Things We Lost In The Fire

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    This post contains spoilers for Things We Lost In The Fire.

    In Susanne Bier's Things We Lost In The Fire, a woman named Audrey (Halle Berry) invites her late husband's sketchy best friend Jerry (Benicio del Toro) to move into an empty garage apartment. Audrey had never been too keen on Jerry when her husband Brian (David Duchovny) was alive; Jerry and Brian were childhood friends but Jerry's career as a lawyer flamed out after he became addicted to drugs. But when Brian gets murdered trying to break up a domestic brawl, Audrey shuts down and her two children have no one to turn to. By inviting Jerry to stay, Audrey hopes to hold on to a samll part of her husband. (SPOILER ALERT! Cheers to the filmmakers for NOT getting Audrey and Jerry together)

    Things We Lost In The Fire is much, much, better than its premise makes it sound. Any movie that involves addiction, widowhood, and children has the potential to be a sentimental mess, but the script by Allan Loeb avoids cliched redemptive moments at every turn. The film benefits greatly from the two above-the-title stars. With the possible exception of Tommy Lee Jones, there isn't an actor in America less inclined to mugging, self-regard, or any other sort of Oscar begging than Benicio del Toro. He is a wonder as Jerry; an intelligent, good-hearted man under the sway of powerful forces. But the performance works on a technical level as well, check the scene where a post-relapse Jerry nods out (with his eyes open) in the middle of a conversation.

    As much as I liked the acting (Halle Berry has her best role in years and takes advantage) and the realistic tone, there's an element of convenience to
    TWLITF that slightly lessened the film's power. Every single person Jerry comes in contact with during the movie goes out of their way to help him, even though he hasn't always earned their trust. A neighbor (John Carroll Lynch) gives Jerry his old furniture and sets him up with a new career. A cute woman (Alison Lohman, where has she been?) at Jerry's NA meeting takes one look at Jerry and decides he's a soul worth saving. And of course, Jerry is so together that when a freaking out Audrey invites him into her bed and asks him to hold her while she falls asleep, it works.

    Jerry does relapse during the course of the film, but only after Audrey has temporarily kicked him out of the house. Isn't it lucky his addictive behavior never put Audrey's kids in any danger? But of course that would be too complicated, as would having Jerry bear some culpability in Brian's death. (What if Brian had been killed on the way back from seeing Jerry?) Those twists would have forced Audrey to make a moral choice, weighing her humanistic obligation to help Jerry against deserved resentment. It might also have led to something even more interesting than the (still fairly strong) conclusion. I try not to criticize the film that wasn't made, but TWLITF works very hard to arrive at a place that won't surprise very many people. There is enough above-average stuff going on for me to recommend this film; but the characters and the audience don't know how easy they have it.