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


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

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


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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


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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


    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.