Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dept.of the Much-Blogged

This already much linked-to Stanley Fish piece on True Grit makes me want to see the movie again (NYT)

What this means is that there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.

It is, says Mattie in a reflection that does not make it into either movie, a “hard doctrine running contrary to the earthly ideals of fair play” (that’s putting it mildly), and she glosses that hard doctrine — heavenly favor does not depend on anything we do — with a reference to II Timothy 1:9, which celebrates the power of the God “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Yes, I heard/The Other Woman trailer

Do the stunned expressions in this picture reflect what the big moment was like? We'll never know, but congratulations to NP and Benjamin Millepied on their engagement and news of an expected child. Now, my protestations on other blogs to the contrary, I present the trailer for NP's much delayed The Other Woman. Judge for yourself, but this one might be a tough sell.

The King's Speech

That sound you hear is two first-class actors working very hard to prevent Tom Hooper's The King's Speech from turning into yet another classy, year-end, heavily costumed historical drama. The King's Speech is the kind of film that makes you wonder if the top tier of British acting ever runs out of things to say to each other; after all, they're always bumping into one another on the sets of period dramas like this or the next Harry Potter film. As the 1930's pass and Hitler rises "Bertie" (Colin Firth) tries his best to avoid public life, leaving the public duties of royalty to his father George V (Michael Gambon) and brother David (Guy Pearce). Bertie's stammer makes public speaking a nightmare, and his misfortune is to be royalty during the dawn of live radio broadcasts. Colin Firth's performance is what keeps The King's Speech from being an HBO movie; his Bertie is spiky, angry, bound by duty, and frustrated at what he sees happening as his father dies and David aka Edward VIII ascends to the throne. The first scenes between Bertie and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the Australian speech therapist hired to cure Bertie's stammer, have a crackling energy. Logue won't meet with Bertie anywhere but in his consulting room or call him by the proper title, and Hooper (working from a script by David Seidler) could have lingered a little longer over the way Logue convinces Bertie of the validity of his methods. We have to get the historical background in though, so here's Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) partying and there's Winston Churchill (growling Timothy Spall) fretting about Germany.

A fellow blogger mentioned Good Will Hunting in reviewing The King's Speech; he's talking about the way that Logue goes outside the rubric of strict speech therapy to break down Bertie's emotional reserve. Being a royal son of whom nothing is expected but much is required is very, very emotionally taxing it seems, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see Bertie crying except for the fact that Firth suggests so much more capability than his brother. (Guy Pearce, who is 7 years younger than the actor playing his younger brother, is made up to look bloated and played out.) After Bertie ascends to the throne and becomes George VI there's a long buildup to a climactic radio speech in which the new King must inspire a nation on the doorstep of war. The scene between the King and Logue is underplayed well as a nervous Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and nation wait outside. But here's where the very Britishness of the material works against it; George will give the speech because he must, and all the moments of introspection achieved in Logue's office can't help but feel inconsequential in the face of what's to come. The King's Speech is an enjoyable piece of storytelling given heft by Firth and Rush, but its detours into the psyche of a King don't add up to all that's promised.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tron: Legacy

I remember playing the Tron video game more than I do seeing the movie, which came out when I was 9 years old. That fact illustrates the problem inherent in attempting to carry on the Tron franchise almost 30 years later; one generation barely remembers the source material (the original film didn't exactly catch fire) while younger audiences must be persuaded to care about yet another sci-fi mindscape complete with its own rules and mythology. Director Joseph Kosinski partially overcomes this challenge thanks to just-invented technology and one great performance, but Tron: Legacy still winds up being more pretty curiosity than genre game-changer.

A prologue sets the scene. Programmer turned mogul Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who survived a trip to "the grid" in the original Tron, disappears in 1989 leaving behind a son named Sam and the Encom company in turmoil. The prologue also introduces the film's most discussed effect, the animation that freezes Bridges's face in 1989. The younger Flynn's frozen features are distracting at first, but when they pop up again inside the grid on the face of Clu (Flynn's masterpiece program gone awry) they work as a representation of the artificial trying to be human. Cut to the present: the now adult Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is the silent majority shareholder of Encom, and his father's company has turned from idealistic exploration to a quest for pure profit. After Sam disrupts the release of Encom's new operating system he gets a visit from his father's old colleague Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), whose Tron program helped Kevin out on the grid in the '80s. Suffice it to say that Sam winds up at his father's dusty arcade and then on the grid himself, hurling glowing discs at computer programs while the now dictatorial Clu watches from above like a Roman Emperor. It's at this point that Tron: Legacy reveals its true intention, to traffic in a sci-fi cliche that can't be as old as it feels. Clu has a master plan to build an army of programs and cross from the grid into the real world, but Kosinski never bothers to tell us why other than some vague talk of "perfection". If Clu's goal is destruction a la Skynet in the Terminator films, you'd think he'd at least mention it. Flynn meanwhile lives Obi-Wan style in a well-appointed cave away from the grid, with an apprentice named Quorra (Olivia Wilde, transcending the usual token hot babe role) who we're told is somehow different from all the other programs.

Jeff Bridges must have been skeptical when first approached about another Tron film, but without his participation Tron: Legacy couldn't and shouldn't exist. Flynn comes from a generation where a life in computing was still a life on the margins; he's an old hippie and Bridges plays him with great good humor, by turns impressed with his own creation and paranoid about what's ahead. The stolid Garrett Hedlund is no match for Bridges; this is whom Disney is betting a franchise on? Olivia Wilde is the revelation and the film's cleverest creation. Computers turn against humans in movies all the time, but Quorra is turned on by human creativity. She longs to see a sunrise and meet Jules Verne. Wilde pulls off the naivete expertly, and of course Quorra is still awfully handy in a fight. The world these characters inhabit is impressively detailed, austere, and culturally reminiscent of a Soviet bloc state in the 1960's. Everyone goes along to get along, but a fixer (Michael Sheen) can still get you what you need for the right price. If only something had been at stake. Tron: Legacy borrows from other movies (Star Wars, 2001) while forgetting to live in its own time. The memorable visuals arrive stillborn from their creator's head, and Bridges's performance is a footnote to the remarkable fact that Tron: Legacy exists at all.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dept. of Jealous Playwrights

Meet playwright Tommy Nohilly, whose first production of his first play stars Ethan Hawke in an Off Broadway theater. Good luck to him; it sounds like he comes honestly by success. (NYT)

Mr. Nohilly eventually returned to college while working as a security guard. Later, one of his first scripts earned him a seat in Columbia University’s graduate program for playwriting, where, in 2006, he finished with $120,000 in loans and a lengthy, three-act thesis titled “Blood From a Stone.”

The loan balance has dropped, but the play remains in all its heft.

An emotionally and at times physically violent story about a working-class family falling apart in New Britain, Conn., “Blood From a Stone” is the Off Broadway season opener for the New Group. Previews are under way at the Acorn Theater under the direction of Scott Elliott, and the opening is set for Jan. 12 — about a week later than planned because of changes to the script. Starring the film and theater actor Ethan Hawke as the eldest son, Travis, and Gordon Clapp and Ann Dowd as one of the angriest set of parents in recent theater memory, the production is also the first for Mr. Nohilly.

Sunday Music: Drive-By Truckers - "A Ghost To Most"



I don't place a big emphasis on New Year's, and this song from Brighter Than Creation's Dark explains why. I'm looking forward to January.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Music: The Glenn Miller Singers - "We Wish You The Merriest"



Merry Christmas to all! Under my tree this year? Keith Richards, Stephen Sondheim, and Modern Family; outside there's even a little white stuff.....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit

Old studio Hollywood took a bow with the release of Henry Hathaway's True Grit. The year was 1969, the same year Easy Rider was released, and audiences were beginning to lose interest in the world and the values that John Wayne (in an Oscar-winning turn as U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn) and his films spoke to. Joel and Ethan Coen have remade True Grit, based on the novel by Charles Portis, in 2010 burdened by no such historical context. The Coens' True Grit arrives with no baggage other than that of a prestige year-end film and the next effort of a popular star and his beloved iconoclast directors. The Coens seem to know how to get out of their own way when they do adaptations, and in True Grit they have produced an uncluttered and austere success.

Jeff Bridges plays Cogburn this time around, and if Bridges hadn't won his Oscar last year for Crazy Heart there would be a rash of isn't-it-time stories for his work here. Since the Coens' don't have to worry about what Bridges the actor represents to the audience they can go ahead and make Cogburn a man, one who drinks, shoots, and is glimpsed (or rather heard) for the first time in an outhouse. The one looking for Cogburn is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year old girl who wants to hire Cogburn to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Chaney is a hired man who killed Mattie's father and has since become allied with a gang of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Once the particulars of the journey are sorted out the bulk of True Grit becomes a chase across cold, empty country. Cogburn and Mattie are joined by a slightly effete Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon in an funny and unselfconscious turn) who is after Chaney for another murder.

The action scenes in True Grit are crisp and well-staged; there's a shootout between Cogburn and Pepper's gang in long shot that's unlike any gunfight scene I've seen before. The real pleasures are to be had in watching these three oddballs on the trail. Aside from the outhouse gag and Cogburn's casual kick to a young Indian child the Coens have excised their own sense of humor from True Grit, preferring to find humor in language, character, and situation. Steinfeld, whose voice-overs bookend the film, is a wonder as Mattie. Think of The Searchers and Natalie Wood as the kidnapped girl and near-victim. Mattie is the opposite, smart and stubborn enough to fund the journey by going toe-to-toe in a bargaining session with a stuffy trader (a wonderfully harried Dakin Matthews). All of the characters in True Grit speak in an elevated, formal English that is often dryly funny and in Mattie's case is a distancing device that points up just how far removed her life thus far has been from the exigencies of the real world. Mattie's preconceptions are shaken after she watches Cogburn kill a low-level bandit, but she presses on and Steinfeld's stoic bravery is the beating heart of the film. Bridges and Damon have great fun batting words back and forth as symbols of West past and future. Cogburn, who rambles on about his past like a drunken Garrison Keillor, lives by his instincts and the speed of his draw while LaBeouf (more substantial than he first appears) sticks to "Ranger policy". Jeff Bridges disappears into Cogburn with his customary lack of visible effort. Bridges plays the role with a sense of surprise at the feats Cogburn can rise to, but he also doesn't undersell the Marshal's vices or his comfort with violence. There's a wonderful bit of physical comedy as Cogburn, after a bender, tries to prove that his shooting skills can outstrip those of the younger LaBoeuf.

No white person in the 19th century American West ever survived without help, and the final effort to kill Chaney (and rescue Mattie, now in Pepper's hands) requires an alliance between Cogburn and LaBoeuf. The final sequence of True Grit (before an epilogue set 25 years on) is simply constructed but as open-hearted and moving as anything the Coen Brothers have put on film. We get one last reminder of what the West became, old men in a traveling show, but this True Grit is a more offbeat story. The Coens, American originals, choose to see the West through the eyes of a young woman and find heroism in the unlikeliest of corners. No showdowns at noon here; in this True Grit so much literally depends upon a long shot.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

17 minutes shorter

Roger Ebert linked to his own 1997 article on 2001 after the discovery of 17 minutes of "lost" footage. It seems we don't need that footage put back into the movie, since Kubrick removed it after the first public screening. More importantly, I've always been wishy-washy on 2001 and Ebert makes me want to see it again. (Moviefone/Sun Times)

The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,'' but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bridges's best



Let's get into it; here's a pretty good list of Jeff Bridges's best roles that omits Peter Weir's 1993 Fearless. Bridges is so immersed in that role that it's easy to see why the film is underrated. It isn't the kind of performance that we think of as "Oscar bait" these days. I also very much like him in this. (Moviefone)

The son of famed actor Lloyd Bridges, the actor got his first credit as an infant in 1950's 'The Company She Keeps,' and since the early 1970s has displayed an unparalleled versatility. Bridges is one of Hollywood's few A-list actors to successfully divorce the terms "actor" and "celebrity," which may explain why his immense body of work has flown so under the radar for so long (it took him nearly 60 films to win that Oscar, for 2009's 'Crazy Heart'). Yet you can always count on Bridges to deliver noteworthy performances, even in mediocre movies ('Against All Odds,' 'Tideland,' 'Stay Hungry.')

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Music: Chris Thile - "Prelude in E Major"



Chris Thile (Nickel Creek/Punch Brothers) plays Bach. You're welcome.

Fair Game

I didn't learn anything new about the Valerie Plame case or the Bush administration from watching Doug Liman's Fair Game, but I don't know that I could have stood another broadside about decisions made during the neocon run-up to the Iraq War. Liman focuses on the micro- rather than the macro-, going inside the marriage of Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) as the couple deals with the Administration's misuse of intelligence gathered during Wilson's fact-finding mission in Africa and the subsequent outing of Plame as a CIA agent. Penn plays Wilson as the most dangerous kind of a jerk, one who's right. Wilson begins to blossom under the anti-war attention he receives after blasting the White House in the New York Times, and starts to resent Plame's loyalty to the CIA and his years as a de facto single dad. It's strange to see a character played by Penn worried about issues like career and child care, and his adoption of Wilson's odd haircut makes him seem even more uncomfortable in the too-small house. Watts is very moving in perhaps her least showy performance; Plame is too self-effacing to think of herself as heroic but the last shot of Watts preparing to give Plame's testimony to Congress is stirring. Scooter Libby (David Andrews) is self-righteous and malevolent, and Sam Shepard has one scene as Plame's father. Fair Game actually succeeds by narrowing its focus.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Black Swan

If you've spent any time at all reading this blog, then you know that amid all of the Terrence Malick updates and weekly music videos there's a special place in my heart for news related to the career of Natalie Portman. Why? Well, do you really want to hear someone explain their celebrity crush? I won't inflict that upon you, at least not in this post. Here we are then with Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which has garnered Portman some of the best reviews of her career and positioned her as the apparent front runner in the Best Actress race. Portman's controlled, physical performance deserves the acclaim it has received but what of Black Swan as a whole? Aronofsky's stew of repressed sexuality, stage mothers, and fantasy is engrossing to watch but undergirded by deeply simple minded ideas about sex, art, and the ways that the two interconnect.

Aronofsky pays attention to the rituals of ballet with the same detail and lack of distance that he regarded Mickey Rourke's work in The Wrestler. The way that Nina (Portman) treats her toe shoes, and more importantly her body, is presented as a means to an end; the goal is "perfection," sublime moments on stage that transcend learned technique and become art. The biggest concern of Black Swan is whether or not Nina can make the leap, whether she can give a performance deeply felt enough to succeed in the demanding dual "Swan Queen" role in Swan Lake. Nina's perfect control is ideal for the virginal White Queen, but the ballet company's director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) isn't sure she can pull off the sexier Black Swan. Nina's development outside the ballet studio has been arrested; her ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey) doesn't let her have a life outside of dance and Nina's fellow dancers regard her as a grind. It's just after Nina wins the Swan Queen role that Black Swan begins to show it's colors. Thomas advises Nina to masturbate; Cassel plays him a peacock who wants Nina but wants an artistic success more. The idea that a few orgasms will clear Nina's head is central to Aronofsky's conception of Black Swan; there's either icy repression or sexualized freedom ahead or Nina with no middle ground. Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer new to the company, offers Nina a window into a more sensual life and for a while it seems as if Black Swan is merely a story of a woman finding herself a little late.

If only it were that simple. From the moment Nina thinks she spies a double on the subway Aronofsky throws us into Nina's head with no distinction between her fantasies and what's real. The last act of Black Swan becomes operatically lurid, as Nina and Lily come to blows and Nina's body becomes alternately her ally and her biggest enemy. But what's real? All is made clear, and Portman plays it with a close-to-the bone energy I've never seen before. Yet the same feeling that I had after The Wrestler persists. Nina is on the verge of a nervous breakdown but she's also on the verge of a breakthrough, but Aronofsky won't loosen the screws. Mickey Rourke's Ram accepts his fate, but Nina is still discovering what and who she is; we haven't really met this woman yet but she isn't allowed to breathe  Aronofsky is fascinated with artists and obsessiveness, but I'm not sure that he's entirely outgrown his own obsession with melodrama. The next time out I'll sit through all the pain that Aronofsky can dish out for his hero, but I just hope that he lets him or her out into the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

For Rent: Get Him to the Greek

I know we're talking about Hollywood here, but Get Him to the Greek goes over a cliff very, very quickly even by the meager standards of studio summer product. It was a fair idea to make a spin-off of Forgetting Sarah Marshall with Russell Brand reprising his role as decadent British rocker Aldous Snow, but did we really need a movie that tries to get at the roots of Snow's behavior? The first two-thirds or so are fast and funny, as Snow and young record executive Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) bounce around London and New York while the date for Snow's L.A. comeback show fast approaches. Once Colm Meaney turns up as Aldous's dad things get serious; it's as if everyone involved suddenly decided to make a movie about how the life of a rock star can be disappointing too. Sean Combs is unexpectedly funny as Aaron's boss; I'd much rather watch him than Jonah Hill in the next comedy I see. As Aaron's girlfriend, a tart Elisabeth Moss gets to engage in some very un-Peggy like behavior. Get Him to the Greek was produced by Judd Apatow. The emphasis on finding the unhappy boy behind the man is a theme in films Apatow is associated with, but this time out it's handled inartfully and feels extraneous. Will the trilogy be completed with a film about Elisabeth Moss's character? Here's hoping.

The Tree of Life trailer



When I post a trailer I usually include some kind of disclaimer about how trailers play with our expectations of the finished film, but I don't know that that applies here. This clip definitely raises more questions than it answers, but it also couldn't have gotten me more excited about seeing The Tree of Life. In a way it is exactly what I expected, and if you know Malick you know what I mean.

Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories

There's probably a higher percentage of books on my Christmas list than there has been in quite a few years. This review of Ann Beattie's collected New Yorker stories makes me wish I'd added one more. I might be more envious of good short story writers than of artists in any other medium. (HND)

In a remarkable publishing relationship spanning more than 30 years, Beattie placed 48 stories in The New Yorker that would align her with the minimalist school of fiction and inspire a new adjective: Beattiesque. Beginning with the publication of A Platonic Relationship (April 8, 1974), Beattie carved out a special niche in the magazine's fiction department: wry chronicler of the post-Woodstock generation. Beattie's characters are largely white and educated, men and women plagued by aimlessness and ill-defined friendships (are they lovers, or just friends?), superficially tied to oversized circles of geographically dispersed friends and acquaintances, creating patchwork families of ex-husbands and ex-wives who occasionally make awkward reappearances in each other's lives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globe nominations

The awards love for Black Swan has me following the December stream of nominations and critics' awards even more than usual, so Golden Globe nods for NP, Mila Kunis, Darren Aronofsky, and the film itself for Best Drama are welcome indeed. Other films with multiple nominations include overall leader The King's Speech, The Social Network, and The Fighter. Portman also picked up a Best Actress award this week from the Southeastern Film Critics Association.

Monday, December 13, 2010

NY Critics weigh in

It's another win for The Social Network at the New York Film Critics Circle. The Kids Are All Right also scores major awards and Black Swan takes Best Cinematography. (Indiewire)

The NYFCC did spread the love in best screenplay, giving the first major critics award to someone other than Aaron Sorkin: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg for “The Kids Are All Right.” That film also nabbed awards for both best actress (Annette Bening) and best supporting actor (Mark Ruffalo), which is a nice boost for the film, which was shut out of the Critics Choice’ best picture category earlier this morning.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

For Rent: The Nines

In John August's The Nines, Ryan Reynolds plays an actor, a TV writer, and a video game designer in three separate story lines that have something to do with each other but add up to less than the film promises. I've not cared much about Reynolds in the past; he seemed to smirk and glide his way through roles (though there's a moment in Just Friends where he agrees to see a Nicholas Sparks film that I could relate to). The Nines is the best work I've seen Reynolds do, and now I think it's kind of a shame he's into a cycle of Green Lantern and Deadpool movies and the like. Reynolds is particularly good as Gavin, a gay TV showrunner faced with an opportunity for success if he sells out a friend (Melissa McCarthy of Mike and Molly as herself.) It's a non-cute performance (the segment is filmed as a reality TV show) that has some gravity to it in a film that badly need some. What's it all about? I can't tell, except that you might want to be careful because the person next to you could have the power to destroy the world with a thought. The Nines is not a religious film, yet it's too vague to really be called "spiritual". Melissa McCarthy, marooned for years as a supporting player on Gilmore Girls, gets to be funny and strong and Hope Davis also pops up as a mystery woman in all three segments, Reynolds is worth watching, but I wish the mind behind The Nines had been a little clearer about what it was trying to say.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

And.....Scene!

I haven't seen all the films mentioned, but I very much like this list of the year's best movie scenes. As someone who loved Michelle Williams in Shutter Island and can't wait to see Blue Valentine, I'm happy to note her double-dip on the list. (Taking Barack To The Movies)

Here, with a big SPOILER ALERT, is a selection of our favorite such scenes from the last year, bearing no or little relation to our opinion of the film as a whole, and collated by means of that rigorous, scientific method known as sitting down at a desk and seeing what comes to mind first.

Sunday Music (early edition): Emmylou Harris & Daniel Lanois - "Shenandoah"



Lanois has a new memoir out called Soul Mining; here's a review. (LA Times)

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tourist

Why would any non-American director with a smidgen of success want to work in Hollywood? Here is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the Foreign Film Oscar in 2006 for The Lives of Others. That film's carefully observed tale of surveillance and resistance in Wall-era Germany apparently convinced Sony that von Donnersmarck was the right choice for The Tourist, a remake of a French film and as limp and slapped-together an effort as you'll see at the movies this holiday. Elise (Angelina Jolie), a Brit living in Paris, is under surveillance because it's believed she knows the whereabouts of Alexander Pierce. Pierce is wanted because he stole billions from a gangster (Steven Berkoff), and the pursuit of Pierce occupies law enforcement agencies across the globe. On a train to Venice Elise happens upon Frank (Johnny Depp), a vacationing teacher, and since it's believed Pierce has had plastic surgery she distracts her watchers by making them think Frank is Pierce.

The second half of The Tourist breaks out the plot twists and reversals, about which not much needs to be said except that an attentive viewer should be able to see them coming. The overriding question is simple: Why is The Tourist so boring? The details of Pierce's criminal behavior are rushed through and the cops pursuing him (Paul Bettany and Timothy Dalton) have little to do but stand around and look baffled. There is nothing at stake and not much going on besides looking at Jolie and Depp, ill-matched and unable to overcome flimsy writing. The Tourist seems to me to be exactly the kind of movie Jolie shouldn't be doing; what besides a payday attracted her to a part where all she can do is look Vogue-layout gorgeous? Johnny Depp always looks slightly at sea without elaborate makeup or a funny accent, and here he overdoes the awkwardness so much he practically gives the game away. The focus on stars makes The Tourist feel old-fashioned, and I wish Depp and Jolie had used their influence to make this collaboration more substantial .

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Book I Read: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett's The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's. Told in alternating first-person narration, the novel (already filmed and set for an August 2011 release) doesn't put its characters directly into large-scale clashes of the Civil Rights Movement but instead focuses on smaller, more personal battles. Stockett's one white narrator is Skeeter, recently graduated from college and with no marital prospects on the horizon (much to the dismay of her social-climbing mother). Skeeter uses bridge club and tennis games with her friends as ways to pass the days until she lands a job writing a domestic advice column for the local paper. Aibileen, a friend's maid and one of the other narrators, comes to Skeeter's rescue with a lifetime's worth of cleaning tips. As the two women forge a bond that surprises them both, Skeeter conceives the idea of documenting the stories of maids in a book. Skeeter has a dual purpose; she hopes the book might launch a career in publishing and also a strike a blow against her friends, whom she has begun to perceive as silly and bigoted.

Aibileen knows what's happening with the civil rights struggle nationally; so does her younger, angrier friend Minny, who's the third narrative voice. The two maids can't openly join the movement for fear of losing their jobs or worse, but I wish Stockett had made Skeeter more outward looking, The germ of Skeeter's book project, in which maids are interviewed in great secrecy and assigned pseudonyms in the manuscript, comes from her desire to find out what has become of her childhood maid and surrogate mother Constantine. When Skeeter returned from college Constantine was gone, and no one is talking, Skeeter expresses next to no curiosity about about the events of the day or how the maids feel about the movement, and though it's obvious early on that her mother is ill Skeeter is too caught up with her own business (and a new love affair) to comment. Aibileen, who cares for the children of one of Skeeter's friends, is awfully saintly but also the source of much of the detail Stockett puts in about domestic service. It's Minny that I could have used more of, as well as her white-trash employer Celia Foote. Celia, obsessed with keeping the fact she has hired help from her husband, gets most of the comedy but disappears from the novel too soon.

Skeeter does become tiresome, though I'm looking forward to seeing Emma Stone play her on screen. I hope the scene where Aibileen gives Skeeter permission to follow her dreams to New York gets a severe trim. That said, The Help is confidently written and feels steeped in the life of a sleepy Southern town of the early 1960's. Stockett has a first time novelist's enthusiasm for the character most like her, but also a talent for creating the lives of history's bit players.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

For Rent: Me and Orson Welles

One day in 1937 a theater director plucks a young man off the streets of New York for a role in his latest production. The kid becomes part of the company, endures a tumultuous rehearsal process, and even enjoys the attention of the troupe's lovely manager. Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, proceeds from this inciting incident to be a warm if insubstantial valentine to the theater and those who make their lives there. The director is of course Welles (Christian McKay in a bravura performance), not yet the director of Citizen Kane but already a force of nature. A chance encounter with stagestruck Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) leads to Richard's being cast as Lucius in Welles's landmark production of Julius Caesar, which pared the play's running time to 100 minutes and incorporated fascist imagery. McKay is the show here; his Welles is bullying and needy by turns and his leadership of the Mercury players was a master class in manipulation. Efron is likable but a bit too perfect, and his romance with the company manager Sonja (Claire Danes) is cut off too soon. In Welles's production the role of Cinna the poet was played by Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill plays Lloyd in the film). Lloyd is now 96 and recently played a lovelorn senior in an episode of Modern Family. Here's hoping he comes back for an encore. I offer that wish in the spirit of Me and Orson Welles, which leaves us with no doubt that Richard has found his home.

Sunday Music: Miles Davis Quintet - "Oleo"



Imagine a band in which John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Ray Davies played together. It's hard to do, right? One of the things I love about jazz is the tradition of greats collaborating, though I guess maybe John Coltrane wasn't the Coltrane we think of today at this point. From 1956; Sonny Rollins wrote the song.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Check the Rhyme

There's a new Anthology of Rap that aims to put hip-hop into the canon, but what happens when the words are wrong? Somebody should be embarrassed. (Slate)

On Nov. 4, I wrote a review of The Anthology of Rap, noting the book's many transcription errors. Last week, I wrote a follow-up article on the Yale University Press book, enumerating further errors and pointing out that the majority of the mistakes discovered in the book so far—by me and by others—also appear in the transcriptions on Web sites like Online Hip-hop Lyrics Archive. In that follow-up article, I asked the editors to explain their transcription process, and they obliged, outlining a seven-step process. The primary source, they stated, was always the music itself: The editors say they typed out original transcriptions after listening to the songs. They then checked their lyrics against other sources—including sites like OHHLA—and also, when possible, asked the artists themselves to vet the lyrics. According to the editors, "nearly 30" artists reviewed the editors' transcriptions.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Burlesque

There is a moment in Burlesque when Ali (Christina Aguilera), fresh off the bus from Iowa and working as a dancer in L.A., goes from being a lip-syncing club performer to a star whose voice and presence are, well, pretty much like that of the actress playing her. The fact that up until that moment Ali's distrust of her own abilities is believable may be the greatest achievement of a movie that's only half as much fun as it should have been. It isn't working out for Ali in L.A. until she wanders into the Burlesque Lounge, a club in the shadow of a new high-rise condo (I pictured it as the only non-skyscraper for miles, like Ed Asner's house in Up.) It's a good thing club owner/impresario Tess (Cher) and her girls are performing a number called "Welcome to Burlesque" when Ali comes in, or else she would have been scared off by the doorman. (Alan Cummming, appearing in this movie just because it would be weird if he didn't.) Ali talks her way into a job at the club by charming Jack (Cam Gigandet), the bartender who becomes her roommate, and gets onstage by being unafraid to stand up to Tess. The rest you can see coming.

Christina Aguilera's chief quality as an actress is a kind of doggedness; there isn't much to Ali, she has no family and no other interests besides making it. What we're left with is someone who really really really wants the spotlight, and Burlesque suggests that that's enough. Once Ali becomes the star of the club, displacing the alcoholic Nikki (underused Kristen Bell), the musical sequences could just as easily be Aguilera's videos. The numbers the girls have lip-synced to up to that point at least aim for a little naughty wit. Much time is spent on Tess and her efforts to keep the club from the hands of a developer (Eric Dane) and on Jack's waffling over whether to pursue Ali romantically. Ali isn't even in the cattiest scene in the movie, a parking lot blowout between Nikki and Tess. Burlesque works very hard to keep Ali pure, as if director Steven Antin is afraid of exploring how success requires stepping over other people. What's left? A lot of talk about real estate deals and a sweaty performance by Peter Gallagher as Tess's ex and business partner. Let us now praise Stanley Tucci, who brings a much needed easiness as Tess's gay best friend and creative partner Sean. Sean is one person in Burlesque you'd want to spend more time with, and in my favorite scene is accidentally shot by a glitter-covered machine gun that shoots glitter. The scene is a perfect metaphor for Burlesque, which is shiny and anticlimactic.

Speaking of 10 Best

The Social Network does very well in the National Board of Review year-end awards, although why do I feel that Jesse Eisenberg now will definitely not win an Oscar? A couple of questions: To anyone who saw Hereafter, was it really one of the ten best films of the year?  While I'm probably more of a Sofia Coppola fan than most and I await Somewhere with interest, what exactly is so "special" about the mere fact that she made it? It's not as if  it was her first film. Look for The Social Network to continue its run. (IFC)

Ten Best Films
"Another Year," "The Fighter," "Hereafter," "Inception," "The King's Speech," "Shutter Island," "The Town," "Toy Story 3," "True Grit," "Winter's Bone"

The 10 Best

Here we go, a ranking of the 10 best performances of NP's career. I can't say I'm too surprised with the choices or the rankings, but it's good to see Free Zone mentioned. I might have moved Garden State and Where The Heart Is a little higher. (Moviefone)

Thursday, December 02, 2010

If I told you...

...the story of this film, would you think it was a just-wrapped Terrence Malick project? Details from what seems to be called The Burial reveal Malick working  in a different key. (The Wrap)

Set over a period of years, the film stars Affleck as Neil, a failed writer stuck in a loveless marriage with Marina (Kurylenko), whose expiring visa put pressure on Neil to propose. Neil and Marina have a daughter (Tatiana Chilin) together, but both of them are looking outside the marriage. Neil is drawn to Jane (McAdams) and Marina betrays her husband by having an affair with Charlie (Charles Baker).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

H-bomb

Richard Brody is throwing around some big names in his Black Swan review. (New Yorker)

“Black Swan” is a specular, speculative view of a meticulous, obsessive artist who reduces her life in a hermetic and abstemious devotion to that art—an art that, however, represents the deepest and darkest of her unlived passions. It’s a movie about Hollywood itself, which if nothing else, is the realm of perfection, where the blemish and the loose end is the enemy; in particular, “Black Swan” calls to mind, more dramatically and more deeply than anything since the heyday of Brian De Palma, the work—and the life—of Alfred Hitchcock, all the more so since Aronofsky brings Natalie Portman’s naturally cold performance style to bear on the character of Nina in precisely the way that Hitchcock brilliantly employed Tippi Hedren, in “The Birds” and “Marnie,” to embody a porcelain perfection that was essentially the subject of both films. All three films are stories of possessive mothers and absent fathers.

That's good company, and consider me officially excited. Here's another positive review, this one from the Village Voice.

Spirit Award nominations

Major love for Winter's Bone and 127 Hours as the Spirit Award nominations are released, and I'm happy to see Natalie Portman picking up a Best Female Lead nomination for Black Swan. Full list here. (Hitflix)

BEST FILM

"127 Hours"
"Black Swan"
"Greenberg"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"Winter’s Bone"

Chris White's Good Life

GOOD LIFE from Chris White on Vimeo.


Earlier this year I posted a link here gently soliciting funds for a short film to be made by my friend Chris White. I later became involved in the project more directly as assistant director and bit player. I can't pretend to be objective about the result; with the filmmaker's blessing I'm proud to show you Good Life here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not coming soon to VH1

If all governments responded to disasters the way that a team of hip-hop luminaries came to the aid of Kanye West during the recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, then West would never have been in position to deliver his George W. Bush insult in the first place. This kind of thing does not happen to you:

In any case, within 15 minutes I get to see Rap Camp in action. Kanye throws on the instrumental for "So Appalled," which plays on hypnotic repeat for more than an hour while Pusha puts pen to paper finishing his verse. Then RZA walks in the room. And of course he's got on sunglasses inside. And of course he's wearing an all-black Ed Hardy-esque ensemble with matching dragon tattoo prints that start on his baseball cap, slither down his T-shirt, and end on his cargo pants. And of course he pulls out a Bobby Digital customized Akai drum machine with the Zorro mask and Wu logo on its face. Because that's what you do when you're a motherfucking national treasure. BONG!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Dancer's Life

The physical rigors of training for and shooting Black Swan, from the star herself. (NYT)

Even with all the preparation Ms. Parkinson helped adjust the choreography for the particular quirks of Ms. Portman’s body. “I have short arms,” Ms. Portman said. “She was just, like: ‘You don’t bend arms when you put your arms up. They’re straight. You don’t bend them.’ If I ever bent my elbows she’d be, like, ‘Straight arms, straight arms.’ ” Another challenge was getting Ms. Portman on point. “We would spend 30 minutes a day doing foot exercises,” Ms. Bowers said.

During shooting the process intensified, with Ms. Portman doing short barre exercises five to six times a day to warm up between takes. “I think my body was kind of in emergency mode,” Ms. Portman. “I’m not eating enough, I’m not getting enough sleep. I’m in complete physical distress.” Among the injuries Ms. Portman suffered, the worst was a dislocated rib. To keep going, the lifts were adjusted.

Sunday Music: Kanye West ft. Adam Levine - "Heard 'Em Say"



Probably my favorite Kanye song, and all the 10.0  reviews in the world can't make up for the self-involved weirdo West seems to have become.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Anne Hathaway does something impressive and difficult in Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs, which is based on a nonfiction book by Jamie Reidy. Her performance as Maggie, an artist who has stage one Parkinson's disease, is so sexy and earthy that it almost (but not quite) makes me forget my crush on her screwed-up daughter from Rachel Getting Married. That said, I wish the film that surrounds Hathaway was as much fun as her performance. Although the central relationship is a pleasure, Love and Other Drugs is a lumpy, too-serious movie that takes a few too many detours for its own good.

Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is bouncing through life with no attachments when chance lands him in a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer. The film's conception of what Jamie does is twofold: He must push Zoloft with doctors at the expense of the Prozac being sold by his rival (Gabriel Macht) and he must boost sales by flirting with, bribing, and occasionally bedding the women who work at the doctor's offices he visits. Jamie's boss (Oliver Platt, underused) wants to ride his young sales star to a promotion but Jamie is more concerned with impressing his doctor father (George Segal; Jamie's mother is played by the late Jill Clayburgh.) After a chance encounter during working hours, Jame and Maggie begin a series of flings that slowly blossom into something deeper just as the arrival of Viagra on the market puts Jamie and Pfizer in the enviable position of of selling something that people will never stop wanting. So what's the problem? Maggie, fearful of having to depend on anyone as her disease worsens, keeps pushing Jamie away even as she's attracted to his potential. While I wish Gyllenhaal was just a little bit more ironic, he plays Jamie with a slowly developing sense of what's possible in life. He's no match for Hathaway though; her intelligence, dryness, and yes, her beauty own the movie. Hathaway makes something thorny and human out of what could have been a very cliched tale of a Guy Figuring It Out.

Love and Other Drugs badly wants to be About Something, almost to the detriment of the love story. The introduction of Viagra is treated as a major cultural moment instead of a business triumph on the order of the iPod or Diet Coke, and it's a measure of how far off tonally the film gets from where it should be that Zwick actually includes a scene where Jamie gets an erection that lasts more than four hours. I suppose such a scene should be funny, but the movie suggests this could be the first time Jamie's problem has ever happened! Maggie attends a  meeting of people with Parkinson's at one point, tells Jamie she loves him, and then everything goes back to the way it was. The montage of Jamie and Maggie hitting the road in search of Parkinson's treatment feels inorganic, as if the filmmakers were trying to think of anything to keep the lovers from having fun. What "laughs" there are come from the character of Josh (Josh Gad), Jamie's overgrown baby of a brother who makes a killing with a dot com and then becomes Jamie's roommate for comic relief purposes. Josh has been teleported in from a 1980's comedy to the advantage of no one. Love and Other Drugs has too much going on to be maudlin, and Hathaway's performance never invites us to feel sorry for Maggie. I would have happily spent these two hours in Maggie's company, but Zwick's head is turned by the little blue pill.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eighteen is two too many



Remember when everyone got mad at the Saints and Vikings for this gesture of solidarity? Here's what they're up against. (Nation/Ta-Nehisi Coates)

The scheduled canceling of health care benefits for players and their families has been received by the players as a heartless, aggressive act, especially with the recent avalanche of press stories about the physical toll of playing the game. "Our players risk everything on the field," he said. "There's been a lot of media coverage of the helmet to helmet hits, over the last few weeks, and the cover of Sports Illustrated is about concussions...There has been recently a great deal of concern expressed by ownership about it. The thing that we wanted to point out to our fans is that the NFL, right now as we speak, has sued 262 players over their workers comp. It still takes at least a three year NFL career to get any health care after you retire. We had to fight legislation from a team last year to take away workers comp from the players who play the game, being notified in March that their health insurance will be canceled. The players, and likely their families, are saying 'How can you express a concern about health and safety, after watching four hits on Sunday, and then snap your fingers and say that health care is over in March?' It seems both hypocritical and misleading... They put out a press release about larger fines, larger punishments, perhaps suspensions, but oh by the way, ignore the fact that we're going to cancel the health insurance for people who have kids, at least two players whose kids are in need of heart transplants.

Public Speaking



I had only the vaguest idea who Fran Lebowitz was before watching Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary Public Speaking. Lebowitz published her second bestselling book of essays in 1981 and with the exception of one children's book has produced nothing else since, though in this 1993 interview there is discussion of a long overdue novel. Public Speaking is really one long interview in which Lebowitz discourses on politics, writing, gay rights, and her own early days in Manhattan. Scorsese intercuts clips of public appearances as well as examples of the kind of high-minded public discourse that Lebowitz feels is missing from the culture. James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and William Buckley (who really seems like someone playing the part of a prig) all make appearances in vintage footage.

Lebowitz has a clear-eyed view of the silliness of celebrity culture and she is an unsurprising but cutting critic of the commercialization of New York. What is most appealing is her honesty about what she wanted out of a New York writer's life; there's the ritual recounting of early jobs, but Lebowitz says she only worked just enough to pay rent because she wanted to spend the rest of the time hanging out. For Lebowitz hanging out seems to mean talking about literature and politics over drinks and cigarettes, the romance of the young intellectual's life seems not to have lost its hold on her. Lebowitz is also an unrepentant cultural snob. Books aren't as interesting as they used to be, she argues, in part because there are too many of them, and we've lost sight of what's artful and interesting and what isn't. There's also what Lebowitz calls a "level of connoisseurship" missing from the culture (and by "culture" we're talking about New York here) that Lebowitz blames on the way AIDS ravaged New York's gay community in the 1980's. Martin Scorsese can be heard laughing at a number of points during Lebowitz's interview; he doesn't put much of a directorial stamp on Public Speaking, but he still relishes his subject. Lebowitz is far to cranky and New York-centric to be what passes for a public intellectual these days, or to even have a bestseller again for that matter. Public Speaking isn't shy about celebrating her for what she is though: a champion of Manhattan intellectual life, an acerbic critic of the silly, and someone who passionately believes that some books are better than others.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hollow Hallows

I thought Deathly Hallows dawdled and I haven't even read the books, so it's a relief to hear Damon Lindelof of Lost weigh in as a Rowling fan of long standing. (Daily Beast)

Dumbledore told them there were six remaining horcruxes at the end of the last movie. Simple math would dictate that they would destroy, if not locate, at least THREE in the first film. How many do they destroy? ONE. How many more do they locate? ZERO. And do we really need an HOUR of moping in the woods? And I love moping! Now I knew going in there'd be no Hogwarts, but I only get FIVE MINUTES of Snape? Seriously? HOW DARE THEY?!?

I know explaining plot points for casual fans isn't the movie's job at this point, but can anyone explain why Voldemort thinks he can kill Harry with a borrowed wand? If Harry were susceptible to just any wand then he would have been dead years ago. More importantly, even though Harry, Ron, and Hermione are nominally in the Muggle world for a good portion of Deathly Hallows there's never the slightest literal or metaphorical connection to the non-Wizard world and thus to the viewer. J.K. Rowling's head is a fun place, but only when its citizens are doing something. This goes to why I rarely embrace popular fantasy; I need a little bit more of the messiness of life in my narratives. Finally, Voldemort is a racist? That's it? Save me, Part 2.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Music: The Decemberists w/ Gillian Welch - "Down By The Water"



From Conan last week. There's a new album out in January called The King Is Dead, and I'm determined to see them live this time around......

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Let's get a few things out of the way before discussing the next-to-last Harry Potter film. I can't tell you how Deathly Hallows compares to J.K. Rowling's novel, or half of the novel, because I haven't read the novel and have no plans to. I abandoned the world of Rowling somewhere around 100 pages into the second volume, when Harry and his friends still hadn't made it back to Hogwarts. I recall a flying car being involved.

Remember the early Potter films, with their Quidditch games and jolly professors played by an all-star crew of British thespians? We're a long way from that world here. The forces of Voldemort are ascendant, with Snape (Alan Rickman) aligned with the Dark Lord and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, the scariest thing in the movie that isn't digitally animated) ready to take Harry out at a moment's notice. What of the Boy Who Lived? After an elaborate effort to hide Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) location almost results in disaster, our hero lights out in the company of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (the indispensable Emma Watson) on a quest to destroy the Horcruxes upon which Voldemort's power depends. I use the word "quest" generously, because after the next Horcrux is obtained in a raid on the Ministry of Magic the pace slows down considerably. I'm doubtful that Deathly Hollows couldn't have been made as a single film with a little clever trimming, but with a built-in audience this large the studio's double-dip isn't a shock. With Voldemort in charge of the Ministry of Magic and Harry now an outlaw, the bulk of Deathly Hallows finds Harry and friends in hiding while they attempt to learn how to destroy the Horcrux they've obtained. (It's a locket that makes the wearer very cranky.) There is plenty of time to consider just how long we've spent in the company of Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint.

Did J.K. Rowling ever consider making Hermione the focus of a series? While Harry and Ron fret and bicker during what amounts to an extended camping trip (they're wizarding themselves around to avoid Voldemort's Snatchers), Hermione is doing things. The signs and clues left by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) need more than one person to unravel, and Emma Watson continues to give the best performance in the series as a young woman afraid of hurting her friends but not at all afraid of using her growing powers. Rupert Grint is likewise strong as Ron is forced to confront his fears. I wish Radcliffe had the colors that Grint and Watson bring to their roles, but he's very believable as someone unsure he can do the great things expected of him. Things do pick up with the arrival of Voldemort's snake, a chase scene with the Snatchers, and Bellatrix; Deathly Hallows I ends on a suitably exciting note of anticipation for the series' final film. Those already on the ride will find plenty to like here, but as a casual fan I don't know that I needed all this buildup.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dept. of Perception v. Reality

A blogger writes:

I like Natalie Portman just fine, but it strikes me as somewhat characteristic that she'd mistake writing and starring in movies about ladies who like to have sex as somehow raunchy and edgy. As much as she's done interesting work in movies like Closer and now The Black Swan, she's always seemed to have a somewhat bland, commercial streak.

This reaction has a lot more to do with our perception of Portman through her roles than any conception of her comic sensibility. If Portman is actually like the serious and mostly unsexual women she has played on screen then I guess Bring Your Own won't be very funny but I'm not sure what we have to base that on. Oh, and was she ever "our little girl"? In The Professional and Beautiful Girls she played children who were closer to screenwriters' fantasies than actual people, but it would have seemed absurd to impute the personality of a homicidal girl or a flirtatious tween to her at the time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Megamind

A low-calorie take on the meta-superhero movie, the animated Megamind reminds us that we don't know who or what is truly good without the existence of evil and that without heroism evil is just a man with blue skin and an oversized head. Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) is enjoying life as the arch-villain of Metro City (which he pronounces "metrocity") and the regularly scheduled battles with Metro Man (Brad Pitt) that always end with Megamind in jail. Even local reporter Roxanne (Tina Fey) has gotten used to being kidnapped by Megamind and rescued by Metro Man in short order. Things take a turn for the existensial when a kidnapping goes too well and Metro Man is killed, leaving Megamind as the city's unchallenged ruler. Bored with the lack of an adversary, Megamind searches for a new reason to be evil while at the same time wooing Rozanne in disguise. Megamind's self-aware ineptitude is quite funny early on and Ferrell also gets to riff on Marlon Brando's Jor-El character, but the movie is undone by the need to provide bangs and crashes. The arrival of a new "hero" (Jonah Hill) spins the movie back on itself as unchallenged good goes sour and Megamind gets in touch with his vulnerable side. Have there already been too many movies that deconstruct superhero archetypes? Megamind might be the first such movie directed at kids*, but the intended audience may be too young to detect all the winking.

(*I don't consider The Incredibles a kids' movie.)

But who will play McLovin?

Taking another step in her career's evolution, NP has coauthored a screenplay described as a "female Superbad" and may star alongside Anne Hathaway. (MTV)

Natalie is set to star as one of the leads in the film, called "BYO" (for Bring Your Own, obvi), and 24 Frames is reporting that Anne Hathaway is interested in starring as the other. While we're psyched about the idea of those two ladies starring in a film together, we're even more excited about the idea of Natalie transitioning from an actress to a screenwriter. It got us thinking about our other favorite ladies in Hollywood who act and screen-write.

On a sadder note, here is the "red-band", NSFW trailer for Your Highness. I don't post it on the site because, well, you'll see. I can only assume that NP, Zooey Deschanel, James Franco, and David Gordon Green owe money to Danny McBride.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Places for the Second Act

This isn't the first "What's up with Whit Stillman?" article I've linked to, but it is the first that comes after Stillman completed shooting on a new film called Damsels in Distress. Twelve years off have changed his focus. (First Things)

While in Paris, Stillman wrote television pilots and researched subjects for future films. He stopped writing comedies, searching out more serious and dramatic ideas. For Red Azalea, he spent months learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution; for his Jamaican film, Dancing Mood—now in its sixth draft—he traveled back and forth from that island country and read every Jamaican newspaper he could find from 1958 to 1970. In all that time, he managed a brief return to the director’s chair only once, in 2007, when he went to Jakarta to shoot commercials for a chocolate company. “I wasn’t that keen on the final thing,” he says, “but I got to do a director’s cut.” Meanwhile, he tried to get investment for a new feature from production companies in London; the task proved harder than expected. “You would call it development hell,” he says, “or what I would call development heck.” The only time Stillman seems to get riled is when he talks about what he calls The Business, in its current incarnation. He shows this with bold statements and about an additional twenty-degree forward lean, as if he’s getting ready to charge. With scripts just about finished, he found no one willing to support his work in a new and more serious genre. “No one has stepped forward to help me with the non-comedies,” he says, “and the people who will support my comedies are there to only support comedies.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Music: P!nk - "Trouble"



OK, this isn't her best work but it recently occurred to me that P!nk has been mining a sometimes chaotic personal life for material for about half of Taylor Swift's lifetime. I wonder how that greatest hits compilation will hold up. Note the presence of Jeremy Renner; you probably couldn't get him today.

Cut out bin

I'm guessing it might not have a Kindle version.

That's Jason Kottke on Tree of Codes, the new novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer created the book by removing words from a novel called The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz; when I say removing words I'm not kidding. Foer talks about the book (which is equal parts novel and art object) here. (VF Daily)

Q: You have used visual devices such as illustration, hand-written type, and even flip books in your fiction work (Which have provoked cries of “twee!”). What compels you to tell stories in this way?

A: I’m not interested in experimentation for its own sake. But I’m interested in works of art that transport a reader. That send you to a different place—pure magic. We’ve gotten used to the notion that art, if it entertains or says something interesting about our time, that’s enough. But there’s something else it can do that nothing else can do. To be genuinely transported, to have your nerves touched, make your hair stand on end, that’s what I think art can do well—or only art can do.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Unstoppable

Don't feel bad about enjoying Unstoppable, it's a film about big things moving fast made by an exemplary craftsman of escapist popular entertainment. Tony Scott, reigning in the baroque flourishes of Domino and Man On Fire, has succeeded in making a film in which the villains are Newton's Laws of Motion and the star is a hunk of metal. Every screaming brake and shaky coupling gets its spotlight but Scott is helped immeasurably by the cool of Denzel Washington as Frank, a railroad lifer not entirely happy about the presence of a new conductor. Will (Chris Pine) is fresh out of training and perhaps unwittingly a sign to Frank and his older colleagues that the company they work for is interested in replacing them with younger and cheaper employees. Unstoppable isn't exactly Scott's Reds, but there is an implicit tribute to the ingenuity and efforts of the American working man. When an unmanned train carrying hazardous chemicals is racing towards a town Frank decides to pursue and stop it (by running a locomotive in reverse and hooking on to the runaway) because it's his job, and because he knows the plans devised by the head office won't work. Washington spends most of Unstoppable seated inside a train but walks away with the movie by not playing the ending; for Frank it's just an extraordinarily complicated day at the office. Pine is an able enough companion, but he's saddled with backstory that never gets fleshed out and he doesn't  gets to put on the charm he showed in Star Trek. To talk too much about Unstoppable is to diminish the fun; the movie is a kick, unfolding in what feels like real time with only occasional cuts to the harried middle manager (Rosario Dawson) trying to convince higher ups of the severity of the situation. As a critic I'm not sure how many films about dangerous trains I want at my multiplex, but as a fan of movies I'll  take them when they're this much fun.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Criterion #513: Summer Hours

The prolific Olivier Assayas is probably best known for hermetically sealed thrillers like Demonlover (which I've seen) and Boarding Gate (which I haven't) as well as the new Carlos, an epic TV miniseries now getting a theatrical release. In its focus on domesticity and humanism Assayas's 2008 Summer Hours more closely resembles his masterful Clean, though the circumstances of the two films' central characters couldn't be more different. Frederic (Charles Berling) and his siblings all enjoy lives considerably more successful and stable than Maggie Cheung's recovering addict mother in Clean, but the choices Frederic must make are in their own way just as wrenching.

We're in the French countryside and Assayas opens with a shot of children running through the lush green woods outside the home of their grandmother Helene (Edith Scob). It's Helene's 75th birthday and Frederic is here to celebrate along with his brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) as well as assorted wives and children. There is some awkwardness over Helene receiving the gift of a complicated phone system but the mood is happy until Edith pulls Frederic aside for a private conversation. She's thinking of the future and wants to apprise her son of the preparations made for disposal of a house filled with valuable paintings and furniture. Helene's late uncle was a painter of some renown, and there is interest from the Musee d'Orsay in the artist's notebooks and possessions.

It is about this point that Summer Hours reveals its true intentions; Assayas has made a film that's tangentially about a family but more about the objects that we use to mark and unsuccessfully arrest the passage of time. Helene's death isn't depicted or experienced in the moment by the other characters. We only learn what's happened when Frederic begins poring over a cemetery map to select the best plot for his mother. What is to be done with the house and art? Frederic, the only sibling who still lives in France, wants to keep the house and collection intact but that doesn't make sense for the other two. Jeremie lives and works in Asia and could use part of the proceeds from selling the house to buy a new one in Peking. Adrienne works out of New York for a Japanese department store, is about to get married, and can't see herself getting much benefit from the house in years to come.

As Summer Hours moves into its second half Assayas pulls away from the family (Jeremie and Adrienne are back to their lives anyway.) and follows the disposition of the art, much of which must be given to the state to avoid taxes and all of which means something completely different to the scholars examining it than it did to the family. By the time Frederic and his wife encounter one of their vases in a museum he has almost come to terms with the sale of his family's history, but not completely. The matching vase has been given to Helene's longtime cook Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), who has refused to take something more valuable because it wouldn't mean anything to her. The final scene is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Frederic's daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) has been allowed to host a party at the now-emptied country house a few weeks before the sale is final. As she steals away for a moment with her boyfriend there's an acknowledgment that the future she was promised won't occur in this place. Then, thrillingly, she charges headlong into the rest of her life. Assayas understands that Sylvie, not on screen for very long, is in fact the most important character in Summer Hours. In a quiet way the film invites us to stop for a moment and acknowledge that we are on the same journey which Sylvie is just beginning.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Waiting for "Superman"

Waiting for "Superman" surveys the landscape of the American public school system and doesn't find much to celebrate. Test scores reveal our kids are losing ground to the rest of the world, teachers accountable to no one have abandoned their duties, and even schools in lush suburban surroundings can't produce enough students to meet demand for high tech jobs or exceed the proficiency goals created by bureaucrats. Director Davis Guggenheim begins the film on a personal note: As he drives past public schools to take his daughter to a private school he ponders what has led him to betray what he and so many others hold as a cherished idea, the supposed level playing field of the public education system. Guggenheim follows several young children making their way through public schools with varying degrees of success. One first-grader has a teacher who won't respond to requests for a conference from the boy's mother. A California teen could attend an above average public high school but chooses instead to try her luck in a lottery for a charter school that doesn't slot students into tracks based on testing or other factors.

Back to those children in a moment. The negative response to Waiting for "Superman" from the likes of David Denby and most notably Diane Ravitch has centered around the idea that the film is a manifesto for charter schools and privatization at the expense of public schools. Describing Waiting for "Superman" as a film about charter schools is a bit like calling Titanic a film about designing a boat. Guggenheim does feature charter school success stories like that of Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children's Zone as well as a testimonial from charter school advocate Bill Gates, but he also acknowledges that not all charter schools succeed. A case is made that what success charter schools do have can be attributed to the ways they differ from public schools, most notably in their freedom from a relationship with teachers' unions. The tragic hero of Waiting for "Superman" is former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose partially successful attempts to improve the D.C. school system is undone by the failure of a plan to eliminate teacher tenure and institute merit pay. The teachers' unions are portrayed here as great self-perpetuating behemoths, untouchable due to their heavy campaign contributions and unyielding in the refusal to hold their members accountable for performance. There is no solution presented to the problem of the unions' death grip on public education; a chance assignment to the wrong class means a wasted year for unlucky students.

Ravitch criticizes Guggenheim for not raising the issue of how poverty affects student performance, a criticism so unimaginative as to be depressing. All manner of things would be different if poverty were alleviated, but Guggenheim wants Waiting for "Superman" to ask a different question. Yes, schools would perform better if we fixed our urban neighborhoods,  but what (Guggenheim asks) will happen to the neighborhoods if we don't fix our schools? What the system is not prepared to do, we're told, is to aggressively get to the students early on who need the most help and to hire, pay well, and retain qualified teachers who are held accountable for results. The best charter schools have figured out how to do both these things on a smaller scale, and thus we should take what lessons we can from their success.

Waiting for "Superman" uses the children hoping for charter school admission as its dramatic hook, with everything leading up to the state-mandated lotteries at which the kids learn their fates. While I wanted to know the results I 'm not sure that I needed to see the actual process by which the names of admitted students are selected, or that seeing the kids turned into contestants is as important as hearing from some public school advocates. Yet trying to put a human face on the problem is a forgivable misstep, and I can only hope that Waiting for "Superman" will bring the education conversation home in the way Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth did for awareness of our planet.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sunday Music: Elvis Costello - "(Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"



A countrified take on an old gem from 2009. The enjoyable recent New Yorker profile of Costello requires a subscription to read. Costello comes off as unassuming about his own work and regretful of past excesses, preferring the life of a musician among musicians to that of a rock star.

Lifestyles of the Young and Busy



Here's the trailer for Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached, coming early next year. If this is really a movie about how modern relationships have to fight for life in a 3G, can't slow down world then it could be interesting. I'm not holding my breath though; this looks like something from the "Friends Who Are Really In Love" subgenre. Good to see Greta Gerwig from Greenberg and it seems Kevin Kline is also in the cast. I wish NP had someone better than Kutcher to play off of.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

For Colored Girls

I have neither read nor seen the Ntozake Shange play upon which Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls is based. Shange's script is a series of poetic monologues performed by a cast of women referred to by colors ("Lady In Red," etc.) as opposed to names. There are no men in the play, and so all of the events which Perry depicts so bluntly are only described on stage. Perry, who forgoes an acting role while taking on writing and directing chores, has turned the play into a narrative script that gives each of Shange's women their own storyline while gradually bringing all of the ladies together for the climax. What are we left with? A film crammed with melodramatic incident; one that doesn't pause for breath before before putting another character through indignity and that clumsily works to integrate (what I'm assuming is) Shange's language into a realistic setting. Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), being interviewed in the hospital after being raped, starts speaking in an image-laden, poetical language without any signal or warning while the kindly detective (Hill Harper as the film's one positive image of black men) listens as if nothing unusual has happened. Different versions of this moment are repeated with other characters throughout For Colored Girls, and since Perry either won't or can't find visual complements to the ladies' words his solution is to shove the camera close to the face of whoever is speaking to signal seriousness.

Perry sets For Colored Girls (first produced in 1975) in a timeless version of New York. Successful magazine editor Jo (Janet Jackson) converses on a cell phone while college-bound Nyla (appealing Tessa Thompson) must procure an abortion as if Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood didn't exist. (Were there no counselors available to her at school?) The brunt of the trouble is borne by Crystal (Kimberly Elise), who is trying to protect her children from their unstable father (Michael Ealy) while working as assistant to the high-powered Jo. Elise plays Crystal with great conviction and a strong sense of being overwhelmed by life, but the lurid nature of the tragedy she lives through is hard to get past. The healing look inward with which Crystal ends the film would work onstage, but the concrete loss she experiences begs a more tangible counterpoint of grace. In other words, watching a film full of people who seem to exist only to suffer surely can't have been what Ntozake Shange had in mind. Whoopi Goldberg's religious Alice is especially constrained; Goldberg must have badly wanted to be a part of this film to accept such a thin part. The same goes for Phylicia Rashad as elder stateswoman Gilda, whose role is only that of a neighborhood busybody for most of the film. Only Loretta Devine as Juanita is granted a moment of triumph and sense of a new chapter starting.

What of the men? They're violent, secretly gay, or unfaithful and contribute nothing other than a further stacking of the deck. While For Colored Girls is admirably acted (especially by Rose, Elise, and Thompson) it is also undone by its need to be literal. I'll acknowledge the high bar Perry has attempted to clear, but this material needed a better filmmaker to make these women's experiences transformative. Instead we get Tyler Perry, who can only stand and watch.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

As Seen On TV: The City of Your Final Destination

The City of Your Final Destination feels like someone's rough draft of an "art house" film, in which the characters do things like eat meals outdoors at long tables and ponder turning their land into a vineyard. A young academic named Omar (Omar Metwally) hopes to make his name by writing a biography of a deceased novelist names Jules Gund. Omar turns up at the Gund estate in Uruguay, where the novelist's widow (Laura Linney), mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother (Anthony Hopkins) are living out a Chekovian existence of mulling over the past and alcohol. The question of whether or not Omar will get permission to write the biography never takes hold, since we're told everything important about Gund in an early home movie scene. So, we get a few gentle moments between Hopkins and his partner (Hiroyuki Sanada) but the rest of these characters never jump off the page; though Gainsbourg's warmth provides some distraction,. Director James Ivory (working without the late Ismail Merchant as producer) doesn't get anything out of the setting - the film was shot in Colorado, Argentina, and Canada. A Room With A View this isn't. I've never seen an Ivory film set in the present where the characters seemed full-blooded, and since The City of Your Final Destination may well be his last feature (Ivory is in his 80's.) I'll choose to remember what he and Mr. Forster did for us, and for each other.