Monday, August 30, 2010

Get Low

It is possible to like the characters and the setting of Aaron Schneider's Get Low and still wonder what exactly you've just witnessed after the movie ends. This tale of a hermit and a town's reaction to him in 1930s Tennessee is handsomely made and features some wonderfully subtle acting, but the payoffs it offers feel a little thin even for a movie that celebrates character over plot. Felix Bush (Robert Duvall in a performance of masterful understatement) is such an alien to his neighbors that when he makes a rare visit to town he's heckled and attacked with rocks. (Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper plays the bully.) Carrying a wad of cash, Felix attempts to arrange his own funeral with the local minister (Gerald McRaney). There's a hiccup. Felix wants the funeral held before his death and would like a "party," at which all comers are invited to share their Felix stories.

Get Low takes off when Felix's party plans collide with local funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black). The locals inability to match the death rate in Chicago has got the out-of-towner Quinn worried about the funeral home's bottom line, and Felix's money would certainly take the pressure off. New father Buddy takes a longer view, wondering at the propriety of a pre-death funeral. Lucas Black is an Alabama native best known for his roles in Sling Blade and the film version of Friday Night Lights. I can't account for why Black has no credits between 2006 and 2009 on his IMDB page, but his accent and his self-effacing acting help ground Get Low in something real. As strong as the cast is (Murray finds his own rhythm as usual and parries surprisingly well with Duvall.), Get Low feels at times a bit too tidy. There's a gorgeous autumnal glow to everything; Felix's cabin and the church where Buddy meets a preacher (Bill Cobbs) that Felix wants to preach at the party feel lovingly restored instead of part of a rural environment.

Why is Felix behaving so oddly? It's all to do with a 40-year old secret and with the film's other major character, a woman (Sissy Spacek) who seems to know a very different Felix. No one tells any stories at the party except for Felix, whose confessional monologue outlines the movie's contention that the need for forgiveness has no expiration date. I was moved by the lengths to which Felix went to seal himself off from the world that now regards him as an oddity, but Duvall engenders so much good will for the character that it's hard to get too worked up over youthful indiscretion. The gap between the town's ideas of Felix and the truth also seems like rich territory, but Get Low doesn't do more than pay this theme lip service. Even though Get Low doesn't quite live up to its promise, I was happy to spend a couple of hours with these decent people in a world much slower than our own. The rich, neo-bluegrass music by Jan Kaczmarek and Jerry Douglas contributes to the feeling that the events depicted here could never happen now, but Duvall and his cast mates lend some bite to a movie about people trying to be good to one another.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chris White update

I removed the widget soliciting donations for a short film by my friend Chris White because Chris not only made his goal of a $600 budget for the film but also (in an attempt to bring the total number of backers up to the goal of 50) made enough to license a song. Chris will be shooting later this year, and if you gave because of what you saw here then thanks very much.

Sunday Music: The National - "Afraid of Everyone"

Should we be concerned that Matt Berninger reportedly drinks a bottle of wine during every show? What is that guy playing on the left? Why is Sufjan Stevens there? (He sings on the album) Still and all, this is a good one.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

For Rent: The Greatest

The Greatest, written and directed by first-timer Shauna Feste, hits a number of familiar plot points but avoids cliche thanks to a top-drawer cast. Allen (Pierce Brosnan) and Grace (Susan Sarandon) have lost their son Bennett (Aaron Johnson) in a car accident, and Bennett's pregnant girlfriend Rose (Carey Mulligan) is now living with them. Rose survived the accident but can't remember what happened while Grace compulsively tends to the comatose driver of the other vehicle (Michael Shannon) in a search for answers. You might be able to guess most of what happens next: Allen bonds with Rose and doesn't seem grief stricken enough for Grace, while Bennett's younger brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons)is tempted by drugs. Yet Brosnan is sad and understated in a way I've never quite seen before while Sarandon maintains a state of high rage with pitch-perfect control. Carey Mulligan, who filmed The Greatest before An Education made her a rising star, is saddled with the difficult task of playing love for a dead boy her character barely knew and also being a source of strength for a family in crisis. It's a carefully worked out performance, and Mulligan's natural dryness is a great asset in the role. Shauna Feste has a way with actors and an ear for family drama, may her next film take her farther away from the familiar.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Switch

The commercial failure of The Switch is being blamed on the public's dislike of Jennifer Aniston or the usual ineptness of romantic comedies, but neither charge really sticks. The Switch isn't a comedy despite its American Pie-style inciting incident in which Jason Bateman's depressive stockbroker Wally replaces donated sperm meant for his best friend Kassie (Aniston) with his own. Both Wally and Kassie are professionally successful but have gaping voids in their personal lives; the theme of The Switch (as we hear in Bateman's voice-over) is something along the lines of how two people occasionally collide and stick together in a too-fast world. The bulk of the film takes place with Kassie the parent of a seven-year old boy named Sebastian (Thomas Robinson). Sebastian exhibits the exact same hypochondria and mannerisms as Wally, who bonds with the boy just as Kassie improbably strikes up a relationship with sperm donor and Sebastian's ostensible father Roland. (Patrick Wilson, who makes human a character we're supposed to hate.)

Kassie's choice to have a baby via artificial insemination is portrayed as a last gasp; she and Wally share a glumness about the chance of connection that is pretty much the only reason the two seem to be friends. (There's a vague mention of dating each other in the past.) The typical Aniston comic character wouldn't have time for Wally's neuroses, and though the basis of the friendship feels thin the two make their mutual neediness believable enough. Bateman can drop in a one-liner as well as anyone, but the biggest laughs come from Jeff Goldblum as some kind of mentor/colleague/friend of Wally's. Goldblum controls the inflection and rhythm of his lines like a jazz musician and wrings laughs out of a role he could have walked through. The Switch has two appealing leads, but acts of last resort aren't that fun to watch. I wish more of Goldblum's zaniness had infected a film that tries to be about more than a schematic romance.

Right network, right time

I haven't seen enough of either show to have a firm opinion, but from what I do know I'd agree that True Blood may be lucky to be on HBO (while The Vampire Diaries languishes in teen land.) (Antenna)

And yet one is quality TV on HBO, watched by men and women alike, and names such as Alan Ball and Anna Paquin all but guarantee that it be taken seriously as an artistic engagement–even if we may just watch it for the bloodied sexual encounters and the melodrama. The other is firmly defined as teen TV, runs on the CW and its stars are more likely to appear on the cover of the online Portrait magazine than Rolling Stone. Part of this difference in perception between the two programs is clearly gendered: TB’s extreme sexual violence and voyeuristic viewer position invites male viewers even where the initial topic of a female protagonist and her vampire lover might not. Moreover, the amazingly artistic and political trailer promises a depth that I personally feel the show fails to deliver. TVD, on the other hand, is clearly geared toward young girls with its high school protagonist and two male hunks who desire her. The high school setting and teen tropes mark the show as a typical CW show, with its melodramatic aspects foregrounded rather than hidden. Likewise this allows for viewers’ identificatory potential in a way that TB doesn’t: TB instead establishes a more distanced view position that profits from its visual spectacle.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The problem with reviewing trailers

One blogger is irritated that the Black Swan trailer contains an image of NP kissing Mila Kunis as part of a series of shots apparently designed to illustrate the mental breakdown of Portman's character. I take the larger point about the unfortunate connection between lesbian desire and mental illness in films, but how do we know the shot of the kiss isn't taken out of context in the trailer? It wouldn't be the first time. Black Swan will debut at the Venice Film Festival in a few days and is one of a half-dozen films being considered for an award given to films with gay themes. Since I'm assuming someone at Venice watched Black Swan before letting it into the Festival, there may be more to the kiss than the trailer reveals. (Atlantic/THR)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eat Pray Love

The mind behind Glee, Nip/Tuck, and the film version of Running With Scissors doesn't seem like the obvious choice to direct a story of one woman's globe-trotting spiritual quest, and indeed none of the bite that Ryan Murphy brought to those works is present in his adaptation of Eat Pray Love. Murphy's film of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir is glossy porn for Travel Channel junkies and foodies that wastes a good cast and ends up being about not very much.

Journalist Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) isn't happy. Her husband (Billy Crudup) can't settle on a career and children don't seem to be in the offing. As the couple drifts towards a divorce (Crudup has a great scene of frazzled desperation in a lawyer's office.), Elizabeth's goals don't seem any clearer. There is a relationship with a young actor (James Franco) that leads to an introduction to an Indian guru and a plan: a year-long trip through Italy, India, and Bali that will take Elizabeth's marriage off her mind and provide an elusive sense of "balance". As Elizabeth traipses through the cafes of Rome with a newly acquired group of friends, Eat Pray Love unintentionally becomes a movie about what Americans want from foreign countries. Obsessed with finding meaning in every experience, Elizabeth winds up digesting a series of cliches. In Italy it's a celebration of the slower lifestyle, in India letting go and opening up to God, and in Bali the power of love. When the issues at stake are this obvious it's not surprising that most of the cast seem to float above their roles. Roberts has never looked better on screen thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson. Though her sadness is palpable (Those eyes!), the performance never cuts below the surface because Elizabeth keeps getting distracted by triviality. Pasta, jeans, guys, meditation, and finally Felipe (Javier Bardem), the Brazilian businessman who almost runs her down in Bali and whom Gilbert is now married to. Bardem is as soulful and charming as always, but even he can't do much with this role. In the film Felipe is conceived as Elizabeth's reward for all her struggles; he asks nothing of her and seems to have no real responsibilities other than providing her with unqualified adoration.

The high point of Eat Pray Love is the India sequence thanks to the performance of Richard Jenkins as "Richard from Texas," an irascible seeker whose issues trump Elizabeth's neediness. Jenkins underplays everything and makes something out of dialogue laden with aphorisms; he pulls off a spellbinding confessional monologue to Roberts that Murphy wisely stops the movie for. There's also a young actress names Rushita Singh who plays Tulsi, a young woman forced into a marriage she doesn't want. India is the one part of Eat Pray Love where Gilbert doesn't learn anything other than that others have problems bigger than hers; thus it's especially disappointing that all that awaits her in Bali are Bardem and a babbling medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto). Ryan Murphy couldn't have meant Eat Pray Love to mock Americans' search for meaning in other cultures, but if he didn't then he shouldn't have let the film bounce so cleanly along its very pretty surfaces.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cera for the people

A ringing and overdue defense of Michael Cera that makes one very important point: A more hyperactive actor in the title role would have made Scott Pilgrim unbearable. (Greencine/photo by K.C. Armstrong)

The real question is whether he realizes that he's playing a very specific new mold, a post-90s line-straddler trying hard to be non-offensive but still interesting. Many people find that kind of self-consciousness/-paralysis intensely cloying and solipsistic, but that's calibrated into Cera's performances: he always has to learn to be a little more communicative and self-assertive by the end of the movie, even if it's uneasy to tell by his surface mannerisms.

Sunday Music: Ra Ra Riot - "Boy"

I loved their first album The Rhumb Line; this is from a new record called The Orchard out this week.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Summit meeting

Two film bloggers discuss writing, the viability of classic films, and those nasty comment sections. (Sergio Leone)

Well, it seems to me that if you’re blogging and you’ve got a comments column open, you are at least open to the idea of interacting with the people who stop by to take part and leave their impressions. So it doesn’t quite make sense to me that someone would take the time to create a long post full of ideas and angles and provocations and then not take part in the discussion of it.

Festival seating

While I'm working on watching that Criterion DVD of Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch is curating a music festival, working on an Iggy Pop documentary, and planning to work with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. Oh, and he loves the Wu-Tang Clan. (Pitchfork)

When I started out making films, I was a musician. I knew more musical people, really, than film people. So in my early films, a lot of my friends were in them, and a lot of them were musicians. Certainly John Lurie. Richard Edson, from Stranger Than Paradise, was actually the first drummer in Sonic Youth, and he was in other bands like Konk. I've worked with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. I've had Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer and a lot of musicians in the films. I wrote for them, thinking about them as being characters in the films, rather than anything really about their musical world, their musical life. These were mostly people I knew. None of them were hard to wrangle as actors. They were all very focused, and it was really a pleasure. I never had any trouble with any of them. Even Wu-Tang showed up on time. They were great. In fact, we were shooting Coffee and Cigarettes, and we were actually waiting for Bill Murray. He was only half an hour late. That was pretty amazing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

For Rent: Flannel Pajamas

When I see Justin Kirk in relationship films like Flannel Pajamas or Puccini For Beginners I just don't trust him; maybe his long-running role as the flaky brother-in-law on Weeds is to blame. In Flannel Pajamas Kirk plays Stuart, a marketer for Broadway theatres whose first date with Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) leads almost immediately to a serious relationship. The movie is a series of conversations, at first hopeful and romantic and then (after the two get married) increasingly bitter. The conflicts and concerns of the couple are so specific and discussed in such depth that I can't help but wonder if writer/director Jeff Lipsky is drawing from someone's life. Stuart resents Nicole's attachment to her family and think they're holding her back, but there's not enough information for us to make a judgment. Indeed Nicole's mother (Rebecca Schull) has a pretty clear-eyed view of what's wrong with her daughter's marriage. There is also a good deal of dithering about when and if to have a child, perhaps Nicole and Stuart should have had more than one conversation about parenthood before getting married.

The last straw is Nicole's turn towards religion; it was about then I realized that we're supposed to be siding with Stuart even though he's a selfish and passive-aggressive heel. (To his credit though, he loves his wife.) Stuart isn't much higher on his own family than he is on Nicole's, though all we see is a troubled brother (Jamie Harrold) and a father (Tom Bower) who doesn't seem nearly as bad as Stuart made him out to be. Kirk and the elegant Nicholson make the best of all this, but at over 2 hours we're looking at our watches by the time this overly determined bore rumbles to a finish.

Black Swan trailer!

So here's NP in the already much discussed Black Swan trailer. I wish the shot of Portman's reflection taking on a life it's own hadn't been spoiled here, that would have been quite a moment in the theatre. It is always good to see Barbara Hershey, but where's Winona Ryder? Portman here looks like someone whose body is regularly placed under great physical stress, the demands on a dancer are reflected in her face. When I'm already anticipating a movie and the trailer makes me want to see it more, I can't help but worry a little.....still, Black Swan looks like it will be much discussed is months to come.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

John Mellencamp's No Better Than This

John Mellencamp's new album No Better Than This was recorded in mono at Sun Studios in Memphis, a Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia, and at a hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded. The result isn't some self-consciously retro affair but rather a stripped down set of country/blues/folk originals as vital as anything Mellencamp has ever done. The recording (on 1950's equipment) and production by T-Bone Burnett give No Better Than This an out-of-time feeling that recalls Dylan's recent run of highly praised albums; Mellencamp's emotional directness is in a vein Dylan rarely approaches these days. I can't remember Mellencamp being as sly and funny as he is on the title song ("Take me to a party/where I'm the only man") and "Love At First Sight" is a sweet and light a love song as he has ever recorded. The almost murder ballad "Easter Eve" is the only misfire; it's too long and tries too hard to be serious. Mellencamp has never been this free with his vocals; if I hadn't known it was him I might not have recognized "A Graceful Fall." An artist with nothing to prove can either fade into irrelevance or transcend our expectations. If No Better Than This is any indication Mellencamp has a revelatory second act ahead of him.

I Am Love

In I Am Love Tilda Swinton plays Emma, a Russian woman who finds herself married and smack in the middle of a wealthy Italian family in the middle of a generational change. Grandfather (Gabriele Ferzetti) has just ceded control of the family textile business to Emma's dull husband Tancredi(Pippo Delbono, a dead ringer for Jeroen Krabbe) and their son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). There isn't much for Emma to do other than enjoy the ride, so when Emma meets Edoardo's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) there's is plenty of time for an affair that awakens Emma's long dormant sensuality. Antonio is a chef; soon he and Emma are cooking together and having outdoor sex that director Luca Guadagnino films like a Vogue fashion shoot. Swinton in love is Swinton at her best, though I would have bought Emma's coming alive more if Swinton didn't always seem vaguely turned on even in her icier roles. There is plenty going on with the other family members: Edoardo is left rootless when his father sells the company to an Indian (Waris Ahluwalia) while Emma and Tancredi's daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) comes out firmly but quietly.

For all that happens in I Am Love the film is a languidly paced affair; the impact of the most important beats (other than Emma's trysts with Antonio) is elided either by cutting away or other editing skulduggery. All the stranger then, for the final scene to play almost farcically. It's as if Guadagnino thought we were owed one last moment of Swinton under duress. I Am Love suffers from a case of excessive politeness; it badly wants to be a melodrama but ends up being something we're not quite sure why we watched.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Toy Story 3

I usually try to avoid reading too many reviews before seeing a highly anticipated film like Toy Story 3, but when the 3rd installment of Buzz and Woody's adventures came out earlier this summer it was hard to escape the critical adulation or the reaction to those who dared to voice a dissenting opinion. It almost isn't fair to a film or to anyone who still cares about criticism to review a film amid such a thunderous wave of praise. When we go in to the theater expecting a classic it's easy to miss what's right there on the screen.

It's an anxious time for Woody, Buzz, and friends as their owner Andy prepares to leave for college. Just as Woody has the gang accepting the idea of a comfortable if dull attic retirement, a mix-up leads to the toys being donated to a day care center where the toy in charge is a bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Lotso's initial friendliness hides bitter resentment against new toys; Andy's toys are relegated to being the playthings of the center's youngest children. There's a mock horrifying scene of Buzz and the others being banged around and splattered with paint, but for the toys it isn't funny. In Pixar's world there's a right way and a wrong way to play with toys, and the children who aren't old enough (like the imaginative Bonnie) to construct elaborate scenarios with their toys are depicted as the enemy. There are plenty of stand-alone laughs in Toy Story 3. I particularly liked Buzz in "Spanish mode" and Bonnie's up-for-anything gang of toys. What isn't clear is why Pixar thought toy-on-toy violence and creepy toddlers would appeal to children. Too much time is spent on the mechanics of an escape from the day care center. Our friends are trapped in a kid-friendly version of a basic action-adventure plot.

The "right" toys in Toy Story 3 are the ones that are fussed over and kept long after being outgrown; the movie isn't interested in the others. (This seems the exact opposite of Toy Story 2, where the bad guy wanted to sell Woody to a museum.) Dividing the toys into two camps is an alienating move, and it's just proof that the Toy Story franchise isn't really about toys but rather an ideal of toys as totems of innocence and imagination. The ending (of the film and presumably the franchise) promises a comfortable second act for Andy's toys. I guess the castoffs at the daycare center will just have to fend for themselves.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"I don't think that I make music for kings and queens...."

Janelle Monae discusses her song "Tightrope", which is maybe my favorite video of the last ten years.... (Kottke)

Sunday Music: John Mellencamp - "Human Wheels"

From 2007; Mellencamp's new album No Better Than This was recorded using a 1950's recording machine and only one microphone. Review here.

Dept. of Rebuttals

I said in the previous post that I loved the Scott Pilgrim movie but had no particular attachment to the source material. Here's a good argument for why I should care about Brian Lee O'Malley's graphic novels and why film can't do them justice. (Awl/Parabasis)

What makes Scott Pilgrim not just a good comic but a great piece of art (seriously!) is that it doesn't just find a series of fun stories to tell within this reality, but tells one story (its six books constitute the entirety of the series, and tell one continuous narrative) that explores the consequences of this outlook for the people afflicted by it—their ability to connect with each other, and to accept the non-metaphorical parts of reality that can't be resolved through boss fights.

While in the first book the series looks to be about a straightforward progression of fights for Ramona's love, Ramona is not only given agency (!!!) but emotional issues of her own to deal with, and by the fourth volume, the series characters have all began to sunk into a collective malaise that will feel very, very familiar to anyone who lived through a shiftless mid-twenties. The final volume unexpectedly climaxes with a fight not between Scott and one of Ramona's evil exes, but between Scott and himself—and he only wins by losing, allowing the romantic self-image of himself as a hero to coexist with the reality that we're never always victims or victors; we're victimizers, too.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is based upon a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but I had no particular attachment to the source material in approaching Edgar Wright's joyous film version. Any fan looking for discussion of a film's fidelity to its comic source material can find it somewhere in the blogosphere; how much space was taken up on the way Zack Snyder recreated specific panels in Watchmen? The question of respect for the comics doesn't matter here though. Wright and his team have invented a happy, caffeinated new form that honors the heightened style of a graphic novel while finding plenty to do for a snappy young cast at the top of its game.

Scott Pilgrim officially takes place in Toronto, but its not like any Toronto I've ever heard of . The idea of the city as an annex for Hollywood ("They make movies in Toronto?" asks one character.) or American pro sports teams doesn't exist here. The Toronto of Scott Pilgrim is a home for outsider souls like that of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), young bass player and something of a serial monogamist. Scott's shaggy hair is as free as Cera's performance; Cera's work here should quiet the haters of his deadpan style. Scott is chastely dating high schooler Knives Chau (scene-stealing Ellen Wong) when he meets and swoons over the pink-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The rest of the movie is Scott's effort to win Ramona by defeating her "Seven Evil Exes"; chief among them is music producer Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who controls the fate of Scott's band Sex Bob-omb. The cast is large and not everyone gets enough screen time, but I especially enjoyed angry Mae Whitman as the one female member of the Evil Exes ("I'm a little bi-furious.") and a brief, self-mocking turn from Chris Evans as a movie star. Alison Pill suggests all kind of backstory as the Sex Bob-omb drummer Kim Pine, who may have unresolved feelings for Scott. A special word must be said for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona, she doesn't have much dialogue to work with but Ramona is a tangible, troubled, and credible object of desire for Scott.

Cera, Winstead, and the rest provide the heart but Edgar Wright's imagination is the dominant force at work in Scott Pilgrim. The word "adaptation" doesn't seem appropriate here, Wright has brought something to life. We're in a heightened, animated reality; notes flow through the air as Scott plays his bass and the Exes, once dispatched, explode into video-game bounty coins. The sounds made at a battle of the bands become creatures that battle it out over the head of the crowd. Wright doesn't waste time with establishing shots; the scenes cut together like comic panels with just a few titles doing the work. Save for a running joke about Scott wearing a hat there's barely a wink at this; we're in this world to tell this story. If you're a gamer or a comic shop denizen then listen up: Scott Pilgrim is the first movie that wants your love, not just your money.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's documentary about Joan Rivers sounds like a unappetizing proposition at first. "Is she still around?" "Oh, her?" To most of us Rivers is one one of those semi-celebrities who keeps landing in our consciousness, from her days as permanent guest host on the Tonight Show to a recent winning stint on Celebrity Apprentice. The filmmakers have a bit more on their mind though, and even if one finds Rivers's salty, politically incorrect comedy too much to bear it is hard not to come out of the film rooting for her. A Piece of Work follows Rivers for a year, during which time she works, frets about not working more, appears in London in a play she wrote, parts company with her longtime manager, sells her jewelry on QVC, and works. Rivers refuses to slow down or to be treated as a comedy living legend; she's willing to troop through a dank backstage or hop into a scary-looking small plane to get to a gig. If Rivers seems obsessive about her work it's because life hasn't always been kind. Rivers's husband Edgar killed himself shortly after being fired as producer of her failed Fox late-night show, and the decision to leave her Tonight Show gig cost her a relationship with Carson.

It's difficult not to root for Rivers when you see how hard she works, though she does have her blind spots. Rivers considers herself an underappreciated actress, but the glimpses we get of her on stage don't convince (though she does have a Tony nomination.)Her much-mocked relationship with daughter Melissa appears founded in whopping self-esteem issues on both sides, and the two's fraught cab ride to the first Apprentice taping could keep psychiatrists busy for a year. Yet Rivers keeps going, knowing that for every opportunity that slips by there's a young person waiting to pounce. A Piece of Work should be required viewing for anyone who gets on stage in front of people, it's a testament to the fact that opportunities may get harder to find but the drive never goes away.

King of Plots

Here's a long post that attempts to summarize just what's going on in the films of Christopher Nolan, from Following right through to Inception. This might be the most succinct description I've ever read about what makes Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight so memorable: (HND)

At the heart of the 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, is a character out of control from both society's mores and the film's plot: Heath Ledger's Joker. By now enough ink has been spilled on the performance that I won't spend much time discussing it except to say that he's magnetic and enthralling because he feels so out of control in a film that is otherwise so deliberately constructed. If the rest of the film were as crazy as the Joker (if it had been directed by, say, Tim Burton) then some of his energy may have been lost. All the other characters, Bruce Wayne chief among them, spend the film looking sad and depressed. The many shots of Gotham at night just look glittery; there's no dirt and no danger there. The plot is ineffective, too. Without the myth-building of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight starts as a typical superhero tale, with Batman flying to Hong Kong to bring down the mob. It takes the Joker to destroy the plot before it gets interesting.

I probably shouldn't excerpt this much, but the final words really nail a problem with Inception and with the direction Nolan is heading:

The problem is that as Nolan's career has progressed, he's lost sight of how to make those moments feel organic. The moments are there, but how do they connect to the larger film? Nolan's filmography can perhaps be summed up by the iconic shot of the Joker in The Dark Knight, sticking his head out the police car window, oblivious to the dangers around him—an image of freed chaos. It's a small, lyrical moment, and it feels like it happened by accident. The shot is surrounded by so much plot detritus that it feels like a scream from a smarter, better film. Alas, such fleeting moments are perhaps the best we can hope for from Christopher Nolan, the plot-master.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Book I Read: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The "dot-com boom" of the late '90s and early part of this decade now seems like a kind of fever dream, a brief period when our ability to imagine the internet's capabilities was limitless and no one wanted to be left out. Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector is set during those heady years, but this heavily populated novel is a call for slowness and consideration. The two sisters that are the novel's focus are obvious opposites, inspiring numerous comparisons to Sense and Sensibility. Emily is the head of a Silicon Valley startup called Veritech, whose wildly successful IPO (as the novel opens in 1999) has made everyone associated with the company rich on paper. Emily's grad student sister Jess is a dreamer, studying philosophy while campaigning against deforestation with an environmental group and part-timing in a rare bookstore. The two sisters are united by a sense of loss; their mother Gillian died in the girl's childhood and both Emily and Jess greet the world with a sense of something missing and sadness at their mother's unfulfilled promise.

The Cookbook Collector contains plenty of detail about dot-coms and programming, in addition to the doings at Veritech there is Emily's lover Jonathan and old friend Orion. The two lead a start-up on the East Coast whose IPO is fast approaching and Goodman captures the nervousness as the company continues to grow but is still largely promise. If Goodman overreaches it's with the use of multiple points of view; by the time we get to Orion's romance with a programmer I was starting to lose track of Emily and Jess. The most significant character besides the two sisters is George, the former Microsoft exec with means and the motivation to operate the bookstore where Jess makes her pocket money. To keep the Austen comparison going, the arguably too-perfect George is Colonel Brandon. Older and initially aghast at Jess's flightiness, George softens as Jess begins to unravel a collection of old cookbooks stuffed with the ephemera of an eccentric scientist. The heart of this busy book is watching this unlikely pair soften towards one another, though George (who takes a dim view of the activists Jess works with) seems to offer both sensibility and the pleasures that Jess denies herself.

Goodman ends on a note of post-9/11 sobriety with Veritech on its knees. While I was happy to be part of the sisters' world for a time, I wonder if Goodman isn't a bit hard on Emily. Caught up in a subplot about Jewish mysticism that never takes off, Emily ends The Cookbook Collector betrayed and alone (though at least she is aware of the coming social networking boom). Jess meanwhile has found security she never dreamed of and come far from her principled beginnings. Goodman's choice for the sisters' fates barely marred my enjoyment of the The Cookbook Collector. Was it so recently that there was so much promise, and everything seemed so simple?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Patricia Neal

Actress Patricia Neal has died at age 84, and while I knew the outlines of Neal's health issues and tumultuous marriage to Roald Dahl I don't think I knew just how much she had to overcome. (NYT)

Dahl badgered his wife into getting well. He pressed her to walk, held things out of her reach until she managed to ask for them and arranged for hours of physical and speech therapy. She learned to read again. When Ms. Neal could not understand a Beatrix Potter book she was reading to her son, her husband told her not to mind because “The Tale of Pigling Bland” was “Potter’s toughest book.” Six months after her brain operation, Ms. Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter, and Dahl insisted that a brace be taken off her shoes.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Look to your right

I've added a Kickstarter widget in the right hand column in support of my friend Chris White's attempt to make a short film. I've known Chris since my freshman year of college and am constantly jealous of his ambition, energy, and talent both in film and theatre. You can read more about the project here, and please consider donating.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Saturday Music: Janelle Monae - "Cold War"

This is the second Monae performance I've linked to in a short time (the other one seems to have been removed from YouTube), besides being magnetic the clip is a fun commentary on just how hard it is to make even a very simple-looking video.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is the hip choice of a mostly dreary summer; it has racked up impressive box-office in its relatively small release, and why not? Boasting first-rate talent and a pro-family message that transcends gender and sexual orientation, The Kids Are All Right is the perfect liberal, humanist drama to catch between a trip to your local organic co-op and an open mic night at the coffeehouse. So then why did I find it so irritating?

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-settled couple with bustling lives who are raising two bright, well-scrubbed children conceived through artificial insemination. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), bright though socially awkward, is looking forward to college while 15-year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) lightly experiments with drugs and sullenness. It's easy to see the household's fault lines in the early scenes. Nic is a doctor while Jules has a vague notion of starting a landscaping business and endures low-grade guilt trips from Nic about her flightiness. It seems Jules never followed through on an architecture degree and in a past career failed at "importing Balinese furniture". (The look on Bening's face when Moore reveals this is priceless.) Nic and Jules seem to exist in a constant state of attack and retreat, of confrontation and apology with awkward interludes for sex in between. As if that weren't tiring enough the two talk to each other like self-help books, and I almost laughed out loud when Nic apologized for not being "her highest self". Their marriage is just as complex and rumpled as any couple's, and Cholodenko must have thought we wouldn't get it if all Nic and Jules did was go to Laser's games and cook together. Moore plays Jules with a nervous energy that doesn't always seem appropriate to the situation, and it isn't clear what Cholodenko wants us to think of her when the film's other major character enters the story.

Joni makes contact with Paul (Mark Ruffalo) at her brother's urging. 19 years ago Paul had donated the sperm that was used to conceive Joni and Laser; he's now an overgrown dude who seems perfectly content with the successful restaurant he owns and the casual sex he has with one of his employees. Ruffalo is excellent, not letting Paul slip into caricature and finding glints of keen intelligence underneath the slacker exterior. Paul isn't as out there as Nic and Jules make him out to be ("He's working the alternative thing pretty hard"), but Ruffalo nails the idea of a content guy waking up to wanting more in his life. There are some promising bonding moments with the kids, but the situation (and the movie) get complicated when Paul hires Jules to "landscape" his backyard. I didn't believe for one second that Jules knew anything about landscaping, she flits around using words like "fecund" and moving pots from one place to another. Jules is at Paul's house to turn the film into a melodrama. Jules and Paul hop into bed together; we're never told about Jules's sexuality before she met Nic, but the act of an affair with a man is portrayed as a quest for attention as opposed to the moment of self-questioning it might be for a lifelong lesbian.

Things predictably blow up and Paul's relationship with Joni and Laser is ruined. For a movie that so loudly affirms the normality of the family at its center there's remarkably little tolerance for messiness or unfulfilled ambition. Paul, who besides Joni was the character I wanted to know the most about, is judged very harshly for not having his life figured out; there's something unusually warm about Paul's lack of defensiveness about himself but Cholodenko is having none of it. Jules gets a humiliating closing speech that loudly restates the movie's theme ("Marriage is hard") and leaves us with the impression she's a twit that Nic is carrying. The movie ends with Nic and Jules together and apparently on the road to reconciliation. I wanted to stop at the scene before; we leave Joni alone and free at college, ready to make her own mistakes, get up, and try again.

Master Adam & the Harold

This piece on director Adam McKay highlights the director's (The Other Guys, Anchorman) love of Bunuel and Cassavetes. I'm not ready to put McKay on their level just yet, but the way long-form improv has influenced his work is revealing. (Slate/Alyssa Rosenberg)

Like scores of SNL staffers before him, McKay got his start in Chicago under the tutelage of Del Close, inventor of the long-form improvisation mode known as "the Harold." Actors in a Harold create three discrete scenes, then two variations on each; characters from different scenes can mingle, story lines dovetail, offhand lines of dialogue become refrains. (Later, McKay and his fellow Second City players drew upon the format for 1995's long-running revue PiƱata Full of Bees, which over the years has gained a reputation as the seminal, rule-smashing Never Mind the Bollocks of improv.) The Harold stretches the performers' powers of concentration and memory—and those of the audience, too—far more than, say, a series of short, unconnected skits a la Whose Line Is It Anyway? (One might also guess that the Harold is a better training ground for writing feature-length films.) With the founding of the Upright Citizens Brigade, spontaneous theater became guerrilla performance art: The group's chaotic early exploits included a fake murder (staged in McKay's apartment), a fake suicide (McKay's own, which he advertised beforehand by handing out flyers), and a fake street revolution (which McKay says led to the arrest of future SNL player Horatio Sanz).

Dept. of the Good Fight

Terry Gilliam just directed an Arcade Fire webcast. He doesn't sound at all like someone who has been beaten down by the system, does he? (ArtsBeat)

Q.I hope this doesn’t affect your process Thursday night, when you’re frantically choosing from among all your camera options.

A.Maybe I’ll just be sleeping. I want the entire community of the people watching it making the choices. Can we do that? Can they be tweeting in what cameras they’d like to be watching? Then we could have some sort of machinery that collates all the votes, and it could work by that. The Web is about community, not about hierarchy and fascistic directors and things like that. I’m just a beginner in this world. I’m a complete novice. I hate the Web, to be honest about it.

Q.So how did this all come about, then?

A.You mean [laughs] how the finger of God pointed down at me and said, ‘You are the chosen one’? ‘Help these young people out, save their careers,’ that sort of thing? Well, it was as long ago as two weeks ago when my agent was approached, saying they were doing a show at Madison Square Garden. They wondered if I could get involved with no time at all, which means there’s very little I can do. It’s all their work — I’m just trying to make sure that it gets somehow seen on the Web accurately. I’m not a director — let’s put it that way — in this instance. I’m just a follower. [Laughs.]

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Josh Ritter & Tift Merritt

I don't want to give the impression that my experience of seeing Josh Ritter live last night was spoiled in any way, but let me just get this out of the way first. For those of you have seen many more concerts than I have, here's a question. Why on earth would anyone pay for a concert, not to mention a few drinks, and then stand there and talk to friends during the entire show? I wish I had been there when this happened:

I'm not as familiar with Ritter's last album So Runs The World Away as I should be, but Ritter (in his first Greenville show) knew what his fans wanted and opened with a raucous "Hello Starling" and "Good Man". As a point of comparison, Ritter on record is far smoother than Glen Hansard but in concert his four-piece band added considerable muscle to his tales of love, the West, and whales. New songs I'll be listening to more include "Lantern", "Lark" (see above), and "Change of Time". Ritter's stage persona is unrepentantly upbeat, and (like Hansard) his gratitude at the enthusiasm offered by the crowd seemed entirely genuine. One minor note: Josh, going into an encore don't send your bassist out to sing a song. Get your breath and come back out, we would have waited. As warm as Ritter was personally, he kept the stage banter to a minimum in order to give the crowd more music. the set was around 2hours but felt longer thanks to Ritter's generosity and the energy of the band.

I saw Tift Merritt a few years ago (same venue) with a full band supporting her album Tambourine. Her opening slot here was just acoustic guitar and piano, a choice made out of necessity no doubt but well suited to the songs from her latest album, See You On The Moon. The sparse instrumentation gave some urgency to songs that sometimes flirt with politeness on record. Favorites were "Engine To Turn" and two older songs, "Good Man" and an unamplified "Supposed To Make You Happy". The crowd seemed familiar with Merritt's music (she's from North Carolina and joked about being "cousins" with the audience) and gave her a degree of attention unusual for an opening act. All in all a most satisfying evening, and since both Ritter and Merritt are at the peak of their powers I can look forward to more in the future.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Quick reaction to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Parts of The Suburbs sound to me (thematically, not sonically) like something David Byrne would have released in the late '80s, around the time of the True Stories project. Byrne is one of our gentlest eccentrics and would have probably gotten a spread in Rolling Stone for his trouble, but since Arcade Fire's first two records were full of Grand Statements about life, politics, and religion they can expect a little more scrutiny. The Suburbs is the first Arcade Fire album where every song doesn't sound like an attempted anthem, and the shambling opener of a title track sets the tone. My blogfriend singled out a line in "The Suburbs" as an example of the album's lyrical obviousness, but I'm not quite there. Leaving aside the question of whether it's helpful to consider individual lines of songs at all, I'd say there's a tension at work here between past and present. Or to state it more bluntly, between the safe, remembered blandness of childhood and one's hopes and fears for one's children and the next generation. ("The Suburbs", "Rococo", "City With No Children", "We Used To Wait")

My lifetime has seen the pleasure and anticipation of waiting for a letter become almost entirely obsolete. You can throw all the irony you want at that fact, but it's true. Win Butler gets lyrical mileage out of what that means about modern life in "We Used To Wait", which might be the closest thing The Suburbs has to a memorable melody. As much I liked the album, that's a problem. What The Suburbs strips away in bombast in adds back in length. As much as "Sprawl II" serves as a triumphant release (and lost '80s closing credits tune), I could have done without the dirge-like "Sprawl I" or "Ready To Start" (which contains a couple of real lyrical howlers). It's good to see Arcade Fire working in a more specific, personal vein. The Suburbs (or most of it) could be their first album that I come back to.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Dinner for Schmucks, the tale of an on-the-rise executive (Paul Rudd) who must bring a doofus to his boss's dinner party in order to ensure a promotion, might have seemed more necessary if it had been released in the '80s. In that career-centered decade it would have been easier to laugh at Barry (Steve Carell), the IRS employee and mouse diorama artist (you read that right) who latches on to Rudd's Tim and wreaks havoc in his personal and professional life over a couple of days. Director Jay Roach, remaking a 1998 French film, instead makes Barry a wounded man-child barely able to function and the moral center of the movie. Paul Rudd is largely wasted in Dinner for Schmucks, as Tim is forced to learn the same lessons about untrammeled ambition that are shoved down the throat of the audience. Rudd was much funnier in the flimsy I Love You, Man; he doesn't have enough to do here other than watch Carell push his character to the limit.

What laughs there are come from those assembled schmucks. Carell does the only thing you can do as an actor in a farce: commit. Barry is loud, stupid, ignorant of social context, and (according to a recent New Yorker profile) the creation of Carell's improvisations to a significant degree. Barry may be Carell's most daring performance, you just may not be able to stand it. Jemaine Clement gets some of the biggest laughs as a preening artist who's a rival for the affections of Tim's fiance (Stephanie Szostak), and Octavia Spencer (whose performance is mostly visible in the trailer) steals one scene as a pet psychic. Zach Galifianakis plays Carell's rival in idiocy and love, and while the climactic showdown between the two pays off the role isn't really the best showcase for Galifianakis's shambling style of comedy. Dinner for Schmucks was probably great fun to make, but not as much fun to watch. Why does this movie need such an insubstantial center? Too many dead spots and misuse of a talented cast lead to a waste of the audience's time.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The director is all right

Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) on her writing process and why she's not taking any back talk. (Greencine)

Q: The question came up after the screening: Will anyone be offended by this?

A: Bring it on! People need to drop their stuff. How can you speak for everybody? I don't feel like I'm selling out. This resonates for me. If people really open themselves up, it's cool that we get to see these lesbian moms and their teenage kids on the big screen