Monday, September 27, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

What an odd, stuck-together sort of movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps turned out to be; it's equal parts thriller and redemption story and not really satisfying as either. Attempting the not entirely necessary feat of putting the iconic Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in the middle of our current financial crisis, Oliver Stone gets trapped by the need to have Gekko be the bastard we love and give the audience someone to root for at the same time. How do you make a Wall Street financier a palpable movie hero in this economy? You make him driven by an obsession with green energy, just like Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake is a rising star under the tutelage of Street legend/substitute father Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) when a rash of rumors drives his brokerage firm out of business and Zabel to suicide. Jake approaches Gekko in an attempt to discover who ruined Zabel and because he's engaged to Gekko's daughter Winnie (tart Carey Mulligan). Gekko is used as a sort of guru figure, explaining the systemic problems that got us here, while Jake gets caught up in a plot involving leveraged debt, Chinese financiers, and a rival (Josh Brolin) who also has his own history with Gekko.

But Gekko has to have something to do, and in the second half of the movie we're asked to buy a massive switcheroo that puts Gekko on the A-list and Jake and Winnie's engagement in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the resolution of the Wall Street plot gets run over by the financial crisis of 2008 and the movie's need to have everyone heal. The government's decision to massively bail out banks, which will one day be the climax of a better movie about the crisis, is a sideshow to Jake, Winnie, and Gekko bopping around Europe. Douglas has some flashes of 1980's fire, but Stone needed to make the character more active. Stone's thesis is that quick fixes are all we'll get until the system changes, but the point is lost amid family dramas and a over-reliance on animation and blunt imagery (bubbles, CNBC screenshots). Wall Street c. 2010 wants to be a movie about what happened when we weren't paying attention, if only it were a little louder.

For Rent: Solitary Man

Michael Douglas floats through Solitary Man in the role of Ben Kalmen, a once successful car dealer whose personal and professional lives fall apart after a medical diagnosis. The movie is a succession of scenes of Ben screwing up and then getting called on it, from the seduction of his girlfriend's daughter (Imogen Poots) to his failure to be a reliable presence in the life of his grandson. Playing an old seducer isn't a stretch for Douglas; he even takes a run at Olivia Thirlby while attending a college party. Yet Ben seems unruffled by the bottoms he hits on the way down and it's a little hard to buy Douglas as a man with no job prospects about to be cut off by his daughter (Jenna Fischer). Although Douglas's scenes with Danny DeVito have a relaxed fellow feeling that Ben doesn't get to display in the rest of the movie, I'm not sure that I thought Ben would be pals with a guy who owns the pizza joint in the town where Ben went to college. Susan Sarandon and Mary-Louise Parker float around but don't have time to add much, and directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien don't know where to go once they let us know that Ben is at a turning point. Solitary Man wants to take Ben and us to the edge, but it winds up being too slick for its own good.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Music: Paul Weller - "Shout To The Top"

From 2008; I dug out the former Jam/Style Council frontman's best-of this week and this track emerged the winner in terms of infectiousness.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Whatever will be....

Janelle Monae is a spectacular talent, but her live show hasn't grown up quite as fast. Good post. (Parabasis)

Additionally, Monae clearly has some fledgling ideas for what she wants her stage show to be, but no director to help her conceptualize and realize them. As a result, several songs simply feature a few back up dancers wandering in clothed body stockings and masks and half-assing their way through some unchoreographed dance moves. While the image of a woman in a nun’s outfit and a woman in a burka getting down has a certain appeal, the ideas aren’t well thought out enough or shaped to stick. First EP highlight “Sincerely, Jane” for example, was beautifully sung, but marred by six backup dancers menacing Monae in slow motion as zombies.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Liner notes

Every new band should provide track by track anecdotes like the ones TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek has for his new Maximum Balloon project. This article just saved me quite a bit of time. (Guardian)

"I was playing some of the instrumental tracks to a mutual friend of ours. He was like, 'Man, you know who'd kill this? David Byrne'. I was like, 'Yeah right, and then I'll get Jimi Hendrix to play guitar'. But he called David, who said he'd do it and then I crapped my pants … And then I changed my pants and we recorded the song. It's amazing, David's been a huge influence on not just me but everyone else on this record. When I first heard what he'd done it blew my mind. Then it blew my mind all over again two weeks later when I realised what the lyrics are about. The song is fucking twisted. There's actually an old porno magazine from the 70s called Apartment Wrestling – it featured scantily-clad girls grappling and having pillow fights with each other. Pretty far out."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chase: All Filler, No Killer

Series that last a full season and then get cancelled are like gifts given and then taken back. An hour a week from September to May, emotional investment, multiple story arcs, maybe a cliffhanger, and it all adds up to nothing. NBC's Mercy was one such show last season, the one-and-done story of a nurse (Taylor Schilling) juggling the chaos of a New Jersey hospital, a marriage, and a colleague who was her battlefield lover. I mention Mercy because I would have loved to see Schilling's live-wire character transplanted to the new NBC show Chase. U.S. Marshal Annie Frost (Kelli Giddish) leads an ethnically diverse team of Texas crime fighters that could swap out with the cast of any other Jerry Bruckheimer production. In the opening scene Annie sets off a cattle stampede while in pursuit of a fugitive; there's a reference to how much damage was caused and then it's never mentioned again. There's some vague mention of Annie's back story, parents don't seem to be a part of her life, but she's essentially an automaton and Giddish plays her like one. Annie is given crumbs of "attitude" (a taste for country music and a soft way with children) but she and her crew live in a fantasy world where the bad guys are charming rogues like Mason Boyle (Travis Fimmel), whom I suspect we'll see again, and where there are no logistical or procedural impediments to the pursuit of the fugitives. The supporting cast includes Cole Hauser as a sidekick who apparently isn't anything more (yet) and Rose Rollins (The L Word) as a second-string badass character yet to be developed. There's little sense of place or regional flavor in Chase; the show needs a big helping of personality and some better acting from its lead to avoid a quick exit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Second that

Remember how much I liked Winter's Bone? Here are more reasons why. (Parabasis)

Within this quest narrative lies a kind of rural detective noir. Ree senses almost immediately that the adults in her small, desperately poor community in the Ozarks know something is going on and won’t tell her. No one will help her with what they need, offering drugs or grocery money or to adopt her siblings instead. Like Jack in Chinatown, she’s warned off the case a few times, never kindly. She even gets off the occasional Sam Spadeish wisecrack, particularly when she is most in jeopardy. Woven into this detective story is the Western’s sense of codes of honor and rooting oneself to the land. No one will enter a house unless invited in, there are numerous references to “our ways” and more than one tense standoff involving stolidly clutched rifles. Not for nothing does the film feature two actors from Deadwood in major roles.

The Town

Director Ben Affleck has produced a remarkably self-assured and satisfying piece of work with The Town. Affleck returns to the low-end Boston where his Gone Baby Gone was set, and I can't help but wonder if all his films shouldn't be set in Charlestown even if he starts making musical comedies. The Town succeeds both as an action picture and a fascinating chamber drama, as Affleck clearly relishes the insular world of complicated relationships and unpayable debts that his setting provides.

Opening titles inform us of the frequency and hereditary nature of crime in Charlestown; Doug MacRay (Affleck) washed out as a hockey player and turned to the only other life he knew. (Doug's picture still adorns the wall of the local Boys & Girls Club.) The bank robberies carried out by Doug's crew are fast, efficient, and only as violent as they have to be. This is a life's work for Doug and his more dangerous friend James Coughlin, (Jeremy Renner makes a bid for the supporting actor Oscar.) and both men know that an arrest means prison and no plea bargains. Renner, all the more scary for not trying to be so, is the standout of an ensemble in cracking good form. Jon Hamm clearly relishes showing some non-Don Draper colors as FBI agent Adam Frawley, tasked with taking down the MacRay gang. The Town is in part a movie about class, and Hamm adds a layer of haughtiness to what could have been a cliched role. The key relationship in the movie is the one between Doug and Claire (Rebecca Hall), the bank manager and hostage he falls for. Claire is an outsider working and volunteering in Charlestown and her lack of ties to the neighborhood suggests a life Doug has no other access to. Contrast Claire with Krista (Blake Lively, a jolt of energy), Doug's boozy ex who represents a life of dive bars and dead-end jobs.

While on one level The Town is a "last job" movie, even that last job (a bravura heist of the Fenway Park cash room) is laced with reminders of how small a world the movie inhabits. A Fenway employee threatens Doug with jail guard friends as he's handcuffed, and the boss (a frightening Pete Postlethwaite) who plans the robbery can easily recall the fathers of Doug and James. Chris Cooper has one masterful scene as Doug's jailed father; whatever chance Doug has is one he'll have to make for himself. There is as much life in Doug as in the community garden where Claire volunteers. The Town, which announces Ben Affleck as a major director, and brushes up against American themes of family, community, and finally reinvention.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Art of Saying Nothing

Who's the worse offender, rapper Nicki Minaj for teasing the GLBT community with her lyrics, personas, and vague quotes or the magazine that goes along with her act? The following may be one of the least informative paragraphs ever written. (Out)

If girls are attracted to Minaj’s unapologetic feminism and appreciation for the female body (not to mention her own ├╝berhot photo shoots), gay guys can’t get enough of her over-the-top wardrobe, neck-snapping put-downs, and theatrical play-acting. Hip-hop has always had a flair for the dramatic, from Flavor Flav’s oversize clock to the comedic skits tucked between tracks on Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg albums. But Minaj has taken the art to the next level with her drag-queen-like outfits (she’s rocked Wonder Woman spandex and Freddy Krueger nails), wild-eyed rapping, and split personalities. “Roman is so flamboyant, so outspoken, so open, and, you know, creative,” she says of her inner gay boy Zolanski, which she pronounces “Zo-lan-sky” with a touch of an East End accent. The name is, of course, a play on director Roman Polanski, but she can’t explain why she opted to identify with a white man known for being a deviant. Screwing with sexual conventions has become a Minaj trademark, though: In her guest spot on Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face” she calls out a cheating boyfriend who wasn’t just two-timing her with another girl -- he was “sneakin’ with the deacon.”

Sunday Music: The Walkmen: "Angela Surf City"

A performance from last month of a track from their new album Lisbon, which I can recommend. This band has been around for some time, been fairly prolific, and I know almost nothing about them. I have the new album, where should I start with the old stuff?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Easy A

High school circa 2010 is leaner and meaner than it used to be, and the iconoclasts of Pretty In Pink or Some Kind Of Wonderful would have a hard time escaping the all-seeing eye of social networking today. The nimble and funny Easy A, directed by Will Gluck, alludes to Say Anything and '80s John Hughes movies in its tale of a high school loner named Olive (Emma Stone) whose choice to falsely portray herself as easy by pretending to hook up with outcasts has unintended consequences. Emma Stone has lit up small roles in Superbad and Zombieland and thoroughly owns the proceedings here, creating a smart, funny, individual of a teen who's easy to root for even as her decisions become more questionable. The movie keeps the jokes coming fast enough that it's easy to overlook an unfortunate turn to melodrama when a guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) gets involved in Olive's problems; if Easy A shares a subtext with, say, The Breakfast Club it's in the irrelevance of parents to high school drama. Olive's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, both having a great time) are wonderfully liberal and supportive but haven't a clue what's going on with their daughter until near the end. The rest of a talented supporting cast is wasted to a degree, as talented players are trapped in roles that turn out pretty much like you'd expect. An overqualified Amanda Bynes fares best as Olive's Christian nemesis while Penn Badgely (Cute Guy) and Thomas Haden Church (Cool Teacher) remain at the fringes.

Easy A is honest enough to suggest that marginalized high school students are capable of being just as mean as the popular crowd, but I'm not sure the movie has more big ideas on its mind except regarding Facebook as gossip on steroids. Stone's way with a joke means the outcome isn't in much doubt, but Olive is worthy of a Saturday detention with her kindred spirits from the '80s.

Science 1, Idiocy 0

We interrupt thinking about Emma Stone (I'm about to see Easy A) to report a major blow for the lunatic anti-science movement in this country. There is no connection between vaccines and autism in children, and I'll let Kottke take it from here:

So get your kids (and yourselves) vaccinated and save them & their playmates from this whooping cough bullshit, which is actually killing actual kids and not, you know, magically infecting them with autism. Vaccination is one of the greatest human discoveries ever -- yes, Kanye, OF ALL TIME -- has saved countless lives, and has made countless more lives significantly better. So: Buck. Up.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For Rent: Mystery Team

Mystery Team would have worked better as a sketch or a short film than a feature. Even at a brisk 94 minutes the central joke of the premise - three childhood friends continue their Encyclopedia Brown-style detective antics into high school - gets tired by the time guns are in play and real things are at stake. Donald Glover of Community has a manic energy that papers over some of the slow spots but his two costars (D.C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, fellow members of the Derrick Comedy troupe) can't do much with their roles as brain and muscle respectively. Aubrey Plaza plays the Team's first grown-up client and a possible love interest for Glover; she gets off a few dry zingers in the style familiar to Parks and Recreation fans but looks a little at sea, as if she needed stronger partners to play off of. Mystery Team may have served as a calling card for its stars, but it's thin soup best digested and forgotten.

The Book I Read: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Can you be a social novelist and hate people? The question seems relevant after finishing Jonathan Franzen's much-celebrated Freedom, hyped as an encompassing novel of our times and accompanied by a rehashing of the unsmiling Franzen's pronouncements about just What's Wrong With Everything. Although a significant portion of Freedom is specifically spent dealing with what a mess we're all making of the environment and how the Bush administration screwed up the Iraq reconstruction, Franzen reveals an unexpected conservative streak in his assignment of blame for societal ills to our numerous personal freedoms. Too many choices, too many connections, and too little time to think deep thoughts seem to be the problem.

I seem to be in the minority but I can't help but detect a mocking streak in Franzen's depiction of Walter and Patty Berglund, a superficially happy Minnesota couple that is the novel's center. Both Walter and Patty are afraid of their freedom and work hard to avoid their parents mistakes by effacing their own identities with a kind of pathological niceness. Walter is a corporate lawyer turned conservationist who survived an alcoholic father to make something of himself; now he's a man with a kind word and a lecture on the evils of overpopulation always at the ready. As assuredly as Franzen moves Freedom along, there is never a moment where Walter exists in space. He's always on the move and always operating in service of some point Franzen wants to make. Walter's supreme irony, completely unremarked upon as far as I can tell, is that he hated his own bleak childhood so much that he has become a zero-population advocate. The question is never discussed, but does Walter want grandchildren? Patty met Walter during her college basketball career at Minnesota. Patty's mother is a New York legislator so determined to respect her children's individuality that she fails to realize Patty's sisters are barely functional as adults and doesn't know how to deal with Patty being raped as a teenager. Patty's scars are more believably sketched and it's easy to understand why she might choose Walter over his friend Richard, a surly alternative rock musician. It's a mistake though for Franzen to attempt to write a large part of the book as Patty's "autobiography". Besides the fact that Patty sounds an awful lot like Jonathan Franzen, the choice leads to too much self-justification and and apology.

Freedom becomes more didactic the longer it goes on. Walter gets involved in a plan to save an endangered bird species and must rationalize to himself the amount of mountaintop removal mining needed to secure a safe habitat. Patty cedes center stage to the Berglund's son Joey, a motivated but not particularly atypical young man whose decision to go home with a roommate for Thanksgiving somehow leads to him becoming a supplier of truck parts to the American military and the anti-Iraq sentiment is as predictable as an episode of Frontline. The description of Joey's recruitment into the military industrial complex while still an undergrad is rushed and again seems to exist just to get to a discussion of Iraq that Franzen wants to have.

The best part of Freedom is anything involving Richard, a musician with an improbable career arc (it's as if John Cale turned into Jeff Tweedy) who's the one character growing, changing, and living in a non-schematic way. The attraction between Richard and Patty started in college carries through the novel and causes all the major characters to reconsider their life choices. Richard is a survivor and the one character I felt still capable of greatness as the Berglunds settle into the rest of their lives with varying degrees of happiness. Freedom is finally a novel of ideas, not people. If only Franzen's natural condescension had been suppressed; I would have liked to hear him engage with the world, not just yell at it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentary about the tensions surrounding the making of Metallica's St. Anger album may be the greatest example of just how unpleasant being caught up in the business of rock music can be. It would have been easy for guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich to paper over their differences and cash in, but the relationship and the film explode when Hetfield storms out of the recording studio and spends almost a year in rehab and recovery. One of the great undiscussed subtexts of the recent spate of rock documentaries is that it's possible for musicians to do great work together and still have almost nothing to say to each other, but Berlinger and Sinofsky have the good fortune to catch Metallica as the band begins therapy sessions to deal with the departure of bassist Jason Newsted. The therapy soon becomes part of the band's daily process as Hetfield and Ulrich deal with finding themselves not in control of the band's writing process and the fact that they may never have known each other as well as they thought. Bonding over their mutual disdain for doing a corporate radio spot leads to a lyric idea and a rush of creativity that arguably saves the band. Although on a personal level Some Kind of Monster won't do much more than maybe increase the number of Metallica CD's in my collection from 0 to 1, its power is undeniable for anyone involved in a group creative process. What started as a routine promotional film turned into an extreme display of vulnerability. I won't claim a new appreciation of Metallica's music but I do admire the men behind it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Music: Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell - "Got 'til It's Gone"

I usually choose my music each week based on the song, but here's a video from a few years ago directed by Mark Romanek that I saw half of this week and now love on a full viewing. The liveliness of the performers is even more beautiful set against the wistful music and Q-Tip's dry verse adds to the effect as opposed to overwhelming the track. Somehow this makes me more excited about Romanek's forthcoming Never Let Me Go.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Venice Awards

Venice Film Festival awards are in, and there's recognition for Mila Kunis and her work in Black Swan. More winners (including Sofia Coppola) here. (Speakeasy)

Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

“Somewhere” tells the story of a Hollywood star (Stephen Dorff) who struggles to bond with his young daughter (played by Elle Fanning).

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Vampire Problems

I finally got around to seeing Let The Right One In today. I'm not going to review the film as such since it has been around so long, except to say that I was most moved by the performance of Kare Hedebrant as the bullied Oskar. What's most powerful about Let The Right One In is its restraint, the way that director Tomas Alfredson shoots a violent encounter between Eli (Lina Leandersson) and Jocke (Mikael Rahm) in a wide shot or the silence just before Oskar fails to appreciate the importance of inviting Lena in correctly. Characters very often find themselves alone. Oskar has the bleak playground of his apartment block to himself before Lena arrives, and there's no one on the streets when Jocke or Virginia (Ika Nord) have their run-ins with Eli. Oskar even finds himself alone in the usually happy confines of his father's house when a drinking buddy interrupts their evening together. Just how empty is Sweden?

A silly question, what concerns me more is how badly Hollywood will screw up the mood of beautiful quiet that Alfredson sets up. The forthcoming remake Let Me In has a promising cast (Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Chloe Grace Moretz of Kick-Ass) but it seems too much to hope for that director Matt Reeves will preserve the mix of foreboding and half-understood, pre-teen love that Let The Right One In works off of. The trailer seems to suggest that Reeves's take on the Jocke-Eli scene is filmed a little more intimately while the kills that Eli's "father" (Jenkins in the Let Me In) makes to keep Eli in blood appear to be staged more luridly. On the other hand, this is why I don't review trailers. Since Let Me In doesn't have enough built-in audience to guarantee a hit, the temptation to ratchet up the blood count in order to win the opening weekend must have been great. No one wants a first Saturday night audience leaving the theater hating the film; let's call that The American problem.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


I'd rather show you this clip of ex-Red Sox/Expos pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee than watch the depressing Atlanta Braves game tonight. I'm even more excited that at age 63 Lee was the winning pitcher in an independent minor league game this week, giving up 2 runs and 5 hits in 5.1 innings. Lee's memoir The Wrong Stuff is probably my second favorite baseball book after Ball Four.

“He understands the art of pitching,’’ said Gedman. “He knows what to add on and take off. He knows what guys are thinking. It’s a credit to him.

“It’s a credit to the Rox to give him the chance to do it. I’m happy for him. I’m not happy for us. I’m happy for him, and that’s what this should be about.’’

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Going The Distance

How do you solve a problem like the romantic comedy? Going The Distance, directed by Nanette Burstein, tries to give a tired formula some juice by putting its lovers on opposite coasts. Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) meet in New York, but after a few weeks she's back to California for grad school while he's stuck in his Manhattan record label job. Erin is a journalism student, and the movie tries to get mileage out of the failing health of the two leads' career fields and what that might mean for their relationship. Going the Distance might be the first movie I've seen that is honest about how unsatisfying interacting with a loved one over the Internet is; there are only so many sneezing panda videos one can bond over. Garrett and Erin turn for solace to the movie's large and lively supporting cast. Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day nicely tag-team the roles of Garrett's best friends, their riffing doesn't feel like it was cooked up in a writer's room. As Erin's sister and brother-in-law, Christina Applegate and Jim Gaffigan underplay well and Applegate nails the simultaneous feelings of love for Erin and fear for her future.

Drew Barrymore is well cast as a woman behind life's curve; she and Long have good chemistry but Long seems curiously unruffled by plot's ups and downs and Garrett's self-centeredness is given a pass. Going The Distance gets by thanks to Barrymore and the loose sense of life its actors provide, but it's just a more congested panda.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Bonus! Monday Music: Wilco - "I'm Always In Love"

Yes, I know, but it's a holiday. Enjoy this classic and relevant Wilco track and then check out one blog's all-Wisconsin tribute to Summerteeth. (Muzzle of Bees)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Distant statues

Venice, Toronto, New York. The fall film festivals are the film world's rough equivalent of the Iowa caucuses, and we know how much those usually mean. (Just ask Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson.) While my personal choice at the moment is Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), it's a thrill to see Natalie Portman getting some early Oscar love for Black Swan. (Vulture)

Boom! Darren Aronofsky's winged-ballerina thriller Black Swan screened last night at the Venice Film Festival and the reviews are nearly all good: In Contention's Guy Lodge gives it four stars and calls it "boldly deranged and beautifully despairing." "Best film I’ve seen all year," declares Obsessed With Film's Robert Beames. "Aronofsky has made his first masterpiece." Variety's Peter DeBruge says, "Aronofsky seems to be operating in the vein of early Roman Polanski or David Cronenberg at his most operatic." "Alternately disturbing and exhilarating," raves Screen International's Mike Goodridge, "[Swan] is one of the most exciting films to come out of the Hollywood system this year." Also, IndieWire's Todd McCarthy calls it "a Red Shoes on acid," which sounds awesome. So what of the film's star, Natalie Portman, tipped as a contender in this year's crowded Best Actress race?

Sunday Music: The Pretty Reckless - "Islands/Love The Way You Lie"

Why? Because I can. Taylor Momsen (Gossip Girl) sounds like this when she sings, and this hybrid of a song by The xx and Rihanna's efforts on the Eminem album manages to sound greater than the sum of its parts. (PMA)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The American

There was never a movie whose title was so synonymous with its style as Anton Corbijn's Control, a biography of the late Ian Curtis and the band Joy Division. Try to imagine Todd Phillips making a movie called Loud Immature Men and you'll understand the point. Corbijn chose black-and-white, minimal score, and static cameras to tell Curtis's story; it's almost as if he was afraid of getting too close to the troubled singer's life. Corbijn's new thriller The American (based on a novel by Martin Booth) is in color, but equally subdued. There are long silences, a willful lack of extras, and wide shots of gorgeous but vaguely threatening Italian countryside.

The heart of The American comes from the presence of George Clooney as Jack, a Yankee assassin in Italy who in the opening scene survives an attack outside a snowbound Swiss cabin which takes the life of a woman (Irina Bjorklund) with whom minutes before Jack had been reclining in front of a fire. Not sure whether he was set up or unlucky, Jack returns to Rome and his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen). Jack is sent to a quiet Italian village until things quite down, and then detailed by Pavel to construct a specialty weapon for a fellow shooter named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The American strips away all the genre trappings we're accustomed to. Jack has only the hint of a backstory; we're not even sure who wants him dead and why. (The blonde man following Jack looks Swiss, but we never know for sure.) Although he's warned not to make friends, Jack's head is turned by a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) and he rather less interestingly strikes up a half-friendship with a gabby old priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest seems to exist just to give Jack someone to talk to; The American doesn't so much pay lip service to themes like sin, God, guilt, and confession as it does wave at them on the way past. Jack isn't a man built for introspection. He, and the movie, are about the present and the number of paths available depending on what happens in the immediate future.

George Clooney does something difficult and surprising as Jack: he gives a performance almost entirely with his eyes and the muscles in his face. Even more surprisingly, it works. With the exception of Michael Clayton this is the most interior, tamped-down work Clooney has ever done. There's a love scene between Jack and Clara that works up some genuine heat, but Clooney isn't playing Danny Ocean here. He suppresses his charm, because the idea of having time for women isn't a daily part of Jack's life. The American is a "last job" movie to be sure, but by pulling away from all that's familiar - setting, plot, almost all sentiment - Corbijn has created something spare and elegant that is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. Clooney's discerning eye for material may not always yield box office success, but with The American he proves again that a lack of vanity looks awfully good on a movie star.

Saturday seriousness

Please read this myth-buster on mosques and Islam in the United States. On the subject of sharia law:

Islamic law includes not only the Koran and the Sunna (the traditions of the prophet Muhammad) but also great bodies of arcane legal rulings and pedantic scholarly interpretations. If mosques forced Islamic law upon their congregants, most Muslims would probably leave -- just as most Christians might walk out of the pews if preachers gave sermons exclusively on Saint Augustine, canon law and Greek grammar. Instead, mosques study the Koran and the Sunna and how the principles and stories in those sacred texts apply to their everyday lives.

"Love At First Sight"

I've already written about how much I like the John Mellencamp album No Better Than This, here's an appreciation of the album's standout track.....(Song In My Head Today)

It's time to forgive Mellencamp the Chevy ads, forgive him for Farm Aid (why shouldn't a small-town Hoosier support American farmers?), and yes, even forgive him for letting his early managers convince him to perform as Johnny Cougar. (The same managers did have the sense to book him as an opening act for the Kinks.) With a refreshing lack of pretension or hype, Mellencamp has gone on making solid mid-American rock for many years now, music that plays to the heart of the country. And I'm just enough of an expatriate Hoosier to dig it.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

...or, the best thing that has ever happened.

Guilty pleasure time here; I caught the episode of the MTV show My Life As Liz today in which Liz blows away the school talent show with an acoustic cover of Band of Horses' "The Funeral". Liz's rival Cori (who complains about the "humming") had performed the "Single Ladies" dance with her girlfriends but it's clearly Liz who's the crowd favorite. It's the high point of a show that was maybe too quirky by half, but just as appealing as its subject.

Early returns

You can stop looking so nervous, the early and (mostly) positive reviews are in as Black Swan makes its debut at the Venice Film Festival. (Cinematical)

So, there you have it. Three early reviews -- two gushing with effusive praise for Aronofsky and the cast, another that finds it so bad it's good and makes me think of Showgirls. Three reviews doesn't make any kind of consensus on a film, but how do you feel after reading some of these comments? Still excited for Black Swan or has this tempered your enthusiasm a bit?