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


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


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.