Saturday, December 31, 2011

We Bought A Zoo

Cameron Crowe continues to explore Men Going Through Stuff in We Bought A Zoo, based on a memoir by journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). Having covered first love, career crises, and father issues, Crowe movies on here to grief and single parenthood. After the death of his wife, Mee impulsively buys a country house with a zoo attached on 18 rambling acres and brings his two children along in the hopes of forgetting the past. The zoo comes with its own ragtag crew, led by Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper who coincidentally has no personal life. Mee is another in Crowe's gang of holy fools, quitting his job and charging into a risky new life just with the same focus that Lloyd Dobler first went after Diane. Damon is sneakliy good here; the dialogue that's written for him is recognizable as Crowe's but Damon makes Mee his own man and makes clear how badly Mee needs this change. The plot revolves around Mee and the zoo employees preparing for a pre-opening government inspection, but the best scenes involve Mee and his troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Dylan's angry artwork is the kind that a ten-year old TV movie would have used as shorthand for "future school sniper", and part of Mee's journey is realizing that his son's grief hasn't been properly addressed. Damon and Ford's scenes together have a strong, angry edge. Ford and Elle Fanning (as the zoo's youngest resident) give their scenes an unhurried charm, and it's refreshing to see Fanning not playing a prematurely grown-up kid. We Bought A Zoo doesn't go anywhere you won't see coming, but Crowe is perhaps our most convivial director and it's a pleasure to be in these people's company for a couple of hours. Family, community, and a connection to the earth are all celebrated unironically in We Bought A Zoo; that alone is reason to welcome Cameron Crowe back to movie screens.

Friday, December 30, 2011


Writer/director Dee Rees and star Adepero Oduye talk their coming-out drama Pariah. (Playlist)
"Pariah"'s been compared to early Spike Lee and to titles like "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," but though the location is unmistakable, it doesn't seem to be as specifically grounded in Brooklyn as those films. Would you agree? How did place inform the film? DR: I wanted to show that Alike's family is middle-class, Laura's is working class, to show a cross-section of New York. How Alike's able to find her way is something that could have only happened in New York. In other cities, there are less interstitial spaces where you're allowed to be yourself. New York offers people the anonymity to be themselves without judgment. I do feel that this is uniquely a Brooklyn story in that Alike's able to find this environment with Laura, even though it's not the right place. She's able to go to the club, to change on the bus, to have these moments in between where she vacillates between identities.

Video Store: Daydream Nation

I wish Michael Goldbach's Daydream Nation had more to do with the classic Sonic Youth album with which it shares a name. "Kool Thing" is heard briefly in one scene and a young man named Thurston (Reece Thompson) seems destined to be voted Most Likely to Underachieve at the rural high school where most of the film takes place. Goldbach doesn't give much of a sense of what life is like in the small town, but rather chooses to try to infuse everything (a fire that won't go out, a serial killer) with a metaphysical significance. New girl in town Caroline (Kat Dennings) just wants to fit in, but since almost every other teen in town has already decided they have no future it's no surprise she's drawn to her English teacher Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas). What's good about Daydream Nation mostly comes from Dennings, whose natural coolness is a perfict fit for a girl who's trying on different roles. Goldbach has given Caroline a degree of self-awareness of her own inadequacies, and the most poignant moments in the film come when Dennings lets her guard down. I wish Goldbach had let us sit with Caroline a little longer, but instead he's jumping around between Thurston's drug-addled buddies, his overbearing Mom (Andie MacDowell),and a serial killer plot that never gets moving. There's so much going on that the ending doesn't mean much; Daydream Nation doesn't end so much as stop, there's just Caroline in voice-over telling us how to feel. I'm not any less convinced of Kat Dennings' bright future; wouldn't Thor have benefited from being from her character's point-of-view? While it's good to see Dennings continuing to stretch, Daydream Nation tries far too hard and will end up being no more than a footnote on her resume. This movie has nothing on Sonic Youth.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo boasts the filmmaker's usual impeccable control over his material and a magnetic performance by an actor relatively new to center stage. What Fincher is stuck with however is the hot stew of a plot provided by novelist Steig Larsson: Nazis, private islands, serial killers, rape, and plenty of sociopathic behavior. This time out Daniel Craig is the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced when an expose he writes can't be proven and happy to accept a job offer from industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, having a ball). Henrik wants Blomkvist to investigate the 40-year old disappearance of his niece Harriet, who vanished on a day when the only bridge to the Vanger's island was sealed off after a car accident. Much of the movie's first act is a long build-up to the meeting between Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the pierced, tattooed hacker whose breaching of Blomkvist's computer sets the story in motion. Any Larsson adaptation is only as good as its Lisbeth, and while Mara is wraith-like and frightening during her final encounter with the abusive parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen) who controls her money she also brings a welcome streak of vulnerability to the role. If you’ve read the book or seen the Swedish film then trying to summarize the plot is pointless. Blomkvist and Salander do considerable detective work involving old photos, codes, and maps and Fincher incorporates all this detail into the narrative without a hiccup. This Dragon Tattoo is a small masterpiece of film editing. Blomkvist also meets a number of the other Vangers; most importantly Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), who is in charge of carrying on the family’s business interests. It all ends in blood and fire.

No matter how good Rooney Mara is as Lisbeth, and she is good, she can’t escape the fact that Lisbeth is a brilliant fantasy object who can only express herself through sex and violence. Mara, like Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film, must play a brutal scene of Lisbeth’s victimization at the hands of a man. It’s a chilling moment for how much Mara commits to Lisbeth’s terror, and despite the intense violence it seems just when Lisbeth later responds in kind. The most surprising and disappointing thing then about Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is how quickly it domesticates its title character. It turns out all Lisbeth needs is some good loving; look at how Blomkvist sets out plates when he comes to Lisbeth’s apartment for the first time, and then note how Lisbeth mirrors the behavior after their first night together,. Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian, with help from Mara, blow up something that I think was implicit in Larsson’s conception of this character. Men are pigs, but if Lisbeth has sex with the right man then she’ll be just fine. Remember how attracted Lisbeth seemed to the woman she brought home from a nightclub? Well by the end of the movie Lisbeth and Blomkvist are practically cuddling (while still working of course). The end of the film is, to my surprise, faithful to Larsson’s book. Rooney Mara gives Lisbeth her all, but the dualities Steig Larsson requires of this character are finally too much to bear. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as well made as we’d expect from David Fincher, but is finally his most shallow film since The Game.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Music: June Christy - "The Merriest"

My favorite Christmas song. Merry Christmas and thanks for reading!

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

No fourth installment of a movie franchise ever arrives without the question, "Why does this exist?" So it is with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol; can Tom Cruise really need a hit this much? Cruise is a producer of Ghost Protocol as well as his upcoming One Shot, based on the Lee Child novel. He has become the Oprah of movie stars, increasingly unwilling to present himself in a way he doesn't control. That aside, what's on screen in Ghost Protocol is mostly good fun. I'm not sure why Oscar-winning animation director Brad Bird was brought on board, but he adds just enough; there's a chase through a sandstorm that's all movement and muted colors, and a sense of not taking things too seriously that helps the plot go down smoothly. I judge movies like Ghost Protocol in part by how silly their villains' objectives are, and here a rogue Russian physicist (Michael Nyqvist) wants to set off a nuclear war in the hopes that afterwards human society will just start over. (Nuclear war as cleansing agent is second only to harnessing the power of the sun on my list of favorite crazy action movie plots.) Ghost Protocol turns into a race, as Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his team globe-trot  through Russia, Dubai, and India in pursuit of stolen launch codes. Paula Patton and especially Simon Pegg provide able support, and the presence of Jeremy Renner as a former IMF agent with a link to Hunt adds some welcome gravity as the movie stops to consider the costs of living an agent's life. It's telling how close the movie gets to a passing-the-torch moment between Hunt and Renner's Agent Brandt before stepping around it; Cruise is keeping this franchise in his back pocket.

When Robert Towne was brought on board (after numerous failed scripts by others) to write the second Mission: Impossible, he was presented with action sequences already worked out by director John Woo and instructed to write a script that connected them. I don't know if the same task was presented to Ghost Protocol writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, but the big action set pieces here are ingenious and have a welcome dash of comedy. A bit involving the use of a projection screen inside the Kremlin is a little long, but the scene involving Hunt on the side of a Dubai skyscraper is superb. The recurring theme of the IMF not being able to rely on its technology gives the movie an almost old-fashioned feel at times, as the agents have to rely on bluster and brawn at key moments. Ghost Protocol is diverting enough to be a worthwhile holiday pleasure; it's also proof that Cruise is still canny enough to know what audiences want. That knowledge may be the greatest gift that our favorite Scientologist receives this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Throwing Her Weight

NP is the biggest star in the cast of Thor 2, and she reportedly put her status on the line by influencing Marvel's decision to hire Patty Jenkins as director. Now that Jenkins has exited the project, not of her own desires, Portman isn't pleased. (MTV)
At the root of the problem, allegedly, is that Portman herself brought Jenkins into the Marvel fold. THR reports that the "Black Swan" winner was considering severing her ties from Hollywood for a time to focus on her newborn son, but helped bring Jenkins to "Thor" and was "proud that she would have played a role in opening the door for a woman to direct a [comic book] film." With Jenkins out, Portman is still contractually obligated to appear in "Thor 2," states THR, and Marvel is reportedly "working overtime to smooth over the situation by including [Portman] in discussions about whom to hire as a replacement."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Homeland (spoilers!)

(Heavy Homeland spoilers. Be careful.)

Homeland concluded its first season last night with a finale that seems to have satisfied a large portion of the audience, judging by early returns from comment sections and Twitter feeds. The tense 90-minute episode didn't leave much hanging in terms of plot threads revolving around the planned attack by Brody (Damian Lewis) and Walker (Chris Chalk) at the campaign kickoff of Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan). Yet as any good season finale should, last night's Homeland put plenty in play for Season 2. Brody, now ex-CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes in a titanic performance), and Carrie's mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) were all sent into different orbits as Brody's plans for revenge on Walden end up becoming a "long game."

A few thoughts and questions:

1. I'm happy Brody wasn't killed off, but I would have understood if he had been. Some reviews have suggested that the malfunctioning suicide vest (a plot device that turned off some viewers who found it too random) and Brody's frantic attempts to repair it were about how willing Brody was to die in order to carry out the plans of master terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). I suppose that's true, but after last week's episode, last night's opening involving Brody's confessional video, and the way Brody says goodbye to his kids, I'm not sure think Brody's willingness to die needed to be reaffirmed or restated. I can live with the faulty vest, but I don't think we needed it since the phone call between Brody and his suspicious daughter Dana(Morgan Saylor) was so fantastic. The Brody-Dana relationship is one I'm really looking forward to following next season. My biggest question about the vest scene was why a room full of Secret Service and military officers didn't notice a sweaty man flicking a trigger in their midst.

2. My biggest question about the Homeland finale is one I haven't seen brought up elsewhere. What happened in the time between Carrie's final unhappy meeting with Brody and the concluding scene in which she receives electroshock therapy? We've known since the pilot that Carrie secretly receives drugs from her physician sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) in order to control her mood disorder and conceal it from her bosses at Langley. After Carrie's breakdown and impending ouster from the agency, why wouldn't Carrie and Maggie seek out another opinion or different treatment for Carrie's condition? Are there any consequences for Maggie's treating a member of her immediate family, and (I assume) falsifying prescriptions? How did we get to ECT so quickly? I think it's very unlikely that Maggie is somehow working with Abu Nazir (though Nazir could know of Carrie's existence since she spent time in Iraq) but I wonder if we'll return to that time gap in Season 2.

3. The question of if there's a mole at the CIA and who it is wasn't answered exactly, but we learned much about the relationship between Saul and his one-time subordinate and now boss David (David Harewood). David may not be a traitor in the strictest sense, he doesn't hate his country or serve Al Qaeda, but we learned last night how far he is capabale of selling out for the sake of his own career.

4. What was the job title of Elizabeth Gaines (Linda Purl), the Washington party-giver who offers Brody a chance to run for Congress? (Brody is told by Abu Nazir's agent that he will be drafted for office.) Gaines is presented as some kind of Pamela Harriman-like social mistress, but if that's all she is I didn't understand why she'd be interviewed before the Vice President's announcement or why she'd be so close to the VP at the moment Walker begins his attack. It was no accident that Walker missed Walden and shot Gaines; I suspect we'll find out she was (perhaps unknowingly) doing Abu Nazir's bidding.

5. Who has the memory card that contains Brody's justification of his planned attack on Walden? The two most likely candidates, Walker and Gaines, are now dead. I'm surprised Brody didn't search Walker's body when he had the chance, but in any event we'll learn more about how deep Nazir's network goes as the series progresses.

I hope it's clear just how good I thought last night's episode, and most of the Homeland first season, was. The show is an honest, searching look at the fact that we're still figuring out how not to lose ourselves in fighting this new war. I look forward to Season 2; with lead actors like Danes and Lewis I'd follow this show anywhere.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Music: Spoon - "The Way We Get By"

Thank You, Hitch

It's good to know Christopher Hitchens saw this video before his death, and to know Band of Horses made the cut....

On Being Carlton

NBA players' new taste for "nerd" attire is a response to David Stern's dress code; oh, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a much more important show than I thought. (Grantland)

When David Stern imposed the league's reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn't seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today's Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern's black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

It's not a complete transformation. Being Carlton wasn't just code for nerd, it was code for gay, and the homophobia these clothes provoked still persists, even from their wearers. Once last year, Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, wore a blue-and-black cardigan over a whitish tie and pink shirt to a press conference. When a male reporter told him it was a good color on him, instead of asking the reporter "Which color?," Howard spent many seconds performing disgusted disbelief: Whoa, whoa. A moment like that demonstrated how hopelessly superficial all this style can be. The sport can change its clothes, but, even with Dan Savage looking over its shoulder, will it ever change its attitude? If Howard thinks compliments about his cardigan are gay, he probably shouldn't wear one.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Adult

Jason Reitman may have directed Young Adult, but this riveting, scathing chamber piece should of course be discussed with the possessive "Diablo Cody's" in mind. If ever a film deserved to be associated with its writer then it's the latest effort by the Oscar-winning author of Juno. Young Adult distorts and rearranges any ideas you may have had about Cody and her work and replaces them with something complicated and entirely new. The small Minnesota town where most of Young Adult takes place might be one town over from the place where Juno grew up; there are no roving cross-country teams. here Reitman and Cody take care to pick out the fast food restaurants, big box stores, and interchangeable sports bars. When Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) returns from Minneapolis for the first time in years she suggests meeting old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) at a familar dive bar, but time and suburban sprawl have done their work and the two wind up reuniting in a place that looks like a Buffalo Wild Wings knockoff. We know Mavis has (at least on the surface) left her hometown behind because when she's offered popcorn shrimp in a restaurant on her return it almost works as a laugh line.

Mavis, the ghost writer of a series of young adult novels that is being discontinued, has returned home after learning of the birth of a child to Buddy and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). Charlize Theron has never been afraid to run away from her beauty on screen, and knowing she has a good role here she embraces all of Mavis's flaws. A divorced, unhappy, alcoholic mess, Mavis views a reconnection with Buddy as the key to finally living the life she thought she'd have after high school. Finding that life at home consists of civic responsibility and a lot of dull evenings, Mavis makes an unlikely friend in former high school classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt is disabled after a high school beating, and the pairing of a physically impaired man with a woman so obviously wounded on the inside feels a bit neat at first. Oswalt and Theron make such fine companions though that it doesn't matter; Young Adult is at one level about what happens when the outlets for our pain stop working. Cody is unsparing in the way she paints small town life as the place where all our disappointments are magnified, and she nails the details; this is the kind of town where Mavis's mother (Jill Eikenberry) would keep up a picture of Mavis and her ex-husband.

There's a deep and abiding anger in Young Adult that we haven't seen from Diablo Cody before, and it will make you think again about your expectations of the rest of her career. The lacerating climax of Young Adult feels deeply personal, as though Cody were tapping into a creative source that's closer to the bone than ever before. Yet just when we think Mavis has turned a corner Cody pulls a switch yet again, in a quiet conversation that turns Young Adult into a sarcastic shout-out to every American work of art about small-town life. It's hard to get more specific without spoiling the plot, but this feels like a movie Cody had to get out of her system. She's fortunate in her collaborators, from Reitman (who pretty much stays out of the way) to Oswalt and a brave Charlize Theron. When Mavis drives back to Minneapolis at the end of Young Adult it's more than the end to the movie. Young Adult feels like the way that Diablo Cody has chosen to say goodbye to all that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn is the story of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, what was supposed to be a frothy romance between (director/star) Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe (Michelle Williams) was already an internationally known star who had just married Arthur Miller and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was regarded as a peerless actor but wasn't a movie star. We view Monroe and the making of Olivier's film through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who talks his way into an assistant director's job as a means of escaping what he perceives as a stultifying upper-crust life. How does one make a film about an icon? Director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges keep Monroe at a distance early on; we see Monroe through the eyes of Olivier and fellow cast members like Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who fume at Monroe's tardiness even as they attempt to coddle her fragile ego for the sake of the film. In the early scenes Monroe is a puppet of her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), whose devotion to the "Method" is anathema to Olivier's exterior-based acting. Michelle Williams plays these scenes haltingly; Monroe's confidence was thin and her Olivier all but writes her off as just pretty face. Kenneth Branagh doesn't look much like Olivier to my eyes, but behind his clipped speech and mannerisms he gets at how Oliver was both fascinated by Monroe and what she represented and appalled by her lack of craft. Olivier gets a couple of speeches that are a little too on-the-nose regarding his feelings about Monroe, but Branagh (who appears to be having a great time) acquits himself well. As Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh, Julia Ormond is no-nonsense and angry; Leigh views Monroe as a threat and has no illusions about where her own stardom lies as compared to Marilyn's.

Marilyn Monroe was afraid of people leaving her, and her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is only onscreen for a few minutes but is written as a selfish monster who returns to America at the first opportunity. Once Colin becomes Marilyn's confidant we get to know Monroe better, and the character becomes another volume is Michelle Williams' study of fragile women. Marilyn is every bit as broken as the women Williams played in Brokeback Mountain or Blue Valentine, though she of course has it much worse since the people around her are doing everything but feeding off her. Williams gets at all that while still managing to be magnetically sexy and nailing how badly Monroe wanted to be normal. The most heartbreaking moment in My Week with Marilyn occurs when Colin's godfather (Derek Jacobi) gives Marilyn a tour of Windsor Castle, and a dollhouse suggests a life that it was already too late for Monroe to have. Of course there was only one way My Week with Marilyn could end, but even though we know Monroe's story there's still a sadness in seeing how close she comes to a genuine attachment. Most of the movies Marilyn Monroe made during her life aren't remembered; we think of the smile, the face, the voice. My Week with Marilyn has something to offer beyond Williams, but in the end its her performance that justifies the film's existence at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Music: Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, & Edgar Meyer - "Attaboy"

Four giants of acoustic music play a tune off the new Goat Rodeo Sessions album.

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's The Descendants arrives laden with early year-end critics' awards and with the presence of George Clooney, an actor unafraid to forgo his movie-star status and dive into serious material even when the results aren't guaranteed. When we last saw Alexander Payne he was leading Paul Giamatti through the joyfully cranky Sideways, and as Clooney shambled through The Descendants I found myself wishing Giamatti's wine-lover would show up and get things moving. Try to imagine a car spinning its wheels in the mud and you'll have an idea what the first few minutes here feel like,. The already much-critiqued voice over in which Matt King (Clooney) explains both his wife's coma and his family's long connection to an unspoiled tract of Hawaiian land is indeed dreadful; it saps the movie of energy and shoves exposition down the audiences' throats in an unaccountably clumsy way. Couldn't Matt's inadequacies as a husband and father have been revealed through behavior? I'm stumped as to what Payne was after here, unless he felt that dull voice-over was the best way to somehow reveal Matt's resignation about his own shortcomings. (It wasn't.) I can't say Clooney's performance in The Descendants is "bad" by any objective standard, but I also can't deny that watching him strain to be a regular guy is unintentionally hilarious at some badly timed moments. Clooney wasn't built to play men who are bad at things, and the screenplay schematically puts him in a reactive position. Also, there are no jokes. Talk about a perfect storm.

The Descendants is about too many things. The question of to whom and for how much Matt and his family will sell an enormous tract of land is a complete bore unless you're a fan of movies where people learn how rich they're going to be. Clooney and a large band of cousins (led by Beau Bridges) dicker over competing buyers and prices, and it all winds up with a decision that isn't very surprising and a Clooney speech that someone is hoping will get played on awards shows this winter. The fact that native Hawaiians barely figure in the film's world and that most of Matt's cousins could be cast in a movie about a Des Moines Rotary Club is probably true to the source material (a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) but it doesn't help the movie's sense of place. Matt King may feel deep ties to his land, but Alexander Payne is a tourist in Hawaii. Payne is more interested what happens when Matt and his daughters travel the state to update relatives on his wife's medical condition and track the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom she was having an affair. Even here the film is built on a creaky foundation since these scenes are really one long, sustained note of fury at a woman who can't speak for herself. Much of what happens in The Descendants comes out of a kind of emotional ugliness that's not becoming of a director who made us feel something for Tracy Flick in Election. The expected moments of healing come, but this strand of the movie trails off as opposed to resolving itself.

To the degree that anything redeems The Descendants, it's the performances of Amara Miller as Matt's youngest daughter Scottie (an elementary schooler crying out for attention) and especially of Shailene Woodley as older daughter Alexandra. Alexandra's revelation of her mother's affair sets off the film's journey and the self-possessed Woodley walks away with The Descendants as a young woman whose anger at and love for her mother will both never have a chance to be properly expressed. A different director could have made something messy and human out of Alexandra's story but Payne is after bigger fish for better or for worse. It's an astonishing performance and one that heralds great things for Shailene Woodley. I very much wanted The Descendants to be better, but too much of it left me sour and uncomfortable, as if Alexander Payne had turned in a film constructed to impress critics as opposed to one that he felt he couldn't not make. Payne reportedly has several films in the offing, and I hope this one was just a case of shaking off the rust.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Any adult with ounce of sensitivity and a respect for the way life can toss and buffet our dreams will find something to latch onto in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a film which finds the director in a reflective mood but not without playfulness. Hugo is being described as a "family" film but its concerns are so adult (the value of both work and of outlets for creative expression) that I wonder if many of the children who see it might only fully appreciate it with the passing of time. Hugo (Asa Butterfield, who looks like a miniature Elijah Wood and acts with great dignity) lives in a Paris train station sometime between the wars. Hugo's father (Jude Law) has died and other family have deserted him. His life is circumscribed by the needs of the station clocks he maintains and by what he can steal from the station's cafes and other vendors. One such vendor is a grumpy man known as "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who threatens to turn Hugo in for stealing until he reads the boy's notebook, which contain mysterious drawings of a mechanical man. With the help of Georges' godchild Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz in a wonderful performance), Hugo learns Georges identity after a detective mission that feels like something from a great children's book. Indeed, Scorsese and writer John Logan based Hugo on a young adult novel by Brian Selznick. It's not spoiling things to reveal that Georges is actually the early French filmmaker Georges Melies, whose work had been forgotten in Melies' own country. This subject matter is of course meat to Scorsese, who manages to toss in a generous helping of information on Melies as well as recreations of some of the director's work.

The look and feel of Hugo are among the best of any film this year. Scorsese presents the train station as Hugo perceives it, an outsized home filled with spy holes and escape hatches for when Hugo runs afoul of the station's police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). The station is populated with a cast of eccentrics that don't get enough screen time, especially Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee (NOT playing an evil wizard), and Emily Mortimer as a flower girl. Scorsese isn't afraid of letting the film sprawl, and while the early scenes may feel slow it's worth it for the resulting world that the film builds. The warm and fascinating Hugo has children at its center but a lifetime's full of love in its heart.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

When The Music Starts Again

Seeing Fiona Apple, now ... (Grantland)
But it didn’t really matter, because although Apple and Brion spent at least half the set arguing over what song to play next, flipping through notebooks, and eating yogurt, Apple still managed to overpower the theatrics with a vocal performance that I will not soon forget. The woman standing on the stage at the Largo bore almost no resemblance to the Fiona Apple of my adolescence — she was much, much thinner — nearly skeletal — she wore a vaguely Arabian green silk dress and a massive orange wrap that had been lined with sparkles. More importantly, the voice had changed — Apple’s voice on Tidal was deep and carried an air of contempt. The new Apple had less power, but as she sang through a series of very old covers — the sort of songs that are played on 45s in stores that only sell very expensive mid-century modern furniture — her voice bent and cracked and warbled in perfect synchronicity with the lyrics. (At one point, a fan requested new material. "I can't remember [how to play] any of my new songs because they've been done for a fucking year," Apple replied. "Not her fault!" said Brion.) By the third song, I was actively rooting against the past. This new Fiona Apple was so much better, so much more nuanced and thoughtful. At some point, she sang Cliff Edwards’ “Night Owl” with that massive orange wrap tightly secured around her shoulders. When she got to the chorus, “I’m a night owl,” she widened her eyes and spread out her arms, revealing the sparkly lining underneath, and flapped a few times.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Late Sunday Music: Sufjan Stevens - "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders"

Heard this cut from Illinoise today and immediately thought of the first scene of a screenplay I've been mulling over. Thank you, Mr. Stevens.

Chris White's Get Better

GET BETTER \ A Film by Chris & Emily White from Chris White on Vimeo.

Here's a trailer for Get Better, a new film out early next year by my friend Chris White and his wife Emily. I have a small role in the film and you can even spot me in a shot here, though I'm not telling you which one. You can learn more about Chris's work here and here.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I went into Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene having made a fundamental mistake: I expected to see the film I had read about in reviews. Elizabeth Olsen, as notable for her magnetism as for her placid outer beauty (if it's possible for an adult to look not fully formed, Olsen pulls it off), plays a woman named Martha who runs away from an Upstate New York cult in the film's opening sequence. Martha reestablishes contact with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, whose natural reserve is well used) and Lucy's husband  Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Durkin splits the story into Martha's time at her sister's Connecticut lake house and her earlier days with the cult. The transitions between the two time frames are seamless and gorgeously done; Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier key Martha's memories off such simple acts as jumping into a lake or holding a glass. The idea isn't planted until late in the film that the flashbacks to the cult are Martha's memories, occurring to her at the moment we see them. That fact is critical, I think, to understanding Martha's behavior in the Connecticut scenes and it was wise of Durkin to play that card late.

Martha's time at the cult is humdrum on the surface, but Martha and her fellow residents are at the mercy of the group's leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick's message isn't explicitly religious, but he's a master at raising the self-esteem of his followers while somehow encouraging their dependence on him at the same time. Martha and all the other women of the group are raped by Patrick; the act is referred to as "cleansing". Patrick also doles out access to the women's beds as a means of keeping his male followers in line. In one of the film's subtlest but most effective details, several of the group's men play music but Patrick is the only one whose songs are allowed to have words. Later on Martha will assist in another woman's initiation into the group; the scene is a turning point in the film as we begin to understand the group's true nature and what Patrick is capable of. It's also the point where I began to wonder what got Martha to this point. When we first see her she's sharing an illicit smoke with fellow group member Zoe (Louisa Krause) and there are intimations of wild behavior in her past. There's an emotional beat missing in Martha Marcy May Marlene, it's the moment where Patrick's message becomes more powerful to Martha than any other life she can imagine.

 I don't think Sean Durkin means to suggest that Martha's time in Connecticut is just as stifling as her time with Patrick, and if he does that idea is belied by the crinkly smile of Paulson and by Dancy's dry Englishness. (I was reminded of The Help in the ways that the emotional specificity of actors worked against any consequences - intended or otherwise - of the writing.) There's a moment where a distraught Martha is given a sedative by her sister that parallels something in the cult scenes. The parallel never takes root though, because Martha's family is just too reasonable.  Lucy and Ted, who live a prosperous but childless and slightly sterile life, are well-meaning but baffled by Martha. It's that bafflement that Durkin is really keying on. Lucy and Martha (who seem to have lost their parents early) haven't been close for years, and the tentative connection that Martha begins to forge with her sister is nothing like the connections she had as part of Patrick's "family". That irony makes the ambiguous ending very effective. As Martha Marcy May Marlene comes to an end, Martha's journey is just beginning.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

Are you ready for an emotionally layered Kermit? Or for a Gonzo with regrets? The Muppets can't be everything that its star/co-writer Jason Segel and his collaborators want it to be, but it does work as a celebration of the too-long away Kermit and friends even if it won't make anyone forget The Great Muppet Caper. Kermit, rumbling around in a mansion and seemingly unaware of what year it is, reunites the Muppets after he learns a corporate raider (Chris Cooper) has his eye on the oil underneath Muppet studios. The idea that Kermit might have missed us is perhaps the movie's strongest conceit, and his ballad of regret at the way he has failed his friends is the musical high point (save for a reprise of "The Rainbow Connection). Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, and the rest all show up to help put on a elaborate telethon, but the Muppet everyone is waiting for is of course Miss Piggy. Piggy is in glorious form, but we don't see enough of the Kermit-Piggy relationship because of time spent on a framing story involving small-town Gary (Segel), his girlfriend (Amy Adams), and Gary's brother Walter. Walter is the only one who doesn't know he's a Muppet (he's played in one scene as a human by a well-chosen familiar face), and I think the movie could have had more fun here but instead the Gary-Walter dynamic feels more like a How I Met Your Mother episode where Ted and Marshall learn to appreciate each other all over again. Also, does anyone want to see Jason Segel crying in the rain? That said, Segel's obvious affection for the Muppets is responsible for them being on our movie screens again and that's a good thing. The box office success of The Muppets means (I hope)  that Kermit and friends will be back on screen soon, and the movie wisely sets up a situation where the troupe will have to climb back to the top. The Muppets' reboot may not be on the scale of Star Trek, but I'm hoping future installments will be this attuned to what makes them special.

(This picture is from the original Muppet movie, but I just like it. )

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Music: Guided By Voices - "My Valuable Hunting Knife"

From last year. Reading of a new single put me in mind of this one from my college days, and it's good to see Robert Pollard hasn't succumbed to all of that beer yet.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Book I Read: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

I was sure I had blogged a review of Chuck Klosterman's first novel Downtown Owl, but when I went back to look it up I couldn't find it. My decision not to render an opinion on Downtown Owl says something about the book itself, or at least about how I remember it. The look at life in a small North Dakota town, told from multiple points of view, was a pleasant read that revealed a new side to Klosterman's talent. But nothing about Klosterman's fiction made me want him to give up the funny, clear-eyed reviews and essays that he writes for various magazines and websites. Who better to break down Lou Reed and Metallica or the pomposity of 1970's rock? Now here comes Klosterman's The Visible Man, a second novel of ambition that yields frustrating results. As a novelist Klosterman is a "writer to watch" in the sense that he's willing to cross genres and defy expectations, but this time out he isn't saying as much as he thinks he is.

Set up as a series of messages, notes, and transcripts, The Visible Man is told from the point of view of a rather ordinary therapist named Vicki. The book we're reading is a manuscript that Vicki is attempting to turn into a published book for reasons that will become clear. Most of Vicki's practice is ordinary, she sees herself as less interesting than the Lorraine Bracco character on The Sopranos. The book is the story of Vicki's patient Y., who after a series of phone sessions agrees to come in and meet Vicki in person. Y. is prickly, secretive, condescending, and controlling and at first seems easily diagnosed as delusional. Y. claims to have invented a method by which he can completely conceal his presence; or to use a term that's hotly disputed in the novel, he can become "invisible". The scene in which he proves his claims shifts the balance power in his relationship with Vicki. I don't know how much research Chuck Klosterman did into therapeutic practices, but the therapy scenes in The Visible Man after Y. reveals his abilities feel like works of performance art. Y. talks almost non-stop in an attempt to describe and rationalize the experiences he has had while invisibly dropping on people's lives. Y. watches a woman smoke pot and watch Lost. He spies on a group of bikers debating philosophy. Vicki observes several times that Y.'s statements feel scripted but she never challeges Y. on this point, and she offers almost no resistance as Y. dictates the subject matter and length of theirsessions. All of Y.'s visitations are in service of some great project to understand human behavior, yet Vicki (and we) can see that in fact she's dealing with a voyeur though she's too much in Y.'s thrall to call him on it.

The Visible Man avoids most of the expected rest stops that invisibility offers to a plot. Y. isn't much interested in sex with or in taking from those he observes, in fact he takes only what he needs to survive. Initially Y. seems to be a sort of messenger from the world, reminding us that even the lives of people we never think about have value. The message gets muddied as Y. becomes more eccentric and the novel edges towards violence almost out of necessity. Klosterman has created a fascinating situation but either lacks the skill or just isn't interested in taking Y. to a place he wasn't at when the novel starts. Y. gets to ramble as if he's the subject of the sort of celebrity interview that Klosterman would never do. Chuck Klosterman has a natural gift for finding the key moment of a song and the hidden truths of the lives of Midwestern heavy metal fans, but with The Visible Man he has spent too much time on structure and too little on content. May Klosterman's next novel do less and say more.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Music: Talking Heads - "Walk It Down"

Funny how a song from 1985 can resonate when you hear it at just the right time. How about this for an Occupy Wall Street anthem?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

J. Edgar

J. Edgar is a great rumbling contraption of a movie, one that can't help but take a scattershot approach to its subject's life and to the amount of influence that J. Edgar Hoover had over the middle 50 years of the 20th century. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar at once aspires to be a recasting of our idea of Hoover through the lens of modern ideas on sexuality and a sort of counter-history of the 1960's. The familiar faces are there, including Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and Martin Luther King, Jr., but in Eastwood's telling Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was always one temper tantrum away from using his secret files to destroy the reputation of this President or that civil rights leader. It may be too much to expect a movie that covers such a span of years to have much tension or to overly concern itself with pace, but J. Edgar doesn't do itself any favors by doubling back on itself so often. The elderly Hoover dictates his memoirs to a serious of handsome young agents in the 1960's (Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl plays one of the agents in a strange bit of casting.); these scenes alternate with the rise of the younger Hoover from anti-Communist firebrand to the first director of an agency that badly needed to have its procedures and membership reformed. As Hoover and the Bureau gain power in Washington the movie also develops Hoover's need for power and importance. Much is made of Hoover's involvement (or lack thereof) in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case, and Eastwood and Black give Hoover full credit for bringing then-new methods of scientific detection into the Bureau's arsenal. DiCaprio gives the younger Hoover a great brashness, crossed with a strong dose of moral rectitude imbued in him by his controlling mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench).

Eastwood loses his way when he turns to Hoover's personal life, which in the early scenes feels like a Tennesse Williams play complete with crazy father, niece around for no apparent reason, and a mother rhapsodizing about the past. It's nurture not nature in the film's conception; Hoover makes an awkward lunge at his future secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, overqualified) but it's hard to imagine another woman in his life after we've met his mother. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) shows up as Hoover begins to recruit agents for his new Bureau. There's nothing lurid or sensational in the way J. Edgar puts Hoover and Tolson in a chaste marriage; Tolson succeeds in loosening Hoover up a little in private and only bucks when Hoover makes noise about marrying a woman. The two's big fight scene is one of the worst in the film,with Hammer playing a jealous Tolson more like a petulant Winklevoss brother than a career law enforcement agent. It's to Dustin Lance Black's credit that Hoover and Tolson aren't pioneers, they don't understand their feelings in the same way Harvey Milk did. That said, pinning Hoover's anti-Communist fanaticism on his own repression feels like a judgment and doesn't add much to our understanding of the man. Hoover is a smaller man in the 1960's scenes, obsessed with the sex lives of JFK and King and unwilling to accept the fact that domestic Communism was no longer a serious threat. The makeup used to age DiCaprio and Hammer is impressive in its own right I suppose, but we're always aware of the artifice and the extra layers take some power away from a late tender moment between Hoover and Tolson. J. Edgar finally suffers from the collision between Eastwood, Black, and the subject matter. Hoover's sexuality receives a sympathetic airing but the mores of the day precluded emotional honesty, while Eastwood has no feel for the 1960's scenes of Hoover's late career. We're always in Hoover's controlled world, and there's no sense of the social upheaval he was so disturbed by. All of this subtraction doesn't leave much to work with, and maybe that's why the movie has so little emotional weight. J. Edgar needed filmmakers who were willing to be more offhand, to put Hoover in context amid the times he lived in. The man at the movie's center might be uncrackable, but a director willing to open up the movie's world might have succeeded in giving us the J. Edgar we deserve.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sunday Music (on a Wednesday): R.E.M. - "We All Go Back To Where We Belong"

I'm not quite sure how I missed this on Sunday, but the Warholesque video for what is probably R.E.M.'s last single certainly deserves a spot here. Yes, I picked the pretty girl; another version of this video with John Giorno can be viewed here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homeland and the Tyranny of the Episode (spoilers)

(If you don't want Homeland spoilers then don't read this post for your own safety. ) This morning I read three positive blog posts regarding last night's episode of Homeland. All were by writers I respect and all celebrated the writing and acting in a long scene during which CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes) and returned soldier and suspected terrorist Brody (Damian Lewis) finally take each others' measure. It's to the credit of all involved with Homeland that the scene and indeed the whole episode (which suggests a surprising new direction for the show) was so gripping, and I do think the already renewed series has earned the acclaim it has received as one of the high spots of the TV season. Yet as I thought about last night's episode and the plot developments that led up to it I couldn't help but wonder if those praising Homeland are failing to (as Carrie would say) "play the long game".

Web TV critics, even the good ones, are day traders of web cultural writing. They're up one week and down the next, and if someone is writing great pieces about the emotional honesty of Mae Whitman's arc over two seasons of Parenthood (to cite just one example) then I'm missing them. Last night's Homeland (which also featured strong work from Mandy Patinkin as Carrie's mentor Saul) was an excellent episode of television, but how did we get to this point? I had trouble believing that Carrie would sleep with Brody (which happened for the first time in last week's episode), then accidentally reveal a detail she gleaned from her surveillance of Brody, and THEN give away the whole I-think-you're-a-terrorist plot. I could have seen one of these things happening, but all three in close proximity felt as if the show were working too hard to make a point about Carrie’s instability. Much was made in the early episodes of Carrie self-medicating for a “mood disorder”; we’d almost forgotten about it as the plot sped up, and now we find that the writers have maneuvered Carrie into a situation where she doesn’t have access to her meds when she needs them most. It’s a clever piece of narrative control to get Carrie and us to this point, but as the focus of the investigation shifts we can only assume that the CIA will need Carrie at her best (back on her pills) and that she’ll stay quiet about her dalliance with Brody for fear of having her objectivity questioned.

All this to say that Homeland sets Carrie up as a skilled, highly valued CIA officer and then depends on her not doing her job well for the show’s momentum. Carrie sets up ill-advised, extra-legal surveillance on Brody, fails to correctly interpret his “prayer beads” gesture earlier (Mightn’t she or Saul have known what that meant?), then risks operational security by revealing she thinks Brody is a terrorist. She also lies to an asset who is later murdered. Carrie’s impulsive decision to sleep with Brody is part of a pattern for her; we know about her affair with her boss David (David Harewood) and there’s certainly an undercurrent between Carrie and her mentor Saul, though I think the introduction of Saul’s wife rules out an affair there. There’s no question of Carrie’s seriousness or of her raw ability, but the writers of Homeland are implicitly and perhaps unconsciously painting Carrie as someone who gets what she wants (or at least attempts to ) via her sexuality. That’s a shame given Danes’ lived-in performance and the show’s apparent desire to subvert genre expectations. I’ve read little of this in reaction to the show, which has mostly focused on whether or not Brody is a terrorist and how he’ll be worked into the show going forward and in a second season. Since The Sopranos premiered we value television drama perhaps more than ever before, but because of a never-ending desire for web content even the best of it takes on a weird disposable quality. I wish there was time to consider a series as good as Homeland on a deeper lever, but I fear that we have gone too far down the road of hot and now criticism to turn back now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Writing in Real Time

A review of Keith Jarrett's Rio, in which the pianist's improvisatory skills seem to be at their best. (LondonJazz)
The level of inspiration experienced by Keith Jarrett at this solo concert, recorded in Rio de Janeiro in April 2011, can be gauged by the fact that he utters one of his celebrated involuntary groans only four minutes into it, and thereafter, the intensity never flags for a moment, building through two CDs' worth of stunningly inventive improvisation to an almost delirious pitch.

The Next 25

Where Alexander Payne has been the last few years isn't nearly as interesting to him as where he's going. (NYT)
Where, everyone wants to know, did he go? The answer is nowhere in particular and everywhere in between. He got divorced, he got delayed, he worked on projects that still haven’t come to fruition, he worked on the pilot for HBO’s “Hung.” He traveled, near and far, with and without specific purpose. He lived. Time flies, but the movie industry lumbers. In that context, he hastens to say, seven years isn’t an eternity. Still. He turned 50 in February, and if you ask him to do something that he has demanded of many of his movies’ protagonists — take unsentimental stock of his progress and remark on what hasn’t gone as envisioned — he will concede that he thought he would have directed more than five movies, including “The Descendants,” by now. And he will pledge a brisker pace from here on out.

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter is a confident and original piece of American filmmaking that betrays itself in the end in the service of I'm not sure exactly what. The film is a horror movie of sorts, but one where the horrors are interior right up until the point when they're not. I can't think of another actor better suited for the role of Curtis LaForche than Michael Shannon, whose expressive eyes convey all manner of inner turmoil. Curtis is an Ohio workingman, happily married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and the father of hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). From the very beginning of Take Shelter, we're immersed in Curtis's violent, apocalyptic dreams, which involve his storms, his family under attack, and some discreetly used special effects. Perhaps the wisest choice that Nichols makes in conceiving the world of the film is to avoid bludgeoning us with the disturbing imagery of Curtis's mind. After early scenes establish the level of his mental disorder in his head, Nichols cuts away from a violent dream that Curtis has about Samantha and in another case has Curtis simply relate a dream about being attacked by a co-worker (Shea Whigham). Curtis is smart enough to realize what's happening, since his mother (a haunting Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Curtis was a boy. As his delusions seem to warn of a coming catastrophe Curtis begins to expand a small tornado shelter outside his house, to the confusion of his family and his own professional ruin.

Everything that happens in the "real" world of Take Shelter is grounded in the economic and social reality of America, circa 2011. Curtis and Samantha are stable, but barely; they depend on his health insurance for Hannah's cochlear implant and her bazaar sales for extra money to take a vacation. Good mental health care is hard to come by; the best Curtis can do is a genial counselor (LisaGay Hamilton). The baroque horrors in Curtis's head played against the mundane horrors of the family checking account are what give Take Shelter it's emotional power. Shannon's placidity is disturbing because we know what's going on inside, and it serves to make the moment scarier when his mind spills over at a community potluck supper. Jessica Chastain, continuing her yearlong personal film festival, is Shannon's equal in every respect. The balance of fear, love, and self-preservation in Chastain's eyes when a real storm takes the family to the new shelter is as stirring as anything I've seen this year. Why then does Jeff Nichols betray these performances and the world he created in such detail? The ending of Take Shelter is a cheat, not a trick, and I have to question why someone who'd end the film this way would even bother to make it at all. I await Nichols' next film with great interest, but in his desire to make a grand statement here he has made a good film that ends up being about less than he intended.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Post: Don Giovanni in HD

Recently I attended The Metropolitan Opera's production of Don Giovanni via one of the Met's successful and continuing series of live HD broadcasts to movie theaters. I enjoyed the performance and the opera-centric atmosphere, complete with Renee Fleming interviewing cast members during intermission, but when it came time to write a review I was at a loss. My knowledge of opera is minimal and I'm not sure that I know how to review a filmed presentation of a performance meant to be seen on a stage. I'm pleased to offer this review by my father, Dr. Stanley Crowe. Dad's appreciation for this art form and ability to speak to what he liked and didn't like about the production are peerless in my experience, and I hope this post begins a habit of his posting here or at his own yet to be created blog. Enjoy.

Any time that you experience opera via an artificial medium (i. e. anywhere NOT in the opera house itself), all sorts of adjustments have to made. Hearing an opera on the radio or on CD just isn’t the same as being there. That’s also true of seeing it on the big screen in HD with God knows what kind of sound system. It’s too close, too loud, too big – but the alternative (not experiencing it at all) is unacceptable, so you make a set of adjustments. With all that in mind, here’s a response to the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that was broadcast in HD into movie theaters a couple of weeks ago. I assume a basic knowledge of the plot.

When at the end of Act 1 (there are only two Acts) the Don is publicly exposed as a serial seducer, murderer, and general scoundrel, it would seem to follow that the Don in Act2 should behave in a way that reflects his awareness that in a social sense his life is over. I expect a kind of fatalism – a kind of going through the motions, where earlier he brought some relish to his attempted conquests. That Mozart intended this might be indicated by the scene in which he invites to dinner the statue of the Commendatore, the man he killed while attempting to seduce his daughter in Act 1. And it would seem to follow from that that when the Commendatore’s statue actually comes to dinner in the final scene the Don understands, and even fatalistically accepts, the consequences: his damnation. Rather, perhaps, he acknowledges that his behavior throughout has been that of a damned soul. It was a weakness, I think, of the Met production that that sense of fatalism was absent in Act 2, despite the excellent singing and the effective stage business. Perhaps the fault lay with the Don himself, the Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien, who acted vividly, looked splendid, sang forcefully and often beautifully, but whose demeanor remained too much of a piece throughout. Fabio Luisi conducted vigorously – at times I thought too much so (the “Champagne aria” seemed rushed, and the concerted finale of Act 1 seemed a bit of a scramble) – but I don’t know that he contributed to what I felt wasn’t quite right about Act2.

The singing throughout was strong. Luca Pisaroni was the excellent Leporello, and his interaction with the Don was lively and credible. The experienced Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli was a secure and touching Donna Elvira, and the young Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka was a strong Donna Anna. The big surprise, for me, was the performance of the Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio. Long a favorite of mine in light Italian roles and as Werther and Lenski (in Eugene Onegin), I didn’t realize that he has been doing Mozart roles recently (a Don Ottavio in London and Idomeneo in Salzburg). At 51, he was totally in command of the musical requirements of the part, singing with lovely tone and appropriate style, in a way that neither Bjoerling nor Domingo (great singers both) could manage. Twenty years ago, Vargas was an Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere, and he hasn’t lost the touch. He is to my mind the best tenor in the Italian repertory post-Domingo. Don Ottavio often seems wimpish, and it was to the credit of both Vargas and the director Michael Grandage that Ottavio rarely appeared without either a pistol or a sword in his hand and looked willing, even eager, to use them.

The set was drab, unfortunately. Was the point that for the all the upper-class elegance the Don’s story was a tawdry one? The final scene prior to the statue’s entrance was cheesy, and I don’t know what I was looking at in the scene where Giovanni and Leporello invite the statue to dinner – a high class columbarium, maybe? But the stage interactions were fluid, and the singers responsive to one another. If this performance comes out on DVD, you wouldn’t be sorry to buy it – but you might want to try too the recent Royal Opera House performance with Simon Keenlyside as the Don and Charles Mackerras conducting, and with Vargas, Joyce DiDonato, Marina Poplavskaya, Miah Persson (as Zerlina), and Eric Halfvarson as the statue.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Manifesto! (...or, no more "Thoughts on Dexter")

Via Alyssa Rosenberg, here's a link to an excellent post calling for a rethinking of the way we approach TV criticism. That episode-by-episode paradigm is more than a little played out, and driven by the need for content of the sites where such reviews appear. I'm less on board with the call for "personal" criticism, but all in all this is a worthwhile read.
The specifics of what you write about will inevitably improve over time. Craft comes with practice. Craft is a teachable element. Passion is not. If you’re just writing about “Breaking Bad” because you want to join the chorus of people falling over themselves to praise it, that’s not going to add anything to the discussion. (And just shitting on it because you think it will make you stand out is also beyond stupid. If you dislike it, make your case. But being contrarian for contrarian sake won’t help anyone.) If you have true passion for it, fine. But don’t write about shows because everyone else does, and don’t write about them on a weekly basis unless you really, really have something to say. Newsflash: most shows don’t have enough to talk about, and most people don’t have enough to say about them. Less can be more, especially when it’s passionately written.

Friday, November 04, 2011

More coffee?

What David Lynch is up to. An album, a studio in Paris, and reflections on Eraserhead. I miss this man. To my shame, I bought his book on transcendental meditation but didn't finish it. (Guardian)
Time to try another tack. What value does he place on firsthand experience; on viewing the "dark world" at eye level? In his days as an art student, for instance, Lynch lived with his first wife (Peggy Reavey) in a run-down area of Philadelphia. He has described this as an intense and uncertain time in an intense and dangerous neighbourhood. The Fairmount district, he says, was an important influence on his art and led directly to the writing of Eraserhead ("my Philadelphia Story"), in which a passive young printer nurses a deformed baby and spies a miniature woman crooning about heaven from the radiator at home. Yet Fairmount, I point out, is now a long way behind him.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

For Parenthood fans only

If you're not a fan of the series Parenthood then you might want to skip this chat with actors Mae Whitman, Sarah Ramos, and Miles Heizer, who take every opportunity to learn from their older colleagues. (Daily Beast)
You’re working with veteran actors like Craig T. Nelson, Lauren Graham, and Peter Krause. Have they imparted any advice to you that you’ve taken to heart? Ramos: I work with Peter [Krause] and Monica [Potter] more than I work with anybody else and I’ve learned so much from them. They’ve given me advice when I didn’t know what to do. And Craig, man— Whitman: When Craig gives advice, it’s hard to deal with. Sarah and I have had times with Craig where we end up, all three of us, just crying. Ramos: Crying, at lunch. Whitman: Openly. Me, and Craig, and Sarah just weeping in each other’s arms that way. Everybody on the cast brings some really different and wonderful things to our lives. I learn stuff from everybody here. I’m really close with Lauren and we’re good friends and we talk about things all the time. That’s been an invaluable gift to have somebody like her around to look up to.

Monday, October 31, 2011

In Time

Andrew Niccol's In Time wears its themes of class and economic division boldly on its sleeve but is clever and well-cast enough for it almost not to matter. In the world of the film people stop aging at 25 but then die in a year unless they can acquire more time, which has become the only currency. The unnamed city in which the film takes place is divided into "time zones"; the rich (who possess centuries but can still be killed by violence or accident) hide in one zone while those living literally day-to-day fight and claw in another. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one such working stiff who wakes with less than a day on his clock. One wonders what Will's 50-year old mother (an obviously not 50 Olivia Wilde) has had to do to survive this long, but chance and tragedy propel Will into the world of the fortunate after a stranger (Matt Bomer) gives him more than a century. The movie takes off after Will is falsely accused of murder and goes on the run with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a time magnate (Vincent Kartheiser). Will and Sylvia become time Robin Hoods, looking to break the system by giving days away to those who fight for seconds. The movie turns into a chase, with a "timekeeper" (Cillian Murphy) pursuing Will and Sylvia through the back alleys of "Dayton", the ghetto will calls home. These scenes are executed skillfully enough, but Niccol enjoys the details more. Once Will reaches the utopia of "New Greenwich" he's marked as an outsider by the fact that he runs (the poor don't have time to stand around) and when the time that Will and Sylvia steal reaches the streets the establishment retaliates by raising the cost of living. There's a world in which two people less improbably attractive than Timberlake and Seyfried would be cast as the leads in In Time, but we aren't living in it. It's a credit to Niccol that he doesn't pause to let us enjoy their hotness but instead keeps his central up-with-regular-people message flowing,. The rich must protect themselves against dying by chance and so they don't really live; when Sylvia goes swimming with Will it's as big a risk as she has ever taken. As others have pointed out, we need movies  as economically aware as In Time and we probably need stars the wattage of Timberlake and Seyfried to be in them . In Time may resolve tself a bit too neatly (Will and Sylvia upset the status quo, but who turns the aging gene back on?), but its a piece of politically relevant art at a time when that can't be ignored.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A New Hat

In his new film We Bought A Zoo, Cameron Crowe tries a different way of working and attempts to change perceptions. (NYT)
By mapping out every shot ahead of time with the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and rehearsing extensively with his cast before filming, Mr. Crowe said he was able to shoot efficiently and bring in the movie early and under budget. “It’s lean and mean and shows up on the screen, which sounds like a Don King-ism, but it’s good to work that way,” he said. New model or no, he still made sure that he had plenty of time to work with his cast. “I love actors,” said Mr. Crowe, who has shown a knack for eliciting exceptional performances (Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Jerry Maguire” and Kate Hudson in “Almost Famous”). “I try and direct environmentally, so that people don’t feel like everything is going to depend on what happens when someone says, ‘action,’ so that they can literally be swimming in the warm water, and at some point the race begins, and at some point the race ends, but it is about being free to swim.”

Sunday Music: Lou Reed - "Dirty Boulevard"

With words like "unlistenable" and "train wreck" being used to describe Reed's forthcoming collaboration with Metallica, it seems like a good time to revisit New York.  David Sanborn on sax.

The Material Girl's Yearbook

The biggest curiousity about this collection of Madonna magazine covers is the fact that she was once big enough to be on the cover of news and business magazines. Talk about the monoculture.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"...the sensation of betrayal."

Chuck Klosterman on the new Lou Reed/Metallica album Lulu. (Grantland)
I'm sure there will be a sector of Metallica's core audience that feels "betrayed," mostly because Metallica fans enjoy the sensation of betrayal.1 I suppose a handful of Lou Reed obsessives will consider this record hilarious as long as they don't have to listen to it, and I'm certain some contrarian rock critic will become Internet Famous for insisting it's more subversive than Transformer and a musical reaction to both Occupy Wall Street and the subpar drum production on St. Anger. It will be legally purchased by the 13,404 Metallica completists who saw Some Kind of Monster on opening weekend, unless the album is exclusively sold at Walmart, in which case it will enter the Billboard charts at no. 2. Rolling Stone will give it 2½ stars and then pretend it never happened; meanwhile, people who thought The "Priest" They Called Him was a brilliant idea will hold a vague, misplaced grudge against Dave Mustaine while sleepwalking to the methadone clinic. It is not a successful record.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The politics of four...

I just discovered this site (via @aquadrunkard) and this interview with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, who speaks to the idea of how a functioning band should work with great clarity.
If you’re on tour in a band with four people one person can be bummed out and the other three will pick up the slack, but with one other person it’s really hard, it’s a really different energy. Conversely, being in a band with just one person and writing, the conversation is so much more intense because it’s just the two of you kicking it back on forth. Being in a bigger band, politicking takes place. You have a part you really like, and really want this part in a song. Then somebody else has an idea and if they build it, it could affect your chances of getting your thing past. It’s this quid pro quo. You get into that. It’s not quite so calculated, but it’s also fickle. Each person is unique to themselves, they’re dealing with whatever’s going on in their own lives, they might have relationship stuff going on, they could just be in a weird place in their life, they could feel sour about something culturally or musically. For example, Furniture is a song which I wrote in 1986 and Fugazi did it at the very beginning of the band. Then at some point it just kinda got nixed. You know, this is not working and we should stop doing it. It never got recorded and went off to wherever those songs go. Eight or nine years later at some point we were talking and Guy or Brendan said ‘why did we stop doing that song?’ and I said ‘I don’t fucking know’. So we played it and it sounded great, and we loved playing it again. We recorded it and we came out great, so who knows? Everyone’s on a different timetable.

Sunday Music: Tom Waits - "The Heart of Saturday Night"

The eve of a new album release finds Waits at a good place and still doing things his way. (NYT)
History informs some of the songs on “Bad as Me.” The opener, “Chicago,” bustles with a plinking banjo and back-and-forth saxophone chatter, as Mr. Waits turns into a narrator deciding to “leave all we’ve ever known/For a place we’ve never seen,” hinting at the Great Migration that began a century ago, bringing millions of black Southerners north via Chicago. Other songs face the present. “Hell Broke Luce” — a title knifed into a wall at Alcatraz by an inmate during a prison riot, Mr. Waits said — details the miseries of soldiers back from the Middle East, over a semi-martial beat. In “Talking at the Same Time,” a kind of hollowed-out shuffle, he observes, “We bailed out all the millionaires/They got the fruit, we got the rind.” “I’m not really qualified to discuss any of these matters on a political level,” he said. “I always imagine you sit at a piano with an open window, and whatever is out there will come in, pass through you and then turn into a song.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dolphin Tale

The fact-based Dolphin Tale is earnest and slow at times, but the movie is so sincere in its own intentions that it's hard not to like this story of a aimless young boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and the injured dolphin named Winter that he helps to rehabilitate. After he helps rescue the stranded Winter on a Florida beach, Sawyer becomes part of the community at a run-down animal hospital where the dolphin is being cared for. Dr. Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) is impressed by the way Winter responds to Sawyer while his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) succeeds in drawing out the shy young man. The arc of Winter's recovery contains successes and failures that parallel the story of Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who is injured while serving overseas in the military. There's a resounding never-give-up theme in Dolphin Tale for Winter and the rest of us, but the arrival of Morgan Freeman as a VA specialist in prosthetics who attempts to design a tail for Winter helps the message go down smoothly. As if that weren't enough there's Sawyer's concerned mother (Ashley Judd, chased by a pelican in one scene) and the possible sale of the hospital property to a hotel magnate who looks like a bassist for a Yes cover band. Yet I wish the movie didn't lurch along quite so much; there are unnecessary scenes involving the children flying a remote control helicopter and Kris Kristofferson plays a Wise Old Man character to no great purpose. There is little that's subtle or unexpected in Dolphin Tale yet there's also a welcome acknowledgement that someone who doesn't find much excitement in school can find education and challenge in unexpected places. Judd's best scene is an attempt to get Sawyer's summer school teacher (Ray McKinnon) to give him credit for is experiences with the animals. Dolphin Tale isn't a great-teacher movie though; it's always clear-eyed about the possibility that Winter may not survive despite everyone's efforts. Winter touches the lives of everyone she meets, and Dolphin Tale is honest enough to appeal to children and the adults who've brought them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grown-Ups Table

Did you ever wonder what life was like for David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen before they broke through? According to this, it was competitive, a little sad, and heavy on the self-doubt. Fascinating, if a little gossipy. (New York)
That same summer, Jonathan Franzen, also 28, was living in Jackson Heights, Queens, and feeling �totally, totally isolated.� The neighborhood was an immigrant jumble, and Franzen was a solemn, intellectual guy from St. Louis without much occasion to leave the house. He had gotten some attention and money for his debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, but the axis of the planet had not obediently shifted. He was frustrated with living in �shared monastic seclusion� with his then-wife, he says, when he got a fan letter from a writer he knew of but had never read. David Foster Wallace, then 26, was having dire troubles of his own and wrote to praise what Franzen had done in a �freaking first novel.� It was the first time Franzen had ever heard from a peer, he says. �And I was desperate for friends.� Gradually, he found some: first Wallace, then William T. Vollmann, David Means. Through Wallace, who also knew Vollmann, he met Mary Karr and Mark Costello. Later Franzen would connect with Eugenides, Moody, and their other college friend Donald Antrim. A scene was taking shape and growing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

25 years on...

Kristin Hersh talks about the past and future of Throwing Muses, including a new compilation CD I didn't even know was out. I know the song above isn't regarded as classic as some, but it was my introduction to the band. (Huffington)
Q: Did it annoy you to be thought of, even marketed by your label as the "crazy girl" singer? Do you regret coming forth with your bipolar disorder and mental health issues? A: I didn't want to present myself as anything other than normal, your girlfriend, sister, your friend. I'm doormat nice. The songs may be crazy, but not the singer. I kept it secret forever, and was outed by 2 writers as bipolar. They asked me how I was doing and really told them. They wrote a very good piece about it. Certainly I didn't want to market myself as such. It is very dangerous to think a broken mind has anything to teach a healthy one. There's no pride in the brokenness that I've had to live through.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hello, its been too long....

NP will return for a sequel to Thor, which will be directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster). We've got some time to get ready...
Disney also announced that Thor 2 will be moved from its July 26, 2013, release date to Nov. 15, 2013. For those who can't wait to see Thor and Loki return to the screen, both Hemsworth and Hiddleston will play their roles in Marvel's upcoming superhero ensemble film, The Avengers, which is set to hit theaters May 4, 2012.


The header of this blog makes a vague reference to current events, so in that spirit allow me to deviate from the usual diet of movie reviews and '90s rock nostalgia. Is it actually important how much the President knows? I think so, and this post makes a good argument for why a President Herman Cain (shudder) might want to bone up on foreign affairs (Foreign Policy)
This is fascinating question -- does it really matter if Cain continues to dodge any and all foreign policy questions? I've noted that specific foreign policy pledges don't matter all that much -- what about generic foreign policy knowledge? I think it does matter, for a few reasons. First, the continuity between Bush and Obama overlooks the fact that Bush's foreign policy circa 2008 looked very different from his 2002 foreign policy. It was Bush's post-2001 first-term deviation that truly stands out. Eventually, these deviations from the norm return because they are unsustainable. During the interim, however, an awful lot of blood and treasure can be wasted. I'd like a chance to know Cain's general thinking on foreign policy topics if he seriously wants the commander-in-chief job. If he also deviates from the general contours of American foreign policy, it's the rest of America that will suffer.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Thing

I'll admit something up front: I'm in no position to judge the fitness of the new The Thing (directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr., and I've typed that name for the last time)as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing. I'm not usually a person who goes to horror movies because I enjoy neither sustained anxiety nor the cinematic rules that seem to govern the genre. The second time someone goes off alone or makes another otherwise stupid decision is one time too many for me. Like the Carpenter film, the new Thing takes place at the Antarctic in 1982. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to join a Norwegian expedition after the discovery of a spaceship and a creature encased in ice. The scientist who hires her, Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), is a careerist not interested in Kate's opinion but only what she can do for him and the Norwegian team only barely tolerates the American helicopter team lead by Carter (Joel Edgerton). It's when things start to go bad that The Thing misses some opportunities. The creature can replicate those it kills so at any time there's a chance that one of the characters might not be human. Where the filmmakers slip up is by not letting the audience know where (or who) the creature is. What would have been wrong with generating a little old-fashioned suspense as Kate and the others descend into paranoia? There's one great scene of Kate taking charge and beginning to separate the humans from those who may be dangerous (she can tell by their dental fillings) but The Thing too often opts for scares of the "Boo!" variety over building tension from situation and character. The Norwegian scientists aren't differentiated well after a quick introduction and the one other woman (Kim Bubbs) isn't around long enough to make an impression. Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a welcome understatement to the role of Kate, a woman refreshingly secure with herself and her abilities as her small world begins to disintegrate. Yet Kate and all the others spend most of the movie running from things and by the time she's on the creature's vessel you can see where things are headed. The ending (before an epilogue sets up the Carpenter movie) is ambiguously played and The Thing works as a smart diversion that forgets that sometimes we're our own worst enemy.

"...slight shredding of my face..."

Seeing Throwing Muses. (Math Is My Bag/photo by Jessica Gilbert)

the band rips right into and out of songs that i couldn't even begin to tell you the name of (please see paragraph 3). the bass player is into it. the drummer is a fucking beast. then, kristin. everytime i'd get distracted by some other element of the band's performance, kristin would bring me right back with a slight shredding of my face (via her guitar). it's like she was watching me and waiting for me to drift so that she could snap me out of it. kristin does this thing with her face when she hits the grittier, growlier parts of the vocals. she looks like she's really pushing out a hard, meaningful lyric and is reaching for the cojones to make that voice. at least that's what it feels like. she's good, i guess is what i'm trying to say. really good.