Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Looking again

This piece by Glenn Kenny on Taxi Driver does what any good criticism should do; it makes me want to revisit the film under discussion, a film I watched once and at the time was glad to have gotten out of the way. I also found the Manny Farber/Patricia Patterson piece that Kenny mentioned, and it's a well-argued if conflicted read. On a personal note, I'm also very glad to now have a Blu-Ray player.....

One of the many nice things about the new Blu-ray disc of the restoration of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is that the supplements restore to us the very first audio commentary on the film, featuring the film's screenwriter Paul Schrader as well as its director. Recorded in 1986 for the Criterion Collection laser disc of the film, it's a commentary in the Criterion style—serious, frank, in-depth, not the sort of self-congratulatory "I love this shot" stuff that audio commentaries became associated with in the height of the DVD boom. In any event, when Criterion's license on the film went out, Sony began overseeing the DVD editions, and the exemplary laser disc commentary went by the wayside; somebody at Sony was on the ball enough to acquire the material from Criterion and include it here. It's still a bracing listen.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sucker Punch

The opening scenes of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch are just as brutal and efficient as the opening credit montage of Snyder's Watchmen. Can we invent a job for Snyder directing the first five minutes of other people's movies? After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) must intervene to stop her leering stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) from interfering with her younger sister (Frederique de Raucourt). After things go bad Baby Doll is sent to a mental hospital that's somewhere between a Dickens novel and early Tim Burton, where she'll be lobotomized by a visiting doctor (Jon Hamm) in five days unless she's able to escape. It's upon arrival at the hospital that the movie splinters into at least two levels of subjective reality, and where Snyder's graphic-novel sensibility (Sucker Punch is based on an original script but it doesn't feel like it.) takes hold. Yes the women of Sucker Punchdon't need a male to save them, but Snyder sexualizes them just as if they were in comic panels.  Baby Doll, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and their fellow inmates are performers in a burlesque review inside someone's imagination; the revue is overseen by Blue (Oscar Isaac), whom we also see as the hospital's corrupt head orderly. Baby Doll's raw, spontaneous dance routine (which we never see) is so distracting to men that her friends are able to gather the materials for an escape plan while she performs.

Perhaps the strangest character in Sucker Punch is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), a therapist who attempts to treat the girls through elaborate reenactments but who has no idea about the lobotomies and other cruelties going on around her. Gorski's advice to Baby Doll is to escape the indignities of dancing through imagination ("You control this world," Gorski tells her.) , and we're off into another layer of fantasy. While Baby Doll is dancing we see her and her friends engaged in a series of what can only be called fanboy fetish scenes. Baby Doll and Sweet Pea fight their way past giant samurai, Nazi zombies, and Lord of the Rings discards to procure what they need for escape. They're instructed by a character called Wise Man (Scott Glenn), and joined by Sweet Pea's sister Rocket (Jena Malone, who steals the movie) as well as Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). If you've seen ads for Sucker Punch then you know these action scenes are the movie's biggest selling point, and Snyder is undeniably gifted at keeping us oriented inside a CGI world. Yet why do these scenes exist? The movie offers only the most banal messages about freedom and self-empowerment, and these could have been conveyed through other means - like two people talking to each other.

Zack Snyder is in the eye candy business and Sucker Punch is high gloss stuff. Emily Browning gets the worst of it; I remember her being funky and winning in the Lemony Snicket movie, but here she's an apple cheeked fantasy object without an idea in her head. Snyder gives a sword and a schoolgirl outfit but hasn't bothered to give her any writing. Browning is outdone by Jena Malone as Rocket, a girl flush with excitement over finding a role model other than her sister and dizzy with the possibilities of what escape might offer. Sucker Punch is grayer when Malone isn't onscreen. Finally I don't think Sucker Punch is about very much other than it's own look-at-me energy, and while the movie is fun to look at in a blunt, obvious way it could have done better by both its PG-13 audience and its own characters.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mike Cooley

I was surprised to learn that songwriting doesn't come easy to Mike Cooley, the irreverent second guitarist of Drive-By Truckers. (Suicide Girls, via @keithdok)

KD:Your songs are always highlights of every Drive-by Truckers record, but there are usually only two or three. Is writing like pulling teeth for you? Are you really critical of your own work?

MC:Yeah, I am. I didn’t start writing at a young age, and I’ve never turned out a lot of songs. If I write four or five in a year that’s like a lot. I will think about ‘em a long time before I’ll ever commit ‘em to anything.

KD:So you have to be perfectly satisfied with it before you’ll show it to the rest of the band?

MC:Oh yeah. Yeah.

KD:Are you ever envious of Patterson’s ability to crank ‘em out?

MC:I’m envious of everybody who can do that! But that’s just never been me.

Dept. of New Playwrights

Sharr White, being smart about what theatres want and about the economic realities of playwriting. (NYT)

Laurie Metcalf plays Dr. Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist specializing in dementia whose own medical problems embroil her family, her colleagues and a touchingly confused stranger in a mystery that involves the whereabouts of Juliana’s daughter. “It’s got the medical thing, it’s got the emotional thing, it’s got the mystery thing,” said Bernard Telsey, the co-artistic director of MCC Theater.

In other words, it’s got the kinds of things that get a show produced, not to mention a three-time Emmy Award-winning star in Ms. Metcalf (“Roseanne”).

Practicality is a common theme for Mr. White, who lives in Cold Spring, N.Y., with his wife and two young sons. When he’s not shuttling around to see his works produced in cities like Chicago, Louisville and Seattle, he works full time as a fashion copywriter, an occupation he credits for keeping his wordsmith skills up to speed.

“Sharr’s not isolated in a room with a candle,” said Hal Brooks, who directed Mr. White’s Iraq War drama “Six Years” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville in 2006. “He gets up, writes, goes to his day job, comes home, raises a family and writes some more.”

Sunday Music: Van Morrison - "And It Stoned Me"

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wish List

Indiewire lists some films they think would make worthy additions to the Cannes lineup. It's going to be a good year in film.

”Restless,” directed by Gus Van Sant (USA)
We haven’t seen Van Sant’s work since his Oscar-winning Harvey Milk biopic, and his new film has an intriguing premise that makes us wonder how he’ll pull it off in typical Van Sant fashion. In “Restless,” a teenager (Henry Hopper) sees ghosts, visits funerals, and falls in love with a girl with a terminal disease (Mia Waskikowska). Together, the two teens develop a relationship with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). The film is the first script from Jason Lew, who wrote the play on which the film is based.

”Take This Waltz,” directed by Sarah Polley (Canada)
Sarah Polley’s directorial follow-up to “Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz” is a romantic comedy that stars Michelle Williams as a woman torn between her loving husband (Seth Rogen) and a sexy new dude she meets during a “steamy Toronto summer” (Luke Kirby). The film finished shooting last fall and was selling at AFM. The fest is definitely a fan of Ms. Polley (she was on the jury a few years back), but “Waltz” might be a bit light for the fest. That said, the script (also written by Polley) made the Blacklist a few years back and is truly fantastic, so if it doesn’t win over critics (and buyers, as the film does not have a U.S. distributor) in Cannes, it surely will come September, where it will be a much more perfect fit for a Toronto premiere.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seeing Shadows

I'm not sure why I had never watched John Cassavetes's 1959 debut Shadows until now, especially since I own the handsome Criterion boxed set. The only Cassavetes I had seen was the overstuffed, heart-on-sleeve A Woman Under The Influence, and unlike that film Shadows lacks the magisterial presence of Cassavetes's wife Gena Rowlands. What's most remarkable about Shadows is the way it's shot like a low budget film of today as opposed to what was expected in 1959. We're on the streets of New York and in the clubs and cafes with Ben (Ben Carruthers), a young African-American musician who seems to spend most of his time with friends attempting to pick up girls. Ben's brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd) and sister Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) are also his roommates, and Cassavetes spends time with all three. Hugh is a singer with career issues, and Lelia (who is the most memorable part of Shadows) struggles to find a man who'll appreciate her on her terms.

There are rough patches in Shadows to be sure. The character of Ben never becomes more than an onlooker in his own life and the film's dialogue (much of it improvised) is too often noticeably stilted. Transitions between scenes feel like commercial breaks. That said, the energy of the film and it's desire to live among its young characters is palpable. The story of how Shadows was made is enough to inspire anyone to pick up a camera or start on a script. The film was the product of improvisations at an acting class that Cassavetes taught and was shot without regard for rules of the time for camera placement, sound, and an actor's relationship to lighting. Two years of editing and a Herculean effort to match sound to film (as recounted in Marshall Fine's Cassavetes biography) resulted in the beginnings of what we think of today as the Cassavetes "style": ultrarealistic, brutally honest, and a little messy. Independent film contains multitudes, but Shadows pointed to ways of working and subject matter that resonate today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dept. of Underrepresentation

Julian Schnabel on his new film Miral, which seems to have been born partly out of Schnabel's falling in love with the screenwriter. (NYT)

Q. The American Jewish Committee says your film has “a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light.” Does it?

A. My message is we need to open our hearts and consider these people as human beings. I wanted to tell a story about what I found out in my on-the-job training as somebody who grew up the child of Zionists. I mean, my mother was the president of Hadassah in Brooklyn in 1948. She believed in this democratic utopia and I do, too. I just don’t think it’s the Jewish way, the way my mother taught me, to treat people in the way that I see Palestinian people being treated there.

Q. Do you think the film portrays Israel in a negative light?

A. I think it portrays Israel in an accurate way. I think it’s critical of certain events. I think it’s very light in the context of things that happened.

Social situations

There's more going on here than you might think. Great post on the busy frames of The Social Network. (Scanners)

The crunchy guitar riff starts over the Columbia Pictures logo and then the crowd noise comes up, the music drops down, and before the logo fades to black and the first image appears, we hear Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) speaking the movie's opening line -- a question that's also a challenge: "Did you know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?" What follows is a blisteringly fast-paced screwball comedy exchange ("His Girl Friday" through a 64-bit dual-core processor) between Mark and his girlfriend (not for very much longer ) Erica in which nearly every line is a misunderstanding (intentional or unintentional), a sarcastic jab, a leap of logic, a block, an interruption, a feint, an abrupt shift in the angle of attack, a diversion, a retreat, a refinement, a recapitulation (I'm sure there are many fencing terms that apply to the various conversational strategies employed here)...

For Rent: Paper Man

Paper Man runs into the old problem of films that have a writer as the central character. One of the few things more uncinematic than the act of writing is having writer's block, but that's what is bothering the writer Richard Dunn  (Jeff Daniels) as he holes up in off-season Montauk with a three month deadline to finish his next book. There's a explanation of the subject matter: something to do with an extinct bird that feels like it exists only as a plot hurdle. The situation seems ideal; Richard's surgeon wife (Lisa Kudrow, forever condemned to be shrill and demanding) will join him at weekends and Richard will be able to work in peace.

Writer/directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney throw plenty of obstacles in Richard's way, including a badly upholstered couch and an "imaginary friend" named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) who represents Richard's inability to push through and get some work done. Most interesting is Abby (Emma Stone), a teen Richard meets by chance who becomes a companion and sort of non-romantic love interest. Stone has so far made her name as a daffy comedienne, but here she slows down nicely and displays some real soul. Though Abby seems to have little to do other than hang with her jerk of a boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) or the dour boy (Kieran Culkin) who follows her everywhere, I wouldn't have minded spending a little more time in her world. Paper Man is slightly too long - I'm not sure Richard needed to host a keg party for the neighborhood teens - but its characters' small dilemmas are real enough and inventively portrayed. On the bleak winter beaches it would be easy enough for a man to feel like he'd come to the end of the line or for a young woman to wonder if her life would ever really start. The title Paper Man refers to Richard's feeling he has nothing of value to contribute, the film is as simple and fulfilling as Abby's hot soup on a cold night.

" of the last old-fashioned movie stars..."

Greater drama awaited: Cleopatra. Taylor met Burton while playing the title role in the 1963 epic, in which the brooding, womanising Welsh actor co-starred as Mark Antony. Their chemistry was not immediate. Taylor found him boorish; Burton mocked her physique. But the love scenes on film continued away from the set and a scandal for the ages was born. Headlines shouted and screamed. Paparazzi snapped and swooned. Their romance created such a sensation that the Vatican denounced the happenings as the "caprices of adult children."

The film so exceeded its budget that the producers lost money even though Cleopatra was a box-office hit and won four Academy awards. (With its $US44 million ($A43.66 million) budget adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra remains the most expensive movie ever made.) Taylor's salary per film topped $US1 million ($A992,260). "Liz and Dick" became a couple on a first name basis with millions who had never met them.

They were a prolific acting team, even if most of the movies aged no better than their relationship: The VIPs (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), The Comedians (1967), Dr Faustus (1967), Boom! (1968), Under Milk Wood (1971) and Hammersmith Is Out (1972).

Art most effectively imitated life in the adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - in which Taylor and Burton played mates who fought viciously and drank heavily. She took the best actress Oscar for her performance as the venomous Martha in Virginia Woolf and again stole the awards show, this time by not showing up at the ceremony. She refused to thank the academy upon learning of her victory and chastised voters for not honouring Burton.

(Full obituary here)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cedar Rapids

In the early scenes of Miguel Arteta's comedy Cedar Rapids, an insurance executive named Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) learns that he'll represent his small Wisconsin company at a convention in Cedar Rapids and that he's responsible for bringing home another "Two Diamonds" award to his firm. Cedar Rapids is something of a Babylon for Tim, who's childless, a non-drinker, and sleeping with his former middle school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) in a relationship given a different level of importance by each partner. Tim is too much of a rube upon his arrival at the Convention; he doesn't understand why the hotel wants his credit card and can't pick up on the advances of a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). An entire film of Tim's blunderings would have been dull and more than a little mean, but Tim (and the rest of us) are rescued by the arrival of three fellow conventioneers. Dean (John C. Reilly) uses bravado to hide his anger over a divorce. Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is a straight arrow with an affection for The Wire; a gag I wish the trailer hadn't spoiled. Best of all is Joan (Anne Heche), who uses Cedar Rapids adventures as an escape from a humdrum Nebraska life. Heche hasn't had a role this good in years and she makes the most of it. Joan is sexy and irresistible to an inexperienced guy like Tim, but Heche also finds a well of deep sadness at Joan's remembering that another weekend fling won't change her situation at home. As the plot twists through insurance industry shenanigans and drug-fueled house parties the true subject of Cedar Rapids is revealed. Joan, Dean, and Ron all find ways to escape from themselves and from American definitions of success during the convention; it's the only way they can face the rest of their lives. Tim, whom Helms plays with a previously untapped sweetness, is living a life that hasn't started yet. His trip to Cedar Rapids gets him exactly where he needs to be.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Music: Nickel Creek - "The Fox"

As usual there's another song buried in the middle that I won't spoil, though when I saw Nickel Creek live they embedded "The Weight" and not this seemingly more compatible choice.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Birthday Greetings

Five years ago today I wrote this. I've come a long way since then. The ensuing 3,300+ posts have been a real-time education in both learning how to blog and how to write and think about film. I'm very pleased that Mostly Movies has evolved into being more about my own writing as opposed to a collection of links, and if you have commented, voiced support, or just been a silent reader then I thank you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't Say This In a Hollywood Pitch Meeting

From the AV Club, Abbas Kiarostami :

AVC: You’ve said in the past that you’re not offended if people sleep during your films, as long as they dream about them afterward.

AK: I’ve said that many times, and I’m not sure if it has been understood right, because very often they take that as a joke, whereas I mean it. I really think that I don’t mind people sleeping during my films, because I know that some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing. It’s not to be taken badly at all. This is something I really mean. But the kind of sleep that I had during my own film screening in Cannes is different. It’s not because of the specificity of the film. It was because of my relationship as an author to this film. Usually when I take my films to festivals, I feel incredibly anxious about them. I wonder how it will be received, how the audience will react. I feel deeply responsible for them. Whereas this time, I didn’t have that responsibility on my shoulders. I saw this French woman, this English man in Italy. It was a film I knew well, but I had already seen it, and I was familiar with it, and I had no feeling of anxiety or responsibility toward it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cimino's Folly

No, not Heaven's Gate, but the wildly uneven parts of Michael Cimino's Oscar winner The Deer Hunter set in Vietnam. For me the first 70 minutes or so (before Vietnam) are just about perfect, a kind of short story about small town dreams at a point in our history where it seemed like things might go on the way they were forever. After that, things go downhill... (Cinema Styles)

The primary criticism was that the portrayal of the Viet Cong captors, as well as the Vietnamese roulette gamblers, was racist and one-sided. The secondary criticism, and one that you'll find repeated in one review after another, was that there was no documentation of Russian roulette ever being forced on POWs. The secondary criticism goes hand in hand with the first. That is, by inventing such a cruel device to portray the captors and free-market gamblers of Vietnam, they are caricatured as animals beyond redemption. The implication seems to be that there was plenty of horrific behavior on the part of the Viet Cong to show without having to make something up. One need but read up on the activities at the Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton) to know this to be true. So by devising the roulette game, the film was able to implicate both the North and the South Vietnamese in the cruelty, since both seem intoxicated by it.

In his defense of this criticism, on the commentary soundtrack of the DVD, Cimino states that the film is surrealistic and not intended to be "about Vietnam" any more than Apocalypse Now was or The Bridge on the River Kwai was about World War II. It is, he says, entirely fictional and the captors and citizen gamblers are but metaphors for a bigger picture (well, obviously - everything's a metaphor in the movie).

Cinderella Storyteller

I'd be curious to know more about how the style of basketball broadcaster Gus Johnson came from work with an acting coach. (NYT)

This is reflected in his style, which Johnson described as: “Emotional. Passionate. Noncritical. Fair. A little crazy. A lot crazy. A little wild.” For years, he tried to sound witty, like ESPN anchors, or let the pictures speak for themselves. Yet his best success came when he acted like himself.

Johnson learned that, in part, from his acting coach, Douglas Turner-Ward, who founded the Negro Ensemble Company, and later worked with Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Turner-Ward taught Johnson to listen to events around him, to better feel and attach emotions to them.

They worked on monologues and debated philosophy. Johnson discovered that broadcasting and acting were built from the same components. “There’s a genuine sense that he’s not only there, but involved in it and spontaneous,” Turner-Ward said. “Same with actors. To be effective, the audience must believe in what you’re doing, while you’re doing it.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau is based on a Philip K. Dick story written in the 1950's, when it really did feel like men in gray suits were controlling the world. Men like Thompson (Terence Stamp), who explains to the up-and-coming politician David Norris (Matt Damon) that the "Adjustment Bureau" exists because giving humans free will hasn't worked out so well. Norris is running for Senate and being mentioned as a Presidential candidate; his love for Elise (Emily Blunt), a dancer he meets by chance on a losing election night, doesn't conform to the Bureau's "plan" and threatens to derail not only his future but Elise's as well. The Adjustment Bureau is set in a gray, featureless New York where it's easy to believe that the population is being manipulated by forces unknown, and Matt Damon tamps his own performance down so that when David is awakened to love the rush of emotion is as startling to him as it is to us. If the best science fiction is set in a world only a few feet to the left of what's normal then the movie is a great success. There's little more to Thompson and his colleagues (led by John Slattery and Anthony Mackie) than their hats (the source of their power) and the Bureau agents' network of doors, which can be made to lead anywhere. The Bureau's omnipotence is frightening at first, but Nolfi doesn't quite know what to do with them. Limits on the amount of "ripples" the Bureau agents can cause with their interference mean that Slattery's Agent Richardson can disrupt the reunion between David and Elise but a kiss between the lovers can create enough genuine feeling to stop his actions. The plan it seems can also be changed, at the whim of a never seen "Chairman".

The Adjustment Bureau becomes a running back-and-forth (and there's a lot of running) between David's "I want Elise!" and the Bureau's "But you really shouldn't." The worst consequence of David pursing a relationship with Elise seems to be that he won't become President of the United States; oddly enough that has also been the result of several choices in my own life. Though Nolfi's ideas stay on the level of college dorm bull session, the heart of The Adjustment Bureau beats in Emily Blunt. Blunt really should play contemporary roles; what's at stake in the movie is reflected in her eyes as she goes after her career dreams and the man she loves without anyone telling her she has to make a choice. Though The Adjustment Bureau is refreshing in its low-key choices, George Nolfi is a little too willing to sacrifice what's special about the world he made for an ending full of running.

UPDATE - I don't usually take the time to do this, but I just deleted four spam comments. Happy reading!

Tree of Life Images

Sorry, no dinosaurs. Instead, here are about 70 candid images from the set of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life that seem consistent with the look and feel of the trailer.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Music: Jessica Lea Mayfield - "Our Hearts Are Wrong"

I love this; it's my first exposure to the buzzed about singer-songwriter who has worked with The Black Keys and toured with Ray LaMontagne and The Avett Brothers among others. I'll be picking up her new CD Tell Me.

Writing is Rewriting

Tom Stoppard, still editing Arcadia and still thinking about the audience. (NYT/photo by Amie Stamp)

Still, those three minutes trouble him. “When you write, it’s making a certain kind of music in your head,” he explained. “There’s a rhythm to it, a pulse, and on the whole I’m writing to that drum, rather than the psychological process” — the time it takes for one character to digest and respond to what another said — “which creates its own drumbeat.”

Mr. Stoppard, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love,” admires the split-second timing in Hollywood’s classic comedies like “It Happened One Night” or “His Girl Friday.”

“They’re completely truthful, but they’re completely unreal because they just go boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” he said, rapidly clapping his hands in time. “It would be completely inappropriate for ‘Arcadia,’ but at the same time there are moments when you think, ‘Just do that with that line.’ ”

Seasons of Leigh

I think this poster gets in wrong in lumping Another Year in with Mike Leigh's films of "quotidian struggle". Tom and Gerri, the happy couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen that's at the center of Another Year, don't have much to struggle with; they're both contentedly employed and enjoy the pleasures of day in the garden or a meal with their son and his girlfriend. Things are so right with Broadbent's Tom in particular that he can't stand the intrusion of his wife's friend Mary (Lesley Manville). The scenes in which Mary invades Tom and Gerri's home are edited so that we linger just long enough on Broadbent's forced smile to get the point. Tom's reaction to his overweight and drunken friend Ken (Peter Wight) is more complicated: Tom suggests a walking trip to get Ken's mind off his troubles, but he still can't conceal his disappointment at the unhappy mess his friend has become. Leigh has excised anything that might provide narrative energy or tension from the center of his film and left us in the same situation as Tom and Gerri, with nothing to do but watch life go by. (My review of Another Year)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Criterion #520: Everlasting Moments

Jan Troell's fact-based Everlasting Moments is the kind of foreign language film one might settle in with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's gorgeously shot (by Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov), languidly paced, and episodic. It's the kind of film a viewer overdosed on Hollywood action movies and romantic comedies might deride as "slow" or "pointless", and it concerns itself with things Hollywood films so often ignore: work, class, the complexities of marriage, and economic reality. Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a Finnish woman living in Sweden, wins a camera in a lottery at the turn of the last century. A few years later Maria attempts to sell the camera out of necessity, only to encounter a kindly photographer named Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) who persuades her to begin to take pictures. Maria and her children are at the mercy of Maria's erratic, alcoholic husband Sigfrid (the excellent Mikael Persbrandt), a skilled laborer who has no trouble finding work but keeps getting in his own way. The picture taking begins as merely an outlet for Maria but soon becomes a lifeline, as Maria begins to realize she can make money from her camera.

Troell doesn't make the mistake of overstating Larsson's talent, or her awareness of it. There's one haunting picture, taken at the request of a neighbor, of a recently deceased girl lying in state with other children peering in a window; yet even that shot comes by accident. Most of the pictures Maria takes are portraits or snapshots; Maria can't see how expressive they are but we can. it isn't until well into Everlasting Moments that Maria starts getting paid for her pictures. To her the photography is something she has to do, not a means of making some statement or setting herself apart. The movie's sepia-toned look calls our attention to the pictures though; this was a time when an picture meant something more than Facebook currency. Maria Heiskanen gives a square-jawed performance that becomes moving when Maria is standing up to her husband or awkwardly reaching out to Pedersen. Mikael Persbrandt as Sigfrid almost steals the movie; Sigfrid is a slave to his flaws but smart enough to realize that Maria is holding the family together. Every frame of Everlasting Moments is crammed with subtle details; Troell hasn't broken new stylistic ground but rather created a small and very human gem.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ron Sexsmith

There's a new documentary about the singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith called Love Shines, which (according to this) misses some chances to bring Sexsmith's work to a wider audience and to explore the financial realities of being a critics' darling. Without a superb public radio station in my area I probably never would have discovered Sexsmith, and I can only urge fans of Elvis Costello, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Earle (who all appear in Love Shines) to seek out Sexsmith's work. I picked the clip above to point out the dilemma Sexsmith is in. When Elvis Costello likes you, a TV appearance means playing someone else's song.

The recording of Long Player Late Bloomer serves only as an ineffective framing device, closing with a couple of title cards that tell of how the record was deemed too "indie" by a major label and too "mainstream" by an independent label before eventually finding smaller labels for distribution. Whatever stakes there may have been to the album's success are undercut by this abrupt end to the film. And rather than exploring any of Sexsmith's insecurities or anxieties in any depth, those issues are merely touched on in passing, with the bulk of the film's runtime devoted instead to archival touring footage from the mid aughts and interview after interview with collaborators eager to pontificate about Sexsmith's genius.

It isn't that Sexsmith's work isn't worthy of the praise, and the film certainly includes enough of his music to showcase the effortless purity of the melodies he writes and the uncommon sensitivity of his singing voice. But Love Shines repeatedly makes the point that Sexsmith is an artist with a small, devoted cult following, which raises questions about Arrowsmith's decision to make "Ron Sexsmith is amazing!" his film's thesis. The majority of those who would seek out a documentary on Ron Sexsmith are, more likely than not, already members of that small, devoted cult following.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The science of fiction

I don't really know much about Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, but after reading this Peter Bogdanovich post I know that "Lemmy Caution" (Eddie Constantine) was the hero of a series of pulp detetctive films. Godard appropriated the character and the actor for the science fiction of Alphaville, which Bogdanovich thinks is superior sci-fi because of its insistence on not sweating the details.

High among the main qualities I like in the few vintage science-fiction films I remember fondly—-such as Howard Hawks’ The Thing, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Godard’s Alphaville—-is the essential everyday reality they all conjure up so convincingly. Which leads to another paradox: Alphaville is heavily stylized throughout, in performance, technique, photography, but still it convinces because of the personal viewpoint brilliantly sustained, the consistency of the world presented, the banal ordinariness even in its weird terror, the utter lovelessness. In the city of Alphaville, love is not only forbidden, it is forgotten. Emotions of any kind are outlawed because only logical thinking is allowed. People are viciously executed for crying when a loved one dies.

Take a look at the trailer above and tell me all trailers shouldn't be a minute long.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Other countries make films too

Juliette Binoche on Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and what she sees in certain other directors. (Slant)

Slant: Your bio mentions a Spielberg part you were offered in Jurassic Park and had to turn down because you were committed to another film at the time. Would you like to work with Spielberg some day?

JB: Yeah, yeah, I would love to. But he's not that interested in women. He's not a feminine director, I think—as Abbas is, completely. I think [Kiarostami] is in need of understanding women, or getting close to them. Spielberg feels like he's more into action, more male-oriented—capturing the world, or thinking about the world, or political subjects.

On the same site I'm also intrigued by this review of Binoche's latest film, Kiarostami's Certified Copy. I don't feel like I knoiw anything concrete about the film, but I know I have to see it.

Certified Copy is enough to guilt any critic, even ones who aren't starved for pleasure or thrive on reprogramming their readers, but that would suggest that Kiarostami, one of our great humanist filmmakers, is a man of judgment—or that he's talking only to the people who critique his work. This is a film whose slyness derives from its flabbergasting sense of framing, overlapping visual textures, and ever-peeling layers of thought, so that from moment to moment—no, shot to shot—there's this dizzying sense that the characters are at once talking to themselves, their maker, and the audience that beholds them. And as in a scene where She, sitting inside a restaurant, looks out toward the street at a couple celebrating their nuptials, or perhaps at her reflection in the mirror, or perhaps us in the audience, one gets the sense of Kiarostami's own image as a sort of mirror, one that reflects, exposes even, our deepest anxieties and wants.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Quick reaction to R.E.M.'s Collapse Into Now

The release of R.E.M.'s Collapse Into Now has brought up some old memories, and I've been tweeting  thoughts and impressions all day. If you didn't live through it, it's difficult to imagine how far removed a "college" band like R.E.M. felt from the mainstream in 1987. I was still a Top 40/Classic Rock loving know-nothing around the time that I started seeing kids at school wearing cryptic T-shirts with the word "Document" on the front. Discovering the obscure, kudzu-adorned lyrics of Michael Stipe was like finding a treasure (and I also found plenty of other great music around that time); the anxiety around the band's subsequent signing with a major label seems remarkable by today's everyone-has-a-My Space standards. Would they still be "alternative" enough? R.E.M.'s signing with Warner Brothers feels like the beginning of the end of Our Band Could Be Your Life culture of the early 1980's, with the ascension of Nirvana being the final bell. A few years later Out Of Time and Automatic For The People arrived, and it felt a little like the world was adjusting to me rather than the other way around. Sure, the years after New Adventures in Hi-Fi were cause for some gritted teeth. It felt like the band lost energy - the health-related departure of drummer Bill Berry didn't help - and didn't recover their old confidence until the quickly recorded Accelerate in 2008.

Now comes the accurately titled Collapse Into Now, which almost certainly has to be counted as the best R.E.M. album in 15 years. (Or 20, depending on how forgiving you are. Around The Sun is the competition after all.) It's an energetic, self-aware album that recalls past successes but also sounds very much like a band that doesn't think it's a museum piece. "I can feel that/just the slightest bit of finesse/might have made a little less mess/but it was what it was" sings Stipe on the opening track "Discoverer", letting us know this isn't one of the band's too-pretty albums of the past decade. "I think/I'll sing and rhyme/I'll give it one more time" he adds on "All The Best". The most overtly retro tracks on Collapse Into Now feature Buck's mandolin, and I don't know whether an early-1990's Stipe could have written a song like "Oh My Heart", which reverses some lyrics from the previous album's "Houston" ("The storm didn't kill me/The government changed") and finds Stipe at a place of midlife contentment ("Mother and father, I stand beside you/the good of this word might help see me through/this place, needs me here, to start/this place, is the beat, of my heart") The second half of Collapse Into Now is a bit more uneven, with weird guest stars (Peaches) and nonsense songs ("Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter"). The Patti Smith/Stipe collaboration "Blue" might do better on a non-R.E.M. album. But my objections are minor; Collapse Into Now finds R.E.M. as lively as they've been in years, determined to soldier on in their own sweet way.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Dept. of Quotes Never Die

The hypocrisy behind Mike Huckabee's anti-NP, anti-single mom rant. (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Mike Huckabee, in 2008, on Bristol Palin having a child with a man she was engaged to, before they'd actually married:

"It ought to be a reminder that here is a family that loves one another. They stuck with each other though the tough times and that's what families do." ... Huckabee said the surprise pregnancy announcement should not affect vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's support in the conservative and religious right communities. ... "I'm grateful for the way she's being supported by her family."

On a lighter note, a Black Swan producers' assistant shares some inside stories. (Mat Arney)

A ballet dancer in her youth, she had the core skills and worked herself into the ground for months and months to re-shape herself into a ballerina. The girl did not stop. In fact there is a physiotherapy scene in the movie where she is having a quite graphic rib examination. This was not acted. Darren asked the physio if he could film Natalie, not her character Nina, being assessed for an actual injury she received during filming when she was lifted awkwardly. This not only demonstrates the rigours she went though, but highlights what I found to be the most fascinating element of being involved with this film; the techniques Darren Aronofsky uses on his cast.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sunday Music: R.E.M. - "I Believe"

New album Collapse Into Now out Tuesday; review here.

Almost exactly three years ago, REM released Accelerate, an album that put the brakes on the band’s creative decline by shifting the pace up a gear. Collapse Into Now doesn’t merely match that late-career renaissance; it outstrips it completely by tweaking the distinctive musical components that, over the years, have thrust the Georgia natives from alt.rock college darlings into the pole position of global superstars.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


When we first meet the chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), title character of Gore Verbinski's new animated film, he's putting on plays with only the unresponsive contents of his tank for audience or company. Fate sends Rango into the Mojave Desert, to a town called Dirt that's populated by animals who all embody familiar types from Western films. Rango's made up exploits land him the job of town sheriff, but of course his greatest role reveals this chameleon's true colors. Rango the film is a pleasantly surprising hybrid of allusions and tones, one that isn't afraid to entertain adults (at least those with long cinematic memories) while winning younger audiences with a streak of broad humor. Rango doesn't know who he is when he arrives in Dirt, and Verbinski takes his cue from Eastwood's Man with No Name films; there's even a character called "The Spirit of the West" (Timothy Olyphant) who 's a riff on Eastwood, driving around the desert with his Oscars in a golf cart. The other cinematic forebearer of Rango is, surprisingly, Chinatown. "Control the water, control the desert," says the Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty), an elderly turtle styled after John Huston's Noah Cross. The disappearance of Dirt's water takes Rango further into the desert and to a raid on the stronghold of a gang of prospectors whose blind leader (Harry Dean Stanton) is some sort of undefinable desert creature. Verbinski pulls off a couple of action sequences as well put together as anything I've seen recently, and doesn't hesisiate to throw in a sight gag as subtle as the sharing of a single bean (more than ample for the group) among Rango and his posse. Johnny Depp is considerably more animated here than at any point during The Tourist, and Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin do their part to keep up the new standard for fast talking women in Westerns. Rango wears its influences lightly on its sleeves, and doesn't invite us to laugh cheaply or meanly. Is Mr. Eastwood available for Part 2?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Barney's Version

There must be something inherently Canadian about Barney's Version, directed by Richard J. Lewis from a novel by Mordecai Richler. If the thrice-married TV producer Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti in a Golden Globe winning turn) were American, he'd find time in his protracted midlife crisis to rail against God or have an affair with a graduate student. Barney's Version has its share of dramatic plot points, like a confrontation between Barney and his friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), but they arise out of a sense of everyday life spinning just slightly out of control as opposed to a screenwriter's need for an act break. The movie is structured as a sprint to find Barney's true love Miriam (Rosamund Pike), whom Barney meets at his wedding to the from-money daughter (Minnie Driver) of a member of Montreal's Jewish community, followed by Barney's attempts to win and then hold onto the woman he first propositioned while she was reading Herzog on a train. Giamatti's Barney is by turns irascible and selfish, but also capable of great tenderness and possessed of a healthy appetite for physical affection. It's a more expansive role than Giamatti is usually allowed, and he makes the most of it. Giamatti beautifully underplays the older Barney's confusion at forgetting the death of a friend, earlier he has a wonderful moment of anger (displaced guilt really) with his father-in-law (Saul Rubinek).

Special mention must be made of two other cast members. As Barney's father Izzy, Dustin Hoffman gets to a show an too often hidden comic side and steals the dinner table scene at which Barney meets his arrogant in-laws. It's to the movie's credit that we never exactly figure out exactly what kind of father Izzy was but understand how much Barney needed him around. Rachelle Lefevre is around for a few scenes as Barney's ill-fated first wife Clara, and this role is the answer to the trivia question of what got Lefevre fired from the Twilight series. Barney's Version rolls to a stop more than it ends, but there's no shame in that. Paul Giamatti makes this Version one worth hearing.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Change Partners

I've been meaning to get to this for awhile, but I very much like this piece lamenting the break up of the great art project that was the White Stripes and celebrating the mysteries of collaboration. Whatever one might think of Meg White, perhaps the last great unknowable rock star, it seems clear that Jack White regarded what Meg added to (or took away from) the White Stripes' music as invaluable to his own creative energy.

What I’ve always appreciated about The White Stripes is that while Jack White maintains a carefully constructed public persona, his approach to music is more of-the-moment. He’s never been a big one for set lists, or for spending a year writing songs, then heading into a studio to record them. Each White Stripes album is—or was—a document of the weeks Jack and Meg spent on it, and of whatever they were inspired to do during that time. Like a painter who gets booked for a gallery show and then frantically starts filling up canvases, Jack and Meg didn’t start a White Stripes record until they’d cleared their schedules and blocked out the studio time.

White will do just fine in other bands, but those bands won't have White's astringent sense of enforced spontaneity as a limitation - or as a gateway. As bands learn to survive on niche audiences, the audience for the White Stripes' unironic intensity will be badly underserved.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Acting is a job, people

Michael Caine on Get Carter, and the reason for choosing some of his more infamous roles. (Sabotage Times/Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Q: You’ve well over 100 movies to your name. Are there films of yours you think have been unfairly overlooked?

A: Yeah, there are a few. I made a film with Sean Young a while back called Blue Ice which I liked but nobody really took any notice of. I thought Without A Clue was very funny and should have been a much bigger hit. And then there was The Last Valley, which a very good film. It was written and directed by James Clavell, the guy who wrote Shogun. I made it around the time I made Get Carter, but it should be pretty clear which of those films I get asked about more often.