Thursday, June 30, 2011

Zeppelin & an apology

Sorry posting has fallen off the table, but I'm in rehearsal and haven't had time to see films anyway. For the moment, please enjoy Chuck Klosterman on the end of Led Zeppelin. (Grantland)

There's no one (alive or dead) who can compete with John Bonham, particularly in terms of one's ability to be very, very, very loud without being the least bit deafening (he's always present, but never distracting). I don't think I've ever met a drummer who didn't love his work, which isn't the case with any other high-reputation hard rock percussionist I can think of.10 Yet Bonham's a troubling figure: Because he's dead, everybody wants to remember him fondly, even though half the stories I've ever heard about the guy seem to focus on other people stopping Bonham from stomping a man to death or raping a stewardess at random. In Mick Wall's book When Giants Walked the Earth, a French record executive recounts a story in which Bonham offered him cocaine, but — as a joke — actually gave him heroin. "He thought that was the funniest thing," recalled the executive. "He would take a chance on killing you!"

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Tree of Life

There is at least one more Terrence Malick film waiting for us, but The Tree of Life has the feeling of a both of a summing up and a reckoning. Impressionistic, sensual, and at its best deeply moving, The Tree of Life is the enigmatic Malick's attempt to come to grips with his own life and with the dualities that have recurred again and again in his work. "Civilization" to Malick means the way that men wage war in the unspoiled Pacific in The Thin Red Line or impose their will on the Native Americans in The New World; the gap between nature's power and man's natural drives both perplexes and saddens him. The Tree of Life is cards on the table time. Malick isn't shy about pointing out (in a long prehistoric interlude) that a will to survive means someone else won't, but he's also unafraid to take us back to the beginning of his own story.

First the hard stuff. If you're new to Malick then the extended depiction of the creation of the world might confuse or numb you, but stay with it. Malick has always embedded his films in a place as opposed to just setting them somewhere, and this bold early section (with some stellar nature photography) is his attempt to depict just how long the forces that occupy him have been with us. The Tree of Life is bookended by scenes of Jack (a dazed looking Sean Penn) wandering around a modern American city. We never know exactly what Jack's trouble is in the present, but the warm beating heart of The Tree of Life lies in 1950's Texas. Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is bathed in the love of his mother (Jessica Chastain in an indelible and almost silent performance) and alternately fascinated and disgusted by his bitter father (Brad Pitt). Chastain represents the "way of grace" (one of two choices Malick sees in the world); ethereal and almost too idealized by half, but remember we're seeing her from a child's point of view. Pitt's father follows "the way of nature". He's a loving man but his failures compel him to teach his children that life is a battleground. This long central section of the film is a cascade of images and sounds, Malick doesn't allow us the luxury of watching. Instead we're immersed in the childhood of Jack and his brothers, and Malick films their young lives the way we might remember our own. Jack's childhood is a series of moments alternately wonderful and confusing, and as in his recent films Malick uses voice over to reveal character rather than advance the narrative. The criticism that Malick's characters all sound too much alike is an unfair one to me, he's using their voices to explore different sides of an argument.

In Malick's world the loss of innocence comes to everyone; the scenes of young Jack breaking into a neighbor's house or shooting a BB gun with his brother (Laramie Eppler) have a dark magnetism. If Malick missteps it's in trying to comment on modernity; the segments with Penn lack the organic feel of the Texas section and the ending isn't quite as moving as it should be. I'm more than willing to forgive the overreach, since there's never a moment when I didn't sense a controlling mind at work. The Tree of Life contains multitudes but it's also a personal and deeply specific work, one that confirms Terrence Malick's reputation as the idiosyncratic genius of American film.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Finishing School

What did Sofia Coppola learn about actors from her role in The Godfather Part III? (The Talks)

Q: Your father sort of pushed you to replace Winona Ryder and take a role in Godfather 3. Was that a traumatic experience?

A: It was hard because I was 18 and the last thing you want to do at that age is listen to what your parents say. My dad was directing me, so it was awkward because I am not naturally an actress but I just wanted to try everything and wasn’t expecting that so many people would look at it. I grew up with The Godfather as a familiar thing but to me it wasn’t this iconic masterpiece. It was a learning experience but since I never wanted to be an actress it wasn’t devastating for me that people generally weren’t too fond of me being in it. After all it was good because these kinds of experiences make you stronger.

Q: So even after being in such a big movie it never occurred to you to proceed with film as a career? It would have been pretty easy probably…

A: I never wanted to before, and afterwards I was already planning to go to art school. But the experience helps now working with actors. At least I have a little bit of an idea what they are going through since my father directed me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The Oscar-nominated film Incendies begins in Canada but is primarily set in Lebanon. I didn't know that when I was watching; I had to look it up on Wkipedia and that's a problem. Denis Villeneuve's story of a mother (Lubna Azabal) and her two childrens' quest to understand her is so lax and unspecific about political issues that Azabal's remarkable performance as the radicalized student Nawal Marwan carries insufficient weight. Years later, Nawal's daughter Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and son Simon (Maxim Gaudette) learn from their mother's will that their father and brother are still alive. The bulk of Incendies (adapted from a play) follows Jeanne and Simon on a search through their mother's past. The horrors visited on Nawal are so baroque and overdetermined that any comment on the madness of war or Middle Eastern conflict rings hollow. The film is rich with plot and incident, but Villeneuve's control over the flow of information is shaky and an attentive viewer will get ahead of the characters sooner or later as the mysteries begin to unfold themselves. I'm not surprised that Incendies got U.S. distribution or an Oscar nomination; it's slow, dignified, and concerned with an "important" subject. What disappoints is Villeneuve's laziness in taking a side and his willingness to let the film feel so self-important. Incendies badly wants  to make a statement but is too concerned with playing to the crowd.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On The Killing

Let us stipulate that last night's season finale of The Killing wasn't good. The episode felt rushed and random, grabbing at plot threads that hadn't been fully explored (Holder's weird phone calls, the death of Richmond's wife) in what felt like a desperate attempt to make us say, "Oh, that's what that meant." The Internet hoo-ha over the last minute twists and the show's gradual slide into what felt like aimlessness has gone beyond bickering over specific plot points, thanks to showrunner Veena Sud's defensive interviews and apparent blinders regarding what's going on around her. Sud's statement that she doesn't pay attention to the Internet's temperature regarding The Killing is actually refreshing; given the sheer numbers of those who review the brush strokes and not the paintings of episodic television. No showrunner who spent their nights scrolling through Twitter feeds could ever hope to please everyone.

What's much weirder and more troubling (as pointed out here) are Sud's blatant attempts to tie certain choices to plot twists on other AMC shows:

I always wanted to do an episode where we would get to know our lead better, and would get to spend time, and in fact be forced to spend time in a situation with both these characters, and the sparing amounts of information we were given with Sarah, finally start to get some answers about who this woman is, why she does what she does, why she's a cop, ultimately. Her inner nature. It was also deeply inspired by the "Mad Men" episode with Don and Peggy in one night and the "Breaking Bad" episode where Jesse and Walter are stuck in the desert and dying. It's very much an AMC tradition, to take this rapid, unexpected detour from what we think might be a linear story, and find ourselves, as Walter and Jesse did, lost and trying to make sense. I loved that, I thought that was such a brilliant episode, and I wanted to do something like that.

I don't know that I think Sud owes us and explanation for choices made in last night's episode, especially since it seems she was always sure she'd have more time to tell her story. But the above quote sounds like a writer determined to keep her show on the air at any cost, even by drawing from other shows on her network. (Imagine an episode of The Sopranos in which Carmela befriends four fashion-conscious friends from the City and goes to bed with a sensitive carpenter.) What I would like from Sud is some sense that she has a grasp on where the overall arc of the show is going and what it's about, even in the vaguest of terms, and I didn't get that. I can understand why AMC renewed the show, even if only because it was generating more buzz than Rubicon, but I'll need convincing that Sud has the talent to save The Killing from all those tweets.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Anna's New Chapter

I was trying to think of a title for this post that didn't play on the word "bloody"; eventually I just threw up my hands. True Blood would be unimaginable without Anna Paquin, and the happy Oscar winner may have found herself thanks to Alan Ball's Gothic vision. (NYT)

Mr. Ball said Ms. Paquin’s commitment to what could seem a ghoulish affair was essential to his vision, that it not be bodice-ripping “lady porn,” as romance novels are sometimes unfairly branded, but “about the terrors of intimacy.” And, he said, “it certainly helped that she and Stephen were falling in love in real life over the course of the first season, in helping sell that romance because it was so genuine.”

Ms. Paquin and Mr. Moyer, 41, announced their engagement in 2009 and were married in 2010 as production wrapped on the third season of “True Blood.” Those milestones buried gossip about whether they were dating, but if they did not quite quell the whispers that they were too far apart in age or should not be together because they are co-workers, Ms. Paquin said she could take that trade.

“You find happiness where you find it,” she said. “And if you’re too scared to take it with potential downsides, I don’t think anyone gets into a relationship that doesn’t have potential difficulties. And if the worst one is that people are going to be staring a little bit more at us in the supermarket, well, it’s a high-class problem.”

Sunday Music: Bruce Springsteen - "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"

From 2007. I suppose "Jungleland" is the obvious choice for a Clarence Clemons tribute, but I couldn't pass this song up since the Big Man (who died yesterday at the age of 69) even rates a mention in the lyrics. Clemons' playing carries this track along, but his interaction with Bruce conveys just as much feeling as any sax solo. I'm glad I got to see Clemons, Springsteen, and the E Street Band in 2009. RIP.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Super 8

The mostly pleasing Super 8 is of course a film about childhood, about finding a family when you don't know if you can count on your own and learning to get past what feels like an insurmountable tragedy. J.J. Abrams' unapologetic tribute to early Spielberg is at its best when it's staying close to Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends, who are making a zombie movie in small-town Ohio in the summer of 1979. Working as a make-up man on the movie is a welcome outlet for for Joe, who doesn't know what to say to his deputy sheriff father (perfectly cast Kyle Chandler) since the death of his mother in a workplace accident. Courtney is an appealing, fresh face; so it's good news when Joe becomes the de facto leader of his friends after the group witnesses the crash of a military train while they're filming a scene. What's next involves a biology teacher (Glynn Turman) with a past, a military officer (Noah Emmerich) with an agenda, and a county full of disappearing dogs. Joe has also caught the attention of Alice (Elle Fanning), who was present at the train crash thanks to Joe's best friend and the movie's director Charles (Riley Griffiths). Fanning's passing resemblance to a young Drew Barrymore can't have hurt her chances of getting this part, but it's her elegance (you can see why the boys find her irresistible) and reserved sadness that give her attraction to Joe some weight and mark her as a face to watch. (No, I haven't seen Somewhere yet.)

Super 8 is spot-on as a study of the confusions of late childhood, but there's also a monster. I'd be a little more impressed with Abrams' skill and restraint (a pack of running dogs, a glimpse through a garage window) revealing the monster if the same skill and restraint wasn't on display in the Abrams-produced Cloverfield. I wonder if there was any way that Abrams could have met the expectations raised by the series of frights and ominous images (a row of cars with their engines gone); what we get is Joe having a conversation with a monster who looks like a cousin to one of the non-human cast members of Pan's Labyrinth. I don't know what to make of the explicit connection drawn between the monster and Turman's scientist, but they're both presented as misunderstood minorities in a way that's a shade too obvious. But the monster is of course a vehicle, one that takes us to moments of connection between Joe and his dad and between Alice and her alcoholic father (Ron Eldard). Super 8 may feel awfully familiar as a creature feature, but as a study of the way childhood feels it's something we haven't seen in some time and probably better than we deserve in a superhero-heavy summer. I don't know whether or not J.J. Abrams' childhood was anything like Spielberg's or like that of the kids from Super 8, but in any event Abrams has learned his lessons well.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dept. of Hilarious Internet Overthinking

Read on to learn why I think Nicki Minaj is weird, scary, and maybe a little bit awesome. (Singles Jukebox)

Asher Steinberg: Leaving the hook aside for a minute, I suppose it’s unfair to hold Nicki’s tendency to lapse into really traditional heterosexual narratives against her. Nothing requires her to be the standard-bearer for gender role bending; nothing says she can’t try to be the mildly racy 2011 equivalent of the Chiffons. The trouble is that she’s just no good at it. To pull off something like “He’s So Fine,” one needs to actually sound attracted. Nikki, notably, isn’t capable of doing the song without framing it in some odd fictive world in which she’s an English girl who has a “thing for American guys,” as if she can’t even rap about liking guys of her own nationality without employing a Brechtian distancing device. As for the hook, it continues pop’s dully self-reflexive trend, pioneered by Britney, of likening throbbing hearts to musical instruments. A comment on the history of the trend: decades ago, rappers started rapping about the aphrodisiac powers of 808 drums, or the ascetic virtues of their DJ’s record-scratching. When rappers did that, it wasn’t this cute self-reflexive reference to the means of their music’s production; rather, like classic rock homages to guitars, rapping about 808s or scratching was a way of talking about the cultural history of those instruments, and about the values they embodied. But when a Britney, or a Nicki Minaj, neither of whom have ever touched an 808 or bass synth, liken their beating hearts to bass, they trivialize the sentiments their similes supposedly are meant to evoke, in the same way that locating every song in the club saps the sentiments contained in those songs of any ramifications outside of the club.

The Director's Cut

We're all better off for the fact that Emmanuel Lubezki likes to talk about his work with Terrence Malick; here the cinematographer heralds a director's cut of The Tree of Life and previews future Malick projects. (Film Stage)

One of the most illustrious film magazines on the face of the earth, Les Cahiers du Cinéma, got a chance to talk to The Tree of Life team (minus Malick of course), and a fascinating detail emerged. Translated by nlvg of IMDb, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (reportedly on the set of Alfonso Cuaron‘s currently shooting Gravity), revealed that after an initial cut of eight hours, Malick is currently in the process of making a six-hour version of the film. The additions would mostly focus on the middle portion of the film where we follow Jack (Hunter McCracken) as he grows up in 1950s Texas under the guidance of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s characters.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kushner at length

Noah Millman finds Tony Kushner's lengthily titled new play (aka iHomo) to be a vehicle for the author's weaknesses and trouble with emotions. At four hours I wonder if the show is worth the trouble, but what other American dramatist would be allowed to attempt something on this scale these days? (Millman's Shakesblog)

And that’s the biggest problem I have with Kushner’s work. I am oppressed by a lack of direct access to his characters’ feelings. Oh, they feel, don’t get me wrong. Heck, even Shaw’s characters have feelings. But though they think and talk endlessly, they have precious little understanding. Especially of their erotic desires which, in Kushner’s world, come off not only as unreasonable but operating entirely against sense. Pill is beloved by a rent boy, Eli. What’s that love about? I don’t even mean why does he love him - I don’t know how anybody answers that - I mean what is their love? How is it shaped? When does it flower? I don’t have the foggiest idea from the play - desire is just a fact. The heart wants what it wants. And this is the way every character talks about desire - why did V, the youngest son, sleep with Maeve, his lesbian sister’s partner?

"...disappear into the fabric of something else."

David Fincher and Christopher Nolan on Terrence Malick. If Jessica Chastain's face is the most enduring image of a movie in 2011, then I'm Ok with that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Natalie is a Mother

Natalie Portman gives birth to a son. (MSNBC)

The beautiful actress and her fiancé, dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, whom she met on the “Black Swan” set, have welcomed their long-awaited arrival, People was first to report.

No details were immediately available on when or where the couple’s child was born.

Portman will no doubt be relieved over her baby’s birth, as she revealed to Access Hollywood in April she was experiencing some pregnancy pains.

Carpetbagger defends Grey Lady

David Carr of the New York Times talks to Aaron Sorkin about addiction, movies, and journalism the old-fashioned way. Note to self: Read Carr's Night of the Gun. (Interview)

SORKIN: I don’t want to dwell on that, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s an uncommon route that you took to the Times. How much time do you have now?

CARR: I’m five years sober. I had 13 years, and that was off of being sort of poly-addicted. I was a low-bottom crackhead, sobered up for 13 years, and then decided to try to be a nice, suburban alcoholic and see how that would go. That lasted . . . Well, it ended in handcuffs, so it didn’t go great. But I have about five-and-a-half years back now.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dept. of It's Great the Internet Exists

After the revelation that a Syrian LGBT blog was a hoax, two actual activists from the from the country explain why that's a problem. (Gay Middle East)

To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really… Shame on you!!!

To the readers and the western media I say, there are authentic people in the Middle East who are blogging and reporting stories about the situation in their countries. You should pay attention to these people.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Midnight in Paris

The gentle and melancholy Midnight in Paris feels like a summing up for Woody Allen, though the director shows no signs of slowing down his productivity. (Allen's next project stars Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, and Jesse Eisenberg.) The would-be novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) is the latest creatively unfulfilled Allen stand-in, though Wilson's laid-back line readings don't recall Allen too much. Gil, a screenwriter fed up with Hollywood, thinks of Paris in the 1920's the same way Allen reveres Ingmar Bergman and the European directors he encountered in the New York art houses of his youth. Gil's fantasies of moving to Paris to write don't sit well with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) or her monied parents and it appears that Gil may be locked into a life of well-paid hackwork.  Allen has never been shy about introducing magic into his films, for better or for worse, and it's to the good here when Gil gets lost on an evening walk and encounters a strange car that whisks him to a party where he's soon drinking with F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald and a host of other Jazz Age luminaries. Over the next few nights Gil meets everyone from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and develops a yen for Picasso's muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who isn't happy with the Twenties and would happily return to Belle Epoque Paris if she could.

Allen wisely doesn't waste too much time explaining how Gil accounts for his absences to Inez,  who's spending time with the preening American intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen) while Gil rewrites his book and thinks of Adriana. The scenes in the present (McAdams is wasted here, a little dour) eventually become mere interludes; we're as anxious as Gil to return to the energy and creativity of Gertrude's apartment or to the club where Salvador Dali (a broad bit of nonsense from Adrien Brody) threatens to draw Gil as a rhinoceros. Of course life wasn't perfect for any of these geniuses, there's drinking and romantic disaster and a general feeling that best work had already been done. A sequence in which Gil and Adriana journey further back in time (with more cameos from famous artists) is a beautiful little short story of how looking backward can freeze the soul. I suspect Allen is long over any regret that his serious films haven't become as beloved as his comedies, and I can't believe that he'd choose to compete with Bergman at his peak as opposed to mining the last 40 years for a career of frazzled brilliance. It's the disappointments and confusion of modern life that create art; the end of Midnight in Paris finds its hero and his creator at peace and looking forward. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn's last film prior to directing X-Men: First Class was Kick-Ass, in which the choice to put on a mask and fight crime had as much weight the paper the source material graphic novel was printed on. The detailing of Vaughn to the venerable X-Men franchise seems an unlikely choice, given that the saga of mutants fighting for and with humanity hasn't exactly left much room for irony. X-Men: First Class purports to be the group's origin story, and returning to the material's early-1960's roots is welcome change from the usual superhero mayhem in anonymous big cities. I had a little trouble imagining James McAvoy as Charles "Professor X" Xavier turning into the Buddha-like presence that Patrick Stewart provided in the original trilogy, but it's fun to see Xavier as a young man on the make using his powers to pick up women. The telepathic Xavier learns he's not the only mutant after a childhood encounter with the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who's considerably more uptight about her differences since she's forced to constantly conceal her true form. The poignancy of Mystique's situation gets some needed fleshing out here thanks to Lawrence's unshowy work; the character actually transcends the action-figure Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) that Bryan Singer created in his X-Men films.

But what of the series' great theme, the conflict between Xavier's desire for coexistence with humanity and the conviction of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) that humans will rise up against what they don't understand. Fassbender is wonderful as the man destined to become Magneto; he plays the arc of the character coming to grips with his own powers perfectly and is more man than superman until the story resolves itself amidst the chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The choice to revisit Lehnsherr's childhood in the concentration camps was a good one; the Nazi experiments carried out on Lehnsherr by the cruel Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) are the inciting incident in Lehnsherr's belief that people will always fear what's different. Much time is spent on the recruitment and training of a squad of young mutants, most notably Nicholas Hoult as the scientist who will become Beast. These scenes are nimbly played and feel comfortable; we're rooting for these kids and this troupe of appealing young actors. I wish I felt the same about the storyline around Shaw and his attempt to facilitate a nuclear war. Shaw's world is where the movie's production design lets down, his submarine is too glitzy in a bad, Bond-villain kind of way and Bacon plays the role like a bored playboy. January Jones has been receiving all kinds of heat for her turn as the telepathic, diamond-morphing Emma Frost, and while the performance is surprising for its stiffness and unsexiness I can't fault Jones entirely. There is nothing on the page for Jones' character, and like all the movie's women except for Lawrence and Rose Byrne (as CIA agent Moira McTaggart) she's only there to move the story.

X-Men: First Class is ungainly at times, and I don't know that it was entirely necessary. Yet there is more than enough that's good here to warrant a return to this part of the X-Men universe. What role might Xavier play in the Civil Rights Movement, and what was Magneto doing during Vietnam? We're in for a run of big, loud superhero movies at least through 2012, though I have hopes for Captain America. First Class is a sober and thoughtful palate cleanser with just the right amount of mutant spirit.


Bill Simmons at his best: LeBron James's playoff failings in context. We've already seen things happen in this series that would NEVER happen to LeBron's ancestors in the pantheon of NBA greats. (Grantland/Kottke)

A sneering Wade came out firing in Game 3, undaunted by a frenzied Dallas crowd, as if he were saying, "This is MY game tonight, a-holes." Everyone else fell behind him, including LeBron, who threw on a Pippen costume and deferred his butt off. Technically, it was the right move: Wade could score on Jason Kidd anytime he wanted, so that's where they went offensively. But LeBron seemed a little too eager to take a backseat. There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant.6 The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem … name a great player other than Wilt, it just wouldn't have happened.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Big Suit To Fill

Ride, Rise, Roar trailer from ride, rise, roar on Vimeo.

There's a new concert documentary on David Byrne and his tour behind a recent collaborative album with Brian Eno. I love the found-object approach to creativity that Byrne discusses in this interview. (Pitchfork)

Pitchfork: How involved were you in the dancing and choreographers on the Byrne/Eno tour?

DB: My suggestions were pretty loose. I remember early on saying I didn't want things to look too dance-y; if they could do something virtuosic, I wanted that to be done in little bits. I wanted them to be integrated to the band as much as possible-- the stuff they were doing was maybe stuff we could do if we worked out a little more.

I had a hands-off approach with the actual choreography until we were on the road, then wanted to add more stuff, like [choreographer] Annie-B Parson's thing where we're carrying all these office chairs around. We were like, "There's always these office chairs backstage. Can we use those?" And then both of us went to see Deerhoof in Milwaukee and at the end of their show the guitars got held up and there was feedback for 15 seconds. I thought, "Wow, they did a new dance with the guitars. We can do that." Then you take that further.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Saga of Blake and Reese

Reese Witherspoon says her speech at the MTV Movie Awards wasn't directed at Blake Lively, the star of a recent cell phone nude photo scandal. I hope that's true, because Witherspoon (receiving a career achievement award at the time) came off as bitter and shrill just as she's settled domestically and could justifiably be looking forward to a strong second act to her career. I think Witherspoon could pull off a sort of Meryl Streep-like mid-to-late career, mixing well-chosen comedies with dramatic roles and maybe the right high-gloss HBO project. As for Lively, if the pictures are fake she's a victim and if they're real she needs to be more careful. The larger issue is that Lively, being called "trashy" on gossip blogs, is more famous for being pretty even though she's a working actress with solid character work on her resume and a blockbuster with sequel potential around the corner. She's also an in-demand fashion model whose career doesn't need a scandal to get attention. Oh, and how many TV shows (not on CBS) last four seasons? If you don't like Lively that's fine, but she isn't anywhere close to the Kardashian/Hilton Axis of Self-Perpetuating Celebrity. Best of luck to both Witherspoon and Lively. I can't wait for them to work together and for this all to come up again.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Mother's Day

Michael Cunningham on how his mother unlocked the writing of The Hours. (Guardian)

Sitting before my computer, I began to wonder . . . If you removed the ultimate object – for one woman, a novel, for another, a home so perfectly created and maintained that nothing rank or dolorous could ever take root there – you had, essentially, the same effort. That is, the desire to realise an ideal, to touch the supernal, to create something greater than the human hand and mind can create, no matter how gifted those hands and minds might be.

It seemed that in some fundamental way, my mother and Woolf had been engaged in similar enterprises. Both were pursuing impossible ideals. Neither was ever satisfied, because the end result, be it book or cake, did not, could not, match the perfection that seemed to hover just out of reach.

Bergman's Long Shadow

The new stage adaptation of Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly is better for the presence of Carey Mulligan, but the rest of the cast is flatly written and some of Bergman's ideas are flattened. Yes, I'd still see it if I had the chance. (Salon)

Sadly, even Worton's version of Karin is out of tune. Enticed by voices she believes are emanating from just beyond some shabby wallpaper, voices that might be waiting for God, Karin wants to wait with them. In the film, Harriet Andersson is unnerving as Karin, perched right on the precipice between this world and the next; her Karin might be insane, or she might be a modern saint, privileged to hear and perhaps to see what no other human being can. Mulligan's Karin, on the other hand, comes off as run-of-the-mill crazy—which, since Mulligan is such a talented actor, manages to be enough to hold one's attention, if little more.

The son of a minister, Bergman wants to wrestle with God and find out whether He is friend or foe or simply a disinterested bystander. But for Worton, God is, at most, a plot point, just the pervy supernatural entity on the other side of the wallpaper who makes you want to snog your brother.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

On The Slow Train

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott nicely take down the idea that you shouldn't have to think when you go to the movies. Scott asks the most pressing question (Why get so upset about films that are so obviously aimed at a small audience?) but ignores the depressing fact that movies like The Hangover Part II are viewed by corporate-owned studios as marketable commodities, not as works of art. Making major changes to the cast or plot of a successful film for the sequel makes about as much sense as changing the formula for  a popular soft drink. Why do we buy the product? That's another question, but as movies become device-filling content I can't help but think those of us looking for a slow ride will all have to huddle a little closer. together.

My use of the Yi Yi trailer here celebrates a personal favorite film, though while Edward Yang's masterpiece is long and languid it's also positively Dickensian when it comes to plot. I was lucky enough to see Yi Yi in a theater in Greenville, South Carolina. Let that be a lesson to the gatekeepers: Cast a wide enough net and you'll catch an audience when you weren't expecting one.

Sunday Music: My Morning Jacket w/ Erykah Badu - "Wordless Chorus"

From the recent Todd Haynes-directed online concert. The band's new album Circuital is inviting but I need to dig into it more. My favorite MMJ moment is still probably their cameo in the Elizabethtown ballroom scene.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Mr. Malick Is Busy

If you're a projectionist showing Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, the director has some instructions for you. Malick appropriated (with permission) the work of experimental filmmakers for The Tree of Life, but you can't blame him since he was probably thinking about his reportedly much more daring next two films. (Playlist)

24 Frames reports that Malick recently wrapped reshoots and finished photography on the film and that according to their source it is “even more experimental than ‘Tree of Life.’” Of course, that’s fairly vague and could mean anything, but given that Malick has taken fusing drama with much larger spiritual and existential questions in “The Tree Of Life,” we’re not surprised that his next effort may be even more boldly freeform in its approach. But “experimental” means many things to many people so don’t cling to that descriptor too hard.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Hangover Part II

The Hangover Part II is the kind of film that makes critics despair about the sheer banality of most major studio product. The sequel is bigger, louder, and cruder than the original while maintaining none of the scruffy charm that made The Hangover such a surprise. The action is transplanted from Las Vegas to Bangkok but the plot is the same. The "Wolf Pack" wakes up with no memory of the night before, a missing companion, and a few hours to figure it all out before the wedding of Stu (Ed Helms) to an Asian beauty (Jamie Chung) goes South. Various eccentrics pop up on the fringes, most notably the grating Ken Jeong as the gangster Mr. Chow. In the first Hangover Alan (Zach Galifianakis) was a fresh presence, and Galifianakis never went for laughs in obvious ways. This time around Alan is reduced to a needy man-child who can barely function outside of his parents' house, and whose mischief again sets the story in motion. The depressing air of a cash grab permeates the whole enterprise, and I was out the door before the "hilarious" reveal of the cell-phone photos that told the real story of the lost night. The box-office returns would indicate that another Hangover will be on the way, but whoever  is involved in completing the trilogy needs to spike Part 3 with a shot of imagination.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Old and New Media

Putting Bill Simmons and Andrew Sarris in the same post is some sort of offense, but it's worth doing because of the polar-opposite way the two men approach their work. I enjoyed Simmons's The Book of Basketball, but at 700 pages the author's always evident personality begins to wear thin. The new ESPN oral history portrays Simmons as a prima donna who refuses to be edited, and I can believe it. Now Simmons begins a new ESPN-backed venture called Grantland, intended to be a hub for long-form writing about sports and culture from a variety of contributors. The only problem is, Simmons sounds like he sort of doesn't want to do it anymore.
As far as Simmons has come since he first started searching for an audience, he wants to go much further, to create something more enduring than his column or even his books. But the drudgery of running his own publication is already intruding on the utopian world he has built for himself. And he knows that the only thing preventing him from becoming another overexposed hack, an ex-sportswriter who now gets paid to blather on TV, is his column, which can take days to research and write. “My biggest concern about the site is that I don’t want the column to just be one of the things I’m doing,” Simmons said.
Film critic Andrew Sarris talks about the critics that influenced him. Neither Sarris nor any of the critics he mentions would know what to make of the way Simmons makes himself the center of his work. Grantland feels like a step in Simmons's effort to create "something more enduring"; it will work if Simmons can put down the mirror.