Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Music: Buffalo Tom - "Don't Forget Me"

A good performance of a sad song from the band's recent album Skins. The recorded version features a vocal guest spot from Tanya Donelly.

Friends with Benefits

The words "damaged" and "emotionally unavailable" get thrown around a lot in Friends with Benefits as a means of explaining why two attractive young professionals like Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) would opt for a sex-only relationship instead of looking for something deeper. It's a busy and cruel world out there, why not schedule sex like it was a Pilates class instead of taking the risk of getting dumped by a John Mayer fan? (Emma Stone in a hoot of a cameo) Director Will Gluck goes for the same emotional honesty here that he achieved in the winning Easy A; as more about the leads' backgrounds are revealed it becomes all too clear why Dylan and Jamie would bail out of the search for their true opposite number. Gluck also isn't afraid to take Friends with Benefits into semi-dramatic territory. That choice is to Gluck's credit, though it yields uneven results. Patricia Clarkson appears ready to have a good time as Jamie's swinging mother, and Richard Jenkins turns up as Dylan's Alzheimer's-stricken dad. Both characters are reduced to advice-givers though, and Jenkins' character feels particularly ill-conceived. There's a scene in an airport that anyone who has cared for a person with Alzheimer's could find frightening and all too true, but Gluck and his writers turn it into a semi-comic moment of father-son bonding.

Friends with Benefits has a wonderful zip in its early scenes, which involve Jamie recruiting Dylan for a job at GQ. The movie is knowing about the ways that romantic comedies influence our perceptions about what's possible in love, and there are gags about the ubiquity of Katherine Heigl and the cliched endings of sappy movies. (A movie within the movie starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones is very funny.) It's all too obvious that Jamie and Dylan will end up together, since they seem to like talking to each other as much as doing anything else. Kunis is good at making Jamie turned on by conversation, but both she and Dylan thoroughly enjoy doing something else. The sex scenes are plentiful and lively, and fans of either lead will get a kick out of the amount of skin on display. Yet it's hard to feel too unhappy for these two successful and attractive people with access to easy sex, and I wonder what a Friends with Benefits made with lesser-known or slightly less attractive leads would have felt like. Gluck attempts to take his movie to a place that romantic comedies don't usually go, but the media-centric New York that Dylan and Jamie inhabit feels as airy and out-of-reach as Hogwarts and that prevents  the enjoyable Friends with Benefits from cutting as deep as it might have otherwise. One other note on the cast: Woody Harrelson is being beaten up for his turn as a gay colleague of Dylan's, but his performance is a triumph of professionalism. It would have been easy for Harrelson to show up and rely on affectations to get through the role, but the character he creates is a three-dimensional and often very funny one. Friends with Benefits is worth a matinee; it's buzzed on its own energy and makes an honest effort to say something about the way we live now.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Ride, Rise, Roar

If someone only thought of David Byrne as the guy in the big suit from Talking Heads then the new documentary/concert film Ride, Rise, Roar might come as a shock. Directed by David Hillman Curtis, Ride, Rise, Roar follows the creation and execution of the live show that Byrne toured with in 2008-09 to support the Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album made with Brian Eno. The concert, which features three dancers and the work of four choreographers, is much less self-consciously awkward than parts of Byrne's live work with Talking Heads and also much warmer. The songs mix new material and some hot performances of Talking Heads classics, and the effect of seeing Byrne attack these songs while surrounded by three dancers who look like unemployed MFA's is to renew one's faith in the life of the working musician. If it's worth it to Byrne to invent a live performance when he could simply play his hits over and over, then despite all the bleating about music and the industry maybe there's still a reason to work. The backstage portion of Ride, Rise, Roar follows the creation of the live show from Byrne's conception to dancers auditions ("We wanted dancers who didn't look like dancers.") to rehearsals, with all involved getting a voice to explain their choices. There seem to have been no egos involved, especially from the star, and it's fun to see Byrne shuffling around with the dancers in a rehearsal room. If not enough specific questions are answered (Why does everyone wear a tutu during "Burning Down the House"?) it's made up for by the bewitching overall effect. Byrne, whose explanation of his online collaboration with Eno is inadvertently also an explanation of why opening a recording studio is a shaky investment, seems to have lost none of his energy for making and playing music. Ride, Rise, Roar ends up being a celebration of music, collaboration, and creativity.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday Music: Wilco - "I Might"

There's a new Wilco album coming in September, which is cause for rejoicing around here. I'm into this first single, which has more energy than most of Wilco (the album) and does indeed bring up memories of Summerteeth. The folks at Singles Jukebox are all over the map.

Sally O’Rourke: Wilco have a knack for making great-sounding music, and I’ve bought several of their albums after a cursory listen on a friend’s car stereo or at a summer barbeque. On “I Might,” the band busts out the Farfisa, and for the first few spins, I’m in their thrall. But “I Might” also demonstrates Wilco’s greatest flaw: the willingness to settle for the workmanlike instead of the sublime. Superficially, it sounds like a classic; on closer listen, the verses amble, the chorus never declares itself. Even that organ riff, forced to carry the song all alone, gets driven into the ground.

Captain America: The First Avenger

The dismissal of Captain America as just a "trailer for The Avengers" ignores what makes this last pre-Avengers entry in the Marvel Universe series such a distinct pleasure. A World War II-set superhero movie with a big romantic streak is pretty far removed from Tony Stark's angst in Iron Man or the depiction of life in Asgard that was the weakest part of Thor. If Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) hasn't seized the imagination in the same way his soon-to-be teammates have, it's because the character's lack of conflict about his ascension to heroism feels almost quaint. Rogers is looking to do good even before he's tapped by German scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) for a program that vaguely promises to fulfill Steve's dream of serving his country. Captain America takes off with an extended chase through Brooklyn after a terrorist in the service of the rogue Nazi Johann Schmidt - aka Red Skull (ideally cast Hugo Weaving) - has disrupted the secret session in which Steve receives his superpowers. The chase also reveals just what kind of an ally Steve has in Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell), who has no problem facing down a speeding car in the middle of a New York street. Atwell is the movie's biggest surprise in a cast that also includes Tommy Lee Jones in a fun turn as Rogers' superior officer. Her no-nonsense exterior barely hides a yearning for Rogers that Atwell has fun playing; Carter's gunshot into the Captain's shield may be the come-on of the year.

Since no one knows what to do with America's first "super soldier" Rogers is sent out on a war-bond tour as the Captain, and director Joe Johnston has fun with both the military's and the public's need for propaganda in wartime. (The fun ends when the Captain is put in front of fighting men.) Once he leads a raid on one of Schmidt's bases the Captain becomes an actual hero, although by then a montage of Rogers and his team (straight out of a '40s studio picture with a dash of multiculturalism) goes by too quickly. The climactic Captain/Schmidt fight is well-staged if predictable, and Captain America ends (after the required appearance by Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury) with something most unusual for the genre: a note of genuine romantic longing. We'll all spend years to come following the adventures of The Avengers, but while we wait for next May let's not ignore just how rare Captain America is. Joe Johnston and Marvel have given the superhero movie its heart back.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Fun Friday Music: Depeche Mode - "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

Because British synth-pop sounds better when it's hot, and I'm getting over this band being the bane of my early attempts at romance...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meet Cy Twombly

I consider myself to have an above-average interest in American postwar painting, but I didn't know much about the late Cy Twombly. Now, I want to. (This Recording/photo by Robert Rauschenberg)

I fantasize often about a young Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly sitting street side at a cafe, having coffee on a warm Roman afternoon. It is easy to see them both there, well tanned and wearing summer shirts, casually discussing the merits of assemblage and found objects in sculpture. Two of America’s greatest painters vacationing in a city known both for being holy and pagan.

An artist friend of mine once told me that Twombly and Rauschenberg, at one point during their initial travels, began to argue over the fact that Twombly was spending all the grant money on artifacts. Twombly, like Van Gogh (who once said he’d rather buy a Japanese print than buy a weeks worth of bread), would forgo food and even financial security for art.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Anna Karina played Parker?

Novelist Lawrence Block turns in a great guest post on what it's like to watch your book be filmed. (Some Came Running)

Besides, it’s impossible to make a writer happy. Our egos won’t allow it. Whether it’s the treatment we get from cover artists (“Right there on page 117 and again on page 244 I describe her as having long black hair, and this girl’s hair is brown. And it’s not long enough, either!”) or interviewers (“The least she could have done was read the book all the way through. If she’s going to have a writer on for five minutes of drive-time AM radio, wouldn’t you think she’d be better prepared?”), we tend to come off like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect.

And what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen. I’ve done a couple of adaptations of my own work (and no, they never got made) and found I didn’t have to be asked to make changes; the different natures of the two media demanded it. In each case, I found the process instructive.


Parabasis does an excellent appreciation of the end of Friday Night Lights, with particular attention to the small things the show did right.

Another thing that FNL was was subtle. It aimed for quiet moments, small gestures that said everything. They weren't afraid of silences. In the final season, Coach Taylor and Tami face a large, large problem, an existential crisis in their marriage (not the one you're thinking of, you'll see) and we get scene after scene of them trying to talk about it, but failing, with Coach Taylor falling into stony, frustrated silence. It's wonderful to see it in a medium that's so often filled with unnecessary noise. Little things mattered on Friday Night Lights and that just made me love it all the more.

The final episode has replaced The Shield finale as my favorite TV last episode. (Of course, I love FNL and I - except for the Forest Whitaker season - only admired The Shield.) I don't know that much surprised me, after all it would have been hard to leave Tami so unsatisfied. Has a show ever done a better job of wrapping up the stories of original cast who made guest-starring returns? Matt, Tyra, and of course Tim were all brought to new places in their lives in relatively little screen time. The way the final football game was handled is the last and best indication that the show's heart was with its people and not the game their lives revolved around. The brilliant cut from the final pass to a flash-forward revealing all the characters' fates proves the point that Friday Night Lights was about lives touched by football and not football lives.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

The new Winnie the Pooh clocks in at just over an hour, which is just enough time for kids not to have their attention spans threatened and for parents to remember why we all cared about Pooh in the first place. The movie is deliberately old-fashioned, with a shambling, episodic plot (Eeyore gets a new tail, Pooh and the gang think Christopher Robin has been kidnapped) and a refreshing lack of irony or pandering to adult nostalgia. Jim Cummings returns to the voices of Pooh and Tigger (he voiced both roles in the 1980's); his performance as Pooh is the ideal mix of gentleness and a budding desire to explore and make mischief, something that the movie's target audience will appreciate even if they're not old enough to know why. Whether it was smart or dumb to release Winnie the Pooh opposite Harry Potter won't matter in the end, since Pooh and his friends will have (and deserve) a long life on video and generations of adoring kids. Long live the Hundred Acre Wood.

Jeff Tweedy - "Hesitating Beauty"

One of my favorite songs from the Mermaid Avenue album with some NSFW audience interaction thrown in. Images from the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Strict Joy, indeed

I saw The Swell Season in concert last year in Asheville; here's a documentary  that goes behind the scenes on their personal lives which will no doubt make Mary Beth Smith very happy.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Ho-Hum, Back to Work

What if all movies were long-cherished personal projects that their directors were madly excited about? I can't tell if that would make movies better or worse, although it does mean there would be more movies like Elizabethtown. What there would be less of is John Carpenter saying things like this: (Vulture)

Q: When picking your projects, are you looking for something different now than you were earlier in your career?

A: Well, I’m older now. There are different kinds of issues. There are some movies that are assignments, certain films people ask you to make. And then there are the movies that you create yourself or write. Either one is fine with me.

Q: Do you get less pleasure from making assignment films?

A: No. I love making movies. It just has to feel right. If I like the story and it’s a reasonable shooting schedule …

Q: There's almost a decade between your last movie, Ghost of Mars, and The Ward. Had you been looking for something specific between now and then?

A: Just a good story. One I’m able to handle. Something I think I can do, that’s a really big part of it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Book I Read: See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould

I've often thought how much fun it would have been to be just a few years older and to live through the early '80s alternative rock boom. Hearing bands like REM, The Replacements, The Smiths, and Husker Du the first time around would have provided enough musical inspiration to make up for a lot of the next thirty years. I came pretty late to Bob Mould, who for a long time was one of those people I listened to because I was supposed to rather than because I actually responded to his music. After reading Mould's memoir See A Little Light I understand the mind behind the songs better but I also have a new appreciation for just how much artistic and personal work went into Mould getting where he is today. See A Little Light may be the greatest book ever written about the details involved in being a postpunk icon, from the routing of tours (Mould fondly recalls the we're-all-in-this-together feeling of Husker Du's SST Records years.) to economic factors involved in booking studio time. Husker Du's major label signing, which Mould feared would make the band a pariah, was part of a wave of small bands going big that seems to have put Mould on the road to financial security for life. There's a good deal of discussion of Mould's expenses and relocations over the years, but once he makes his name the man never sounds worried about money.

We only have Mould's take on the disintegration of Husker Du; in this version drummer and fellow songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton (whom Mould regards as barely relevant) enjoyed the fruits of the band's success thanks to Mould's work. Mould's alcoholic father and silently suffering mother are presented as the reason for his need to control as an adult, while Mould's homosexuality is described (after the usual early soul-searching) as something that everyone knew about yet no one discussed. I can't believe that Mould's gayness was quite as easily adjusted to as all that; all of the drinking and drugs Mould describes in his early touring years had to be motivated by something. The rest of the story is years of mostly worthwhile solo work, a brush fame in the Sugar years, an infamous outing in Spin, and a few breakups. (Mould favors long-term relationships over casual dating.) The warmest section of the book comes near the end, as Mould describes "integrating" his professional and personal lives into a happy downtown New York existence, followed shortly by his discovery of the escape valve of electronic music and DJing. The journey may be more interesting than the destination, but it's a relief to find Mould come through three decades of the music business and contemplating life post-50 with an open heart. Time to listen to Zen Arcade again.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sunday Music: Bon Iver - "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)"

A cover version from the recent John Prine tribute album. I was going to post a live video of Justin Vernon doing another Prine song, but I couldn't get past the crowd noise. Be quiet and bear witness, people.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Chris White's Taken In

TAKEN IN \ A New Film by Chris White from Chris White on Vimeo.

This is the trailer for Taken In, the new film by my friend Chris White. Taken In is officially out July 15th, and if you think you can guess the budget based on how this trailer looks I can guarantee you that you're too high. One of Chris's shorts (which I had a small hand in) can be watched here.