Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Book I Read: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Music: Talking Heads - "Walk It Down"

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

J. Edgar

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homeland and the Tyranny of the Episode (spoilers)

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Writing in Real Time

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

The Next 25

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

Take Shelter

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Post: Don Giovanni in HD

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

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

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

Friday, November 04, 2011

More coffee?

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

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

For Parenthood fans only

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