Monday, January 31, 2011

Dept. of Non-Revisionist Westerns

A great, essential discussion of True Grit that chews over the merits of Bridges vs. Wayne and whether the film betrays the lessons taught by Unforgiven. A must-read. (HND)

I think the Coens' film is more conflicted in its attitudes than the earlier film. Adam is right, I believe, that Hathaway's film is largely uncritical of the death penalty. Hathaway never questions Mattie's desire for revenge, and, as Adam points out, her adversary Chaney is such an underdeveloped caricature of pathetic evil that it's hard to feel even a twinge of sympathy for his death. I'm not entirely convinced it's a major problem—as you point out in that comment thread, it is after all a fair portrayal of the actual system of vigilante justice and eye-for-an-eye morality that ruled the Old West—but I agree that that's the political/moral subtext of the film. The Coens don't entirely repudiate that perspective, but they do critique and complicate it in some subtle ways. We've already discussed some of the scenes that complicate the film's attitude about capital punishment: notably the hanged man who becomes an object in the barter system, and Rooster's testimony about the men he's killed, with the implication that he's lying about the circumstances of the killings. Another important scene is the dark joke involving the last words of the three prisoners who Mattie sees hanged: the two white men get to speak at length before they're killed, but the Native American is abruptly cut off before he's able to say more than a couple of words. That's a pretty pointed comment directed at the racial inequities of the justice system, particularly surrounding the death penalty, which in modern America has always been disproportionately applied to racial minorities.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Music: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - "Born Into A Light"

An acoustic version of a track from the Cardinology album> with Neal Casal singing along. Who else wants new music from Mr. Adams?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dance Fight!

Finally I can use the phrase in the title of this post in context! Black Swan costume designer Amy Westcott talks about her process, working with Darren Aronofsky, and the misperception that fashion house Rodarte designed the costumes for the film. (Clothes on Film)

CoF: How was working with Darren Aronofsky again after The Wrestler? Is he specific about costume?

AW: Yes, he is. He is specific about everything, but he also surrounds himself with people that he trusts to do a great job. Darren isn’t the “you are so great!” kind of a director. He kind of eggs you on to be the best you can be by not praising you. For example, Day 1 of shooting The Wrestler, everyone was running around like crazy (Mickey Rourke was convinced that I lost his weight belt, which was retrieved from his apartment), and everything was perfect except for one tiny detail that fell through the cracks. It was so tiny, but Darren was disappointed, and told me so. He was right, and I busted my ass to never let him down again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Way Back

The Way Back is a World War II film that doesn't traffic in ideas of honor, duty, or sacrifice but rather the practicalities of survival. The 4000 mile journey of Janusz (Jim Sturgess) and his fellow prisoners from Siberian gulag to Indian village may have flimsy historical roots, but director Peter Weir (returning after a seven-year absence) has made a film that ably handles both intimate and epic moments. There are plenty of shots of the travelers framed against the Mongolian desert, but Weir is just as interested in what the lack of water does to a man's body or the way to repel mosquitoes in the Russian countryside. Ed Harris, as an American whose time serving the Revolution ended disastrously, is peerless at suggesting both emotional and physical turmoil while Saoirse Ronan provides needed warmth as a female traveler who joins the escapees. Colin Farrell proves once again he's a character actor in a leading man's body; his performance as a Russian petty thief is so vivid that the movie actually loses steam when he's gone. Weir  goes surprisingly soft at the end; it's Janusz's survival that's important, not any Spielbergian notions of whether he has lived a good life. The cast is so strong that it's easy to overlook the film's lack of dramatic tension. This story is memorable because the escape was successful, which means that everything has to go right. It's the small accumulation of details that sets The Way Back apart; it's a skillful film that distinguishes itself by staying true to its characters.

Practical magic

I'm directing a production of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It's not the first time I've directed, but it is the first full-length show I've done and I'm a newcomer to musicals. How comforting then to find out that I might not be doing it too badly. (About Last Night)

When you're talking, you're not listening.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Info dump

I'm a left of liberal on most issues who detests cable news of all political stripes; it seems to me to be a little more than a self-protective culture of punditry that elevates the horse race over discussions of public policy. This post about Keith Olbermann's departure sums up my views: (Daily Dish)

Olbermann offered something that couldn't be found elsewhere on television. For liberals who like that medium, I'm sure the show proved cathartic. But wouldn't they be better informed, more meaningfully entertained, and psychicly happier if just read Washington Monthly instead? Yes, I know, television is a very popular medium (mostly because it demands so little from its audience). But it is the worst way to engage politics in America. Compared to reading it is a wildly inefficient time suck. The format itself often strips the issue at hand of all nuance. It rewards demagoguery, and the host's words disappear into the ether so fast that inaccuracies slip easily past and are seldom corrected for the people misled by them. Often as not, its producers and writers just take insights from the written medium and dumb them down.


The Jay Cutler affair provides some insight into the dark side of the NFL's relentless mythologizing of its own history. As a kid I had a love affair with sports autobiographies, and I remember Jerry Kramer's account of life under Vince Lombardi in Instant Replay. Lombardi's name is on the NFL's championship trophy, and the no-nonsense culture of physical self-abasement that Kramer describes has been celebrated and perpetuated on HBO, ESPN, and by NFL Films to the point that the NFL is now preparing to extend the regular season. Given that the proposed 18-game schedule appears to be a major sticking point in upcoming labor negotiations, it's disappointing to hear current NFL players criticize Cutler. Maurice Jones-Drew and others who have spoken out on Twitter have to know that they're all a play away from the end of their careers. Since Cutler is the best quarterback that the Bears have had since Jim McMahon the choice to put Cutler back in at less than full strength (if such a thing was even possible) becomes more than an in-game decision and could easily have had disastrous consequences. If I were a Bears fan I'd wonder why my team was trying to get by with a cheap backup QB. Cutler's "mannerisms" on the sidelines have come under fire from Derrick Brooks and others, and that criticism (like the flap over Derrick Anderson "laughing" on the sidelines) goes to some very cliched ideas about how athletes should behave. The NFL is a business with high employee turnover where teams and players alike are trying to get as much as they can. What's revealing and troubling about the reaction to Cutler is just how much boys-book ideas about "toughness" are standard operating procedure.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Music: The Avett Brothers - "January Wedding"

No complicated explanation here. This one goes out to Michele Labar and Stephen Boatright with congratulations and best wishes.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

No Strings Attached

It's hard to believe, but I've actually seen a blog post wondering if the awards season release date of No Strings Attached would jeopardize Natalie Portman's chances of winning an Oscar for Black Swan. Whatever No Strings Attached is, it isn't Norbit. There are no fat suits or ill-timed swimwear, just an bad marriage of script and director and a leading man content to get by on charm alone. Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghostbusters and Stripes and father of a two-time Best Director nominee, seems an odd choice to helm a movie about young workaholics at the dawn of the decade. Reitman's comfort zone is broad comedy from stars; he gets the broad part from Ashton Kutcher as Adam, a TV production assistant with ambitions of becoming a writer. Adam is as genial a flake as the actor who plays him, coasting through with a hot girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) and a writing sample script that he's afraid to show to his superiors at work. A series of chance encounters lead to a fling with Emma (Portman), a doctor who's both too scared and too busy for a boyfriend. Adam and Emma become "sex friends", agreeing to keep it physical and to not get wrapped up in each other's lives. Do I need to drop a hint as to what happens next?

I assume that somewhere in Los Angeles there are teams of people working on the problem of how to make movies in which women are as sexually frank and happily profane as the men in films directed and produced by Judd Apatow. Elizabeth Meriwether's script for No Strings Attached revels in the casual sex both had and discussed by Emma and her roommates (Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig). There's even a supposedly hilarious scene in which Emma and the ladies (along with their token gay male roomie) all get their periods at the same time. I can only assume the pillow fight will show up on the DVD. Portman, Kaling, and Gerwig all invest this sitcom premise-level material with much more personality than it deserves, so the end result is like watching a team of physicists try to change a lightbulb. It's not that Portman isn't funny in places, but that part of the humor comes from how hard she's working to be saucy. Portman's miscasting isn't nearly as big a problem as Kutcher's indifference, whether it's real or acted. No Strings Attached shows its real Apatowian colors in its insistence on Adam growing up, on his pulling his career and issues with his dad (Kevin Kline) together and being "ready" for Emma's love. Emma on the other hand realizes she's ready for Adam when she finds her younger sister (Olivia Thirlby) getting married first. No Strings Attached travels a long way to end up in a conventional place; while I certainly don't mind seeing Natalie Portman stretch for box office success I wish she'd found a more daring project to take her there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Maybe my life clouds my work."

Blue Valentine is the film I most want to see before Oscar night. I'm sure Michelle Williams will win an Oscar one day, though it doesn't look like this is her year. In this interview she talks of motherhood, going back to work, and her days as a newly emancipated teen actress. (Daily Telegraph)

'It was my first experience of work being fun in a long, long time,’ she says. 'Especially during the first part of making the movie, the falling-in-love part. That was the beginning of feeling myself again for the first time in a long time. I had forgotten. I was surprised that I could feel like that. I just felt good to be able use my mind again in that way, that I had some impulses left, that there was anything in me at all.’

Gosling thinks her performance marks a watershed in Williams’s life and career. 'It doesn’t get much better than that,’ he says. 'You have a sense that she can move on and play other parts and try other things. She left it all on the field.’

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quick reaction to The Decemberists' The King Is Dead

The title of the new Decemberists album promises another conceptual, chilly meditation on love, death, and whatever "O Valencia!" was about. What a pleasant surprise then that The King Is Dead is certainly the band's warmest album, a mostly acoustic reflection on community and the passage of time. "We are all our hands and holders" sings Colin Meloy on album opener "Don't Carry It All". We're all connected, to each other and to the earth, and the point gets made again in "January Hymn". This simple tale of wintry manual work as remedy for a broken heart is lovely, the most emotionally direct music I've heard Meloy perform. Meloy hasn't become James Taylor though; the narrator of the R.E.M.-ish "Calamity Song" (Peter Buck sits in on guitar) ponders a future below ground ("Will we now/Build a civilization below ground?/And I'll be crowned the community kick-it-around") and makes what I hope is an Infinite Jest nod by heralding the "year of the chewable Ambien tab". The presence of Gillian Welch's voice on several tracks is a welcome compliment to Meloy's nasal but improving singing. Meloy suggests all sorts of reserves of longing, danger, and dry wit at various times and is helped to no end by the musical colors provided by his band. Jenny Conlee on keyboards is the hidden treasure, but I also couldn't do without Chris Funk's pedal steel and the mandolin part Buck adds to "Don't Carry It All". The King Is Dead begins musical 2011 on a positive note for me. I feel as though I've gotten out of The Decemberists' heads and into their hearts at last.

Queering the pitch

A blogfriend points towards this putdown of the way some female artists of the moment transparently pander to the gay community. It's worth reading, but what about the way certain parts of the LGBT press like being pandered to? I discussed this subject here. (Village Voice/HTV)

Swooping in to rescue us gays from the no-homo hostility are hyper-femme girls like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, P!nk, and, yes, Nicki Minaj. (Gee, thanks, ladies. Now they definitely won't call us faggots.) Through their art, they've all acknowledged the humanity of gay people, or at least gay males—lesbians generally go ignored in perhaps a silent "Pause." Even so, it's tempting to call any gay acceptance in pop radical, but, really, what these women are offering is at best a tentative embrace, and at worst, lip service. The Times called the art in question "songs of survival," but none of the tracks comprising this "soundtrack for a generation of gay fans" are as explicitly gay-friendly as the aforementioned rappers are gay-unfriendly. Katy Perry's "Firework," P!nk's "Raise Your Glass," and Ke$ha's "We R Who We R" are all thumping anthems that preach nonspecific individuality, the gay subtext of the first two mostly confined to their videos' imagery, whereas Ke$ha claims she was inspired by the recent rash of gay suicides when writing "R." But there, too, the gay theme reads like an opportunistic afterthought tacked onto a single that happened to arrive right at the zenith of "It Gets Better," when being OK with gay was trendy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Country Strong

Shana Feste's Country Strong badly wants to be about the difference between the manufactured pop/country of star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the rootsy, personal, "authentic" songs of Kelly's lover and opening act Beau (Garrett Hedlund). Kelly is taken from rehab early by her manager/husband James (Tim McGraw, loudly hitting the ceiling of his acting talent) to start a tour that will restore Kelly's reputation after a drunken fall on stage caused her to lose the couple's baby. We're primed for a story of creative rebirth and marital reconnection, except that's not a story Feste has any idea how to tell. Kelly is almost comically out of control from the start and there's never any sense that she's truly connected to her fans. I don't know if Feste didn't want to offend the movie's intended audience, but the relationship between Kelly and Beau is circled around and never comes to the forefront of the story. Kelly is a brand, while Beau and rising star Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) write their own songs and represent "real" country. A movie about the characters played by Hedlund the winning Meester might have had some charm, but Feste can't find the center of her own script and the ending is absurd. Country Strong is an insult to the both to the people it was made for and to the music it purports to celebrate.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Music: The Decemberists - "The Crane Wife 3"

Their new album is out this week with contributions from Gillian Welch and Peter Buck among others. Here's a quick review. (Guardian)

If you're not moved by "January Hymn", on which Colin Meloy describes clearing snow "to green the ground below", consider your wintry heart frozen.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Fighter

David O. Russell's The Fighter is the year's strangest Oscar contender in execution if not in concept. The story of unlikely boxing champion Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) isn't as overtly wacked out as Black Swan but is as tonally far removed from a sports movie as any awards season fare in recent memory. A better title for The Fighter could be drawn from Russell's own filmography: Flirting with Disaster. Russell has reimagined this local boy makes good story as a bustling American comedy of class, place, and getting out of one's own way with the best of intentions but uneven results.

When one of Micky's opponents gets sick and is replaced a fighter who outweighs Micky by almost twenty pounds, Micky takes the fight at the urging of Dickie and their mother Alice (Melissa Leo). Micky gets pummeled but is tied to Dickie and Alice by love and guilt over knowing what the money he makes fighting means to the family, which also includes seven boozy, quick-tempered sisters. The first act of The Fighter almost revels in the family's low-rent behavior, as Dickie skips Micky's training sessions to visit a crack house while being trailed by an HBO crew ostensibly making a film on Dickie's "comeback". Dickie's brief boxing career and "knockdown" of Sugar Ray Leonard have given him local legend status in the brothers' hometown of Lowell, Mass.; though Wahlberg gets pushed aside until late in the movie he's an ideal quiet center, and he ably conveys the degree to which Micky is oppressed by expectations and overblown history.

Christian Bale is at once the most dazzling light and biggest problem for The Fighter. Audiences and award-giving bodies have a love affair with boxing movies and physical transformation, and while Dickie is only seen in the ring as a sparring partner for his brother it's Bale who draws our eye. Dickie is paper-thin and bug-eyed; I don't think I've seen a better portrait of addiction this side of The Wire. Even when Dickie is training or with his family, we always know there is a part of him thinking of something else. Yet I was always aware, perhaps unfairly, of the performance. Whether it's from seeing Bale be haughty and morose too many times or from Russell's insistence on seeing Micky's family as a flytrap of need and ambition, I was always aware of the work Bale was doing. My uncertain response to The Fighter is largely to do with what Russell lets Bale do the movie. Dickie is never sentimentalized or used as a source of cheap inspiration to Mickie, instead he provides strategy and practical advice. Yet Bale's personality is so large that he obscures everything else, and I wanted Micky's climb to a title shot to have more detail and dramatic power.

Things calm down and become more conventional after Dickie is sent to prison and Micky's girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) begins to help Micky steer a course away from his family. The post-jail, clean and sober Dickie is at once less interesting and much more helpful to his brother, though there's a wonderful, dry scene of reconciliation between Dickie and Charlene. Finally David O. Russell isn't engaged by the expected arc of the sports movie, but rather by the loud and unintentional comedy of Micky's life. There are many fights in The Fighter and only a few of them are in the ring.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Beautiful Dark.....wait a minute...

Here's a 2010 Best Albums list that doesn't follow the crowd. Robert Christgau: (B&N/Humanizing the Vacuum)

"Def Jam payment plan" bitching and all, one of these was my own album of the year, the Roots' How I Got Over. No big crusade here—How I Got Over is getting more respect than Eminem's Recovery, 2010's top seller, because the Roots always get respect, and if momentous counts I can see why many prefer West's ginormous not to mention prog-friendly effort. But for reasons I'm not about to bloviate into a theory because I believe the main one is happenstance, this just wasn't a momentous-type year. If I felt obliged to vote momentous I would have gone with M.I.A.'s stupidly dismissed Maya, which got spanked because it tried to be momentous and because unlike West she proved unequal to her own celebrity. But my only obligation is to my ears, and in 2010 what sounded best was the Roots' brave and sometimes painful change-of-life hip-hop, a multivalent reflection on the pop lifer's danger years, the late thirties. That's when, even if you're now Jimmy Fallon's house band, you start to worry that you'll look and/or feel like an idiot devoting your adulthood to what idiots consider a youth artform. So before I return to hip-hop, I should mention that my number two album comes from the same generational cohort: Welder, by Nashville-based singer-songwriter and Sirius Radio morning jock Elizabeth Cook, who at 37, after four fairly good albums, strung together 14 fairly perfect songs about such country things as love, marriage, sex, rock and roll, farming, and her sister the junkie.

First Tree blossoms

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has a few choice words after working on The Tree of Life. Of course,  those words are enticingly vague. (LA Times/HND)

Whereas most movies use what's known as "coverage" — cameras stationed in different places, with the idea of conveying a scene as you might experience it in real life — "Tree of Life" eschewed those conventions.

"Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance," said Lubezki, who goes by the name "Chivo." "We're using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It's meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume, or like when you go into a house and it smells maybe like chocolate, and it takes you to your past."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Erica Albright goes Goth

I haven't fully consumed the extras on The Social Network DVD yet, but a behind-the-scenes doc contains footage of David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, and actors talking through the script in a rehearsal room. I wouldn't have minded being in that room at all, but it's hard to imagine the same deep conversations taking place over Fincher's upcoming adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This report from the set reveals some things that might surprise Steig Larsson's fans and introduces star-in-the-making Rooney Mara. (W/photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino)

The script, which captures the novel’s bleak tone (its original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women), was written by Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List, and it departs rather dramatically from the book. Blomkvist is less promiscuous, Salander is more aggressive, and, most notably, the ending—the resolution of the drama—has been completely changed. This may be sacrilege to some, but Zaillian has improved on Larsson—the script’s ending is more interesting.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In Their Own Words

Why are there bleeps on The Social Network DVD commentary tracks? Did Columbia Pictures think that audiences would stumble on to the reminisces of David Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, and Aaron Sorkin while looking for Toy Story 3? I can understand why part of a joke Fincher tells about Sorkin's email address gets bleeped out, but I'm not sure I get the point of bleeping both Sorkin and Fincher talking about the scene in which Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg is passed an obscene note in class after his "Facemash" website causes an uproar at Harvard. We're told the words we see on the note weren't the words originally meant to be there, but rather a substitute inserted after the studio got nervous about MPAA reaction,. Sure it's a small point, but knowing what the note was intended to say would have been an intriguing detail to have in thinking about the early scenes in which Zuckerberg's insights into what college students might want out of an online "facebook" suite are played against his social awkwardness. I can't see the slightest reason for the commentaries to be censored, anyone who's listening to them has probably seen the movie at least once in theatres and paid $15-20 for the DVD. Let's call it a $25 contribution towards the 401(k) accounts of studio executives; don't we deserve the full story?

The commentaries themselves are the usual mix of generalities and revealing details. The talents of everyone involved from Fincher to the script supervisor are praised to the skies but there's little sense of what it must have been like to work on the film day-to-day. Sorkin asserts the accuracy of Zuckerberg's dumping as a catalyst for his first foray into social networking, while Eisenberg's description of Zuckerberg as a creative person provides a new way to think about a character whom critics have pegged as either Asperger's patient or savant with little room in between. Fincher has a kind word for Josh Pence, whose body played Tyler Winklevoss but whose face was replaced with Armie Hammer's. Pence's physical dexterity made Tyler a character distinct from his brother Cameron (Hammer) and created more interesting business for Hammer to match when he performed Tyler's scenes. Commentaries (good ones anyway) reveal filmmaking to be  much more detailed and more ephemeral than casual examination reveals; Eisenberg discusses learning how to code for the role but how much did that knowledge inform his performance? Even he doesn't know. I don't need to hear the commentaries on The Social Network to appreciate the film, but I really want to know what that note said.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snowfest: Mala Noche

The roots of everything we like about the films of Gus Van Sant can be found in his 1986 debut feature Mala Noche, the tale of gay Portland cashier named Walt (Tim Streeter) and his crush on a illegal Mexican immigrant named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). The sympathy for outsiders, the love of urban street life, and the presence of gay culture in places that don't look like Will & Grace locations are all here, not to mention Van Sant's elevation of mood to an equal footing with narrative.  Not much "happens" in Mala Noche; Walt (the film is based on a story by Oregon writer Walt Curtis) makes a move on Johnny, takes a road trip with him, and strikes up a relationship of sorts with Johnny's friend Roberto (Ray Monge). Walt's voice-over narration reveals him to be a romantic who is well aware of the folly of his pursuit of Johnny, but the attraction enlivens an otherwise humdrum life on Portland streets beautifully photographed (by John Campbell) in black-and-white on the cheap. Mala Noche ends with a tragedy that doesn't feel inevitable or necessary, but that doesn't detract from the film's quiet power. The success and award nominations that Van Sant's subsequent films have accrued render Mala Noche the answer to a trivia question, but the affection for prickly oddballs on display here is the root of what made Van Sant the ideal director for Good Will Hunting and Milk.

Snowfest: Band of Outsiders

I'm caught in the snowstorm that's headed across the Southeast and up the coast, and since I had the day off anyway it's a good time to sit inside and unwind with a stack of DVD's. Jean Luc-Godard has barely been touched on this blog; I plead guilty to not having seen anything beyond Breathless from his classic '60s period. Band of Outsiders (whose French title was appropriated by Tarantino for the name of his production company) feels like a good place to start. The characters are soaking up as much American culture as they can through film, music, and books, but yet Godard's very French conception of an ad hoc, offhand gang of thieves is a trope that still resonates today in American films.

The plot is simple. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) have met Odile (Anna Karina) through an English class and propose to rob the house where she lives; Odile has told the men that there's a cache of money there. It's the time leading up to the robbery that's Godard's real interest. The trio sits in cafes, dances, and takes a sprint through the Louvre in a scene that feels like it nicely sums up what Godard thought about capital-C French Culture of the day. The more assertive Arthur seems to have the job well in hand until family pressures cause him to make a mistake. Franz is a dreamer, planning his future based on Jack London novels, but he shows a pragmatic side at the right moment. Karina's Odile slowly begins to realize she's out of her depth, and it's Odile's reaction as the robbery begins to go bad that grounds the movie emotionally. Karina's performance , like Band of Outsiders itself, feels well thought out and entirely natural at the same time. You want to spend more time with Odile, especially after her half-sung monologue in praise of the strangers she encounters in subway cars and on the streets. (It's an unusually open-hearted and outward-looking moment in my limited Godard experience.) In a DVD extra Karina remarks how the camera of cinematographer Raoul Cotard always seems to know what it's doing and find what it's looking for. Band of Outsiders indeed feels under control directorially, but to see it and those other early Godards in their time must have felt like witnessing a tornado.

There's a moment in a cafe where the three decide on a "minute of silence". Godard cuts out the ambient noise to point out just how long a minute is and only about 15 seconds elapse before our would-be robbers are up and dancing. The narrative energy and love of pulp culture Godard throws on screen here echo down to us today through countless lesser imitations.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dept. of Artists at Work

Theatre lifer Brian Bedford is playing Lady Bracknell on stage and living the actor's life. (NYT)

He is perhaps the finest English-language interpreter of classical comedy of his generation, and he seems to pick up a Tony nomination every time he steps on a Broadway stage. Yet he is as likely to be found on a cruise ship, performing a one-man show about Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde, or in Prague, in high summer, appearing in a supporting role in a traveling musical production of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Kelsey Grammer. Raised in poverty, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and subsequently part of a glittering West End clique that included John Gielgud and the all-powerful theater mogul Hugh Beaumont, Mr. Bedford, 75, now lives in Ontario, where he has been a member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for 27 seasons. He wound up at Stratford, he says, because “while I wanted to live in America, I also wanted to have a British actor’s career.”

To say Mr. Bedford’s existence has been worldly is an understatement. Yet he retains the open, delighted mien of a provincial schoolboy newly arrived in the wicked big city. As he recounts the diverse chapters of his life, he still seems astonished by the turns it has taken. “My life has started in very, very different ways, again and again,” he says. One could imagine Lady Bracknell’s rejoinder. “To begin life once,” she might say, “is an unfortunate necessity. To do so repeatedly recalls the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”

Sunday Music: Gil Scott-Heron feat. Mos Def - "New York Is Killing Me"

After hearing the extensive Scott-Heron sample on Kanye West's latest album I had a feeling that Scott-Heron deserved something better. Here's a track from last year's I'm New Here album (Scott-Heron's first in 16 years) as remixed and with a guest verse by Mos Def.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Marshawn Lynch FTW!!

Marshawn Lynch's spectacular game-sealing TD run in the Seahawks win reminded me of John Riggins's run at 1:35 of this clip. As a lifelong Redskins fan I'll never forget the Riggins run, but Lynch's was even better.

Friday, January 07, 2011

For Rent: Cold Souls

I'm pretty sure Cold Souls did put in a brief appearance at my local theatre a while back, but I must have been too busy to see it at the time even though I had read several good reviews. What a shame, because I would have been able to write about this haunting and inventive piece of lo-fi science fiction much earlier. Writer/director Sophie Barthes is a talent to watch; she has a surrealist's heart and an eye for making the familiar seem very strange indeed. I've never liked Paul Giamatti more than I do in Cold Souls, he plays a slightly fussy, self-involved version of himself who's blocked during rehearsals for a production of Uncle Vanya. An article in The New Yorker leads Giamatti to the office of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), whose practice is in the extraction of souls. Paul thinks that having his soul extracted might free his acting but instead he becomes an unfeeling boor. As an aside, I highly recommend the deleted scenes on DVD. The "soulless" Giamatti's bad Chekhov is not to be missed.

I like Cold Souls so much that I really don't want to tell you too much more, but rather let you experience it for yourself. Barthes cleverly takes our fears about genetic engineering, cloning, and the like to the next level. If people could actually "sell their souls" then what would happen to people like Nina (Dina Korzun), a "mule" whose transportation of souls between Russia and America leaves a bit of each soul's residue inside her? Cold Souls gently mocks the artist's search for the source of his own talent, but Barthes's rich tale also works as a cautionary satire of the ways we manipulate humanity.

"And that's how you begin."

The always expansive Francis Ford Coppola shares a few rules to live by for aspiring filmmakers and the rest of us. (The video echoes some of the points he makes in the linked interview.) Coppola could easily be bitter about the path his career has taken, but it's a blessing he isn't. After a career where he has directed both Jack and The Godfather, why not be generous? (The 99 Percent)

I once found a little excerpt from Balzac. He speaks about a young writer who stole some of his prose. The thing that almost made me weep, he said, “I was so happy when this young person took from me.” Because that’s what we want. We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.

And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you. And Balzac said that in his book: It makes me so happy because it makes me immortal because I know that 200 years from now there will be people doing things that somehow I am part of. So the answer to your question is: Don’t worry about whether it’s appropriate to borrow or to take or do something like someone you admire because that’s only the first step and you have to take the first step.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"...go for the great lesbian action and the horror."

I've heard this before but this is the first article I've found: Ballet dancers aren't crazy about Black Swan. (Guardian)

This is a very lazy movie, featuring every ballet cliche going. If you want to look at the dark side of ballet, do it properly, don't just give us shots of a ballerina suddenly vomiting. Nina's mother was beyond the cliche of a ballet mum – she was a psychopath. And the only people who looked like they were having a good time were the ones having sex.

The ballet movies that dancers go back to are the ones that have had great dancers in them, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Moira Shearer, Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire. Ballet isn't something you can just add on. The characters are important because they're dancers – and if they aren't very good ones, it doesn't make sense.

"Consumerism made individuals all alike."

Bernardo Bertolucci on sex, politics, and Marlon Brando. I saw 1900 when I was ridiculously too young to get it but I somehow haven't seen Last Tango in Paris or The Last Emperor. (Greencine)

The way the world went, what was called—now it's a ridiculous term—consumerism. Consumerism made individuals all alike. Where are they today? I would have to invent a situation that is not real anymore. In '68, is what I tried to say in The Dreamers, young people were really thinking they could change the world. I don't see many around with this kind of mission, this kind of hope. In my country, you have 20 years of fascism, then you have the war, then you have the Resistance, then you have the liberation from the Nazis. And you have these people who want to create a new country. You can see that in the neo-realistic cinema of Rossellini and De Sica. They took the cameras outside the studios and they started to shoot in the real street. It was the feeling in those years after the war—there was a generation able to create a new Italy. You don't have these kinds of emotions at the moment.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Man is everywhere

How Terrence Malick suggested the ending for Good Will Hunting, and more from Matt Damon. (Taking Barack)

During a recent interview with Matt Damon for The Times, I spoke at length about the writing of Good Will Hunting. The script arose, he said, from the stew of mixed feelings he had first as a Cambridge townie resentful of Harvard students, then as a Harvard undergraduate himself experiencing first hand the life he had been envying from afar.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite

The great character actor Pete Postlethwaite has died at age 64, like almost everyone else I first became aware of him in In the Name of the Father. This lengthy tribute with ample links filled me in on Postlethwaite's early career and political activism as well as the high esteem with which his colleagues regarded him. Postlethwaite's brief role in The Town suggested all sorts of complicated relationships and decades of nefarious activities; I loved the casual way he mentioned knowing the fathers of Ben Affleck and his gang. Inception wasted him and then there was Clash of the Titans, but Pete Postlethwaite's place in high-profile projects like these won't be easily filled. (MUBI)

"Pete Postlethwaite had one of those faces — weathered, folded, kneaded, endlessly interesting — that demanded to be on camera, even as it denied him any possibility of leading man status." Guy Lodge at In Contention: "And yet, in the latter half of his career, Postlethwaite... made a convincing case for the character actor as star. Neither his visage nor his gratifyingly alliterative name threatened more than a career as 'that guy,' but somehow we got to know him better than that." In his final film performance, he gave us a "vivid, knowing character sketch in Ben Affleck's The Town — it's a cruel irony that we last saw Postlethwaite on screen as a man who knew his number was up, but he couldn't have asked for a more affecting exit."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sunday Music: Tom Tom Club - "Genius of Love"

From Stop Making Sense; I went back to this after I learned a friend believed the vocal interjections were coming from David Byrne and not Chris Frantz. "Genius of Love" hit number 31 on the U.S. charts; Frantz and Weymouth are putting forth a lot more visible effort than David Byrne ever seems to.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Critical care

Happy New Year, and let's get 2011 started with a terrific appreciation of NP in Black Swan. I don't need any persuading that the acting is great, but I think A.O. Scott makes a good case for the movie Aronofsky wanted to make. Another viewing might be in order.

Is “Black Swan” a realistic portrayal of life in a ballet company? Probably not. Is it an overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist’s struggle? Without a doubt. And to scold the director, Darren Aronofsky, for what he doesn’t get about dancers or how he looks at women is almost deliberately to miss the point. This is, at bottom, a horror movie. It gathers psychological implications from its chosen milieu and makes them literal, giving flesh to wild metaphors of female sexuality and aesthetic risk.

“Black Swan” is no more about the behavior of ballerinas than its central pretext, “Swan Lake,” is about the habits of birds. It is, rather, an inky, unhinged fairy tale, a swirl of intuitions and sensations visited upon and realized through the body of its star, Natalie Portman.