Friday, September 30, 2011

The Art of Still Doing It



My blogfriend describes a Bryan Ferry show that sounds like a master class in knowing what you're still capable of. I picked the song sbove because it's off the Bete Noire album; the first thing I ever heard of Ferry's at about age 14.

At last night’s Fillmore Miami Beach performance in support of an album he supposedly cut last year called Olympia, Ferry confronted the problem with admirable forthrightness: when a Roxy Music number demanded high notes he could no longer hit or a complex harmonic shift for which he couldn’t squeeze sufficient air from his lungs, he would nod or point towards one of the pairs of backup singers positioned stage left and right and they’d take over. After all, Ferry is in his mid sixties, and, besides, even during his Roxy days he projected an air of baffled amusement onstage; he has never been one of those introspective artists who discover a talent for the outsized gesture before an audience. Ferry saved his passion for his records. If someone can link to a classic Roxy or solo live clip in which he inhabits the song as fully as he does in the studio, by all means. As I’ve pointed out a couple times over the years, there probably has never been a more boring major rock and roller than Bryan Ferry: not one memorable exchange with the press, no quips, no reading suggestions that send you running to the library. No wonder Ferry reveres T.S. Eliot: as turbulent a private life as Ferry no doubt endures you will look towards the work in vain for a single autobiographical crumb.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quick reaction to Wilco's The Whole Love

The way that Wilco changes from album to album and the distance that the band has traveled since the country-rock of its debut A.M. are themes that come up every time a new Wilco album arrives. A song from Tweedy's old band Uncle Tupelo gave the magazine and website No Depression it name, but this half-assed review of The Whole Love and the narrow-minded comments make it clear that Wilco is no longer welcome in the world of American roots music. Of course the band transcended that label long ago, and on first listen The Whole Love is a merging of Wilco's rumbling, exploratory side with the poppier elements of Being There and Summerteeth. The long opener "Art of Almost" provides something which most of Wilco (the album) (which I wasn't wild about) didn't: the chance for guitarist Nels Cline to step out and play freely. Cline is all over The Whole Love and as usual he keeps the band on the ragged edge of something dangerous. The keyboards and thumping bass of "I Might" serve notice that this is a band album; John Stirratt on bass, Glenn Kotche on drums, and the rest of the band are a cohesive ensemble here and they stretch out like never before on the 12-minute closer "One Sunday Morning". If the alternating of poppier songs with quieter acoustic numbers can be read as a reflection of Tweedy's thought processes then The Whole Loveis just as personal in its own way as Sky Blue Sky (an album I'll defend against the haters). "Sunloathe" is followed by "Dawned on Me" and those two tracks allow for just as much growth as their titles suggest. The Whole Love is the album Wilco needed to make at this time, and any new or old fan should see it as a sign that the band's journey is far from over.

I want to go to Lake Lucille

The story of a unique production of Lanford Wilson's A Balm in Gilead at a warehouse in Brooklyn. Site specific projects like this aren't easy to pull off, but are valuable to the psyches of the people making them. (Brooklyn Rail via Parabasis - they're hosting a lot of good Wilson content right now)

SCOTT PARKINSON (actor): Actually that’s what’s been great. Embracing what’s Dionysian about it. Just having all these people in a warehouse together for four days. It’s what I imagine making theater in the ’60s must have been like, just sort of living and breathing it together, things happening so much quicker because they have to happen quicker, and going with that impulse, whatever it is, not questioning it, just taking that leap. It’s nice to get back to something that’s so pure, that’s being done for the joy of doing the play and experiencing that with other people.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

New Crafts


Actors Zoe Kazan (above) and Jesse Eisenberg talk about becoming playwrights. Kazan worked on her script while acting in a Martin McDonagh play. (NYT/photo by Carolyn Cole)

KAZAN I have a sister who I am close to. I was interested in the idea of the sister relationship in general. I wrote a first draft in fall of 2009. MTC commissioned it, and they gave me some money. When I was acting in “A Behanding [in Spokane],” I was going in five hours early and working on it there.

Q. Did Martin McDonagh [the author of “Behanding’] give feedback?

KAZAN He read it.

EISENBERG [Imitating Mr. McDonagh] How come no one gets his head sawed off in this?

KAZAN You don’t know, Jesse, you haven’t read it.


Sunday Music: Wilco - "I Love My Label"



It wasn't my intention to work Nick Lowe into Sunday Music two weeks in a row, but here he is again by way of saluting Wilco's new album The Whole Love on the band's own dBpm Records. Review here. (LA Times)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moneyball

Moneyball is based on a nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, who also wrote The Blind Side, and I can't think of another example of two books by the same author producing such different movie adaptations. Where The Blind Side was sunny and can-do, Moneyball is something deeper and more complicated. Director Bennett Miller, working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, has turned Lewis' book into a messy fable of American inventiveness that benefits greatly from a shot of old-fashioned movie star charm. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, whose rumpled smile here looks like fatigue as opposed to boyishness) was a hot prospect and a rare "5 tool" player (running, hitting, power, defense, throwing) when he signed with the New York Mets. Beane never turned into a star player; the scouts were wrong, and Miller and Pitt locate part of Beane's desire to change the way the major leagues are built from his own resentment at being overvalued and the cast aside. (Beane could have gone to Stanford on a full scholarship.) Beane becomes general manager of the Oakland A's, and in attempting to rebuild the team after  a 2001 playoff loss he begins to embrace a statistics-centered method of player evaluation championed by the writer Bill James and young executive Peter Brand (a composite character played by Jonah Hill). Beane and Brand meet when Beane is unsuccessfully trying to make a trade with Cleveland, and Beane has soon used some of his team's not-unlimited cash supply to secure Brand's services.

The economic inequalities of baseball are the macro-level subject of Moneyball. The Yankee team that beats the A's in 2001 has almost triple the payroll and it is ever thus: Oakland simply can't come up with the cash to sign top free agents or retain stars demanding big new contracts. Pitt plays Beane as a renegade without an ounce of arrogance; Beane's humility about his own playing career informs everything he does. His A's don't pursue players who are worth a fortune, they rather search for players who are undervalued and can be had cheaply. Players like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a castoff catcher that Beane signs to play first base, and submarining relief pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond). Hatteberg's ability to get on base by any means available makes him a prize to Beane and Brand, whose indifference to old methods of evaluation incurs the wrath of the A's scouting department. Miller assembled a chorus of actors as the scouts who convey a great kind of middle-aged cockiness, and Pitt seems to enjoy himself the most when Beane is ignoring their advice. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner in Miller's Capote) is left a little bit at sea as A's manager Art Howe, who exists in the movie only as an obstacle to Beane getting the team he wants on the field. I'm not sure how Jonah Hill ended up in Moneyball, but I'm not going for a cheap laugh when I say he is punching above his weight. Hill delivers his helping of expository dialogue ably enough, but the performance is too tamped down. It's as if Hill were actively trying to negate his comic persona. A little more zeal would have conveyed Brand's fire for reinventing the game. As Moneyball progresses through the 2002 season. we're treated to familiar sports tropes like a late-inning home run and a player getting the news that his services aren't required anymore. But the movie is Brad Pitt's show. That smile is as bright as ever,  but there's also an early-middle age insecurity that Pitt has never really had to show and a wonderful easy rapport with the young actress (Kerris Dorsey) who plays Beane's daughter. At the end of Moneyball Beane is offered a chance to become general manager of the Boston Red Sox, where he'd make more money than he'd ever need and have more to work with to woo players. Though the Red Sox pressed hard - Arliss Howard is wonderful as Sox owner John Henry, baseball's new money - Beane turned down the job and is still in Oakland. Moneyball salutes Beane the individual, but doesn't forget that he's a agnostic in the church of baseball.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jelly beans, boom!


As simple and as good an explanation of why R.E.M. mattered as I've read. (Grantland)

Their songs obsessed over the distance between reality and memory, action and perception, reveling in disconnect and blur: "Fast songs that made you think slow," as critic Ann Powers observed. Musically, their trick bag was never that big: a blammo shake-it-up beat, some sleek, off-handed guitar sex, lyrics that balanced drift and foreboding, all coiled tight then finally unfurling into a chorus of the gods. They had their gimmick like anyone else. But they blew the shtick up in a thousand directions: whether it was making a concept album about Reconstruction that's really mainly about Michael Stipe's love life (1985's Fables of the Reconstruction), or building a parallel between the images of Christ and Marc Bolan on 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, or putting KRS-One and Kate Pierson of the B-52's on the same record (1991's Out of Time), or making a bubblegum tune from a Douglas Sirk movie title (2001's "Imitation of Life") or working references to Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs into an unlikely radio hit ("It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"). They were really quite something, as Former Biggest Bands in America go. And now they're gone. Oh well, it's like that radio hit said: birthday party cheesecake, jelly beans, BOOM! Thanks, fellas.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When it mattered more?

Critic Dave Kehr looks back at early reviews and remembers the heady days when every movie was a cultural battleground. (Village Voice)

NP: Was there a sense in the Reader years, not to speak of now, that you were proselytizing for your particular way of reading movies?

DK: In those days people got really, really angry at the idea that Alfred Hitchcock was an artist. I would have screaming fights with people about stuff like that. They just couldn't believe it. "He's a Hollywood hack! How can you take this stuff seriously for a minute?" And much less somebody like Joseph H. Lewis or Douglas Sirk. I mean my God, you'd almost have riots when you would show Sirk films at the Film Society at the University of Chicago. "How could you show this trash and then tell us this is something of interest?" And today he's coming out on deluxe editions from Criterion. There’s got to be nobody more respectable than Sirk right now. So a lot of the writing in that book does have that kind of pushy, polemical edge that I don’t think I would use today. But at the time there was a real sense of culture war, really, between the auteurists and the fuddy-duddy Dwight MacDonald gang, and the Kael-ites on the other hand. And in some ways I miss that because it was passionate, there was a lot of energy in that scene and you really thought you were crusading on behalf of the truth.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"...exactly what we say we want..."


Good post on Soderbergh and Contagion, even if I don't agree with all of the conclusions. I love how Isaac describes the way Soderbergh has fulfilled the promise of having put helped put Sundance and Miramax on the map. (Parabasis)

But let’s not forget, between Sex, Lies & Videotape and Out of Sight there were Kafka, The Underneath, King Of The Hill, Schizopolis and the Spalding Grey film Grey’s Anatomy, all of which contain elements that prefigure the post-Traffic half of Soderbergh’s career. And the second half of that career is actually better than most people think. Ocean’s Eleven is perfect pop entertainment, a slick (but not anonymous) heist comedy with a great David Holmes score and surprising moments of beauty. The Informant! is a spectacular example of how rewarding irony can be. The Good German and Ocean’s 12 have few defenders, but I’m amongst them, although that is a post for a different day.

It seems to me that Steven Soderbergh has spent his career doing exactly what we say we want artists to do. He’s constantly challenged himself, remained experimental even when working on mainstream projects, and has never been afraid of critical or commercial failure or making films that are divisive. Most of the projects of his that don’t work aren’t so much spectacular failures as they are either too slight to care about or, well, boring.

My review of Contagion is here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Everything Old...



Adapting John Le Carre for the movies hasn't always been easy, but maybe the time is right again. (NYT)

What the failed adaptations of his books had made clear was that even in his relatively straightforward early novels his narrative techniques were a little too tricky for the movies to handle. Mr. le CarrĂ© is maybe the most eccentric constructor of fiction in English literature since Joseph Conrad. His stories are full of digressions and long flashbacks; he circles around his plots for the longest time, as if he were doing reconnaissance on them before deciding to go in for the kill. And the verbal textures of the books can be challenging too, because his spies tend to speak in their own special jargon, which seems like normal speech, but isn’t quite. It’s like one of those maddeningly elusive regional English dialects: you need to get the hang of it, and it always takes longer than you would have thought possible.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sunday Music: Nick Lowe - "When I Write The Book"



Heard Lowe do an acoustic guitar-only version of this on World Cafe, though I can't locate that performance online. Lowe's new album is The Old Magic.

It’s clear that Lowe is trying to gracefully grow old, and, as he himself has said in a New York Daily News piece quoted in the always reliable and dependable Wikipedia, his greatest fear in recent years seems to be “sticking with what you did when you were famous. I didn’t want to become one of those thinning-haired, jowly old geezers who still does the same shtick they did when they were young, slim and beautiful. That’s revolting and rather tragic.” So The Old Magic is what it is—and you have to approach it on its own terms, ignoring the energetic and caustic songs written well before Lowe was 30 years old. I’ll be honest with you: I hated this approach when I first heard it. However, The Old Magic is an album that gradually creeps up on you, and has plenty of rewards for those who can take the now white-haired Lowe basically acting his age.


Drive

The curious Drive is on the surface a crime drama; it's a bloodier, less funny pass at an Elmore Leonard-type tale of a small-time criminal who runs afoul of the wrong people. Ryan Gosling plays a nameless character usually referred to as "The Kid" or "The Driver" who supplements his day jobs as a mechanic and stunt driver by being a getaway driver for hire. The Kid is purely a driver, he stays in the car while his clients have five minutes to grab as much as they can. We don't his name and we don't know his story either, and that's because the real subject of Drive is the old-fashioned movie-star cool that Gosling brings to his performance. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has pared down his movie to the essentials, since if the movie is burdened with motivation then we'll be too distracted to notice the moment when a shadow passes across Gosling's face as he realizes he's in much deeper trouble then he'd planned on. The Kid is silent almost to the point of ridiculousness, even with the boss (Bryan Cranston) who wants to turn him into a stock-car driver. The shadows, plays of light, and silences that Refn builds into Drive serve to draw our focus to the film's true purpose, the creation of an icon. Imagine Tom Cruise in 1983 or James Dean playing this role and you'll understand what I'm talking about. The movie is deliberately timeless; the characters use cell phones but the cars are ordinary and the faux-80s songs on the soundtrack are like something you'd hear on a Sunday morning while watching Cinemax. Gosling's face is all that matters.

Given all the style it's a wonder that Drive is so gripping. Gosling is so good he doesn't need much to work with, and there aren't many lines needed to fill in his growing attraction to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene is the movie's one source of uncompromising warmth and Carey Mulligan probably won't get enough credit for how good she is here. After The Kid leaves her for the first time Irene's attraction is palpable; a shot of her rubbing her lip is a moment of beautiful economy. The rest of the cast is filled out with colorful players; Albert Brooks is a pleasant surprise as a shady producer interested in The Kid's racing career and Ron Perlman has great fun as his partner. The violence in Drive is heightened by the movie's quietness and the action high point involves Irene's just-paroled husband (Oscar Isaac) and a woman (Christina Hendricks, dressing down) who knows more than she lets on. I could spend quite a few more words describing the experience of watching Drive but I don't think we'll see a wave of Danish-directed, heavily stylized action movies. What's interesting about Drive is where it comes in Gosling's career. Capital-A Acting has earned Gosling every chance, and here he proves he can carry a movie with his mere presence. If it sounds like I'm hedging, I'm not. Drive is nutty and original, filled with personality, and more than worth viewing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Workaholic, Examined



I'm pretty much on board with this "ranking" of the films of Steven Soderbergh, though there are a few I haven't seen and I probably have an undue affection for films where I've heard Soderbergh's commentary tracks or where there's a disjointed narrative. (The Underneath, anyone?) This appreciation of the good-natured argument that is the commentary for The Limey rightfully locates that austere crime drama as one of the director's best. The news that Soderbergh had written and directed a play about Caylee Anthony came as a shock. (Slate/AV Club)

But there's more to being an actors' director then just goofing off on set. Soderbergh pulls great performances from his actors, and rarely casts poorly—that is, rarely puts an actor in a position where she's likely to fail. Clooney (Out of Sight), Roberts (Brockovich), and Damon (The Informant!) all gave their best career performances in Soderbergh films; so have James Spader, Jesse Bradford, Luis Guzman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Tobey Maguire. He gets ace performances from actors whose other work suggests they're not really that talented, like Jennifer Lopez, Andie MacDowell, and Topher Grace. He's even great with actors who aren't actors at all: the nonprofessional cast of Bubble (one star had spent her career as the manager of a West Virginia KFC), or monologuist Spalding Gray, or porn performer Sasha Grey. (His next film, Haywire, stars the MMA fighter Gina Carano as a special-ops supersoldier.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

St. Vincent - "Hysterical Strength"



From the new Strange Mercy. 9/10 Pitchfork review here .

At 28, Clark seems to be sorting through her own existential artistic dilemmas. A champagne year is supposed to be celebrated when you turn the same age as the day you were born, but "Champagne Year" finds the singer-- born September 28, 1982-- in a decidedly non-bottle-popping mood. Her voice takes on a gorgeous creak on the nebulous ballad, as she sings, "I make a living telling people what they wanna hear/ It's not a killing but it's enough to keep the cobwebs clear." An almost-30 indie musician's lament? Perhaps. Meanwhile, the galloping "Hysterical Strength" employs some magical thinking while dealing with death. When Clark isn't bulldozing through time and space with her fretwork, she's contemplating her place with care. The balance is something to behold.

While Strange Mercy's more propulsive workouts-- including the single "Cruel", Clark's purest pop song to date-- are quick to snag attention, the slow burners hit just as heavily. The playful "Dilettante" combines the mutant funk of David Bowie's "Fashion" with the understated genius of D'Angelo's Voodoo, and has Clark possibly propositioning a prophet: "Oh, Elijah, don't make me wait/ What is so pressing that you can't undress me, anyway?" Closer "Year of the Tiger" is a stark summation of end-times capitalism in a recession-stuck United States. Sounding like a Wall Street swindler, she slithers, "Italian shoes like these rubes know the difference/ Suitcase of cash in the back of my stick-shift... Oh America, can I owe you one?" And the delicate title track involves a child, a father stuck behind prison glass, and a breaking point in the form of a refrain: "If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up, no I don't know what." Her threat here is not a gimmick or a subversion; it's irrational, confused, and real.

Critical History


Michael Sragow remembers the excitement of coming of age during a cinematic revolution. This is the first in a series of career retrospective posts. Part 2 here.  (Baltimore Sun)

In those anti-corporate and nonconformist times, arguing about movies -- taking individual stands -- was part of what made going to the movies enjoyable. It wasn’t about slamming anyone who disagreed with you or adding your name to a virtual chorus so a film could be certified “Rotten” or “Fresh.” It was about figuring out how you felt about a film, and why. And if you loved a film, it was about championing the artist against the system.

American directors were creating films worth arguing about. My career commenced with the first stirrings of the American Movie Renaissance, as masters like Peckinpah and Kubrick and young mavericks like Philip Kaufman and Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola were breathing unruly life into genres like Westerns and thrillers and sci-fi films. So along with the arguments came adventure and discovery. The next summer, back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (I would transfer to Harvard that fall), nothing was more exciting than piling into a car with my older brother and a couple of pals to find the one theater in the area – out in a Pennsylvania suburb – that was playing Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” a marvelous movie that the studio had dumped. In the days before home video, you had to catch movies when you could.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reasons to Watch



The Toronto International Film Festival launches Sarah Polley's new Take This Waltz, giving Polley the chance do something that will always draw a link from me. Polley talks about her leading lady, Michelle Wililams. (Review here) (Moviefone)

Q: Michelle Williams is fantastic. Is there any particular element that you try to infuse in your female characters?

A: Yeah, we had lots of talks. Michelle's quite a bit like Julie Christie in that she's one of the best actresses in the world, who could do anything on their own, but actually wants and likes a lot of direction. So we had long, very intensive conversations about the character. And it's a complicated character. She's not always necessarily sympathetic to every audience member and she's not always completely understanding.

I think it's a very, very tricky tightrope walk to play that character and not go extremely one way or the other. What I find fascinating about this film is that people really project their own relationship history onto it. So there are people who are like, "I loved Margot! Finally somebody made a film that I can relate to" and other people are like, "I just wanted to kill her, she's so selfish." I'm so thrilled by that because I feel like people are projecting their own lives onto the film and feeling passionate and somehow supporting their point of view. Even what she does at the end -- there are some people who have judged it so intensely. It makes me so happy to know that people are that invested in the film.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Music: Band of Horses - "Marry Song"



Caught this band on Austin City Limits (with The National); they're near the top of the list of acts I'd like to see live. I like this version of one of my favorite of their songs.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh's brisk and effective Contagion spends most of its running time not getting too close to its subject, and the movie is all the better for its director's refusal to indulge in sentiment. The "horror" of Contagion lies in just to what extent the world would play catch-up in an outbreak of a new virus like the one in Scott Z. Burns' script. The CDC doctors (Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle) have trouble synthesizing the virus to develop a vaccine and are afraid the bug will escape even their most secure laboratory. (I wanted more of Elliott Gould as a government-defying scientist.) A Minnesota father (Matt Damon) immune to the virus whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow in an against-type cameo) may be Patient Zero discovers the lengths he'll go to in order to protect his daughter as society begins to give into panic. A WHO doctor (Marion Cotillard) tracking the disease's roots is literally stranded by the fears that the First World will get preferential treatment when a vaccine is developed. Soderbergh nimbly crosscuts between all of these characters and each actor makes something out of his role with just a few lines to fill in the background. Fishburne's Dr. Cheever is the soul of unflappable professionalism as the crisis unfolds; we almost don't realize he's broken confidentiality and warned his fiance (Sanaa Lathan) to flee in advance of a quarantine until someone is chastising him about it two scenes later. If Contagion is too rushed it's in how it handles the character of Erin (Kate Winslet), a doctor charged with organizing a response to the initial outbreak in Minnesota. There was more to be made out of the conflict between public safety and the desire of local politicians to avoid inciting fear in the voters.

Contagion makes its one false move with the character of Alan (Jude Law), a blogger who uses his site to push a conspiracy angle in the way information is dispensed about the crisis. Alan goes from yellow journalist to full-on snake oil salesman when he starts advocating forsythia as a homeopathic treatment for the virus, and there's a suggestion that Alan is acting at the behest of unscrupulous speculators. These scenes arrive feeling stuck in the screenwriter's brain and never take off; Alan's charges are too vague for the credence they get on the Web to feel earned and the reasoning behind the forsythia plot is never explained. Do Soderbergh and Burns mean for us to take Alan as a journalist undone by greed, or as something else? Law's role lacks motivation and his scenes are distractions from the medical detective story. I can't remember where I heard Contagion described as movie that's really about the effects of 9/11 on society. I don't know that I think Soderbergh had something that topical in mind, but he has made a movie about how far an unexpected crisis can take us from ourselves.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Homemade Work

John Cassavetes on A Woman Under The Influence. As usual when discussing a film, Cassavetes sounds like he's talking about everything else, too.


I absolutely wrote A Woman Under the Influence to try to write a terrific part for my wife. Gena wanted to do a play. She was always complaining we're living in California, she loves the theater and everything. Gena really wanted to do a play on Broadway. And I had always fancied that I would write a play. She wanted something big. She said, "Now look, deal with it from a woman's point of view. I mean deal with it so that I have a part in this thing!" and I said, "OK," and I went off and had been thinking about it for a year anyway. And I had taken seven or eight tries at bad plays and came up with this play, which was not the play the movie was, but it was based on the same characters.

The Book I Read: Wendy And The Lost Boys by Julie Salamon

I didn't know much about Wendy Wasserstein before starting Julie Salamon's new biography. The basics: Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, had a daughter late in life, and died of lymphoma in 2006 at age 55. What I learned from Wendy And The Lost Boys was just to what degree Wasserstein's clannish, secretive family shaped her work and how heady and thrilling it must have been to be young and involved in New York theater in the 1970's and '80s. The strongest character in the book besides Wasserstein herself is the playwright's mother Lola, a woman so convinced of her children's superiority (while often disdaining the conventional rituals of motherhood) that it seems almost preordained that Wendy's older sister Sandra became a pioneering female executive and her brother Bruce a massively successful investment banker. Wasserstein didn't show a serious interest in theater until after her years at Mount Holyoke; she made her name (after completing Yale Drama School) with the play Uncommon Women and Others, which drew heavily from the lives of her college friends. A young Meryl Streep appeared in a PBS production of Uncommon Women. Streep and Wasserstein were at Yale together and my favorite part of Wendy And The Lost Boys follows Wendy (along with Yale classmate Christopher Durang) through her association with the then-new Playwright's Horizons theater and eventually to a home at Lincoln Center under the leadership of friend and almost-but-not-quite life partner Andre Bishop. Bishop's patronage was the biggest single reason that Wasserstein's plays continued to enjoy major productions despite mixed critical reception. The two's personal relationship had considerably more peaks and valleys that Wasserstein's writing career. A pattern of deep, sometimes sexual, relationships with gay men is well-detailed; Salamon is as intrigued by Wasserstein's relationship choices (including one with fellow playwright Terrence McNally) as she is by anything in her writing career. Could all of these affairs have ended as tidily as Salamon describes them? Salamon's book celebrates the communities that theater engenders, and I'd love to read a more comprehensive history of the New York theater scene that Wasserstein came into. Since Wendy And The Lost Boys is ostensibly an "authorized" biography I suppose we'll never know. Wasserstein shared her family's penchant for secrecy (she was close to her siblings all her life) and the elaborate denials of her own health she constructs in the book's last section mirror those of her sister's long and unsuccessful battle with cancer. Wasserstein's defense mechanisms were vivacity and and a whirlwind of activity (though she was thoroughly professional while dealing with revisions to her plays or professional opportunities), but she came by those traits.honestly. The fact that her last years could have been easier if she'd let more friends in is a sad ending to a life of achievement and love.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sunday Music: Ryan Adams - "Lucky Now"



From earlier this year; it's a track from Adams' new album Ashes & Fire, which will be released in October.

Criterion #563: Something Wild

Looking at Jonathan Demme's Something Wild 25 years later it's surprising how easy it is to skip over the signs that the movie takes place in the 1980's. Businessmen like Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) carry pagers, restaurants don't take credit cards, and you can have lunch at a Manhattan diner for three bucks. Charlie, soon to be a Vice President at his office, would seem to be a perfect example of '80s ambition on the day he walks out on a lunch check and gets called on it by sexy stranger Lulu (Melanie Griffith, never better). In an interview on the DVD extras Demme praises the script by E. Max Frye for its surprises and its economy, and he's right. We've almost forgotten what it's like to watch a major studio release and not feel like we know what's about to happen, and though Something Wild doesn't feel dated it does feel like it comes from a world where movies for adults were actually given some attention. The movie's central irony is that as Charlie loosens up Lulu (whose real name is Audrey) reveals her true, conservative purpose: she has enlistened Charlie as a faux-husband and date for her high-school reunion, the first great public demonstration of How Our Adult Lives Are Working Out. It's during a reunion dance to The Feelies that Something Wild takes its greatest turn with the arrival of Ray (Ray Liotta), Audrey's parolee ex-husband. Liotta won this role after an exhaustive casting search, and it's easy to believe that Demme cast him because no other auditionee was as scary. What had been casual. pleasant, and episodic now becomes lean and focused, as Charlie and Ray battle for Audrey's future. Trying to describe the plot of Something Wild doesn't do justice to how unusual the movie feels. As usual Demme fills out the cast with performers of great color, including John Sayles and John Waters and some nonprofessionals. Something Wild ends on as open ended a note as it starts, and Demme's career-changer (it was made on the heels of losing a battle with a studio on Swing Shift) is as original and vital as it was in 1986. We need it even more now than we did back then.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Debt

John Madden's uneven thriller The Debt (based on an Israeli film) asks intriguing questions but ducks them in favor of love triangles and action sequences. In 1965, a young Mossad agent named Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is assigned to capture a former Nazi surgeon named Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who has been masquerading as a fertility doctor in Berlin. Her partners in the mission are the politically ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas) and the more sensitive David (Sam Worthington), each of whom want to use the mission for their own ends. The Debt is about the difference between what happens on the mission and the version of events that exists in 1997, in which the trio are regarded as heroes. Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson play Rachel and Stephan in this section of the film; the two are divorced but thrown together when their daughter (Romi Aboulafia) publishes a book on her parents' mission. The older David (Ciaran Hinds) is distant from his former colleagues and has spent years dodging the acclaim thrown Rachel and Stephan's way. The first third of the movie is nimble and tense, as the operation is planned and staged in preparation for for the removal of Vogel back to Israel. The scenes between Vogel and Rachel in an examining room are especially nerve-wracking, and Christensen (so good as a very different character in this) makes Vogel keenly intelligent. When the mission goes awry Rachel and the others are forced to spend more time with Vogel then they had planned, and it's here that The Debt stops to consider when and if revenge puts one on the same moral footing as one's enemy. The question is worthwhile but there's too much going on for it to get a full airing. There's a simmering love triangle among the agents, and Vogel is beginning to get in their heads. If I hadn't known Jessica Chastain was in both The Help and The Tree of Life I wouldn't have believed it, and she's different again here. In Rachel's scenes with Vogel Chastain somehow makes her face look less than fully formed, as if Rachel's mind were being filled with an adult's view of the world while we're watching.

I could imagine Chastain's Rachel becoming the pinched, guarded woman that Mirren gives us in the 1997 section, but I'm not sure the rest of The Debt is as connected to anything that we've seen in the movie's first half. David, whose moral journey around the question of Vogel's fate is the most interesting, fades away from the movie at this point (though Ciaran Hinds makes the most of his screen time) and the rest is pure plot. Rachel is pressed back into service and is able to slip in and out of other languages and easily navigate places she has never been despite years away from an agent's life. The resolution is inconclusive; the importance of "truth" is emphasized in voice-over but one could also understand the debt of the title to have been finally paid in blood. The Debt is a highbrow guilty pleasure that winds up not fulfilling its promise.

Design for Living


Antonioni as the father of the modern design blogger. Watching a VHS of The Passenger years ago doesn't qualify me to say much about his films, but this theory feels right. (Greencine)

Damned if one of the great European auteurs of the last century wasn't also the grandfather of Unhappy Hipsters, the website that slaps sarcastic comments on repurposed photos from the pages of Dwell magazine. Sample image: A little girl with a pony tail, face away from the camera, isolated in a room full of sleek, minimalist chairs and a Saarinen dining table. And this: "It was punishment unique to her modernist parents: hours of solitary confinement with classic and contemporary design icons, followed by stern yet uncomfortably hypocritical lectures on freedom of expression and rejecting tradition."

I don't bring up this comparison to provoke a cheap laugh, although, please, go ahead. The point is that a half-century after Antonioni made his signature, pathbreaking films—which also include the trilogy L'Eclisse (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'Avventura (1962)—his visual style and thematic concepts have been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture, into our ways of looking and mass media's ways of making us look, that no one even notices anymore

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Future of American Tennis



Uh-oh, meet Ryan Harrison. (Grantland)

I began tallying his eruptions. There were 11, including another racket throw, a racket slam, and an enraged "Unbelievable!" Harrison won eight of the 11 subsequent points. Percentage-wise, it had become more advantageous for Harrison to berate himself than to make his first serve. Late in the first set, down a break, Harrison hit an easy return into the net. "I hit that slower than I've ever hit a ball in my life," he yelled. Holt turned to me: "Here comes a big return." On the next point, Harrison slammed a backhand return down the line. He won the point.

This is what had scouts excited about Harrison: big serve, moves well, deft at the net, and really, really hates to lose. As the next great American, Harrison endures countless comparisons to his predecessors. Try hard enough and anyone fits: He has Sampras' serve-and-volley game, Agassi's movement, Ashe's creativity, Roddick's forehand. Most visibly, he has John McEnroe's on-court demeanor. Harrison and his camp see this last trait, mostly, as a positive. "I think, personally, if Federer had a little more fire, it would help him get back to the top," Harrison said earlier this year. Holt added: "In football you have your teammates to talk to. On the court you're by yourself. He has these explosions that on a team sport would be pretty accepted, and he has to just get it out." Earlier this year, in a match against Mardy Fish, McCain told Harrison to try an experiment. No swearing, no arguing, no racket throwing or slamming. He got spanked. The experiment has not been retried. "We've got to let Ryan be Ryan," McCain said, "but we have to start realizing there might be another way aside from smashing your racket."

Halftime adjustments

Last night's episode of the BBC drama The Hour was a turning point for me and for the characters, as Freddie (Ben Whishaw) finds a connection between the death of a friend that began the series and the shadowy government minder who unexpectedly turns up with everyone else at the country house of Hector (Dominic West) and his wife's family. Romola Garai is as cool and dry as one of the drinks everyone is always sipping and I'm liking Dominic West's awareness of his own inadequacies more and more. Still, as Todd points out in this review, the show suffers from its compacted length and some clumsy exposition. I'll be watching the final three episodes, though. (AV Club)

So to that end, sticking the whole storyline in the midst of the English country house tale was a good idea. Because we’re already familiar with the tropes of the genre, letting the show briefly turn into a riff on that genre made the way that Bel and Hector’s relationship has been sped up much more palatable. It helps that Romola Garai and Dominic West have mesmerizing chemistry, of course (well, Garai has that kind of chemistry with everyone), but the second we get to that country house, it’s like the show is saying, “Hey, we’re going to hook these two attractive people up in this episode, and we’ll let you get to know a little bit more about them on the way there.” The country house storyline is relatively free of spy shenanigans, which gives the full weight to the hopes, dreams, and feelings of our central trio (as well as Marnie, who is being defined almost entirely via reaction shots). It’s just a good, solid piece of craftsmanship, and it’s filled with moments that could feel stupid—like the guy who gets drunk and starts blurting out harmful secrets—much more palatable. “Relax,” the show says. “You know this genre. We’re just doing a thing here.”