Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve Music: Patti Smith - "People Have The Power"

An old song for a new year. Best wishes for 2013.

What's Ahead

Indiewire asks critics about their most anticipated movies of 2013, and the responses reveal plenty of enthusiasm and anticipation for new work by Malick, Linklater, Del Toro, and Jarmusch.
Glenn Heath Jr., Magazine/MATCH/CUTS: "My most anticipated film of 2013 is Jim Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive.' Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as melancholy vampires who've been in and out of love for centuries, this latest whatsit from the director of 'Dead Man' and 'The Limits of Control' is sure to be just as strange and resonant as his other subversive efforts. This will undoubtedly be in competition at Cannes come May."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook

Your tolerance for David O. Russell's The Silver Linings Playbook will depend upon how long you can endure the movie's manic energy and its habit of having characters engage in loud, declamatory conversations about how they're feeling and what they need. In the opening scenes Pat (Bradley Cooper) is taken out of a mental hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver) and brought home to Philadelphia. Pat has been away for eight months after a breakdown that has (for the moment anyway) put his marriage in jeopardy and cost him his job; his dad Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) isn't sure Pat is ready to come home. Bradley Cooper's performance gets better the better Pat gets. In the early scenes Pat, who resists taking his meds and flips out when he hears his wedding song, seems more irritated than manic and it's difficult to imagine anyone being afraid of him until he strikes his parents while searching for his wedding video. Russell doesn't try to jazz up this scene with edits or music, and it's exactly as disturbing as it needs to be. After Pat hits bottom and begins to really work on his recovery Cooper is much stronger; he has a chance to display the decency that makes him an ideal center point for the comic nonsense of the Hangover movies.

There's another damaged soul in The Silver Linings Playbook. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a friend's widowed sister-in-law whom Pat meets at an awkward dinner table scene where the two compare antidepressant dosages. David O. Russell writes too many conversations that could only occur in movies; I didn't believe Tiffany would be quite so free with the story of the behavior that got her fired, though Lawrence is magnetic in the scene. Indeed it's Tiffany's need for connection that gives Playbook its heart. We don't quite realize how much hope she has placed in Pat until a late scene when it appears Pat's wife may have reentered the picture. With one line to Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles), Lawrence manages to convey just how close Tiffany is to coming alive again and how far having her hopes dashed would set her back. It's the kind of scene that gets replayed at awards shows. Jennifer Lawrence makes the movie work in spite of the way Russell can't help himself at times when it comes to pulling the movie's emotional levers. Lawrence both jolts the movie and settles it down in a way that I can't quite compare to anyone else. though many others will try. The rest of the story is a contraption involving the obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fandom of Pat Sr. (DeNiro does his most interesting work here in some time) and a ballroom dancing competition that thankfully Russell doesn't require Pat and Tiffany to have to win. The Silver Linings Playbook is a big-hearted mess, but  a winning one; it's probably Russell's best film since Three Kings and a strong argument that Jennifer Lawrence is more than just the next big thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day Music: Graham Parker & The Rumor - "Protection"

I meant to get this up earlier, but here's a vintage clip of Parker performing a song that's also heard in This Is 40. Parker plays himself in the film, where his "character" is probably a little too excited about getting a song on Glee.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Django Unchained

What happens when one of the few American directors with a recognizable brand name reaches for something bigger? The result might be something like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the director’s attempt to wrestle with both the most American of cinematic archetypes (the Western) and the stain of slavery on our history. Django is Tarantino’s most formally ambitious film for containing his most straightforward narrative, there are no pop culture riffs or anime sequences for him to fall back on. The final product contains moments that Tarantino’s fans will recognize as his own (including moments of graphic violence), but long stretches are stifled by the fact that Tarantino is working in a period that doesn’t allow for irony as a default setting.

Texas 1858: A bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) breaks a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) out of the leg irons that shackle him to a group of other newly acquired slaves. Schultz has a mission in mind; he’s tracking three men with a price on their head and knows that Django can identify them. The first section of Django feels the most like some sort of odd revisionist Western. Schultz and Django, newly minted partners, hunt wanted men while on the receiving end of a steady stream of ugly stares; no one can abide the idea of a black man riding a horse. Schultz, whom Waltz plays with a manic Old World courtliness that’s great fun to watch, is a deadly shot with a rifle and Django soon becomes a gunslinger. There is a comic epic to be made with these two shooting their way across the South while at the same time charming plantation owners like Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Tarantino includes a bizarre and very funny sketch-like scene of Johnson’s character leading a group of hooded men after Schultz and Django, but what happens when the hoods don’t fit?

The word “vengeance” is on the posters for Django Unchained, and though I think the film finally doesn’t work it’s fair to say that Tarantino has tried to make something personal and specific, as opposed to an ahistorical, blacks-kill-whites revenge fantasy. He doesn’t have it in him. Django and Schultz uncover the whereabouts of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and it’s at this point that things go badly wrong. The last section of the film revolves around a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the necessity for Schultz and Django to pose as slavers trying to acquire men for “mandingo fights” (black-on-black fights to the death for the entertainment and wagering of whites) in order to gain Broomhilda’s freedom. Jamie Foxx may have the fewest lines of any main character in a Tarantino film, and though Foxx gives a credible and realistic performance he is giving it in the wrong film. Django is badly underwritten in the second half of the film and is reduced to merely an avatar of revenge as opposed to a character. There isn’t time to consider the cost to Django’s soul for allowing other slaves to be brutalized; although Foxx is capable of playing those scenes, Tarantino isn’t interested in writing them. Kerry Washington, who deserves a great role one of these days, has the same problem. Broomhilda is a object to be won, and though Washington (who has wonderfully expressive eyes) gives it her best she can’t transcend the narrowness of the part.

The actors who fare the best in Django Unchained are the ones who understand what kind of movie they’re in. Leonardo DiCaprio has a ball as Candie, it’s as if DiCaprio decided no one would recognize him with facial hair and so decided to have some fun. The most complicated and revelatory performance in Django Unchained is given by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the man responsible for running Candie’s household. Stephen has internalized his role so much that he is unable to accept any assertion of strength among the other blacks at “Candie Land.”  This character is to my mind the one who should make African-American audiences the most uncomfortable; watching Stephen cozy up to his masters is deeply unpleasant, precisely because it pulls from strain of history too often ignored. Jackson does a sustained, sarcastic version of his usual schtick, it’s too modern but serves Tarantino’s vision of the role well.

Once a director is established, how much ambition does he owe his audience? The trailer for Michael Bay’s new Pain and Gain runs before Django Unchained, Bay’s inclusion of irony feels like as big an advance as Chaplin including sound. Quentin Tarantino wants to work in different periods and genres, but the central action of Django Unchained (man wants wife back) is too general for the film that Tarantino wants to make. We are left with attractive pieces, all oddly stuck together., I don’t know what will turn Tarantino’s head next, but there are some subjects that cannot be breezed through, Tarantino may have earned the right to make it, but Django Unchained is an honorable failure.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This Is 40

This Is 40 is being advertised as a “sort-of” sequel to Knocked Up, and indeed writer/director Judd Apatow takes us back to the world of his earlier film, only this time there’s no sign of Katherine Heigl or Seth Rogen and his motley band of stoners. This Is 40 follows Debbie (Leslie Mann), the sister of Heigl’s character in Knocked Up, and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) through their fortieth birthdays and a few weeks of reckoning with oncoming change. Pete runs his own financially strapped record label and has maybe too much riding on a new release by Graham Parker. (Parker appears as himself and has great fun being realistic about the state of his career.) Debbie is first seen denying her age and secretly smoking; it’s her determination to make the most of life that sets the movie in motion.

 Judd Apatow is interested in families, from the employees at the electronics store in The 40-Year Old Virgin to the comics of Funny People to Pete and Debbie’s here. This Is 40 is a rambling movie in tune with the rhythms of daily life; the management of two daughters (a wonderful Maude Apatow and her younger sister Iris) requires constant attention and a life-changing surprise can come at any moment. The fights between Debbie and Pete, which are mostly about honesty and money, don’t feel melodramatic but rather like sections of a long-running discussion that usually simmers in the background but that has begun to come to the forefront a bit too much. Yet it’s to Apatow’s credit that he never tries to create tension by putting the marriage at risk. There’s a scene in a nightclub after a night of dancing with her employee (tart Megan Fox) when a real opportunity opens up for Debbie, and Leslie Mann nails Debbie’s awkwardness and confusion that someone might see her as something other than a wife and mother. Apatow’s script never invites us to like Debbie, and Mann’s complicated performance doesn’t shy away from the character’s neediness and frustration. The bawdy humor you might expect from an Apatow film is here, but it’s never a distraction and always feels like something that Pete and Debbie use to blow off tension. One of the few false moments occurs between Mann and an employee played by Charlyne Yi, the scene feels imported from one of Apatow’s earlier films. A scene where Debbie yells at her daughter’s classmate isn’t played for laughs, it’s the behavior of woman who genuinely isn’t sure what he’s doing. (A follow-up scene with Melissa McCarthy as another mother is broad but well-acted, and McCarthy gets some great lines out in the closing credit outttakes.) I have liked all of Apatow’s movies, but This Is 40 improves upon the success of Funny People. Apatow is writing people who are more than just vehicles for his jokes.

 I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t any fun to be had in This Is 40. The cast is well-stocked and Albert Brooks is best of all as Pete’s dad, a selfish man learning that it isn’t too late to make a connection. John Lithgow, Robert Smigel, Chris O’Dowd, and Lena Dunham also show up in smaller roles, and Jason Segel has a funny riff as Debbie’s personal trainer. Whatever film Apatow has planned next, I hope he thinks about revisiting these characters in a few years. There is rich territory to be explored here, and Apatow shows no signs of getting tired of family life.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Music: Beach House - "Myth"

Found this one while looking through some lists of the year's best songs. Would you have rather had Taylor or Rihanna?

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Flight is an excellent performance in search of a better movie. I had read descriptions of Denzel Washington’s walk in other reviews, but from the moment his Whip Whitaker swaggers out of a hotel room after a night of drugs, drink, and sex with a stewardess (Nadine Velazquez) I knew I was in good hands. Whip’s life is a mess, he’s divorced and in the thrall of his addictions, but that’s nothing compares to what happens to him when a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta goes bad. The airborne sequence in Flight is a piece of genuinely harrowing bravura filmmaking, and we can all be glad that director Robert Zemeckis decide not to shoot this movie with that weird animation technique from The Polar Express. The simple image of a terrified flight attendant reacting as the plane turns upside down suggests many horrors, and Zemeckis (working from a script by John Gatins) makes the moments after the crash a blur of image and sensation. It is the high point of the movie.

 After the crash Flight becomes a movie about a man running into a wall. It’s obvious from the moment Whip pours vodka into his in-flight orange juice that there’s a problem, but Zemeckis and Gatins need to keep reminding us. There’s a character Whip meets after the crash, an addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who becomes a part of his life for no other reason than to give him someone to talk to. Nicole is a mirror, a character who exists only to reflect Whip’s behavior, and she disappears from the movie when her purpose is used up. Whip keeps stumbling and trying to right himself as the crash investigation proceeds, there are a jumble of procedural details involving a lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a union rep (Bruce Greenwood, doing one of a number of inauthentic Southern accents) who are working to clear Whip’s name. Perhaps it’s honest that it takes so long for Whip to face himself but it never feels like there’s more than one way that Flight can end. The trials come on cue, most egregiously an unlocked door that gives Whip access to alcohol at the moment he needs it the least, and the final choice between responsibility and dishonor can be seen coming from pretty far down the road.

 What are we left with? Washington is marvelously specific about levels of intoxication, from morning after bleariness to the incoherence of an evening spent next to a whiskey bottle, and the way he snaps to another level after some help from his supplier (John Goodman, in a part not worthy of him) will chill anyone who has spent time around But addiction. But there are too many bum scenes, especially a hospital visit between Whip and his injured copilot (Brian Geraghty). Whip wants to make sure the copilot won’t testify against him, but the scene is just another turn of the wheel that’s moving Whip to where the movie wants him to go. The copilot turns out to be a Christian with a wife who only says “Praise Jesus”, and for no particular reason he enables Whip’s behavior for a little while longer. Flight is a movie jury-rigged to support a great performance and Denzel Washington more than carries the weight, but he’s acting in a vacuum because no one else has room to breathe.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This is Judd (and Fiona)

Judd Apatow on how music infects his new This Is 40, and I have to admit the soundtrack choices (including the above new song from Fiona Apple) sound promising. Apatow identifies with musicians who have been able to work in a personal vein over time. (Pitchfork)
Back in the old days, everyone was shocked if a band had a sponsor for their tour. Now, Bob Dylan can do a commercial for Victoria's Secret and people don't really blink; the Beatles' songs are in all sorts of commercials these days and it doesn't seem to offend anybody. The times are changing. Hopefully, everything will reconfigure so that we still get the same amount of great rock bands, but you do notice that a lot of bands that are great disappear a little bit faster than they used to. They don't get as much support for the long haul. You have to be pretty tough to hang in there. That's why I've always appreciated people like Graham Parker or Loudon Wainwright III, who spend their entire lives writing songs and working their asses off just to have complete artistic freedom. They're just sharing their lives with you through their music. That's the same kind of work that I'm trying to do, in my own weird way.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Saturday, December 08, 2012


Smashed is a movie about addiction that doesn’t follow a predictable arc or aim to be redemptive. The script by director James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke instead makes a more difficult choice; Ponsoldt and Burke are less interested in the broad humiliations of drunkenness than they are in the cold reality of new sobriety, and what that sobriety can do to one’s relationships. Elementary school teacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enjoys a boozy home life with her good-natured husband Charlie (Aaron Paul). Kate is just beginning to think about the toll her life is taking on her when an incident in front of her class and a chance encounter outside a bar bring her issues to the forefront. Charlie is content to think that they can “chill out” on their drinking and get by, but Kate’s coworker (Nick Offerman) takes her to an AA meeting and the honesty required by the 12-step culture forces Kate to take a hard look at her life. Smashed is the only cinematic treatment of alcoholism I’m aware of that acknowledges sobriety isn’t a magic bullet for life’s problems.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one of the best performances of  the year as Kate, a woman whose frightened eyes in the opening scenes (as she drinks beer in the shower before school) are gone by her climactic speech. Winstead and the filmmakers never come close to trying to romanticize Kate’s drunkenness; after an evening of drinking Kate is a loud, overbearing mess who can’t control her bodily functions. Yet Winstead also makes Kate someone worth saving, a woman whose disposition towards alcohol is a function of the way her mother (Mary Kay Place in a brave cameo) reflexively thinks a Bloody Mary would enhance any situation. Smashed is observant and honest enough to portray AA meetings as things where life-changing revelations don’t happen on a routine basis, indeed I’m not sure I even knew before this movie that meetings have built-in breaks. But the heart of the movie is in the relationship between Kate and Charlie, a man who hasn’t come to grips yet with the extent to which alcohol is the central dynamic in his marriage. Unlike his Breaking Bad character, Paul’s Charlie is a man in the grips of something he doesn’t understand who can’t see the consequences; his attempt to finally do right by Kate is all the more tragic for being too late. A scene between Kate and her sponsor (Octavia Spencer) hits at the essential truth of Smashed: Life is difficult. Smashed is a movie big-hearted enough not to run away from that fact.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck has passed away, and while you can hear "Take Five" and other familiar songs anywhere I had to share this old clip I stumbled upon. Hearing an artist explain themselves so simply is quite moving (not that Brubeck comes off as modest here) and I love the Charlie Rose-like seriousness of the interview.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Final thoughts (in the right format?)

A short review of the new David Foster Wallace nonfiction collection argues that Wallace's reviews and journalism might be the fastest route to figuring out what he thought mattered. (House Next Door/photo by Janette Beckman)
For years we waited for the author's next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace's tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else's, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author's growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Music: Dinosaur Jr (w/ Johnny Marr and Kevin Drew) - "The Wagon"

From LAST NIGHT in New York, Dinosaur Jr plays the hits along with Johnny Marr and Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene.

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, is based on a George V. Higgins novel called Cogan's Trade published in 1974. Dominik sets the film in the days leading up to the 2008 election, a time when the American economy seemed to have come undone and when the small-time hoods of Higgins' Boston find themselves in as much need of a bailout as any automotive company. The inciting incident is the robbery of a card game, a robbery that leaves a low-level player named Markie (Ray Liotta) in bad standing with his superiors. The robbers are on an even lower rung of the criminal infrastructure. Frankie (Scoot McNairy of Argo) and drug-addled Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) both hope to use the money from the job to launch new schemes; Johnny (Vincent Curatola), the man who hires them, needs an infusion of cash for an ailing dry cleaning business. No one in Killing Him Softly ever mentions TARP or failing banks (Obama and Bush are frequently heard in the background), but after the Mob sends in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) the point becomes clear. Frankie, Russell, and Johnny are parts of a machine; in Dominik and Higgins' world the gap between those with power and those who do the work is enough to fuel years of Occupy rallies.

George V. Higgins (who died in 1999) didn't write plots, he wrote conversations and digressions i which information was dispensed at oblique angles. The screenplay of Killing Them Softly reproduces Higgins' structure to great effect; there is very little action in the film but rather a series of dialogue scenes that ping with the resonance of long associations and half-forgotten bad choices. The scenes between Pitt's Cogan and a character known as The Driver (Richard Jenkins) are a study in the art of delivering exposition. The Driver is the representative of Cogan's superiors, a never-seen group of criminals who are just as mindful of budgets and just as bad at making decisions as any large corporation in bad times. Richard Jenkins infuses this role with great humanity; the Driver blanches at Cogan's talk of who needs to be whacked and how much a gunman from New York (James Gandolfini doing his impression of one of Tony Soprano's short-lived henchmen) might cost. Pitt is wonderful here as well, and his Cogan has great fun teasing The Driver's naivete and laying out the facts for his boss. Cogan is a man who has achieved a certain amount of respect by doing things right, and in a kicker of a final scene Pitt does of the best acting in his career as he explains the philosophy that has kept Cogan alive.

If Killing Them Softly loses its edge at any point it's in the way Dominik films violence. The violent acts in the film are transactional, that is to say investments in future plans or payment for services not rendered. One character receives a brutal beating, and later the shooting of the same character is drawn out in bloody slow-motion that looks like something from the drugged-out scenes in Dredd. Domink has a great eye but he's showing off here, the violence seems to mean more to him than it does to the characters themselves. Despite the hiccups Killing Them Softly is pungent and haunting effort with a surprising amount of relevance, and it stands as proof that the art of adaptation is just that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Alice Munro

Also from the New Yorker, here's a brief interview with short-story artist Alice Munro on her new collection, Dear Life.
I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was “call attention to yourself,” or “think you were smart.” My mother was an exception to this rule and was punished by the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. (The rule was for country people, like us, not so much for towners.) I tried to lead an acceptable life and a private life and got by most of the time O.K. No girls I knew went to college and very few boys. I had a scholarship for two years only, but by that time I had picked up a boy who wanted to marry me and take me to the West Coast. Now I could write all the time. (That was what I’d intended since I was at home. We were poor but had books around always.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Music: Sonic Youth - "Bull In The Heather"

Note the presence of Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna as an indie force of nature. I went back to this one from 1994 after reading this short New Yorker tribute to Hanna. Directed by Tamra Davis.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Music: Poi Dog Pondering - "Ta Bouche Est Tabou"

Great stuff here; this performance is from 1999 but has only been on YouTube a little less than a year. I'll always associate Poi Dog Pondering with my college radio station and a certain youthful sense of possibility.

Rabbit Town

Movie trailers certainly have changed, haven't they? Note the weirdly moralistic voice over. I include the trailer for the forgotten adaptation of Rabbit, Run as a curiosity to go along with this Sam Tanenhaus essay, which celebrates Rabbit (the Rabbit of Redux in particular) as a man poised to ride out the coming change.
John Updike visited The New York Times a week before Election Day in 2008. Whom, I asked him, would Rabbit Angstrom most likely vote for? “I’m so for Obama,” Updike replied, “that I can’t imagine creating a character who wouldn’t vote for him.” And yet in “Rabbit at Rest” — the last novel in the cycle, which concludes with the hero’s death — we discover he cast his final vote for George H. W. Bush. When I reminded Updike of this, he looked startled. But he was right about 2008. Obama carried Reading that year, and he did it again on Nov. 6. The finally tally, John Forester said, “was 17,248 for Obama, and 3,740 for Romney.” Why the lopsided outcome? Because the city’s population has indeed changed, though not in the way Rabbit foresaw. Nearly 60 percent of its population is now Hispanic. Rabbit, more open-minded than he first appears, would have made his peace, just as he did in 1969. “I love my country,” he avows, “and can’t stand to have it knocked,” even if it has become something he no longer recognizes.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The new Lincoln finds Steven Spielberg working in his best and most unobtrusive style, letting the words of Tony Kushner’s screenplay tell the story and resisting almost every impulse to mythologize or pull at our emotions. Lincoln is the next chapter in the continuing mythology of its star Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance here can be offered as an example of what it means for an actor to “disappear” inside a role. I don’t know if Day-Lewis will win an Oscar (he’ll certainly be nominated) but to understand the degree to which his work as Lincoln here is different from the soulful young man of In The Name of the Father or the stylized robber baron of There Will Be Blood is to understand something marvelous and ephemeral about the actor’s art. Yet Lincoln is far from a one-man show, Spielberg has crowded the movie with excellent actors and energized them to the task at hand, which is nothing less than the story of how the country we know emerged from the contention and the blood of Lincoln’s time.

Lincoln takes place in the first months of 1865, the last four months of Lincoln’s life. With the South all but defeated the country is balanced between expediency and the future. Lincoln can receive the peace delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and likely end the war with no change in the status of the South’s slaves. The other choice is harder and requires all of the President’s political wiles; Lincoln wants a Constitutional amendment banning slavery through Congress before the South comes back into the Union. If Lincoln is about anything besides the great man’s humanity it is about how a sense of right can motivate great change with a little help. The Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens (a marvelous Tommy Lee Jones) will support the amendment but Lincoln needs Democratic votes as well and is willing to trade patronage jobs to get the support he needs. Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) recruits three fixers to work on reluctant Democrats, and some of the movie’s most entertaining scenes involve James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson practicing a particular brand of political calculus that these days is probably more the province of lobbyists and Super PACs. The House of Representatives that debates the Thirteenth Amendment is a good deal less formal than the body we know today, and a fine laboratory for Spielberg’s interest in countries figuring themselves out. It’s bracing to hear our elected leaders speak in fully formed sentences and also surprising how much fun the House was when its members were allowed to insult each other. (Lee Pace bears the brunt of Republican fire as Democratic opponent of the amendment.) Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the best rhetoric in Lincoln, and it’s a measure of how much we come to believe in Stevens’ passion that the moment when he has to deny his belief in full equality on the House floor carries such weight.

Life inside The White House is the other and slightly weaker strand of Lincoln, and it’s here where we see the stresses of war and leadership take their toll. At the same time Lincoln is expressing his conflicts over his own powers to free the slaves - Kushner writes Day-Lewis a dense but very sharp monologue to explain Lincoln’s reasoning - he is also the father of would-be solider Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), young Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and the late Will, who died in Lincoln’s first term. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field has some fine, feisty moments but is also written as being aware of her own mental health in a way that doesn’t quite work. Day-Lewis doesn’t get to play enough of Lincoln’s own emotions in these scenes with Field; Lincoln becomes a caregiver of sorts but it’s hard not to wonder if he ever got angry or showed frustration with his wife. Lincoln is often bent over or curled up in thought as events unfold, usually just before a big decision. It isn’t surprising that Day-Lewis settled on a voice and a walk for the character and he’s convincingly worn down as the amendment vote approaches, but I don’t know that I’ve seen an actor arrive at such a specific physical attitude for a character the way Day-Lewis has here. The President belongs to everyone, but Lincoln isn’t afraid to go into himself to figure out the country, and Day-Lewis nails that sense perfectly. Lincoln looks most uncomfortable when speaking in public, and if that is by design then the choice works. There are only brief moments in Lincoln when the myth overcomes the man; in the opening scene Lincoln is talking to two African-American soldiers and then has the Gettysburg Address recited to him, but that’s about as on the nose as it gets. The biggest African-American presence comes from Gloria Reuben and Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Lincoln family’s White House attendants, and both get to be full characters in their brief screen time as opposed to mere repositories of goodness.

Lincoln makes its case that a big part of what we know our country to be today came from these few months in 1865, as did our ideas about Presidential leadership. All citizens are equal in the eyes of both God and the law, and a President should be sensitive yet pragmatic and unafraid to do what’s necessary. While it keeps those big ideas in play Lincoln succeeds because of its humanity and willingness to let its characters think before speaking. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance will likely live on as a definitive Lincoln, and the movie should endure as well. Lincoln isn’t the first time that Steven Spielberg has delivered a vision of what American life should be, but it has been too long since that life felt as rich and strange as it does here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dept. of Sad but True

There are quite a few layers of media outlets calling one another out here, but at this point I think we just have to accept that whatever happens between Rihanna and Chris Brown is going to play out and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Just when I was ready to forget about all of this, Brown got some crazy neck tattoo and proved that either he's not the least bit ashamed of what he did or that this is all just about publicity...or both. Anyway, Coates gets to the point:

I don't know that Rihanna owes anyone anything. I think what bothers me is the willingness to trivialize the behavior of men who like to put women in the hospital. Most of those women will not have the resources of a Rihanna.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Music: Jeff Tweedy - "The Thanks I Get"

From earlier this year; I fell in love with this one after hearing the Sunken Treasure DVD.

Redbox Diaries #1: Safety Not Guaranteed and The Cabin In The Woods

Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow, suggests that a small-town grocery store employee named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) has discovered the secret to time travel. Unlike the characters in Looper, Kenneth isn't interested in making money or changing world history with his gift. His goal is to go back in time and intervene in the life of an old girlfriend. When Kenneth advertises for a traveling partner in the classifieds his ad attracts the attention of magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson), who turns up with interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the shy Arnau (Karan Soni) in tow. It's Plaza's Darius who breaks through to Kenneth, who soon begins to convince Darius that his project has attracted the attention of the government. Safety Not Guaranteed isn't really about time travel of course, it's a little essay on seizing moments, looking back, and not being afraid of what's to come. Plaza plays a sweeter variation of her Parks and Recreation character, and her performance gets better as Darius begins to connect with her desire to move on to another phase of her life. The film ends in an obviously contrived, open-ended scenario that didn't bother me here (as a similar twist did here for example) because Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly are so engaged with their offbeat world. Had Safety Not Guaranteed gotten a wider release it could have risen to sleeper hit status, but hip video rental will have to do.

Man of the moment Joss Whedon cowrote The Cabin in the Woods, a ironic horror film that combines a standard young people in trouble plot with initially inexplicable scenes of two men who look like rocket scientists (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) manipulating the environment around the titular cabin from a remote location. The movie is only fitfully scary since we are clued into most of the shocks, and aside from a few moments it isn't funny enough either. Whedon (writing with director Drew Goddard) doesn't take the story into full-on satire for some reason; he's stuck with fulfilling our expectations of the genre and has to concoct a lot of hoo-ha about ancient gods and the bureaucracy that supports them. I was hoping Whedon was saying something about the corporatizing  of our entertainment but if he is the joke will be lost on most of the audience. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Argo is the third film directed by Ben Affleck, and the first not set in Boston. The "recently declassified" story of a bizarre CIA mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Teheran at the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian Hostage Crisis is a step up in ambition and tone for Affleck, who to date has specialized in agreeably roughneck crime stories. (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) Argo doesn't boast a performance as memorable as work by Amy Ryan or Jeremy Renner in Affleck's earlier films, but it marks Affleck as a major director with a sense of engagement towards the way institutions treat the people that sustain them.

Affleck plays a CIA agent named Tony Mendez, a specialist in "exfils" (getting people out of tight corners) who takes on the Teheran job after the State Department fails to come up with a plan. Mendez's idea includes a fictional science fiction movie called Argo, cooked-up resumes for the stranded Americans (who become members of a Canadian film crew on a location scout), and the involvement of a makeup artist (John Goodman) who becomes the CIA's entree to Hollywood. With the help of a producer (a fun Alan Arkin) with a gift for bluster, the CIA is soon underwriting a production company and holding a table reading (in costume?) of the Argo script. Hollywood satire is just Affleck's stepping-stone to get to a thriller plot, but I couldn't help but want more of Arkin and Goodman's sense of fun. They're absent from the movie for a long stretch and I found myself wondering what they were up to.

 We never get to know the six Americans Mendez rescues that well, though Scoot McNairy stands out as the one least bullish on Mendez's plan. (I also wanted to know more about Clea Duvall's character, who is tasked with becoming the fake movie's screenwriter.) At a certain point Argo slows down, as the story becomes dependent on Mendez's boss (a fine, harried Bryan Cranston) to keep the mission alive and the Iranians not to figure out the Americans' identities in time. Affleck makes the Americans' final journey through the Teheran airport a marvelous bit of controlled tension, and the final sprint to freedom is genuinely rousing. Argo may be a story more about process than people, but Affleck has an eye for details that gives the movie humanity. Cranston laces his character's sense of duty with a great workaday cynicism, and there's more suggestion of rivalries between government agencies than the movie has time for. I'm late reviewing Argo, but for those who haven't seen it the movie is well worth your time, a smart adult entertainment with a soft spot for what's best about us.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sunday Music: Tom Waits - "Chicago"

This video has been around, but I watched Jarmusch's Night on Earth last night (to which Waits contributed music) and couldn't resist sharing it again. Those sounds really do come from that man.

The Pull of Home

Novelist Richard Russo (Empire Falls, Straight Man) discusses his new memoir Elsewhere. (ArtsBeat)
Q: It will be tempting for readers familiar with all your work to experience “Elsewhere” as, among other things, a skeleton key to your fiction. As one of those readers, I’m now wondering if your first two novels, “Mohawk” and “The Risk Pool,” are your most autobiographical, or are there equal amounts of your own experience in each book?

A: It will please me immensely if readers feel as if they’ve been granted an insight into a writer’s creative process. Like every writer, I’m always being asked where I get my ideas from; well, here’s the answer, or part of it. “Mohawk” and “The Risk Pool” are my most literally autobiographical novels, if by autobiography you mean shared facts and data. Still, while there’s far more invention in “Bridge of Sighs,” I think of it as the novel that most deeply probes who I am, as a man and as a writer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Music: Joe Jackson - "I'm The Man"

One day I'll review movies again, I promise. Anyway, here's one I heard as intermission music at a play last night. I can't remember if this was technically a hit, but it should have been.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bonus! Wild Nothing - "Paradise"

 For fans of Michelle Williams, and who isn't? At first I thought Michelle's Walkman signalled a retro-'80s concept, but then she started reading Iris Murdoch.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Music: Kristin Hersh - "Killing Two Birds"

 A "work in progress" from Hersh's New Orleans home base, originally offered as a bonus for the "Strange Angels" who support her music.


In the world of Rian Johnson's Looper the title characters are young men like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has made a deal with the crime syndicate that controls the entire world we see in the film. Joe kills and disposes of people whom the syndicate sends back from 30 years in the future, with the understanding that one day he will kill a future version of himself. Loopers are paid in silver for their trouble; killing oneself ("closing the loop") earns a payment in gold and 30 years of freedom until that bill comes due. Joe spends his days doing the bidding of his bosses (represented by Jeff Daniels as a future gangster assigned to Joe's present) and his nights clubbing with fellow loopers like Seth (Paul Dano) and a favorite escort (Piper Perabo). But then too many loops begin to close.

Looper the movie is an argument between the two Joes, the one played by a heavily made-up Gordon-Levitt in the “present” and the older Joe (Bruce Willis) sent back to die from 30 years in the future. Future Joe is fighting for a life he has already lived; in a montage we learn that Joe will blow his bankroll and return to crime before having his life changed by a woman (Summer Qing). The only way to prevent Joe from living the same life and then dying is for Future Joe to kill the present version of the Rainmaker, the crime boss who is closing all the loops. Got it? It’s to Rian Johnson’s credit that the movie is never unclear, but after a strong beginning Looper runs out of gas because Johnson sets up an impossible choice between trying to cling to the past and giving up agency over a life that one still has a chance to change. In the film’s present the Rainmaker is a little boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), but before finding him Future Joe must first work through a list of suspects based on data he has obtained before coming back. The cavalier placing of children in jeopardy sets Future Joe up as the villain, but Willis’s character is the one with something at stake. Gordon-Levitt’s Joe doesn’t have an idea in his head beyond killing the older version of himself, there’s never any real conception of what his life might be beyond his life as a Looper (besides, we’ve already seen what happens). It’s essential to Johnson’s construction of the film that Joe was an orphan drafted into criminal life as a child, otherwise he’d have to explain his choices. The present moment is all that counts for Joe; we’re supposed to be moved by his defense of Cid and his mother (Emily Blunt), but Joe’s behavior is selfish. Killing Future Joe would only ensure the same events reoccurring.

I wonder if someone has already made one of those deconstructionist YouTube videos full of questions about Looper. Why does the bulk of the movie take place on a farm? The only farm work Blunt’s character does is use an axe on a stump. Hasn’t Future Joe already changed history by surviving so long in the past? What does Jeff Daniels’ character do about the present version of himself? There are pleasures to be had, it has been a long time since I’ve seen Willis look this interested in what he was doing and Emily Blunt gives a fiercely stripped down performance as a woman trying to figure out an unexpected life day-by-day. But the rules Johnson sets up for his world smother the movie; Looper is like adding a number and the negative of the same quantity together , the result has an elegant shape but leaves an empty feeling.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

If all movies were made under the conditions which Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower then Hollywood would be a very different place. Chbosky's film is based on his own novel of the same name, published in 1999 and set in an early 1990's that doesn't go heavy on the period detail. The film of Perks honors the gentle tone and kind spirit of the novel, and it benefits from a remarkably good ensemble of young actors who each give their roles a special kind of honesty. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting high school after some time in the hospital following the suicide of a friend and the death of his beloved, eccentric Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). Chbosky uses the novel's device of Charlie's diary-like letters to a "friend" as a framing voice-over, but doesn't go too heavy on the boy's awkward thoughts.

The soul of Perks lies in the stepsiblings who soon arrive to take Charlie under their wing. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is an unrestrained senior carrying on a secret affair with the school's quarterback (Johnny Simmons). Miller is playing a 2012 gay teen as opposed to one who would have existed in the year that the book unfolds, but it's a warm, memorable performance that hits fragile notes at just the right moments. Patrick's stepsister and near-constant companion Sam (Emma Watson) quickly becomes the center of Charlie's new world. Watson is very good here; Sam is an obvious candidate for Manic Pixie status but Watson wraps her in layers of self-doubt over everything from her application to Penn State to her relationship with a jerk of a college boyfriend (Reece Thompson). Sam is a small triumph, a role that heralds good adult work from Watson in years to come. The story proceeds through Charlie's ups and downs, from dabbling in light drugs to a tentative first relationship with one of Sam's friends (Mae Whitman). Chbosky's restraint is the film's guiding impulse; no music-video montages here, there's a specificity that anchors Perks all the way down, from the worn copy of Catcher in the Rye Charlie receives from his English teacher (Paul Rudd) to all of the carefully constructed mixtapes and the way that the one phone line in Charlie's house is tied up by a talkative friend. Finally Perks is about young people trying to be their best selves, a pleasant surprise in a movie landscape where teen characters get exploited because of all the things they aren't yet. In its own quiet way The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the year's best films. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Master, finally (mild spoilers)

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master several days ago, but I haven't been able to bring myself to write about it until now due to a combination of lack of time, conflicted reactions, and the almost always unsatisfying relationship between expectations and what's finally onscreen. Did I like The Master? Yes, but I wonder if finally I admired its ambition and craft more than I actually enjoyed it. The Master finally belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as the drifting World War II veteran Freddie Quell is both physically disciplined (Where did that walk come from?) and pulsing with barely concealed desires. Freddie is yearning for physical contact but can't follow through, as in the scene where he falls asleep while on a date, but Phoenix's performance suggests an intelligence and a desire for the life that he and his fellow servicemen are promised upon returning home. ("A few acres of land....a gas station...") In a gorgeously shot moment Freddie spies Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) hosting a shipboard party. Freddie sneaks on board the boat and embarks on the next chapter of his life.

The Master wants to be about too many things, and that becomes its central flaw as the movie goes on. In postwar America sex and opportunity are pretty easily available but no one has taught Freddie how to handle either one. In Dodd and his pseudo-religion "The Cause" Freddie finds a belief system that seems geared towards the new post-atom bomb America; The Cause is all about casting off old emotions and getting man to his "natural state of perfect." We're exposed to a number of Cause "applications" during The Master, most notably the "processing" that is modeled on the Scientology practice of auditing. Dodd asks Freddie questions about his life and memories, and Freddie (in tight close-up) breaks through and admits that he is haunted by memories of an aborted romance with a hometown girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty). Anderson splits the movie into two branches about here: We follow Freddie's fast rise to become one of Dodd's lieutenants, and at the same time a series of scenes are devoted to Dodd's fight to gain acceptance or the Cause and produce a second book. It's this second group of scenes that slows the movie down; Hoffman gives an outsized, showman performance of exquisite control and he is matched by a fierce Amy Adams. Yet while Anderson doesn't and shouldn't indicate how we should feel about Dodd, I wish that I felt Anderson himself had made up his mind. I wanted to see more behind the veneer that Hoffman gives the character. At one point a follower (Laura Dern) questions Dodd about a change in Cause philosophy and Dodd starts to blow up at her, but Anderson doesn't let the moment go anywhere.

Why does Anderson spend so much time on the internal workings of The Cause? He is really interested less in belief systems than in the relationship between two American archetypes, the conner and the conned.  (The question of which is which is much more complicated in There Will be Blood than it is here.) Freddie is looking for something and Dodd, for a time, provides it for him, but the movie doesn't let Freddie breathe in the outside world until it's too late. I'd argue an excellent ending for The Master would have been to leave Freddie outside Doris's house after his strained conversation with her mother (Lena Endre). But we're due one final scene with Dodd, and so it's off to England and a reunion with Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons). Val expresses doubts early on about his father, but we're never told why or what happens to change his mind. That much discussed final scene between Freddie and Dodd is a fine acting moment for both Phoenix and Hoffman, but I wish I had the first idea what it meant. As a fan of Anderson's love for outcasts and misfits (Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and most of the cast of Magnolia) I wanted badly to be more moved by Freddie's quest for meaning, but in trying to say something about our modern need for guidance I think The Master just doesn't say enough.

Sunday Music: David Bowie - "Young Americans"

From 1974; this is probably one of my top 5 YouTube performances of all time.....

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

There isn't a moment in Trouble with the Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, where you can guess what's coming and be wrong. That doesn't mean that the movie doesn't have its low-key charms or that it isn't a small pleasure, but the pleasure of Trouble with the Curve comes from confidence in knowing that the film is headed in the direction we would all like it to go. Gus (Clint Eastwood) is a scout for the Atlanta Braves with a decades-long resume of signing great players. As the Braves prepare for a draft and the possible selection of a young slugger named Gentry (Joe Massingill), Gus learns the vision problems that have been slowing him down are actually the first signs of serious eye trouble. Enter Mickey (Amy Adams), the estranged daughter of Gus and now a workaholic attorney. Mickey is of course a scouting savant, and she joins her father on the road to help him work, get some emotional closure, and maybe save her dad's job. The emotional arc of Trouble with the Curve builds to the scene where Gus reveals why he sent Amy away to relatives and boarding schools after her mother died, and it's a scene where Eastwood (who is helped enormously here by having Adams to play against) makes something moving out of his natural economic acting style. Amy Adams is the central reason to see Trouble with the Curve, she makes Mickey's anger at her father legitimate and gives her a growing sense of confusion at what she wants out of life as a partnership at her firm falls into jeopardy. A budding romance with a fellow scout (Justin Timberlake, not really believable as a former hot prospect) is used mostly as filler, but it does give the usually serious Adams a chance to flash her too little seen smile on screen.

Trouble with the Curve is as conservative in its view of baseball as it is in its storytelling. Think of this movie as the anti-Moneyball. Gus has a young rival (Matthew Lillard) whose player evaluations are statistics-based and who doesn't seem to get out of the office much. The art of scouting isn't explained much; there's a lot of talk of listening and the difficulties of hitting off-speed stuff. I much preferred Eastwood here to his work in Gran Torino; there's some vulnerability built into the role that he meets head-on, though he hasn't gotten much more expressive since the last time you saw him. Trouble with the Curve is satisfying (if too familiar) in almost all respects, a tale of reconnection in the autumn of a life spent watching young men play in the spring.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

People Like Us

David Byrne's True Stories has been around for 25 years, and it's starting to look more and more like Byrne predicted the future. I wrote a 2010 post on True Stories. (Austin Chronicle)
The Narrator's attitude toward exurban sprawl is ambivalent as he cruises in the car past cow pastures stretched to the horizon: "You know, in a couple of years, this'll probably all be built up." Indeed, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex where the film was shot is choking with traffic, chain stores, and McMansions now. Production Coordinator Christina Patoski, who lives in Fort Worth, provided me with a list of addresses of shooting locations. Not only have most of the sites been bulldozed, the maps have been redrawn. Municipal borders have shifted with the construction of corporate campuses, conference hotels, and private hospitals – business prone to establish proprietary street names that are subject to the whims of economic turnover. Town names are retired where growth is lagging (Sterrett no longer exists), while new ones are introduced in wealthy sectors (computer factory interiors were filmed at a now-extinct proprietary address in a part of Allen that is now called Fairview). Like a dry-erase board, the flat north Texas landscape is perpetually wiped clean.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Music: Calexico - "Para"

  Here's Pitchfork on their new album Algiers, recorded in New Orleans but finding the band working in a familiar and rich vein.
On the other hand, if place defines Algiers as much as that album title signals, it must have done so in the creative process, as these songs never sound too far removed from Tucson or from the raft of Calexico's catalog. On one hand, there are no Mardi Gras trinkets on this album, no street bands or zydeco flourishes, no Quintron or Trombone Shorty or Dr. John, no hoodoo charms or Saints gear. Burns and Convertino went east to make another western record, one that even indulges Spanish-language lyrics and songs about sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl ("Puerto" may be the most overcooked thing Burns and Convertino have set to tape). Algiers sounds great, with a noticeable sensitivity to instrumental interplay and an emphasis on Burns' conspiratorial vocals, but the album is haunted by the missed opportunities to absorb the particulars of this neighborhood and reflect that in the music.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Novelist of Hope

Forgive the recent run of Michael Chabon posts, and here is one more. Taking off from the use of Barack Obama as a minor character in his new Telegraph Avenue, this long(ish) piece may be the best explanation I've read about the world view in Chabon's fiction. (Vulture)
Figuratively speaking, Chabon does go back to Columbia, again and again. “I seem, almost from the beginning, to be wrestling with the inevitability of failure, either as it’s played out through one person’s personal ambition or as it plays out through the effort to create a kind of utopia, the way the Columbia experience was for me.” Failure, I point out, seems like an odd obsession for such a successful writer. (When I asked Chabon if his parents had supported his career choice, he joked that they never had time to get to the “maybe you should think about law school” stage.) But he counters with, basically, the law of gravity: “Someone who has succeeded is as likely if not more likely to be stalked by the specter of failure, because experience and history shows that it can all be taken away from you in a blink of an eye.”

Chabon’s novels show this as well. His characters dream massive, America-size dreams: of a million-dollar comic-book empire, an alternate homeland for Jews, a ship to save children from the Nazis. Or, as in his new book, they simply dream America’s dream about itself: of a place where business is good, marriages hold, and citizens of all races live together in peace. And then the industry tanks, the mandate expires, the boat sinks, the store folds, the community changes, the marriage ends — or, more often, and more poignantly, the dream, whatever it was, just drifts along, slower and lower, losing air, ruptured against the mineral roughness of reality.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Early Sunday Music: No Doubt - "Settle Down"

 I'll admit I didn't go very far afield with this one, but I'm charmed by No Doubt's comeback single. If it's true that the band is having as much fun as it looks like doing the same thing they've always done, well I don't think enjoying it requires an apology.


What do you do when bringing a niche character like Judge Dredd to the screen, one whose only previous appearance on film in 1995 resulted in a thudding flop? Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland double down with the new Dredd, which is as blunt and brutal an effort as has ever been made for a character with such a long pedigree. While Travis honors the source material by never revealing the entire face of Dredd (Karl Urban, who would win an Oscar if "mouth acting" was a category), the effect of keeping him masked is to remove consideration of the man and the way his work affects him. Dredd as an efficient automaton of justice may work nicely in the comics, but on film the appealing Urban (McCoy in the last Star Trek) is turned into an undramatic cipher. Dredd and his psychic rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are investigating a murder in Peach Trees, one of the 200-story apartments that house the citizens of  the enormous and chaotic Mega City One. The investigation puts the Judges in the sights of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a drug dealer who's the sole purveyor of a narcotic called Slo-Mo that affects the brain's perception of time. When Ma-Ma seals Dredd and Anderson inside of Peach Trees the movie turns into a hunting expedition.

Dredd is about as subtle as throwing someone off a balcony, which is Ma-Ma's preferred method of disposing of inconvenient people. There are a few visual flourishes when characters are under the influence of Slo-Mo (I liked a shot of Headey entranced by slow-moving beads of water), but   what we have here is a movie about people blasting away at each other and Travis isn't shy about letting you know when someone gets shot in the head. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson is assigned what little rhetoric there is on the subject of making a difference, an idea which Dredd laughs off. Thirlby underplays her characters steely moments well enough, but I wanted a little more of Wood Harris as a dealer who becomes a prisoner of the Judges. The casual menace Harris brings to his scenes is the best attempt Dredd makes to individualize the bleak future the movie envisions, yet as good as Harris is his character is only a detour on the road to an ending that you don't have to be psychic to see coming. Dredd is for hard-core fans of the source material only, anyone who doesn't come in with some knowledge of the character won't have enough to hold on to. I wonder if Karl Urban is signed for a sequel; it may not matter because Dredd doesn't have a case.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

But not sexy enough!

I'm willing to allow that Brian DePalma's new Passion may be complete lunacy, but this review from Glenn Kenny at least advances a theory of what DePalma is trying to do in recent films that makes about as much sense as anything I've read on the director lately. Posting the trailer seems too on the nose, you can see it here. (Kenny probably doesn't mean to include The Black Dahlia in his analysis, but his line about representations of behavior certainly connects with that film for me.)
And this, some will intuit, is in the service of saying something about The Way We Live Now. In a way the real world has caught up with a vision that De Palma has always been putting forward, one that he and his fellow movie brats intuited from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom perhaps: that we are always looking, and we are always looking not at what is, or more to the point, ought to be, in front of us, but at something we're putting in front of us, some screen containing some contrivance of what we would like to think is our desire. This vision has become, for DePalma, so distilled (some would say rarified) that his best work of the past twenty years or maybe even more (hey, I really LIKE Femme Fatale!) has almost everything to do with that idea and nothing to do with the way actual human beings behave or speak.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visiting Artists

I'm always interested in stories of process and collaboration. Here's one that involves actor Michael Shannon, who's involved in a Broadway production of Craig Wright's play Grace that sounds very much like a family affair. There's also a good case made for responsible recreational drinking that I can relate to. (NYT)
Following those nine hours of technical rehearsal the men repaired to the nearby Lambs Club, a glossy, noisy night spot, and quickly consumed prodigious amounts of ale, rye and red wine and four plates of blistered shishito peppers. They cajoled a photographer into joining their banquette, insisted he have another cocktail and then mocked his order. Mr. Shannon — who occasionally donned sunglasses indoors, at night — called it “what my grandma would drink.”

After singing a little song about his own order of hot mixed nuts, he happily swigged the rioja Mr. Wright had ordered for him.

“That’s why me and Craig continue to work together,” Mr. Shannon began.

“Excellent wine pairings,” Mr. Wright finished.

Their eclectic conversation jumped from Shakespeare to Kerouac, Sir Mix-A-Lot to Thornton Wilder, Sigur Ros to Robert Frost, with pauses only for further whiskey orders.

The Words

The Words, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is a mess almost from the moment a novelist named Clay Hammond (a stiff-looking Dennis Quaid) opens his latest work (also called The Words) and begins to read to a packed and appreciative audience. Clay's book is the story of another writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose chance discovery of an old manuscript while on honeymoon in Paris provides a ticket to success at the expense of his soul. Rory passes the manuscript off as his own after his wife Dora (a lively and soulful Zoe Saldana) praises the book; she doesn't know he didn't write it and think Rory has made a breakthrough. Just after Rory becomes a media darling, a character known only as the Old Man (played at different ages by Jeremy Irons and Ben Barnes) arrives to set Rory and the audience straight. Meanwhile in the "real" world of The Words Clay becomes attracted to a fan (Olivia Wilde) who seems a little too interested in the origins of Clay's new bestseller.

 All creative work in The Words is performed in gushes of inspiration. The manuscript at the center of the story is written at a furious pace by the Old Man after a tragedy, while Rory (who has completed but failed to publish two novels) is most active when he's copying someone else's words. There's no sense of the daily work and process of writing, not that being a novelist is an easy job to portray on film. Little moments feel false too; Hammond reads an enormous chunk of his book, flirts with Wilde over wine, and then goes back on stage for round two? I don't think so. There's some point to be made about the ownership of one's story, or about the way artists make their own truth, but it's either too subtly laid in or not followed through on and the movie never takes off. The Words shouldn't have made it out of a studio slush pile.

Sunday Music: Antibalas - "Dirty Money"

 I discovered this Brooklyn band after hearing their performance on the David Byrne/St. Vincent album, and it's easy to see why Byrne would be attracted to their sound. Stay with this one; this song is not an instrumental.

Monday, September 10, 2012

New New Wave

A review of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, that has me very ready to see what sounds like a strong return to form for Baumbach. If you're a Baumbach hater be careful, some pretty grand comparisons are made herein. (HND)

The film was shot relatively quickly, on an even more modest budget than what Baumbach usually trades in, and without the stars that have headlined his most recent films. The resulting spontaneity seems to suggests an allowance for improvisation, which belies the fact that these characters and, in particular, their words are so carefully developed and finessed into such casually observant creations by Baumbach and Gerwig. The aesthetic of the film is likewise reflected in this intuitive approach, instilling the surface hues of Woody Allen's monochromatic Manhattan with the sharply cut montage dynamics of the French New Wave. As mentioned, the latter movement feels like an especially apt touchstone here. Not only do Frances's first new roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen, both seemingly snatched from real life and very funny as potential partners for Frances) have a poster of François Truffaut's Small Change hanging on their wall, but on a more personal level, the relationship between Baumbach and Gerwig itself—and the subsequent creative energy that it seems to have spawned—feels something like an angst-ridden inversion of the one between Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina a half century ago.

PTA Meeting

 This good Village Voice interview with Paul Thomas Anderson positions The Master among Anderson's other films, and Anderson downplays it as a Scientology expose.
So The Master is ultimately "about" Scientology in much the same way that Boogie Nights was about the San Fernando Valley adult-film industry of the 1970s or There Will Be Blood was about the California oil boom of the early 20th century. That is, it functions as a secondary concern, more setting than actual subject, more subtext than text. It is a way for Anderson to bring together an assortment of his typically idiosyncratic, iconoclastic characters and a conduit to larger themes of power and paranoia, domination and submission, free will and predestination. Indeed, no less than Anderson's previous film does The Master feel like a bold, somewhat cryptic meditation on underground forces that have shaped modern America. "Is it possible to live without some kind of master in our lives?" the movie asks, leaving it to us to decide.

For his part, Anderson is loath to see the movie as a variation on a pet theme. "Is it getting tired?" he asks when I say that Dodd and Freddie recall the surrogate father-son relationships in many of his films, beginning with the aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and his naive protégé (John C. Reilly) in Anderson's 1996 debut feature, Hard Eight. He prefers to think of his Master characters as unrequited lovers, a subtle, homoerotic tension that is triangulated in the film by the presence of Dodd's loyal, steely wife (Amy Adams). "But maybe that's just my way of dressing it up and thinking I was doing something different this time," he says.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

School Years

On the eve of a Broadway opening, Jessica Chastain talks of her school days. (NYT)
After high school she landed the role of Juliet in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and heard about Juilliard from Romeo, who was a student there. “I thought, ‘If that’s where he goes, that’s where I want to go,’ “ she said. No one in her family had ever graduated from college, but she nevertheless applied, and for her audition did what she now describes as a near-pornographic version of Juliet’s “Gallop apace” soliloquy.

“I’ve always made really strange choices, maybe because no one told me otherwise,” she said. “I thought the language was very sexual, so I was like ‘Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night, give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him.’ And it ended with me rolling around on the ground. I think it was probably pretty shocking.” She recalled that Michael Kahn — one of Juilliard’s renowned teachers — turned to her and said, “Jessica, did you have fun?”

Red Hook Summer/Lawless

On the surface Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer and John Hillcoat's Lawless have no resemblance to each other. Lee's film is another in a series of Brooklyn tales, this one alternating a coming-of-age story with an almost compulsive raising of issues as diverse as the state of black men, gentrification, and asthma in the area's housing projects that (Lee and co-writer James McBride assert) is caused by the nearby docking of cruise ships. Hillcoat, best known in America for The Road, celebrates American obstinacy in a fact-based tale of 1930's bootleggers who won't knuckle under for a corrupt district attorney because they simply don't want to. What makes it possible to review these two disparate films in one post is the attitude that each takes towards its main character; both feature men who for long stretches of screen time we aren't quite sure why we're watching.

Red Hook Summer is supposed to be the story of Flik (Jules Brown), a middle-schooler from Atlanta spending the summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn with his grandfather "Bishop" Enoch (Clarke Peters, a familiar face from The Wire and Treme). Flik is a shy young man, used to private school and hiding behind his iPad2, who isn't at at all sure he wants to spend the summer with a man he has never met working at the small church his where his grandfather is the minister. Enoch doesn't let up with the Gospel at home either, and Flik's only escape seems to be a new friendship with a girl named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). I don't know if Lee intended Red Hook Summer to become Enoch's movie, but Peters does remarkable work in making Enoch winning despite his single-mindedness. Brown and Lysaith, both new to film, are appealing but Peters' Enoch is the show here, along with a gospel/jazz score from Bruce Hornsby. Peters gets some sermons of prodigious length and the chance to lead some gospel numbers that come close to something ecstatic. We're interested in whether Flik will connect with his grandfather, but it's Enoch who we hope will change and grow. 

If you've read about Red Hook Summer and are viewing it attentively, you'll notice that Flik's mother (De'Adre Aziza) doesn't have much time for Enoch and that Enoch doesn't even know that Flik's father has been killed in Afghanistan. That's right, there's a secret, and it is delivered in a loud, tumultuous revelation scene that raises the question of how we're supposed to feel about Enoch and what exactly we're all doing at this movie in the first place. I'm not sure what Lee had in mind here as he ends things with Enoch's future in doubt and Flik headed back home, and I'm not sure even Peters' performance is enough to have made the effort worthwhile. Spike Lee is as socially aware a filmmaker as America has ever produced, but in Red Hook Summer an ungainly story gets in the way of his still-needed voice. 

Lawless is the story of the Bondurant brothers, Virginia bootleggers who in the early 1930's ran the best moonshine operation in a county where everyone was either selling or buying. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains with brass knuckles, Howard (Jason Clarke) the muscle, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) the youngster with ambition. LaBeouf is good here; Jack has a sweaty energy and smarts that are almost betrayed by his youth, and LaBeouf doesn't overplay a good hand. But like everyone else Jack looks up to Forrest, and the central problem with Lawless is that Forrest is a smart man who is almost totally inarticulate. When Forrest does talk, writer Nick Cave (working from a novel by Bondurant grandson Matt) gives him overblown metaphors or aphorisms about controlling fear. I also wanted more when Forrest is being seduced by the Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain, underused) who takes up residence around the Bondurant place. Forrest is interesting for one reason only: he won't pay protection to the psychotic lawman (Guy Pearce) hired to make the county's bootleggers a cash machine for the local D.A. The rest is violence; Gary Oldman turns up briefly as a gangster who becomes Jack's ally and the Bondurant's fellow bootleggers come to the family's aid in a climactic shootout. Lawless is handsomely made and strongly cast, but Hardy can't quite make Forrest into a real person and the forces arrayed against the Bondurants are caricatured too broadly. A story of Americans standing up might have been better served by filmmakers not so impressed by their own main character. 

Sunday Music: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "We Call Upon The Author"

From 2008. Seems like an apt choice to pick a (good) tune from Lawless screenwriter Cave, who in his script erred a little too much on the side of archetype over character.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

If this is criticism...

This Esquire "review" of Michael Chabon's new Telegraph Avenue manages to straddle the fence between praise and smug takedown without giving the slightest feeling of what reading the book is like. I'll be reading this novel.
This is the 11th book by Chabon, who won the Pulitzer in 2001 for his epic novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a wonder of escapism that held nothing back. I bought it the day it was released and happily lost a week of my life to it, enchanted by its comic books, Nazis, golems, Antarctic battles. Chabon has become the principal cheerleader for the Avengerization of literature — effectively making genre cool again in literary circles. If you imagine him raising a sunlit saber and leading the charge, his cavalry has grown mighty, among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One).

Chabon writes big. His hulking plots defy summary. When I read one of his novels, I feel a little like I do when I turn a corner in the Met and see the gorgeous sprawl and splatter of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm, when I crank up the volume on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — awed, hypnotized, overwhelmed. His maximalist style suits his maximalist stories, like the Zap! and Pow! sound effects of a comic-book panel.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Slow Turning

How one writer learned to read again, slowly. (The Rumpus/photo by Flickr user Wade Rockett)
This, after all, is the best thing I ever did for my reading, which might be the best thing I ever did for my writing.

When I first arrived at grad school, I received a list of 100 books. 100 books I ought to have read. I scanned it in a panic. Some of the titles I recognized. Many I didn’t. And I had read, maybe, five of them. So I got to work, driven by insecurity and hunger. I felt so far behind my classmates—and I felt such bloated pleasure in shoving all these stories into my eye. By the end of my first year, I had read every book on the list.

Maybe this was an accomplishment—I certainly felt good about it at the time—but really, I read with such speed and carelessness, nothing stuck. Ask me about The Magic Mountain today and I may puree some The End of the Affair into it. And didn’t Beckett write Time’s Arrow? Or maybe that was Calvino. I could not process and benefit from all those wondrous sentences and plots and characters, snarled together as they were in my mind.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Revising Kael

An welcome appreciation of Pauline Kael that focuses on her abilities, not her personality. (Atlantic)
She could talk well about popular art because she had not only seen all the movies that there were, she would have gone to all the opera performances that there were if she had not been so burdened with tickets to the cinema. When she talked about Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, her remarks were up there with the professional dance critic Arlene Croce’s because she, Kael, had been a connoisseur of dance all her life. She knew her way around a jazz band. Apart from mental equipment like that, her reading was prodigious in its volume, and fully serious in its content. Her house had all the Oz books in first editions—I saw them, and marveled; they looked as beautiful as her Tiffany lamps—but she was by no means restricted just to film-linked popular literature. When she reviewed a Russian movie based on a Dostoyevsky story, she could refer with daunting ease to anything by Dostoyevsky, including all the major novels chapter by chapter. Toward the end, this collection includes an outstanding piece about the Michael Cacoyannis movie of The Trojan Women: she draws, apparently without effort, on what seems a wide knowledge of Greek tragedy.

It’s important to note that none of this erudition seems dragged in. If she had dragged it in, there would have been furrows. Hers was the style least calculated to conceal pretension. In fact, in that sense, there was no style there at all. One thing you can trust her for throughout her work is a genuine enthusiasm for the arts, of which she so resoundingly took cinema to be one: something new, but something that fitted right in there beside the high traditions and that might include them all. You can trust her for that, and you can trust her diligence. The question is whether you can trust her judgment.

Sunday Music: The Blue Nile - "Happiness"

Finished an Ian Rankin novel that mentions this Scottish band and decided to look them up. The Blue Nile story isn't exactly one of high ambition; here's how they came to release their first music:

When local hi-fi manufacturer Linn Electronics heard their music, through friend and recording engineer Calum Malcolm, the company offered the band money to record a track that would showcase the sonic range of the company's high-end audio equipment.[4][5] Linn was so pleased with the result, they formed their own record label in order to release The Blue Nile's debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops, in 1983.[1] sample (help·info) Buchanan later commented that during that time Linn was not really a record company, and The Blue Nile was not really a band.[2] Although it received positive reviews, it sold modestly.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy, directed by Tony Gilroy, can't properly be called a sequel to the three successful Bourne films starring Matt Damon. Gilroy (Michael Clayton), who wrote the Damon-starring Bourne trilogy, instead builds out from the end of The Bourne Ultimatum and imagines a universe in which Jason Bourne is to new protagonist Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) essentially what Netscape is to the latest Internet Explorer. Remember the New York mayhem of The Bourne Ultimatum? The climax of that film is used as an inciting incident here, as the arm of the U.S. Intelligence bureaucracy (represented chiefly by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach) that's working on taking the next step in enhanced humanity gets nervous and decides to shut down. Field agents are killed and a massacre is engineered at the research facility that's tracking the agents' medical status. (Prolific character actor Zeljko Ivanek is wasted as the scientist-turned-assassin.) A scientist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) escapes the shooting and becomes a partner as Cross races to secure more of the medication that's the source of his new abilities.

 I don't know if Tony Gilroy meant to build an implicit critique of the way America does its business into The Bourne Legacy; what is the film's "Outcome" program but an attempt to easily mass produce more Jason Bournes through pills? In any event, Gilroy's conception almost requires Cross to be something of a blank slate; an important plot point that goes by quickly is that Cross was only accepted into the army because a recruiter lied about his I.Q. Jeremy Renner happens to be good at playing men who don't think too hard about what they're capable of though, and he gives Cross some welcome notes of curiosity and decency. By the time Cross and Shearing are running from another government assassin (part of the next wave of souped-up hit men) Renner has done more than enough to establish Cross as someone worth saving. There are stretches of necessary procedure and exposition in the film, mostly involving the tracking of Cross and Shearing. On their end, Norton and Keach (along with Donna Murphy and Corey Stoll) find something harried and specific in their characters that turns what could have been a series of slam-on-the-breaks info dumps into scenes about urgently trying to stick a finger in a dam.

The climactic action scene in The Bourne Legacy is a chase through a Manila shanty town that's pulled off with skill if not with the flair Paul Greengrass brought to last two Bourne movies. We always know where the characters are in relation to each other and where they're going; that doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it? Who knows if the Aaron Cross character will be brought back, but he really doesn't need to be and that's part of the point. There is only one Jason Bourne, and he is still out there swimming.