Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Without Reservation

Good lord I hate having to come up with post titles. Anyway, a tentative comeback by the reclusive Jeff Mangum brings new attention to the Best Band that Rock Critics Insist You Should Like. (Chicago Trib)
But after touring behind “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum drifted away from public life. Schneider, his closest friend, was circumspect in interviews over the last decade about whether the world would ever hear from Neutral Milk Hotel again. But he firmly stated that Mangum wasn’t another rock casualty like Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, artists who produced great work before suffering mental breakdowns. “He never fell out of touch with reality. He’s more in touch with reality than most people,” Schneider said in 2007. “Barrett and Wilson had nervous breakdowns. Jeff has not had a nervous breakdown. He’s passionately on a quest of self-discovery … He wasn’t trying to be a rock star or make a living (from playing music). He was trying to find out about himself and about the universe. He’s a very sweet, gentle and extremely creative person. The content of his thoughts are the contents of most of our dreams.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

Not there yet

Watching Pariah "with" Audre Lorde is a reminder of just how hard  Hollywood looks away from some corners of the human experience. (Lambda Literary)
If recent film history is any indication, the only way a gay character can make it out of the indie ghetto and into major theater showings is as the body of a conflicted gay white male (who will be brutally punished for being gay at some point in the film) or as a laughing, sassy gay sidekick (who is punished implicitly in the film by having no life, desires, or purpose beyond his relation to the main character’s relationship and fashion problems.) Even more rare are successful films that give breath to lesbian characters. To say nothing of young lesbians of color, but especially when threatened with erasure, silence will not save us. So, we go the theater again and again, cynical yes, but with just a bit of hope stored for safekeeping, thinking “Maybe this time they’ll get it right.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Music: Leonard Cohen - "Heart with No Companion"

Cohen's new album Old Ideas considers death, but the singer/songwriter has plans for the future. (NYT)
Mr. Cohen didn’t mention retirement. He said he had written, but not recorded, enough songs for another album. As some songs on “Old Ideas” clearly suggest, he has been listening extensively to the blues: music that grapples, tersely and eloquently, with “loss and death,” he said. Reflecting on his deadline, he summoned a Memphis Slim song: “When it all comes down,” he said. “You’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Oscars: Thoughts, not Predictions

A few thoughts:

1. Nick Nolte?

2. There is still one Best Picture nominee I haven't seen, but the fact that the Academy produced 9 out of a possible 10 nominees in the first year when a minimum percentage of votes was required indicates there's no clear-cut choice. The winner will have a small percentage of votes and that means an upset is possible. Assuming The Artist and The Descendants are the favorites then my upset choices are Hugo and The Help.

3. I'm pleased to see Gary Oldman nominated for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the race is between Clooney and Pitt. My bet is that the idea The Descendants is more "serious" and that Clooney is stretching will prove the difference, never mind that Moneyball is the better movie.

4. The indifferent reaction to The Iron Lady will spell trouble for Meryl Streep, and I think the obvious favorite at the moment is Viola Davis. I'd love to see Michelle Williams win but I don't know if she has been burned enough times to create a Kate Winslet-like idea that "this is her year." Rooney Mara's nomination also hurts Williams the most. Much respect to Glenn Close.

5. One of the races in which a "campaign" might make the difference is Best Supporting Actor; the Best Picture nomination of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close means the studio will throw money behind the movie. That helps Max Von Sydow against Christopher Plummer, who's on his own with Beginners. Both roles seem ideal for Oscar's attention; Plummer is wise, angry, and backward-looking while the novelty of Von Sydow's wordless performance will pull some votes. I can't see any of the the other nominees winning.

6. Jessica Chastain received an Oscar nomination for the wrong movie. I suppose Octavia Spencer is the favorite for Supporting Actress, but there's a movement for Melissa McCarthy that I'm thinking will may put her over the top. McCarthy will be the evening's "surprise".

7. Finally, the Tree of Life has an excellent chance in cinematography and a slight chance in directing. We can hope.

Monday, January 23, 2012

No Blue French Horns

I saw Josh Radnor's Happythankyoumoreplease just in time, since Radnor's new Liberal Arts (which co-stars Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene ) is getting strong reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. (Film School Rejects)
Radnor stars as perhaps an older, mid-thirties cousin of happythankyoumoreplease‘s Sam Wexler. His Jesse Fisher is consumed with books, and his affection for printed reading material perhaps eclipses his affection for anything (and anyone) else. That’s probably why Jesse is (both unoriginally and still quite believably) unsatisfied with his current life state. His job as a college admissions counselor means that Jesse comes equipped with a few conversational ticks that he might not even be fully aware of possessing (though Radnor the writer certainly is). He’s interested in people, but most of his questions seem rehearsed and leading, meant to disarm those he is asking while not revealing much about himself. And that’s certainly no way to go through life.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Music: Foo Fighters - "This Is A Call"

According to a new biography written with his cooperation, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana may be the happiest guy in rock. (NYT)
That happy kid still seems to be part of Grohl’s persona. When he gushes about the tour van being like “a traveling treehouse,” he sounds like Huck Finn setting out down the Mississippi on his raft. And when Grohl gets his first big check for his work with Nirvana, he buys himself a BB gun because he didn’t have one as a child. Nirvana’s overnight rise from obscurity to international stardom, and its violent end with the suicide of the ­singer-­guitarist Kurt Cobain in 1994, tested Grohl’s sanguine outlook during what he later called “a tornado of insanity.” Lost for a while after Cobain’s death, he distracted himself by making a 15-song tape, playing all the instruments and doing the vocals himself. When record companies heard the tape and started calling, Grohl recruited three other musicians and formed the Foo Fighters; last year their seventh studio album, “Wasting Light,” entered the Billboard chart at No. 1.

Dept. of Fired Critics

Former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman on whether movies matter as much as they did in the great old days of Sarris v. Kael, and on what a critic's job should be. (NYT)
J. HOBERMAN Jonas was no longer at The Voice when I started reviewing in late 1977, but he’d been important to me both as a reader and a filmgoer. I saw myself following his example, and also creating a beat. In addition to the avant-garde there were many things that the paper’s two established critics, Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen, were just not that interested in covering — documentaries, independent cinema, museum shows and most foreign films. To the degree I thought about my role, I saw myself as a journalist (reporting on movies people might not otherwise know about) and as someone contributing to something I’d call, after Jonas’s magazine, “film culture.” On succeeding Sarris as lead critic in 1988 I continued what I saw as a Voice tradition — emphasizing work I felt significant, regardless of its commercial clout or mass appeal.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


The DVD commentary for Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, is famously combative, with Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs going back and forth over Soderbergh's decision to strip almost every ounce of motivation and backstory from the tale of an ex-con (Terence Stamp) seeking vengeance for his daughter's death from an L.A. music mogul (Peter Fonda). I highly recommend the commentary (and the film) to those who don't know it; imagine what commentary tracks would be like if everyone involved were totally honest about the finished product they were viewing. Soderbergh and Dobbs are back together again on the new Haywire, the tale of an agent for hire named Mallory (MMA fighter Gina Carano) trying to discover who sold her out and why. Haywire plays like some kind of weird experiment, as if Soderbergh had tried to make a minimalist action film that an audience wouldn't have to invest in (or even pay full attention to) in order to enjoy.  I don't know what Lem Dobbs had in mind, but if the two reteam for a commentary here the results could be worth hearing. The movie is lean and underpopulated; after an old colleague (Channing Tatum, trying hard to play a world-weary mercenary) attempts to take Mallory down we flash back to a rescue job in Barcelona and Mallory's discovery that her boss and ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) wants her dead. The centerpiece of Haywire occurs in Ireland when Mallory and Paul (Michael Fassbender, whose talents don't exactly get a chance to air themselves), at Kenneth's behest, get close to a man MI6 wants targeted. This sequence is the one point in Haywire where Carano appears to be having fun (an inexperienced actor, she was probably afraid of lighness), and she and Fassbender would make a dandy pair of spies in a yet-to-be-written movie franchise. But there are layers within layers, and the fight between Mallory and Paul (heavily teased in Haywire ads) is Carano's best chance to show off her physicality. Carano is not an expressive actor yet, but there's a sense of danger in her movements and the feeling that she could physically take over any scene. The rest of Haywire is sauced with betrayals and reversals and includes Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton, all of whom must have signed on in part seeking a dash of credibility from attachment to Soderbergh's name. If Soderbergh were a new director Haywire might have enough anti-style to get noticed, but for a filmmaker ending what's at least Phase 2 of his career it's missing too much to be regarded as more than an entertaining trifle.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The way you feel about Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (based upon the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer) will likely have much to do with how you feel about its main character. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a hyperarticulate nine-year-old with a fondness for maps, logic, and systems thanks to his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a Manhattan jeweler who had ambitions to be a scientist. Thomas is glimpsed in flashbacks (much more so than in the novel to my recollection), but the bulk of Extremely Loud takes place after Thomas dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The chance discovery of a key in his father's closet sends Oskar on a journey across the city in search of a last message or unexpected connection with his Dad.

Before one criticizes Extremely Loud on the grounds that Oskar is too precious, a literary creation who never becomes fully human on screen, it's worth thinking about the fact that 9/11 aside New York is the only place that could have held this story. Where else could a 9-year old move unnoticed, crossing the five boroughs in an attempt to meet everyone in New York whose name matches the one Oskar finds on the envelope containing the key? If Oskar can travel the city, often by foot, on Saturdays then why couldn't he grow up smart, curious, and shy in the believably sized apartment he shares with his father and mother Linda (Sandra Bullock)? Yes, Oskar's collection of his father's things looks like a little like a Joseph Cornell box or something from a Wes Anderson film, but it also contains the answering machine Oskar has hidden from his mother in an effort to keep her from hearing his father's last desperate messages. Many things about Oskar may be exceptional, but Daldry and Thomas Horn find something deeper working in Oskar than just a layer of personal idiosyncrasy. But yet it's here that the movie runs aground on the source material’s density. The grieving Oskar’s journey through New York is a journey from the particular to the universal; the cross-section of New Yorkers that Oskar meets regale him with blessings, shared stories of grief, and insights into their own lives. The ever-curious curious Oskar is conducting a “reconnaissance expedition” without his father for the first time and bringing back stories of the way people live, but the two hours plus of Extremely Loud don’t allow time for these stories. We see the obsessive method of Oskar’s search, but too little of the result. A few characters break through; there’s Viola Davis as an unhappy Brooklynite and best of all Max Von Sydow as “The Renter”, a mute man renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) who becomes an unlikely ally in Oskar’s search.. Von Sydow fills up his scenes in a way I’ve never quite seen before, with an economy of gesture and expression that works as a perfect foil for Horn’s verbal pyrotechnics. It’s a small, perfectly etched performance.

Thomas Horn is a former winner on the children’s edition of Jeopardy, and that’s almost too perfect a place for him to have been discovered. Horn carries the movie, projecting great intelligence and a need for connection. Daldry and writer Eric Roth use Oskar’s voice-over to carry the film, and though a few more scenes could have been allowed to breathe the narration explains just how far Oskar has to go both emotionally and physically. Finally Daldry’s movie isn’t Foer’s Extremely Loud, it strains a bit too hard for profundity for that. (Hanks' scenes are all on-the-nose, by design perhaps.) It is an honest try that works thanks to the performances of Horn, Von Sydow, and Bullock, whose best scenes come late and who suggests enormous reserves of love and anger in equal measure . Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a movie about a child’s mind, one that is just beginning to understand itself as the final credits roll.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Video store: Happythankyoumoreplease

Josh Radnor's Happythankyoumoreplease is the kind of low-budget film I thought they didn't make anymore, one where loosely connected friends bounce around New York and by the end a couple of lives are changed. Radnor's theme seems to be that it's too easy for us to overlook small moments of genuine happiness, and while the movie doesn't go anywhere terribly new the ride isn't too bad thanks to a couple of sharp performances. Sam (Radnor) is a writer on the verge of a real career in fiction whose chance encounter with a boy named Rasheen (Michael Algieri) causes him to reflect on the state of his life. What seems like an indie version of the Bagger Vance situation winds up being a sly parody of Hollywood cliche. Rasheen doesn't have a great sense of humor or magical powers; he's just there, and Sam's having to deal with him causes him to get out of his own head. While Sam is only a slightly less self-absorbed version of Radnor's How I Met Your Mother Character, Radnor gives him enough grit so that the movie's other precious touches (Sam falls for a woman named Mississippi, played by Kate Mara.) don't grate as much as they might otherwise. Malin Akerman must have been overjoyed to get the role of Annie, a woman with alopecia slowly opening up to love thanks to the attentions of a persistent colleague (Tony Hale). If you only know Akerman from Watchmen, be aware that she's quite capable of creating a fleshed-out, fully realized character. As Mary Catherine, a woman not sure how to deal with a pending move to Los Angeles, Zoe Kazan is the best thing in Happythankyoumoreplease. Mary Catherine's concerns are so immediate and Kazan's emotions to urgent that the rest of the movie might as well be something she's watching.

I'd like to see Josh Radnor open up his world in his next film, but he has a way with actors (Kazan and Akerman are as good as I've ever seen them.) and an ear for the concerns of the 30ish. Happythankyoumoreplease is a promising debut, and so much more than a TV star's vanity project.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dark and Bloody Ground

Beth Henley is of course best known for Crimes of the Heart, though I'd love to hear about her work with David Byrne on the True Stories film. Henley's recent plays (including the new The Jacksonian) draw on her childhood and a violent family history. (NYT)
For her part Ms. Henley is grateful to her advocates (“Glenne should get a medal,” she said) and seems relieved at last to be getting a premiere production at a major resident theater in her adopted hometown. (She’s had three previous premieres at 99-seat theaters here.) She also seems visibly wary. The trouble she had with her last play, “Family Week,” may offer a clue as to why. The show’s 2010 production at MCC Theater in New York, overseen by film director Jonathan Demme, got terrible reviews, but that’s not what bothered Ms. Henley most about the experience. “That play is very, very difficult for me to bear,” she confessed. Partly inspired by the unsolved 1996 murder of her nephew, “Family Week” only served to churn up her own unresolved grief. Watching the play “really made me loopy,” she said. “It’s like, you exorcise your demons when you’re writing, but when the actors are good, your demons are reflected back to you in a sometimes crucifying way.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Music: Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley - "Empty Room"

An Arcade Fire cover from a cellist (Haimovitz) and a pianist (O'Riley); their new CD is Shuffle Play Listen. Review here. (All Things Strings)

Haimovitz’s musical zeal, plus O’Riley’s amazing finesse, equals a powerhouse sound that vacillates wildly between whispery plaintiveness (Arcade Fire’s “In the Backseat”), emotive intensity (Herrmann “Carlotta’s Portrait”), and enviable improvisational prowess (John McLaughlin’s “A Lotus on Irish Streams”). The latter piece closes this unconventional recording, appropriately rounding out a wonderfully diverse musical experience performed by two incredibly complex artists.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Margaret and the world

Kenneth Lonergan on the origins and ambitions of critics' darling Margaret.
"Margaret," which was filmed in 2005, was Lonergan's sophomore effort following 2000's "You Can Count on Me." He says his learning curve on his debut was "perpendicular" and that he was very much learning on the job, developing visual ideas during discussions with his cinematographer, etc. This time around, though, he developed those ideas early on, including that notion of a vast metropolis going on about its business as a central character fights against the grain to see justice served. "I wanted her to be just one person in the whole city," he says, "no matter what was going on with her. Where I'm standing now, there must be 50,000 people within a five-minute walk, and I was interested in the idea of, with a camera, trying to convey that whatever you're doing, you're surrounded by people doing things that are either much more important or much less important.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Someone else....

...does not like The Descendants. My review here. (Grantland)
George Clooney can’t help but be the kind of actor whose eyebrows and line delivery indicate that he knows, for instance, how to describe a jellyfish or when to punch somebody in the nose. He’s the least ineffectual-seeming actor I can think of. Matt King, Clooney’s character in The Descendants, doesn’t punch anyone in the nose, though he has plenty of good opportunities to do so; he also flops around barefoot and stares at black-and-white portraits of his ancestors on Hawaiian walls as his diluted feelings float away on breezes of pikake. He hasn’t been there for his family of four until his wife becomes comatose in a Jet Ski accident, but what he was doing instead (busy with real estate law?), an interesting question, is never really addressed. Maybe nobody cares what King was up to in Hawaii during his emotional absence, but I do, because he’s George Clooney and inherently more interesting than Matt King.

Monday, January 09, 2012

In Her Steps

Wim Wenders on the genesis of his new dance documentary Pina. (BOMBlog)

CH: Pina and her work have been on film a few times—Chantal Akerman made a documentary touring with her. What did you want to do differently, or what did Pina want to do differently on film?

WW: Pina had been present for several recordings—of course there were documentaries about her personally—but several of her plays had been recorded and she was disenchanted with it. She felt that one should be able to better recording dance and her work. We had differences, Pina and I, in the film. My interest was to understand and throw light on how Pina watched people and how she was able to transform what she saw into her pieces. What was the secret of these eyes, to see and decipher movement better than anybody else before, even us filmmakers, for instance? What enabled her to understand the language of bodies? I really wanted to make a film about Pina’s eyes. Pina’s interest from the beginning was that she felt there needed to be a way to film her work, and to film dance, that was more appropriate—that was somehow doing it more justice. She was disenchanted with what existed. Her need for that was obvious because, when we first talked, she had a body of twenty works and when we finally made the film, she had a body of forty-eight works. The cruel thing about dance theater is you can’t pass it on to someone else—you can’t write it down, it’s only this company, with her, that could perform it and if she wasn’t performing her work anymore it didn’t exist anymore. She wanted some of her pieces to exist. That’s what we tried to do for twenty years.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Video Store: Beginners

The guiding spirit of Mike Mills' film Beginners is Hal (Christopher Plummer, showing a sensitivity he has probably never been asked to display on screen), newly widowed at 75 and out as gay to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Mills based  his script for Beginners on experiences with his own father, and the film takes the distanced view that Mills must have had of his dad's new life. Oliver appreciates Hal's politically engaged and socially active lifestyle, but he can never really understand the bond that Hal has with his new boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) and a large group of gay friends. Hal has passed away as Beginners opens, we see his coming out and subsequent illness in flashbacks that pop up in the sudden, searing way that memories of a dead parent do. We spend more time with a grieving Oliver (whose sadness is beginning to affect his work as an artist) and with Anna (luminous Melanie Laurent), the actress that Oliver meets at a party and begins dating. The arc of Oliver and Anna's relationship isn't surprising but it is well played; I don't know that I've seen McGregor bite into a role the way he does here in some time, and Laurent's access to her emotions is fresh and astonishing. Mike Mills wants to say something here about modern life, namely that speed and convenience give us more time to wallow in emotion. Hal's anguish at not being able to live openly during the 1950's is not explored; he seems to have gotten on with the business of a career and starting a family. Oliver and Anna each have their own melancholy, but Beginners never gets precious thanks to the performances and Mills' way with a well-chosen music cue. Beginners is a personal film in the best sense of the word, one that uses life experience as a jumping-off point to investigate all manner of ideas about love and the way we live now.

Sunday Music: Broken Social Scene - "Art House Director"

I probably won't win any points here with the anonymous commenter who referred to my "sucking up to hipsters", or something like that, but who cares. I've been listening to this band's music again since realizing they did the music for the film It's Kind of a Funny Story, which I liked.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was looking forward to the new Tinker Tailor Solider Spy as a fan of author John Le Carre and of all things to do with the Cold War espionage genre. Alec Guinness defined the role of Le Carre’s signature spy George Smiley in two British miniseries, but what a pleasure to report that director Tomas Alfredson has found a splendid new Smiley in Gary Oldman. With his hair colored and a pair of outsized glasses Oldman has been pushed forwards into middle age, and Oldman tamps down his personality and creates a compact study of anger and disappointment. The entire Tinker Tailor is an exercise in controlled underacting, and the result is a film that’s worthy of Le Carre and altogether one the year’s best. Fans of Le Carre know that in his world the headquarters of British intelligence is called the “Circus”. Alfredson doesn’t overdo the period production design (the story takes place in 1973), but makes the inside of the Circus look like something out of time. Documents are transported inside dumb waiters, conversations are recorded on giant reel-to-reels, and the chamber in which Agency head Control (John Hurt) and his top lieutenants deliberate is set off to the side like the fish tank that it is. Information is currency, and as usual not everyone knows where or how to spend it.

After a mission in Hungary goes badly wrong, Control and Smiley are retired as part of a Circus housecleaning. When information surfaces of a possible Soviet mole inside the Circus, Smiley is assigned the task of discovering the traitor’s identity at the exact moment that new Circus head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is pursuing a new intelligence alliance with America. Smiley’s mission is detailed and not at all confusing to attentive viewers; key information scattered throughout is given quietly, but it is given. Flashbacks are well-used, especially a key holiday party at which Smiley learns something surprising about his colleague Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Smiley thinks the mole may lead to Russian master spy Karla, and the speech in which Smiley recalls his one and only meeting with Karla is one of the scenes of the year. I’m so impressed with the pacing and editorial control Alfedson puts on display in Tinker Tailor that I almost think trying to describe it will diminish its power, but Alfredson’s hold on this material is so strong that he more than earns the moments when the movie stops and shows its heart. The costs of a life in secrets are considered here with great care, as is the fact that many of the casualties are still walking around. Connie (Kathy Burke) was forced out of the Circus after striking too close to a terrible secret, while Smiley’s aide Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) must protect himself by sacrificing part of his personal life. Mysteries are solved but there’s no recovery of what’s lost; intelligence is a machine that grinds away while leaving some behind.

It is almost joyous how quiet and old-fashioned the climax of Tinker Tailor is, at one point Smiley just leaves a phone off the hook and waits for a key piece of information. Like so many we’ve met along the way, Smiley has paid the price for his choices. The ending offers him a new start, but it also doesn’t shy away from the reasons why he needs one. A character study in spy movie clothes, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a film of superb craft and surprising emotional power.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Money on the Table

I'm a bit of conspiracy theorist regarding Bridesmaids, a film everybody in America seems to have enjoyed more than I did. Given the relative Hollywood statures of Producer Judd Apatow and cowriter/star Kristen Wiig it just seems that the film had to become more Apatow's than Wiig's at some point, and while I have no real evidence to support this theory I'll always wonder if the Bridesmaids we got was the one Wiig wanted to make. It's pleasant and surprising to hear that Wiig won't be involved in a Bridesmaids sequel, and I certainly agree one isn't needed. Wiig is brave to walk away from a franchise to pursue other projects; it's the kind of choice that may cost something in the short run but wind up being better for both the artist and her audience. (Alyssa Rosenberg)
We don’t need 50 movies where the jokes is that Melissa McCarthy is fat and crude and sexually aggressive in exactly the same way. What we need is for Kristen Wiig to go off and become the kind of star who can turn a bunch of different movies into hits. And we need the same thing for Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph and Alison Brie and a bunch of other insanely talented, gorgeous women. Franchises are a good thing, they provide reliable paychecks to working actors, but they’re also a way of sticking people in silos.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Worst Blog Post of the Day #7

This horrific, lazy "appreciation" of budding star Rooney Mara positions the new Lisbeth Salander as a cog in the Hollywood machine, somehow engineered to take up a once-in-a-generation role that Natalie Portman or Anne Hathaway (Can anyone seriously see Hathaway as Lisbeth?) were already too famous to accept. There's no consideration of what Mara risked by taking the role, the differences between the work of Mara and the justifiably appreciated Noomi Rapace on anything more than a physical level, or of the fact that Mara made something real out of what on the page never becomes more than a have-it-both-ways male fantasy object. Mara in the last scene of Fincher's Dragon Tattoo did something that Rapace and the Swedish version failed to do: she moved me. Mara isn't the only member of the Dragon Tattoo team insulted; if David Fincher gave a damn he might take issue with the assertion that he "cast this thing for looks". House Next Door usually does better than uninformed generalizations; I'll chalk this post up to the whirl of the holidays.
In Dragon Tattoo, she is predominantly a presence, a slinky, androgynous, techno ghost who occasionally offers serviceable line readings while struggling with a Nordic accent. You feel her aura as you did in those magazine spreads, where she posed and didn't speak. The consensus is dead-on, however, in that she is utterly hypnotic to watch, a commanding, outré beauty with a laser-like focus wholly appropriate for her iconic character. As evidenced by the many keenly chosen, square-jawed blondes who bring the Swedish tale to life, Fincher cast this thing for looks, and with Mara, he found a porcelain jackpot, whose skin and facial structure could be stared at for hours, and could evidently provide assurance that the necessary performance would emerge in due course (proven talents like Anne Hathaway and Mia Wasikowska were famously up for this part, but as recent doodles suggest, such casting probably wouldn't have worked, as none of Hollywood's go-tos boast Mara's rare form, let alone her invaluable obscurity).

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sunday Music: Wild Flag - "Romance"

The writer of this short NYT piece on musician/actress Carrie Brownstein is taking heat for the "pixie rocker" line, but the portrait of the busy Brownstein that emerges is one of a woman with a lot of art to make. Here's Brownstein in action at SXSW.
Nearly everyone in Brownstein’s life counseled her against starting a TV show and a band in the same year. But Brownstein now describes the decision to pursue both as “the most sane thing I’ve done in a long time.” “Portlandia” and Wild Flag are complementary, in a yin-yang way: rigid and rowdy; scripted and free. When performing music onstage, Brownstein says, the rules don’t exist. “All the parts of ourselves that need to be contained or put in check or regulated in our day-to-day lives all fall by the wayside. You can go to places that are dark or even dangerous or bizarre and hopefully find a little grace.”

War Horse

I defy anyone not to be moved by certain moments in War Horse, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the same Michael Morpurgo novel that spawned an award-winning play. Spielberg hasn't forgotten how to stage a spectacle or draw emotion out of the simplest desires of a young boy, but the foundation upon which all his skills are deployed has rarely been more shaky than it is here. It's surprising to me that this material is the basis for a successful play; there's no real conflict or tension in the piece and the story doesn't stop long enough in any one place to say anything new about war. The first act of War Horse takes place in a kind of pre-World War I movie England straight out of a John Ford film. After farmer Ted Narracott (a broad Peter Mullan) overspends for a thoroughbred horse at auction, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) must get the horse (which he names Joey) to plow the family's field or the farm will be lost to a landlord (David Thewlis) who also seems to have eyes for Ted's wife (Emily Watson, who deserves something better). The actual plowing is staged as a sort of community pageant, with a crowd of locals streaming through the fields and climbing over fences and rocks to see if Albert can convince Joey to take that first step. It's good to know that Ted's neighbors have so much free time.

War Horse doesn't say anything more profound about war than Spielberg has said in other places, but if it does have a message then I suppose it's that the machinery of war is bigger than any individual human folly or tragedy. After war breaks out and Joey is purchased by an English captain (Tom Hiddleston), the rest of the movie is an account of Joey's endurance of numerous humans' attempts to get him killed. Joey's only respite comes at the French cottage of a kindly grandfather (Niels Arestrup, who was terrific in this) and his granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens), where it appears for a time that Joey has found the owner he deserves. Arestrup gets a monologue about bravery that's featured prominently in the trailers for War Horse; the speech is actually about pigeons used on the battlefield and it seems to suggest that bravery amounts to holding one's breath and leaping into the fray. Given the behavior we see in the rest of War Horse this speech could be ironic, but I don't think Spielberg has it in him to critique war that way. It's disappointing to see Spielberg running in place with War Horse, and his forthcoming Lincoln biopic (which at least has Tony Kushner on board as a writer) will really need more nuance. I suspect Spielberg may have taken on material here that was unworthy of him, but whatever the case War Horse winds up being about much less than it should be.