Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Music: Father John Misty - "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"

This caught my attention because of the presence of Aubrey Plaza in the video, but I actually like the song as well. Father John Misty is led by Josh Tillman, ex-Fleet Foxes drummer, and reminds of me of something this band might have released. Father John Misty's album is out in May.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Music: The Band - "Stage Fright"

From Scorsese's The Last Waltz. I was digging into a Band boxed set I hadn't listened to in awhile and found this track, which showcases the late Rick Danko on vocals and the mad, out-of-time keyboards of Garth Hudson. On the "Q&A" section of the Criterion Mystery Train blu-ray, I'm pretty sure I heard Jim Jarmusch call The Band his favorite band of all time. If I heard correctly, then that's wonderful and very surprising.

A New Work

I too hope Wit author Margaret Edson writes another play. In the meantime she seems to have found a calling that's just as meaningful to her, and in its own way maybe even harder. (NYT, photo by Joan Marcus of Cynthia Nixon in the current NY production of Wit)
Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club and the director of the current production, was one of those who passed on “Wit” in the ’90s. “It was for personal reasons,” she said the other day, explaining that at the time she had just undergone cancer treatment herself. A year ago her colleagues asked her to reread it, and this time around, she said, “I felt the play chose me.” She began talking with Ms. Edson on the phone and then met her for the first time in December, when Ms. Edson came to New York to see a rehearsal. “Maggie is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met,” she said. “She’s enormously intelligent and articulate, but intelligence alone doesn’t write a play like this, which is so emotionally accessible as well as intellectually fulfilling.” She added that she wished Ms. Edson would write another, and quoting a line from “Wit,” spoken by a young doctor who is a bit of a know-it-all, she said, “ ‘ I have a few ideas.’ There are some thoughts I’d like to share with her. But it will only happen when she’s ready.” Explaining why she had no urge to repeat her success, Ms. Edson said, “If it had happened right away — if I’d written the play in ’91 and then won the Pulitzer in ’92 — that might have created a different trajectory.”

Shepard on Malick

Looks like this video comes from a Criterion disc; I discovered it via @filmdetail . I love the idea of Malick as someone in awe of nature.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

On Demand: Beautiful Boy

A film like Shawn Ku's Beautiful Boy needs a new genre, a descriptor that accurately puts in context what we have here. Two name actors (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) put their all into a film with serious intentions that at least takes a stab at some kind of social relevance, but the result is so underwritten and half-baked that the film's straight-to-video and on demand fate was really the best that could be hoped for. Bello and Sheen play Bill and Kate, a couple whose idling marriage receives a shock when their son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) commits a mass murder at his college and then kills himself. There's a brief scene of Sammy reading what appears to be a short story to his indifferent classmates, but that and a snippet of a videotape he makes (a manifesto in the style of the Virginia Tech killer) are all the insight Ku gives us into the character. Bill and Kate flee media and attention and search for answers in a hotel interlude that plays like a Raymond Carver short story, but despite a lot of arguments it's hard to buy any of the accounts we get of what went on earlier in the marriage and in Sammy's adolescence. Maria Bello is an underrated actress who breaks down admirably here and Sheen makes Bill into a dogged American workingman, but neither has enough to work with to make Beautiful Boy as moving as it wants to be. The late discovery of a second video feels like a cheap device to get a reaction from the characters. Beautiful Boy gave Bello and Sheen a few weeks work, but their fans should know it's only a diversion between their higher-profile projects.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A little midweek music....

You can hear a great interview with Nick Lowe from the WTF podcast here, and that led me to this wonderfully offhand dressing-room workout featuring Lowe, Wilco, and (mostly) Mavis Staples. Happy Wednesday....

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Music: Whitney Houston - "Million Dollar Bill"

What can be said? She was huge in a way that musicians aren't huge anymore, and it was because of pure talent as opposed to flaunting sexuality or chasing trends. I chose this happy song from her most recent album; it isn't among her most familiar or greatest vocal performances, but the energy and presence were still there. RIP Whitney

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Safe House

Raise your hand if you thought Safe House was directed by Tony Scott. Its combination of urban mayhem, hyper editing, and the presence of a dour Denzel Washington recalls Man on Fire or The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but in fact Safe House is the U.S. debut of a Swedish director named Daniel Espinosa. Washington is on hand as Tobin Frost, a former CIA agent gone "rogue" who takes refuge at an American consulate in South Africa in order to escape a hit squad. Frost has some key bit of information squirreled away, but the contents of the microchip he injects into himself for safekeeping almost don't matter. Neither does the fact that a U.S. interrogator (Robert Patrick) and his team begins to torture Frost; the movie doesn't stop to consider legalities or America's place in the world because the safe house where Frost is being held gets attacked, and Frost is spared only thanks to the intervention of a low-level Agency "housekeeper" named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). The rest of the movie is a long chase with a series of feints. Where do Frost's loyalties lie, and does he view Matt as a captor or potential ally? The obvious question is the identity of the traitor; it has to be one of the CIA higher-ups (Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson) Espinosa keeps cutting to as they debate Weston's loyalty and haggle over blame. Safe House pauses to consider the costs of an agent's life. There's a moment of shared memories between Frost and a document forger (Ruben Blades) who seems to have found a level of domestic peace. Weston's girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) gets a sharp burst of anger when she learns the true identity of the man she knew as an NGO employee. Those scenes let the movie breathe, but of course the action is all. Espinosa stages the car chases and a surprising amount of close-in fighting with an energy perhaps drawn from working in locations that have been underrepresented in movies like this. Safe House is a February diversion, but it's an entertaining one thanks to the two leads. Washington gives Frost notes notes of desperation an surprising moments, while Reynolds is free of the smugness that so often knocks him down a peg or two for me. You'll forget about this movie in a month, but know that Tony Scott is thinking about how to up the ante.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Book I Read: Lucking Out by James Wolcott

James Wolcott arrived in New York with little more than a letter of introduction from Norman Mailer, and Lucking Out is the story of how he parlayed that into a job at the Village Voice and an eventual career as a freelance writer. Wolcott isn’t interested in reliving old editorial battles, wailing about how much better things used to be, or putting himself at the center of great events; indeed, Lucking Out is chiefly about what a good time he had writing about culture and knowing those who made it. Wolcott was a friend and frequent screening colleague of Pauline Kael, who gets a chapter to herself. The dynamism of Kael’s company is well-described, as are all the personality traits that made her a divisive figure. (Lucking Out is worth it just for the description of the seating hierarchy at 1970’s New York press screenings.) Yet Kael couldn’t be any other way, and in Wolcott’s telling she comes off as someone aware of what her sometimes scathing reviews cost her both personally and professionally. No doubt there are plenty of memoirs that could be written in which Kael would come off differently, but it’s heartening to learn that Wolcott’s friendship with and love for Kael endured and wasn’t tainted by ambition or office politics. The image of Kael leaving her friends and heading off alone at the end of a post-screening salon is a poignant one, and says much about the even-then tenuous place of the critic. Wolcott, lucky bastard, was also present for the best years of CBGB; the whirling spirit that is Patti Smith is a guiding light. Smith is kept at a remove, there’s little sense of the woman who told her own story in Just Kids, but Wolcott’s (perhaps too New York-centric view) take is that Smith was the antidote to the excesses of the classic rock era. The young Talking Heads also play a part; Wolcott gives Tina Weymouth her due as an early female rock instrumentalist and the scene where Wolcott and Weymouth see a Fassbender movie cries out to be treated as a play or short story. (Did Weymouth let slip any good David Byrne anecdotes? )

Lucking Out dawdles only in a chapter that begins as a discussion of the New York ‘70s porn scene, and it’s as if Wolcott (who seems a temperate fellow, certainly no punk) was asked to write this part of the book in the hopes that sex might gin up the sales. Fortunately Wolcott uses porn as a counterpoint to his emerging love of ballet, an art form he approaches as an outsider and comes to love. I’d enjoy a Wolcott book on the world of late Balanchine New York ballet culture; the way he describes audience members and young ballet students attempting to reenact the dancers’ moves made me want to catch the next train to Lincoln Center. If the moment that Wolcott chooses to label the “end of an era’ (the murder of John Lennon) isn’t a surprise then the joy and particularity with which he recounts his early New York years certainly is. The aptly titled Lucking Out is the story of a man who made the most of his ticket to the show.

Albert Nobbs

After watching Glenn Close play a brassy lawyer on Damages for a few years it's something of a shock to see her in the title of Albert Nobbs, the story of a 19th century Irish woman masquerading as a man for work and survival. If you recall Close's femininity in The Big Chill and even Fatal Attraction then the physical change alone she undergoes to play Albert - tight haircut, deep voice, and a mysterious shift to the angle of her jaw - is genuinely impressive. Albert is a trusted waiter in the kind of Dublin hotel where the guests never change and the staff enjoys gossiping about both the guests and each other. Moving through the bustle with a shy but firm presence, Albert flawlessly carries out his duties by day and hides money under the floorboards at night. His plan to leave the hotel and open a business comes into focus with the arrival of Mr. Page (Janet McTeer), another woman traveling in the world of men. Page is a brash house painter, unafraid to banter with Albert's boss (Pauline Collins) and married to a pretty woman named Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher). The nature of Page's marriage is never quite explained, but Janet McTeer gives Page an unrepentant sexuality that's the most appealing thing about the movie. Though we learn why Albert had to live as a man, the screenplay (which Close collaborated on with the novelist John Banville) never lets us get inside Albert's head in the same way. Albert's attempt to court a maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska, whose own romance with a cad played by Aaron Johnson fills out the movie) is presented as a matter of economics rather than romance; Albert needs Helen to help run the shop he sees in his head. I never felt Albert's need to connect with another person the way I did with Page and Cathleen, and Albert's fate isn't moving enough. Albert Nobbs explains why its main character becomes a man, but it doesn't do enough to explain what that choice does to her or why she stays that way.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Take This Waltz trailer

Here's the trailer for Take This Waltz, directed by Sarah Polley and starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. Let's call it the first 2012 film I'm 100% sure to see....

Sunday Music: Elton John - "Take Me To The Pilot"

From 1970; my post yesterday about Cameron Crowe's John-centered The Union brought me to this song, surely worthy of rediscovery as among John's best.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Artist

Thanks to a Golden Globe win, the stamp of several critics’ organizations, and the good luck to have been released by a company with “Weinstein” in the name, Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist sits as a solid Best Picture front runner. Let’s get one thing straight: most of the people talking about a Best Picture win for The Artist don’t think it’s best film of the year, instead they prefer The Tree of Life, Hugo, or (I wish) Young Adult. What those people are really saying is that The Artist is the most Oscar-like film of the year, a film that conforms to certain well-established templates. It’s winning, tells a redemptive story, has a wide self-congratulatory streak, and of course has a hook. The Artist is, with the exception of a few brief sequences, as silent as a Charlie Chaplin picture, and it comes complete with those title cards inserted mid-shot to convey dialogue. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a 1920’s silent film star rather unprepared for the coming of talkies. The action of The Artist springs from Valentin’s chance encounter at a premiere with a fan named Peppy (Berenice Bejo, also a nominee), and the movie follows them both over the next few years as their fortunes head in opposite directions. A gallery of familiar faces fill out the supporting cast: there’s John Goodman as a cigar-chomping studio head, along with James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and an inexplicable Malcolm McDowell.

There’s a natural tendency to appreciate The Artist for the fact that exists at all. Someone did this, we tell ourselves; they wrote a script and worked with actors and came up with a visual scheme that honors 1920’s silent cinema. I had never heard of Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo before this movie, but Hazanavicius cast well. Dujardin has the looks and pulls off the swagger of a star of the era, and Bejo’s smile and eyes say what her mouth isn’t allowed to. Things get self-aware at times, there’s a funny dream sequence with sound added and a loyal dog sidekick, but except for those moments Hazanavicius keeps The Artist on the level of well-made homage. The film never breathes, save for one striking shot of Valentin and Peppy meeting on a staircase headed in opposite directions. It is a shiny valentine to the movies and to our romantic ideas of the movies, and nothing more. The Oscar voters don’t owe us social relevance or deep meaning with their choices, and I’ll admit it’s unfair to review a movie in the context of awards nominations. Yet as clever and appealing as The Artist is, what are we left with at the end? To watch a silent film in 2012, one made without irony, is to give over to another kind of cinema. But The Artist leaves us admiring the unfamiliar form and not enough of what‘s underneath; it’s novelty for its own sake

The Union/Luck

Cameron Crowe's The Union is the story of Elton John and Leon Russell's album of the same title. The album The Union received a rare five-star review from Rolling Stone, was regarded as major return to 1970's form for John and a reminder of Russell's talent. With all the success of the album it's a pleasant surprise to report that Crowe's film doesn't fall into the trap of mythologizing its stars in the way that his Pearl Jam 20 project sometimes did. The Union is instead a film about two working musicians who just once happened to be famous. The details of the writing and recording are mostly elided (Russell underwent brain surgery during the recording, and Crowe tells us in a title card.), except for a moment where Russell plays a newly written song for producer T-Bone Burnett and and a moved John. What's striking about The Union is the way both musicians go about their work with the dedication of master craftsmen without regard for how the album might be received. John, who at times seems ambivalent about being filmed, has a wonderful speech about refusing to pander by making a Christmas album while Russell (grateful to be remembered  by his peers) behaves as a man who has no other choice but to make music. Cameron Crowe appears on screen briefly but largely stays out of the way, and the vintage clips of John and Russell are well-chosen. Crowe isn't recalling the good old days but instead presenting another part of the arc that these two men have always been on. As the album is released and the two men begin the cycle of promotion, it's gratifying to see Russell so warmly welcomed back. Yet The Union leaves one with the inescapable feeling that the work is, and has always been, enough.

I don't often write about a single episode of television that isn't a series finale, but the premiere of HBO's Luck is an occasion for celebration thanks to the return of writer/creator David Milch. As in his Deadwood, Milch creates a world and then slowly teases out meanings and connections. I don't know if the gamblers (led by Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick) who strike it rich in the pilot will have anything to do with Dustin Hoffman's newly out-of-jail and plotting something Ace, but the fact that Milch didn't feel the need to answer that question or explain very much of anything right away means that there's a long game being worked. The confidence of the first hour of Luck may be its most attractive feature, just beating out the horse races shot by director Michael Mann. If Mann and Milch are content to let us sit with these actors and these characters for such a heavily hyped first hour then they believe in what they're doing, and I'm happy to spend time Nick Nolte (as a trainer) and Michael Gambon (yet to come) along the way.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Things I enjoyed today

While I wait until the weekend and time to catch up on current films, please enjoy Mary Elizabeth Winstead discussing her role in Smashed. This drama of addiction and marriage was a well-received entrant in the recent Sundance Film Festival and co-stars Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad. (Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally also appear.)

On a more serious note, I applaud the decision by The Decemberists to withdraw their support for the Susan G. Komen foundation in light of that group's recent severing of ties with Planned Parenthood. Alyssa Rosenberg explains why the band's actions matter.
What’s particularly nice about the Decemberists’ action is that they’re not withdrawing the fight—they’re just giving their money to a direct service provider instead. Susan G. Komen for the Cure has a long list of bipartisan celebrity supporters, some of whom—like Neil Patrick Harris and Cynthia Nixon—have bigger national platforms than an indie band. Let’s hope some of them make the same decision, and help make it so Planned Parenthood is better off after losing Susan G. Komen’s support than they were before.