Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday Music: Punch Brothers - "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3"

The Punch Brothers, featured on The Hunger Games soundtrack, demonstrate their versatility.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross from the bestselling novel by Suzanne Collins, comes with its own pre-setup  set of expectations and possibilities for disappointing the book's fan base. When this many people are familiar with the source material it's harder for the resulting film to get a fair critical hearing. Instead The Hunger Games movie seems to have come into the world in order to generate conversations about its own existence, from whether or not Jennifer Lawrence is too old to play heroine Katniss Everdeen (author Collins endorsed the casting) to the disturbing recent racial slurs regarding the casting of a young African-American actress in a key role.

So what do we have? Katniss's life in "District 12" (what appears to be the Appalachian Mountains) is one of hunting and trading; she's the sole means of support for her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). District 12 is a gray, impoverished area where most residents work in mines like the one in which Katniss's father died. Ross owed his main character a better setup; I would have liked Katniss's considerable wilderness skills (so useful later on) to have been better established. Ross gets in his own way directorially throughout, lurching into closeups and never allowing Katniss's comfort with nature or discomfort at the different ways of the Capital City to sink in. I hadn't thought much about the Roman imagery in the book, but it's played up on screen. Katniss and her male District 12 counterpart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are unveiled to the Capital's citizens in a parade of chariots, and the names of characters like Katniss's stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) echo those of another era. Novelist Suzanne Collins receives a screenplay credit along with Ross and Billy Ray; the writers sharpen the book's political themes by highlighting the Government-created superstructure under which the games function. Game maker Seneca (Wes Bentley) has a Truman Show-like array of weapons at his disposal to push the combatants into more dramatic situations, which are then described golf announcer style by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). The fact that the Games are finally entertainment for the Capital audience (Capital residents are foppishly styled and clothed in bizarre, garish colors.) is explained by former games winner Haymitch Abernathy (a subtle Woody Harrelson), the man charged with crafting the images of the District 12 winners and securing them sponsors who provide in game aids. The message isn't hammered but it is clear and welcome: we're watching a movie about a manufactured entertainment.

The President of "Panem" (fine, nasty Donald Sutherland) is wary of Katniss's popularity, cautioning against allowing too much hope to foster among the outlying districts. The counter to that idea comes from Peeta, who'd rather die as himself in the Games than win as a tool of the government. The Games themselves unfold in fits and starts; after a bloodbath at the start that Ross tries his best to hide in editing we follow Katniss to an eventual reunion with Peeta and climactic flight from a pack of hungry wolves. Jennifer Lawrence is a sharp, smart presence as Katniss, believable as a fighter but able to play the vulnerability of a 16-year old as well. I wanted more of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the young girl who becomes an ally, but a little of her presence warms the movie. The other combatants aren't differentiated much, and we're to understand that some have trained as "tributes" all their lives. (The last moment of self-awareness granted to one tribute comes much too late.) The Hunger Games to my mind will deliver for fans of the book, but I wanted this movie to have a director unafraid to let his heroine be more a girl of the forest and less an action hero. Lawrence has more range than she gets to show here and so does the character she's playing, but Collins, Ross, and The Hunger Games audience.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Friends with Kids

There's a good movie to be made about the issues raised in Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends with Kids, a breezy comedy of Manhattan manners that turns serious in its last third with mixed results. Writer/director Westfeldt plays Julie, successful in work but unhappy in love, whose most meaningful relationship is a platonic one with college buddy Jason (Adam Scott). Jason's bed is never empty for long, but there's plenty of time to share cabs with Julie and recoil in mutual horror at the lives of their married with children friends Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) and Alex and Leslie (Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph). It comes as something of a surprise then when Julie and Jason talk themselves into having a child together without becoming a couple; there's no drunken, random sexual encounter but rather two people beginning to acknowledge their hidden feelings and half-buried needs. Trouble starts when new loves come on the scene, a dancer (a tart Megan Fox, playing well with this ensemble) who catches Jason's eye and a divorced Dad (Edward Burns) whom Julie meets at her son's preschool. Your tolerance for Julie and Jason will depend on how long you can stand watching them delude themselves. For a while they, and we, are content to float along on the notion that there's something brave and new about their arrangement; why shouldn't they experience the joys of parenting with each other while looking for romantic pleasure with others? Jon Hamm's Ben takes the movie down a darker path in a great drunken monologue, in which he calls out the fact that Julie and Jason will have to one day explain to their son that he was conceived not out of love but as a lifestyle choice. I wanted to spend more time with the unhappy Ben and Missy (Wiig is underused), whose marriage is coming apart as Julie and Jason's new-rules family appears to be beating the odds. Because of course, Ben is right. The life that Julie and Jason have concocted hides certain feelings which, when revealed, force the movie in a more conservative direction. The bawdy last scene belies what's really going on between these two characters; what Westfeldt wrote isn't really what these two people want to say to each other.

If you only know Adam Scott from Parks and Recreation then you're in for a pleasant surprise. Scott's Jason is a jerk hiding not very deep pain who changes course, and Scott pulls off a couple of big speeches with an excellent burst of newly discovered emotion. Westfeldt is lively but her physical inexpressiveness is a problem for me, especially when put up against the presences of Wiig and Rudolph. Finally Friends with Kids isn't as bold as it wants to be, but a strong cast and good writing put it through. Movies about different kind of love are badly needed, and this one is an honest attempt to address modern adult life.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Music: Van Morrison - "Domino"

I love this song; I'd like this performance even better if Van seemed a little more engaged, but I guess that's why the man's a genius.

A Separation

It's easy to generalize about foreign films, about how pleasant it can be to see something that ignores the usual Hollywood need for likable characters, familiarity of situation, and neatly wrapped-up endings. We shouldn't ignore the fact that the American market self-selects the foreign films that make it into our conversation here; that distributors cater to a certain audience and ignore the pale genre imitations that ape American cliche. When a film is as good as Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation though, who cares how it arrived here? Sad, complex, and genuinely conflicted about its characters, A Separation is a piece of richly human work of the sort that American studios just aren't interested in producing very often.

Simin (Leila Hatami) has filed for divorce from Nader (Peyman Moadi), her husband of 14 years. Simin wants the family to leave Iran and settle in the West, but Nader can't leave because of his senile father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and the couple's teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). In the opening scene Simin alludes to not wanting to raise Termeh in "these circumstances", but that's about as geopolitical as A Separation gets. We're not in the Iran you see discussed on cable news; Simin and Nader are educated, secularized, and not outwardly concerned with Iran's position in the world.  Simin moves out but doesn't make it very far, and the bulk of the film is concerned with what happens when the family crosses paths with Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). This more religious and less affluent couple enters Nader's life when he seeks in-home care for his father, and the ensuing cycle of misunderstanding and accusation proves out just how many meanings the title A Separation has. It's correct to say A Separation isn't geopolitical, but it's rich with detail concerning the politics of class, gender, and religion in modern-day Iran.

To say more about the details of the film's complex plot would spoil the emotional journey, but pay attention since key information is given in an early scene before who all the key characters are has even been established. What's most impressive about A Separation (besides the excellent and unaffected acting) is the way Farhadi engages with genuine ambiguity, both in the way he leaves certain plot points up for interpretation and in his reluctance to judge his characters.  Peyman Moadi's Nader is a complicated and not entirely attractive man of the kind that the Western media doesn't seem to know exists in Iran. I don't think an honest viewer of A Separation can say that the film answers every question about him, or even most of them, but I do appreciate the fullness of the window into his life. The film's center is Sarina Farhadi as Termeh, whose initial desire to keep her parents together evolves into a moral curiosity. A Separation ends on a heartbreaking note; the final choice Termeh is faced with offers this young Iranian no easy future.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Writer's DNA

 I may have to see John Carter after all, since it seems novelist and genre fiction enthusiast Michael Chabon had a hand in the script. Chabon discussed his relationship to genre and his affection for John Carter creator Edgar Rice Burroughs in this interview. (Wired)
Wired: How did you first encounter the John Carter books, and what sort of an impact did they have on you?

Michael Chabon: I first encountered them in Page One Books in Columbia, Maryland, in about 1973, I guess, whenever Ballantine Books reissued them with those stunning Gino D’Achille covers. They appeared somewhat magically, like the Monolith in 2001, in a cardboard display dump in the bookstore, this beautiful display with a big piece of artwork on the top of it, and then I guess maybe all 15 books in this display, each with this stunning cover, and it had a sense of obvious cultural importance, at least to me at age 10 or 11. It inspired this immediate desire in me to know more, to visit, to go there, and see what this was about. What was this thing, who was John Carter, and what was going on with these green guys, and red-skinned beautiful princesses, and flying boats, and everything I was seeing on the covers of these books?

And I bought the first one, and I loved it, and I went back and bought the next one, and then I discovered that the Science Fiction Book Club was publishing them with equally arresting covers by Frank Frazetta, in double editions, two books in one. So I started to get those, because I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, and then not long after that Marvel Comics, of which I was also a great devotee, started doing a comic book version of the same character, and that just kind of cemented it all in my mind.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Bring Back the '90s

What Copper Blue sounds like now. Bob Mould in concert. (Spin/HTV)
Like Hüsker Dü did in 1987 for its double-LP Warehouse: Songs and Stories, he and his band played the disc with minimal pauses; a heartbeat after Wurster grabbed his crash cymbal for the abrupt ending of relatively restrained album opener "The Act We Act," the threesome plunged into the underwater murder tale "That's a Good Idea," which lead into the warmer but still anguished "Changes." One moment he'd be beaming like giddy schoolboy, the next he resembled an angry Amish. Before "The Slim," he swapped one Fender for another with alternate tuning, and the pause set up the album's emotional crux. Unlike the other songs, which he played exactly as written except for some "da-da-dah"s that substituted for guitar overdubs, this one started significantly slower and quieter, and then gradually built until it hit its familiar tempo while going way beyond its recorded intensity. Written when AIDS was almost always a death sentence, it's always been about a man watching his lover die from HIV and wondering when the virus will also claim him. But before a crowd that's endured similar losses, it here took on the power of collective mourning.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Girls talk

My favorite part of this story on the new HBO series Girls comes from Jemima Kirke, who also appeared in series creator Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. I liked most of Tiny Furniture and will discuss it in full at some point when time permits, but for now here's Kirke on where Girls fits in to "television for women."
KIRKE: Obviously we’re not making a documentary here, and even if we were, it would be hard to make it honest. No, it’s not “Sex and the City,” where it’s a total lie. That’s four gay men sitting around talking.

Sunday Music: Kathleen Edwards - "Empty Threat"

I recently picked up Edwards' new album Voyageur, and though it's softer and slower than her earlier stuff (I'm a great fan of her first album Failer) I think it may be my favorite of hers. The presence of Justin Vernon as co-producer creates a more expansive bed for Edwards' lyrics, which aren't so first-person immediate this time out. This isn't another Bon Iver record though; Vernon can be heard on backing vocals in a few places but there's always the sense of the band playing together and Edwards' own personality. Voyageur is my first favorite album of 2012.