Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Music: Glen Hansard - "Love Don't Leave Me Waiting"

A track from Hansard's new solo album Rhythm and Repose. To read what the former Once has been up to go here, and to see an example of what he can do live check this out.
THE audience at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo might well have expected Glen Hansard to open his recent show there with a song from “Once,” the Broadway show built around his songs that had won eight Tonys just two days earlier. Or maybe something from his first solo album, “Rhythm and Repose,” which was about to be released. But Mr. Hansard, 42, had different plans. He was scribbling furiously on scrap paper in the greenroom just before he went on. When he bounded onstage, he said, “I’m going to start with a song I just finished right downstairs.” Then he sang an aching, a cappella melody:

We’re all bound by certain forces

The same as anyone

Step out of the shadows, little one

There’s a hurricane a-blowing A will that will be done

Step out of the shadows, little one.

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is recognizable as a Wes Anderson film, complete with dry humor, invented works of art, and an eclectic soundtrack. The film offers those pleasures for the casual Anderson fan, but for those willing to look deeper Moonrise Kingdom is a maturation, a transitional film in Anderson's career and an early contender for your year-end Top 10 list. The fictional New England island of New Penzance circa 1965 seems at first a coy conceit, and the tour of the Bishop house that we get in the opening shots recalls our introduction to the ship in The Life Aquatic. But Anderson is after something deep here, and something very human. The narration on the recording of "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" that we hear early in the film speaks of pulling things out and then putting them back together, and Moonrise Kingdom does the same thing in its story of yearning children and inexpressibly sad adults.

Our young and would-be lovers Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) are quickly introduced as Sam slips away from his Khaki Scout troop and foster family while Suzy leaves a note and takes her brother's record player. A flash back to their first meeting finds Suzy costumed as a bird for a performance of Britten's Noye's Fludde, and the way Sam sees Suzy then sets the tone for much of what's to come. The specificity and oddity of the seaside camp that Suzy and Sam make for themselves is very Andersonian, but Hayward and Gilman are unactory and unaffected performers both excellent at capturing their excitement at what they think lies ahead and their unhappiness with what's come before. Anderson (who wrote the script with Roman Coppola) doesn't sexualize the young couple but doesn't ignore sex either, finding a potent metaphor to mark the impending rite of passage. It's with his conception of the adults that Anderson makes his greatest strides. Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) refer to each other as "Counselor" and have let a good portion of their lives slip by while not acknowledging their own unhappiness. When Suzy turns runaway it forces more than one reckoning; Murray's anger at his own failures is expressed in comic rage while McDormand and Heyward have a wonderful, layered scene of women at different moments in their lives talking past each other. Bruce Willis finds a great but quiet passion for life in the role of a police chief who isn't quite as hardened to life's disappointments as he thought, and Edward Norton plays the scoutmaster with a needed lack of irony.

It's the way all of these people get taken apart and put back together again that's Anderson's concern, and Moonrise Kingdom is the first time he has ever really been interested in community as a subject. While I haven't done justice here to just how funny the film is, I left the theater thinking about the ways the characters affected each other and to what degree those ways might be permanent. I'm as excited by Moonrise Kingdom as I am by any film I've seen in some time, for the ways it feels familiar and yet signals something entirely new in its director.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


 You can read an excellent roundup of tributes to Andrew Sarris here, and I particularly like this vigorous defense of auteurism by The New Yorker's Richard Brody. (The opposing comments are worth reading too.)
If auteurism were nothing other than the recognition of arcane patterns across a director’s body of work, it would have had a short and obscure run. But in fact, its power comes from its inspiration of artists. Wes Anderson described his primordial auteurist experience when I interviewed him for a Profile that ran in the magazine in 2009. His family’s Betamax tapes of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, “with an orange-colored box for ‘Vertigo’ and a blue one for ‘Rear Window’ and a beige one for ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much,’ ” was a central experience for him as a child: 
"Watching those, you know, the name of the director was right there on the front, you were conscious that this guy was a movie artist, it wasn’t an actor and you weren’t reading about how they built the robots or something like that, instead it was some guy whose thing is making images and sounds and things to tell the story." 
Auteurism is the mode of criticism through which burgeoning directors identify those established filmmakers in whom they see themselves—and the future of the art form—reflected. It isn’t a matter of seeing patterns but of seeing directors (as if present and holding forth on the other side of the screen) and identifying with them—not by self-abnegation but by elective affinity and imaginative sympathy.

Vacation Reading

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje - Ondaatje publishes fiction so infrequently that I don't remember much of his last two novels Anil's Ghost and Divisadero except that I liked them. Once I started reading The Cat's Table I was home though, slipping into Ondaatje's episodic, immersive style and devouring this semi-autobiographical tale very quickly. I hate to make a movie comparison (though I don't think Ondaatje would mind) but The Cat's Table reminds me a bit of those early scenes in The Tree of Life shot from a young child's point of view. Michael, our narrator, is sailing from Sri Lanka to London in the 1950's on his own. He forms a gang of sorts with the unruly Cassius and gentle Ramadhin, and the three boys alternate making mischief with receiving half-understood life lessons from a group of misfit passengers they meet at the "Cat's Table" (farthest from the Captain's Table). The novel does coalesce into a plot of sorts as connections and agendas that the boys can only sense are played out, and it isn't until an epilogue of sorts set in the present that Michael can understand what it all meant. By then of course it's too late, the past has done its work. That sense of life molding us while we unwittingly carry on from day-to-day is precisely the feeling Ondaatje wants to get at. I very much liked The Cat's Table.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell - Vowell wants to know exactly how Hawaii got to be the way it did and what happened to native Hawaiian culture. (In other words, why were there so many white people in The Descendants?) In her even-handed at dryly funny way she finds that there's plenty of blame to go around. Missionaries from New England brought education, which led to a written language, but wanted to Americanize the Hawaiians. You may lose track of the chain of succession of lengthily named Hawaiian kings; Vowell praises those who broke with some of the more outlandish customs, like segregation by sex at mealtimes. Yet too much inbreeding and alcohol weakened Hawaiian royalty, and by the annexation of Hawaii in the 1890's (an action of dubious legality) the native culture was in no position to challenge Manifest Destiny. Vowell reports on a recent renaissance  in Hawaiian culture with enthusiasm but doesn't lose sight of her thesis: America was built on wanting more. If you're new to Vowell I'd recommend Assassination Vacation before moving onto her other historical works, but Unfamiliar Fishes is worth your time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Making Of...

 I've posted before about the troubled post-production of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which arrives on Blu-Ray in July. This piece recounts the drama again, complete with cameo appearances by Martin Scorsese and a co-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. What makes the reading worth your time is the portrait that emerges of Lonergan, an exacting but generous artist who inspires great loyalty in friends and collaborators. I can't wait to see Margaret. (NYT)
Lonergan’s history with Hollywood began, oddly enough, when, as a promising but unknown playwright, he made a very cleareyed, even craven, business decision — which wound up paying off very well. In his mid-20s, he wrote a screenplay that would eventually become the mafia comedy “Analyze This,” a film which, to this day, he has never seen. “I wrote it to sell it,” he says now. “I knew what that meant.” The film went through nearly a dozen different screenwriters before finally being released and spawning a successful franchise. “I was aware that it was very likely that it would be rewritten to death by others, which isn’t something I’m comfortable having done to work I’ve written for love, as opposed to for money,” he says. “And while I make a living off that system, I disapprove of it, and I don’t take any pride of authorship in something that’s been rewritten by 14 other people.”

One happy byproduct of that script was that he met Martin Scorsese, who would later bring Lonergan to Rome just before shooting to work on the script for “Gangs of New York.” Another happy byproduct is that the money Lonergan earned bought him time to write “This Is Our Youth,” a 1996 Off Broadway hit that starred two unknown actors, Josh Hamilton and Mark Ruffalo. As described in the Times review, the play is about “the desolate, dead-end universe of young Manhattanites with rich parents and no direction. They are at that peculiar moment of life, their late teens and early 20s, when dissoluteness has not yet calcified into hopelessness.” In other words, it’s the kind of play that might stamp a young playwright, which it more or less did for Lonergan, with the label “voice of his generation.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden from a novel by Deborah Moggach, arrives with a pedigreed cast that has already secured the film several weeks' run at your local multiplex. It's a pleasure to watch Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and a troupe of top-drawer British actors bounce around a well-photographed India in a story of preparing for the last act of one's life, but the paths each character travels lack enough of life's messiness and surprise. The film builds to a series of emotional unburdenings, albeit very well-acted ones, that can be seen coming from a distance.

We're introduced to the travelers in a series of opening vignettes. Newly widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench)  is at a loss after selling her flat to pay off her late husband's debt. Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs hip surgery but can only afford to have her operation "outsourced" to India, which doesn't suit her latent racist side. Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a married couple who don't like each other but are too preoccupied with financial concerns to acknowledge it. The two hotel guests with the most active libidos are Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who each strike out for India with the hope of finding companionship. The most surprising guest is Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a gay judge determined to pick up a too long ignored strand of his life. Each of these people is drawn to India by the ambition of Sonny (Dev Patel), an young Indian entrepreneur whose skill with Photoshop conceals the fact that his elaborately named hotel is a ramshackle mess. John Madden directed Judi Dench to an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love, and he gets entirely different sort of work from her here. Dench sheds the armor she sometimes seems to wear in period roles and pulls from a well of deep sadness that's matched by Nighy's Douglas, a man whose dry humor has become a reflexive defensive mechanism.

Hotel isn't shy about diving into the sounds and colors of India, and at moments even makes it seems as overwhelming as it might to a group of foreign travelers in late middle age. Yet even an unfamiliar location can't disguise the degree to which the screenplay (by Ol Parker) fulfills the needs of the characters so squarely. The guest who needs an outlet for her time finds one. The guest who needs to get something out of connecting with an Indian does so. Wilkinson's Graham has the most unusual reasons for coming to India but his journey too is rounded off neatly. There's even a funeral scene, editorialized upon by Dench's voice-over, that doesn't come close to the emotional power of the funeral in The Darjeeling Limited. Some time is devoted to the struggles of Sonny to keep the hotel afloat while wooing his girlfriend (Tena Desae) and dealing with family pressure, but the collision of modernity and tradition in India isn't depicted so much as used as a talking point. While The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a satisfying enough way to kill an afternoon, the film badly needs a wilder streak or at least to let one of its characters go solve the mysteries of India that it leaves unexplored.

Artist at Work

I love this interview with veteran stage actor Reed Birney, who's starring in a new production of Uncle Vanya (with Michael Shannon and Merritt Wever) and seems to have been ready for the right role to come along.
GR: You mentioned a period of despair from earlier in your life. Did that have anything to do with the trajectory of your career after your debut with Gemini?

RB: Yes. I did start well out of the gate. Of course, as a young actor I had great expectations, and, for whatever reason, it just wasn't happening. I felt like I was doing my job, but people weren't buying, it seemed. One spends a lot of time in fallow periods where you think, "What have I done wrong? Should I have done this play instead of that? Should I have moved to California?" And when you're in the middle of it, it's deeply confusing because you're so aware of time passing and opportunities going by. In dissecting my career, Gemini was such an iconic play in the '70s, and Randy, my character, his leading characteristic was that he was ordinary. I really think, in a funny way, it hurt me for a long time after that, because Randy was such a goof ball and I think people really thought of me just as that guy. I think what I've learned is that I really needed to be older to express myself in the way I should be expressing myself—that, as a young actor, the parts weren't right for me. It really wasn't until Blasted that things changed, both for me personally and professionally. And the irony was that it was a part that I would never ever have thought I would play.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Early Sunday Music: David Byrne & St. Vincent - "Who"

First single from a brass-heavy new album that's out in September. I like it and hope the collaboration brings out something new in both of them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Just how much and in what way Ridley Scott's shiny new science fiction film Prometheus would be connected to Scott's Alien has been a subject of great speculation ever since Prometheus was announced. Yes, we do find out where the race of predatory aliens that go on to terrorize Sigourney Weaver come from. But  Prometheus doesn't set up Alien so much as fill in the series' mythology; Scott and his team (Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts wrote the script.) are instead interested in attempting to answer Big Questions. Trying to make an Alien-related film profound is probably the worst choice Scott could have made; the issues that Prometheus attempts to raise are too vague and open-ended to distract from an unfocused last act.

It's the late twenty-first century and scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have connected a series of archaeological finds on Earth to a distant star system and the possibility of finding the source and purpose of human life. Shaw and Holloway set sail on Prometheus, a ship captained by the I-just-work-here Janek (Idris Elba, having fun) and funded by the Weyland Corporation. Weyland is of course the "Company" that chooses the potential of harnessing the aliens over its own people in the Alien, but we're a long way from that cold, privatized space here. Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in heavy makeup) is a starry-eyed billionaire who sends the scientific team off with a holographic message, while the Company is represented on board ship by the chilly Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, well-costumed and making something out of a thin role). There's also David (Michael Fassbender), a Weyland android who likes Lawrence of Arabia and follows an agenda known only to him . For a while Prometheus is good, nasty fun. There's something alive on the planet where Prometheus sets down, and we're with the doctors and their team as they avoid scary, viscous fluids and attempt to divine the meaning of the artifacts they find. There's a good deal of plot to avoid spoiling, but it's not a bad thing that the focus of Prometheus narrows to Shaw and her growing realization that she's opened the door to a potential Earth-destroying horror. Rapace gets to play a sexy, smart girlfriend here for a while and that's fun, but she has a natural ferocity as an actor that serves her well in the remarkable scene of self-examination that serves as the movie's centerpiece.

There's a very specific point at which I thought Prometheus went bad, and it was the point at which I realized that Scott was trying to make film about Everything. There's no true (human) antagonist in Prometheus, and we need one. In the Alien films the characters have the profit motive of Weyland to work against (as represented by Paul Reiser's lackey in Aliens, for example) and have survival as a clear objective, but here the characters are simply manipulating each other in different ways and the late revelations feel engineered to paper over some holes in the script. There are things to like in Prometheus; we feel the space the ship takes up, the giant cave key scenes take place in is designed with great specificity, and Fassbender gives great complexity to a character that I think is only supposed to be motivated by people reminding him he isn't human. Yet finally Prometheus dissipates under the weight of its ambition. We will no doubt return to this franchise, but I hope the next installment has a fresh creative mind behind it.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Growing up

I like this post from Glenn Kenny on going to see the original Alien with a sense of superiority. I saw Alien 3 first because of wanting to spend time with a college crush, and I came to the other installments later. (Some Came Running)
But for whatever reason I was there for it on the afternoon of the opening day at the then-majestic (and now completely nonexistent) Stanley Warner Theatre on Route 4 in Paramus, N.J. Among my "posse" was the now-infrequent-SCR-chimer-in Joseph Failla, who's been my moviegoing companion since third grade, and My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™, soon to be the keyboard player and composition maestro of the now-reformulated Haledon rock legends Artificial Intelligence. We went in with a very "bring it" attitude. And I left with the conviction that it had not, in fact, been broughten. I'm not entirely certain whether or not I was under the influence of cannabis during the viewing (it's not unlikely, frankly) but I can tell you I was feeling pretty feisty. When the spawn of the face-sucker burst out of John Hurt's chest, unhinged its jaw, screeched, and scurried away, I actually tittered, and then sputtered, rather loudly, and with no small amount of what I then considered punk-rock indignation, "It's the Eraserhead baby with teeth!" Yes, I was pretty much the guy that you and everybody else in the sentient movie-viewing universe wants to pummel. And when the picture was over, I shrugged and seethed "That's IT?" My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ semi-fumed "It's just a slicker remake of X! The Terror From Beyond Space." And then we all went to the Forum diner and then maybe back to Ron's parents' place in Clifton to listen to King Crimson's Red and watch the pretty blue volume-level lights on his amplifier, or something.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"...I have saved myself from the hardening."

Fiona Apple is back with what (based on the single above) sounds like a weird, spare new album. This interview finds Apple still very much herself. (Pitchfork)
Pitchfork: What do you get embarrassed about?

FA: Oh, everything I do and say, really. For many years, I was a really heavy drinker, but people don't know about that because I'm by myself all the time. Recently, I didn't drink for eight or nine months, and I learned that alcohol was quadrupling the embarrassing moments-- those moments when you're drunk and you say something you remember the next morning and feel embarrassed about. I'll have a drink now, though. Recently, I did a Watkins Family Hour show at Largo and I was getting ready to do a song. I was looking forward to getting out the emotion, it was very serious. And I didn't realize that the wonderful Paul F. Tompkins would be hosting and doing comedy between songs. He came up and started to try to joke around with me, and I said, "I don't do that," which sounds so bitchy. But it just came out. I meant to say, "I don't know how to do that and I didn't know we were going to be funny." And that just hurt for weeks because I felt rude. It doesn't sound like much, but I felt so embarrassed.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Sound of My Voice

Your enjoyment of Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal Batmanglij from a script co-written with actress Brit Marling, will depend on your ability to overlook narrative gamesmanship and attempt to engage with the questions the film attempts to raise. Marling plays Maggie, the leader of a cult in present-day Los Angeles who claims to be a traveler from the year 2054. We're kept in the dark about Maggie's past save for one flashback of dubious reliability and her future with her white-robed, freshly showered followers is equally mysterious. Maggie's message seems to be one of letting go of past trauma and petty concerns, but her specific agenda is never explained. Our way into Maggie's world comes through Peter (Christopher Denham), who with his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) is trying to surreptitiously film Maggie with the goal of publicizing her as a dangerous person. Peter, who in his day job as a teacher is befuddled by one of his young students (Avery Pohl), needs to expose Maggie because of his own family's past but just as obviously needs someone to draw out his pain. We're meant to think Maggie (whom Marling with plays with a light touch and wonderful sense of remove) is either a psychic or skilled at reading people, and the way she comes between Peter or Lorna is frightening for its subtlety.

Yet Sound of My Voice falters when it becomes more interested in Maggie's authenticity than in what she does to Peter and Lorna's relationship. The film's universe expands as we learn Maggie has drawn attention from people who aren't her followers, and the climax is a twist that's supposed to inspire wonder but turns into more of a head-scratcher. I wanted to stay with this damaged couple (whose plan to make a documentary disappears from the film) and find out what a visit from the future does to their present. Brit Marling (Another Earth) is a voice to watch, and I applaud her interest in low-fi sci-fi. Sound of My Voice is full of welcome ambition but looks too far ahead just when we need it to stay here.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

(Early) Sunday Music: The Walkmen - "Heaven"

 When was the last time you saw a music video that made you stop and look at something other than skin? I love this clip for the title track of the new Walkmen record; the album continues the band's project of growing up before our ears.