Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sunday Music: Glen Hansard - "Hairshirt"

Thanks to Mary Beth Smith for this one. I only wish she could have lived through just how big R.E.M. was back when this song was new.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Miles Davis....

 ...has a problem with some jazz. Davis takes a "blind listening test" in 1964; here he is on the Ellington/Mingus version of "Caravan" above. (Noise Made Me Do It/Kottke)
Now, how are you going to give a thing like that some stars? Record companies should be kicked in the ass. Somebody should take a picket sign and picket the record company.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

 The Dark Knight Rises, the third and reportedly final Batman film directed by Christopher Nolan, arrives with unfathomable expectations after the success of 2008's The Dark Knight and will forever and unfairly be part of a discussion on violence and media after the murders in Aurora, Colorado. In an attempt to cut through the distraction and consider the film at hand I'll say here that while I admired the performance of Heath Ledger, I wasn't a fan of The Dark Knight. That film's idea of the Joker as a natural force of chaos wasn't enough to provide a dramatic shape, and Nolan stuffed in far too many muddled action scenes and too much heavy-handed politics for my liking. Despite Ledger's undiminishable presence, for me The Dark Knight simply wasn't good storytelling.

What, then, are we left with? It is a pleasant surprise to report that The Dark Knight Rises is almost entirely a success, a genuinely epic vision of heroism and community that goes into dark corners that most superhero films pretend don't exist. Subjects as big and complicated as aging, loyalty, responsibility and (most of all) class structure are touched upon and folded into a big-canvas story of a man and a city each making an affirmative choice to fight a common enemy. Nolan also makes this third Batman film pay off as a trilogy-capper, calling back plot details from Batman Begins and providing his fullest picture yet of Gotham City's social tapestry. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is a frail and humbled presence when we meet him here; Wayne hides out in his mansion even as Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's richest celebrate the false legacy of the late Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), in whose name Gotham has enacted a series of oppressive penal laws. Bale plays Wayne as a man coming back to life, who realizes that his choice to give up on the world was a mistaken one. After an encounter with  the burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) awakens Wayne's curiosity about Gotham's power structure, Nolan unfolds a complicated web of business dealings and financial troubles involving a nuclear reactor, a rich Wayne Industries board member (Marion Cotillard), and the fact that Gotham badly needs its own Occupy movement. The nexus of all this activity is Bane (Tom Hardy), a half-masked terrorist with an agenda of anarchy and connections to the mythology of the series that make him more than the just the villain of the moment. It's hard to evaluate Hardy's performance because his costume masks his mouth and limits his expressiveness, but he gives the character a anger and a specificity of purpose that helps drive the movie forward. (In a couple of early scenes I thought the looping of his dialogue was obvious, but I soon forgot and it's not a distraction.) The story unfolds slowly as Bane cuts a swath through those who have created him, but Hardy never overplays his hand and the revelation of his true agenda is more rewarding for how thoughtfully it's laid out.

Superhero movies that double up on villains aren’t usually the movies you remember (Spider-Man 3), so anyone nervous going in about the combination of Catwoman and the lesser-known Bane could hardly be blamed. The biggest surprise of The Dark Knight Rises is the recontextualization of Catwoman from walking sex bomb (I mean no disrespect to Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, but Hathaway is running on a different track.) to class warrior. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, who of course looks incredible, has her place in the Gotham criminal hierarchy and is forced to steal in an effort to erase her own past. More importantly, this Catwoman is advance warning of something that Nolan has always insisted on in his vision of Gotham: the anger of the middle classes at the self-indulgence of the city’s elite. Movies like The Dark Knight Rises are too long in the cooking to have anticipated something as recent as the Occupy movement, but implicit in the film is the idea that there are many kinds of heroes. Batman is one extreme, and a streetwise beat cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who sees through Bruce Wayne is the other. The charge of the Gotham police against Bane's forces has true emotional power on a scale I haven’t felt at the movies in a long time.

The Dark Knight Rises almost justifies its 165-minute running time, only a segment involving Wayne in captivity feels like it could have been broken down into something shorter. (Tom Conti is saddled with heavy exposition as a prisoner who aids the injured Wayne.) Nolan can’t resist a couple of late twists and I wish he’d had the courage to carry things to a true ending, but I’ve never felt as much heart behind a Nolan film as I do here. The Dark Knight Rises almost certainly isn’t the Batman movie many will want, but it is the one we badly needed.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sunday Music: Feist "How Come You Never Go There?"

I was recently on Twitter wondering why Feist's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" (featured in  Take This Waltz) hasn't been released. I like this track off her last album Metals.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Take This Waltz

When I consider my favorite films of the summer and of the year to date, I can't help thinking about maturity. When I wrote about Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom a few weeks ago I was won over by the young leads but most impressed by Anderson's understanding of the deep sadness of the adult characters. Moonrise Kingdom seems to mark a new confidence and new possibility in Anderson's career, and now here comes Sarah Polley as writer and director of Take This Waltz. Polley's first directorial effort was the Julie Christie-starring Away From Her, based on an Alice Munro story and revealing Polley as a filmmaker of taste and intelligence. Take This Waltz is an original script full of energy and sexuality, and I feel as though it's here we're really meeting Sarah Polley for the first time.

How fortunate Polley is to have Michelle Williams as her lead; Williams plays an underemployed Toronto writer named Margot and gives a nuanced performance infused with an incredible depth of feeling. In one scene Margot mentions some creative ambition but her main occupation is being a sort of playmate and encourager to her husband Lou (Seth Rogen). Lou is a genial if preoccupied cookbook author whose specialty is chicken, and even if Margot doesn't know it the sameness of both Lou's meals and her marriage are beginning to get to her. Rogen is a quiet surprise here, he turns his comic persona down to a simmer and brings Lou's self-absorption into sharp relief. Polley doesn't provide too much background about why Lou and Margot got married, it only takes a couple of scenes of their baby talk together to put over the idea that there's something missing from this marriage that pleasantness and sex are covering up. Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), who meets Margot on a plane and turns out to be her neighbor. Daniel and Margot's long mutual seduction (highlighted by a sexy, devastating date over martinis) is more electric than anything Margot has with Lou, but Polley keeps it grounded with false starts and awkward moments. An already much-discussed scene on an amusement park ride is only a moment of fleeting happiness and Williams is brilliant in a scene in Daniel's home where she makes a first darting move. I've seen some criticism that the dialogue in Take This Waltz is too on-the-nose ("I'm afraid of connections," says Margot to Daniel at their first meeting.) but in fact I think the attractiveness of Williams and Kirby doesn't set us up for their inarticulateness. These are people who don't understand their own feelings and to ask them to banter like Nora Ephron is to ask for a different kind of movie. To me the cast, also including Sarah Silverman as Lou's sister, makes Polley's script into something rough-hewn, complicated, and more permanent than the smooth romantic vehicles we encounter so often. The last act of Take This Waltz reveals Margot's choice between Daniel and her husband, and the reality of what follows (revealed in gorgeous montage to Leonard Cohen's performance of the title song) is less interesting than what came before. The final scenes are bracing though. and give way the fact that this is in fact a movie about a woman discovering she doesn't know what she wants. 

There's one other major character in Take This Waltz, and I want badly for Sarah Polley to become the Woody Allen of Toronto. The city is filled with color and a sultry summer energy that suggests so much more than the film can contain. Polley's next film is rumored to be an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, but I hope she'll return to Toronto and dance us through more lives in many films to come.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen"s To Rome With Love is a notebook full of characters and situations which unite to some degree around the idea of our fleeting lives and almost none of which connect with each other. Allen continues his late-career run of European-set films, but although tourism officials will have nothing to complain about I'm not sure Allen actually has anything to say about the city. Most of the stories could have taken place anywhere and the themes are old hat for Allen. The most Italian segment of To Rome With Love finds Allen as a retired opera director visiting Rome with his wife (Judy Davis, having a ball) to meet the parents of his daughter's (Alison Pill) fiance. The groom's father Giancarlo (tenor Fabio Armiliato) is an unassuming mortician with a gorgeous shower-singing voice who's too nervous to perform on stage. What's does Woody's character do? You guessed it, but we see Giancarlo showering on stage twice and the second time feels unnecessary. To Rome With Love feels unusually padded for a Woody Allen film and some ideas are pushed passed their breaking point. Roberto Benigni is funny as a anonymous office worker hounded by the press for no reason, but again there's too much of this character. I'm always happy to see Penelope Cruz but her scenes as a call girl escorting a meek newlywed (Alessandro Tiberi) around the city slow the movie down. 

The energy in To Rome With Love comes from the young women. Pill's dutiful daughter is a little underused but the strongest strand of the movie features Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig as friends Monica and Sally. Issue-heavy actress Monica arrives to say with Sally and her architect boyfriend Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and soon inserts herself between the couple, and though it isn't hard to see how things will end up the presence of Alec Baldwin as another architect with a connection to Jack makes these scenes more than a story about foolish choices. I wanted more time for this story of a life lived at two points in time, and Allen could probably have fleshed this out into a full script if he was able to give Page's character a little more depth. To Rome With Love could be tighter, but the jokes are funny and it's a pleasure to see Allen energized by Europe and his able cast. Now, can America have him back? 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sunday Music: Lou Reed - "There Is No Time"

I watched the Reed episode of that Elvis Costello show Spectacle and thought of this vintage (and still relevant) cut from the New York album.....

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sunday Music: Robyn Hitchcock - "NY Doll"

One of my favorite Hitchcock songs and one of his most emotionally direct; it's a tribute to the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the heroine of Pixar's new Brave, is spitball of energy with a shock of red hair and personality that can't be contained by the expectations of her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). The Queen wants to teach Merida what's expected of a princess and to prepare her for marriage, but Merida would rather ride her horse and continue to develop her talent for archery. Brave takes place in a pre-Medeival Scotland, and it's only a matter of time before Merida gives in and follows the path determined for her, right? Merida is an admirable attempt to create an iconic Pixar character for young girls just like Buzz and Woody appeal to the child in grown-ups and Wall-E is beloved by vegetarians. In working so hard to get her Merida right though (and Macdonald gives a wonderful performance), directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman let the rest of the movie slip away. Merida's father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has little to do except shake his head at his precocious daughter; supporting characters aren't individualized, there's only a gaggle of Scottish clans and Merida's three mischevious brothers for what little comic relief the story offers.

  After a spell gone awry turns Elinor into a bear, the better part of Brave (after a slow start) finds Merida searching for the secret that will restore her mother to herself while at the same time dodging a real bear who isn't interested in anyone's personal growth. Younger viewers will get a giggle out of the slapstick humor that comes from Fergus pursuing the bear, and some might be frightened at the climactic bear-on-bear fight. Older viewers will see Merida's emotional turnabout coming though, and there really isn't enough else going on to distract from the movie's obviousness. There's nothing wrong with being a tomboy but I wish Merida had had a more specific goal in mind that Brave could have had fun with. While Brave isn't as flamboyantly didactic as some other Pixar fare, it really needed to give its young audience a bit more to hold on to. Something to light a fire, something to make someone say, "Why can't I do that?"

Sunday Music: Corrina Rose & The Rusty Horse Band - "Green Mountain State"

I stumbled upon this one thanks to this post about the music used in Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, and the music is just another element that puts this film (along with Safety Not Guaranteed) at the top of my summer must-see list.