Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Twenty Years On

20 years have passed since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and here's a case for it as a lost classic and turning point in David Lynch's career. (Cinema ViewFinder)
Perhaps the most telling scene in the film is its opening, in which a slow zoom-out from a TV set ends with a club crashing down upon it. Lynch constantly thwarts any attempts to appease the shows fans and their questions about Cooper and Annie's ultimate fates while still reminding them that those loose ends are still dangling in a dream of Laura's midway through the film. Twenty years later, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me holds up far better than it did so soon after the series had been cancelled. FWWM is a pivot point in Lynch's career where the director first moved away from centering on male protagonists—such as Jeffrey in Blue Velvet and Sailor in Wild at Heart—and looked forward to focusing on female protagonists such as Mulholland Drive's Betty and Inland Empire's Nikki, women whose mental state—like Laura's—slowly unravels, their hallucinatory contents splayed onscreen for Lynch to pick through.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Drawn from life

Ira Sachs' new film Keep The Lights On makes art from an old relationship. (NYT)

“Keep the Lights On,” which opens Sept. 7, is a balancing act typical of this director of “Forty Shades of Blue” (2005): a film based on highly intimate and painful autobiographical material that doesn’t rely on audience members having that knowledge to exert a hold on them. In “Keep the Lights On” those who know the back story will recognize the movie, set in Manhattan, as a refraction of Mr. Sachs’s past relationship with Bill Clegg, the literary agent who wrote of his struggles in “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.”

But knowing that back story is by no means crucial to appreciate the film. “It’s an attempt to be both observational and a good storyteller,” Mr. Sachs said over a leisurely tea at a restaurant near his Greenwich Village apartment.

While the film represents personal history, Mr. Sachs is also an enthusiastic student of film history, and “Keep the Lights On” takes a look at the history of gay cinema, especially in New York.

Sunday Music: The Clash - "Spanish Bombs"

It was a close call between two unexpected oldies that I heard at the movies this summer. In the end, The Clash (thanks to this vintage video) in People Like Us defeat Plastic Bertrand in Ruby Sparks.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ruby Sparks

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has a problem. He's a beloved young novelist who is welcome at lectures and parties, and there is interest from Hollywood in turning his one novel into a movie. Alone in his impossibly white Los Angeles house, Calvin knows his life is about to come crashing down for the simple reason that he can't think of anything to write for novel number two. That is where we start in Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine and written by actress Zoe Kazan. Kazan also plays the title character, a young woman who pops into existence as Calvin's girlfriend after he begins writing a novel about his perfect woman. The movie wisely doesn't linger over the paranormal elements of the story; Ruby is here, she's with Calvin, and Calvin can change her by sitting down at his typewriter and beginning to work. Only of course he'd never do that, right?

Ruby Sparks begins as giddy romantic fantasy; Calvin and Ruby go to outdoor movies, cuddle in bed, and share a meal with Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina), the only one who knows of Ruby's improbable origins. Kazan is after something more though, and Ruby Sparks ends up being a movie about the male gaze and what men want women to do for them. We've seen characters like Ruby before; see Natalie Portman in Garden State or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. Here Zoe Kazan stops to consider how to exhausting it must be for women to imbue thin, confused white men with all that energy. Ruby loves Calvin and even connects with his back-to-nature parents (funny, broad turns from Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas), but she can't help feeling like life holds more. An art class leads to one night a week away from Calvin, who begins to give in to the temptation of reshaping Ruby at his desk. It's not hard to see where Ruby Sparks is headed, especially when Calvin and Ruby attend the party of one of Calvin's literary rivals (Steve Coogan). Paul Dano gives a performance of finely articulated confusion as Calvin; it's clear that Calvin will at some point mishandle the gift he has been given, but Dano makes us believe that Calvin wants to be a better man and is capable of change. There are lessons learned and a hat tip from the universe for Calvin in the end of course, after the change has occurred. What prevents Ruby Sparks from being more than a charming trifle is Zoe Kazan, who locates a specific moodiness in Ruby that gives her fate some gravity. It isn't a movie about movies on its face, but Ruby Sparks starts a conversation around the kind of stories we tell about relationships on film. I don't want to undersell how entertaining it is, but Ruby Sparks is an honest and original effort to level the romantic comedy playing field.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Two for the day 8/24/12

I passed up a much too obvious post about the "worst hipster bands" to bring you:

  • A great post on the exact reason you didn't like the new Total Recall and its glossy brothers and sisters. (Sundance Now)
Everything Total Recall thinks it’s doing right is exactly what’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood movies. The minute-to-minute insistence on “action”— supposedly, according to the marketing departments, “what we want”—is what makes it stupid, which everyone who sees the film knows even if they’ve had a hard time articulating it. Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches. The effect is not unlike those sleep-deprivation experiments psychologists have always enjoyed subjecting people to, the ones that eventually end in psychotic episodes. You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage.
  • Yes, we're going right back to Vulture...but it's Amy Adams talking about The Master.
Ever since it was announced that Anderson was making a film seemingly based, at least in part, on the founding of Scientology, the project has been cloaked in secrecy. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to about it,” says Adams, as if expecting a lightning bolt to strike. Anderson’s working methods were new to her. Even for scenes in which she was not scheduled to appear, she was instructed to show up, just to make her presence felt. “It was exhausting, but I love the effect,” she says. “She’s almost blurry.” Often, she had no idea whether the camera was on her, as during one scene in which Hoffman leads his followers in naked sing-along around a piano; Adams had to sit as demurely as possible, nude except for a pregnant-belly prosthetic.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Two for the day

  • On Kat Dennings, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the need for funny women in the Marvel Universe. (Alyssa Rosenberg)
Similarly, in Thor, Darcy was a fabulous reminder of how ridiculous it would actually be to end up babysitting an extremely handsome, exceedingly disconcerted man who wanders around trying to buy pets to ride, smashing coffee mugs, eating all the Pop Tarts, and talking like he stepped out of summer stock. When she zapped Thor with a taser or complained that she was being asked to do an awful lot for six college credits, Darcy punctured the occasionally stifling atmosphere Jane’s literal and metaphoric starry-eyed approach to Thor. Part of what’s fun about superheroes—and an appropriate thing to point out as a way to question their power—is their overwhelming incongruity. I don’t want to see Darcy as a buzz-kill if she and Jane take a jaunt to Asgard in Thor 2, but her sense of the absurd, deployed correctly, is another very funny way to express wonder.
Annie Clark is a Texan-raised musician, possibly the best guitar stylist in indie rock, and the maker of three ornate and slyly twisted pop albums under the name St. Vincent, a moniker taken from the recently shuttered West Village medical center. (“I was getting a lot of tweets about that,” she says. “People thought I was the hospital.”) David Byrne began his career as the captivating front man of Talking Heads before branching out into more or less everything: film, label-running, installation art, a disco musical about Imelda Marcos, blogging about science and bicycles. (His forthcoming book, How Music Works, is full of clearheaded musings on why pop functions the way it does.) They’re both stylish: good hair, good wardrobe. They attended last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner together, at NPR’s invitation, though wire-photo captions identified them as ­Byrne and “a guest.” And when word began circulating that they were working on an album—Love This Giant, out September 11 on 4AD and Byrne’s own Todo Mundo label—the universal reaction was: Boy, does that make sense. That makes perfect, perfect sense.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

DFW then

An excerpt from Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, a new biography of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max. (Daily Beast)
The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Music: Yo La Tengo - "Tom Courtenay"

I'm reading and liking the new Yo La Tengo biography Big Day Coming by Jesse Jarnow, which led me back to this old favorite and to the discovery that drummer/singer Georgia Hubley's parents were Oscar-winning independent animators. I'll say more about the book and the Hubley's later, but for now enjoy the music and the subtitles.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Neil Young Journeys

The bulk of Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys is a concert film, a 20ll Toronto gig at which the 65-year old Young plays songs from his electric guitar onlyLe Noise album as well as a selection of more familiar older songs. Young's longtime backing band Crazy Horse (with whom Young still records) is nowhere to be found here; it's Young accompanying himself on guitar, keyboards, and harmonica and the amount of noise he makes is more than a little hard to credit. Young still finds beauty in strange, looping waves of guitar feedback and especially on the recent songs the guitar sounds complement a still-burning utopian vision of deep love for others and connection to the Earth. As for the classics, the anger at a what a country did to its people is still there in "Ohio" and a fun house organ and harmonica makes Young's '70s vision of leaving the planet ("After the Goldrush") sound strange and new.

You won't leave Neil Young Journeys with a much better understanding of Young the man, and I don't know if that was really Demme's intention. Framing the concert scenes are scenes of Young driving a 1956 Crown Victoria from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario to the concert in Toronto. Young, clearly taken with the impermanence of things, shares some childhood memories but it's never really clear why we're along for the ride. Soon enough we're inside Massey Hall for the show and it's then that the movie largely settles down, though Demme throws in some graphics about the victims of the Kent State shootings during "Ohio" and briefly cuts to home movies during a couple of other songs. Jonathan Demme's career is a testament of his love of music and musicians, from the Talking Heads' exuberant weirdness in Stop Making Sense to the wedding reception jam in Rachel Getting Married. One subject of Stop Making Sense is the unspoken interplay that happens between musicians on stage, and even in an earlier Young film called Heart of Gold Demme films Young with a full band. How then does Demme rise to the challenge of filming a solo artist?

There is a shot in Neil Young Journeys that at first seems as much of an endurance test for the audience as anything Gus Van Sant could come up with in one of his artier films. A quarter of the way into "Down By The River" Demme cuts to a camera that had to have been placed on or near the mic stand itself and holds on a shot of Young's mouth for the remainder of the song. We're taken with the novelty of the shot at first, but as it continues it's only natural to wish that Demme would cut to a crowd shot or something. What's the point? Later, during a scorching "Hitchhiker", Demme goes back to the shot, and cuts back to it several times in the song, even as a glob of Young's sweat or spit lands on the camera and stays there. Demme has no backup singers or flashy lead guitarists to cut away to, and even if he could I don't know if he'd do it. We're supposed to think about Young's singular, weird artistic voice, and the fact that he may genuinely be the last folkie, or the last hippie if you like. (Young's actual singing voice sounds as good as ever to me.) Given the song selection, Neil Young Journeys may be best enjoyed by those already familiar with Young's vast catalogue, but there's a point to be made about Young to both old fans and new. Even after all these years, we need to pay attention to his mouth.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dept. of You Should Read This

The post about Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture that I wish I'd written. (Parabasis)
Damn. That Lean Dunham can frame a shot. There are very few stills on the internet that really do this skill justice, as part of what's impressive about Tiny Furniture is the length of its takes and how long each shot holds up, but you can tell that she pays pretty careful attention to staging, camera placement, design, etc. This sets this early film apart from the Whit Stillman of Metropolitan or anything by Noah Baumbach, who both seem to me (along with Nicole Holofcener) her clearest influences. It is also far, far better directed than anything made by Judd Apatow, who is, of course, the Godfather of her television show.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Every Five Years

This Pitchfork piece on Dan Bejar of Destroyer and The New Pornographers is part of a series in which artists reflect on the music in their lives at five year intervals. Bejar's varied selections include David Bowie, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Pavement (despite some '90s indie snobbery).
I always loved music, but listening to rock seemed kind of gauche. It was not something that a human actually does; it was like some other world. The idea of it seemed very exotic. So when I started to be exposed to local bands, it was like: "This is real, it's actually happening." That's when I bought an electric guitar and an amplifier.

I was 21. I remember hearing "Summer Babe" at this record store in Vancouver called Scratch Records, where Carl [Newman] and Blaine [Thurier] and a lot of my friends worked. It was one of those moments. The store was infamous for making fun of customers to their face. Just dicks. I got made fun of because, when I heard "Summer Babe", I was like, "Wow, I really want that." And they were like, [snobbishly] "Oh, this boy really wants this Pavement record." I'm not sure if they actually said it that way, but that's how I heard it. The indie world was a little bit more exclusionary back then. Just knowing what's cool is always important when you're a kid. That's currency. But the really cool people got extra cool for ignoring that. I don't really know how it all works these days.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

From those days

A review of Sleeper, an album just released but recorded in 1979 by Keith Jarrett in his "European Quartet" period. (For an example of Jarrett's sound around that time, see above.) (All About Jazz)

When Jarrett's heralded European Quartet (also known as the Belonging Group)—with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen—folded in 1979, it left a small but precious discography, in contrast to the pianist's American Quartet which, in addition to two ECM recordings, had a string of eight live and studio releases on Impulse!. Two studio recordings (1974's Belonging and 1978's My Song) and one live recording (1980's Nude Ants) were all fans had until 1989, when the label issued Personal Mountains, a stunning single-disc set from the same Japanese tour that is the source for Sleeper, and which righted the wrong of Nude Ants—a fine performance, to be sure, but marred by a brittle sound not up to the label's usual standards. While the compositions are, for the most part, nothing new to those familiar with Nude Ants and Personal Mountains, Sleeper presents, for the first time, an entire concert from the tour, and absolutely no cross-over with previously released material.

Dept. of No Time Like the Present

I've directed at a few "24 Hour" play festivals in which there's no time to be precious or to linger over one's choices. Getting the bad stuff out of the way early is a technique that serves young theater director Daniel Aukin, who's helming the first production of a new Sam Shepard play. (NYT)
“It’s scary because Daniel really wants you to make mistakes,” Julianne Nicholson said over the phone recently. Ms. Nicholson stars in “Heartless,” a new Sam Shepard play now in previews at Signature Center (opening Aug. 27), and she recalled an early rehearsal in which Mr. Aukin’s words of encouragement in the face of a difficult challenge were: “That’s O.K. I want you to do it badly.”

Ms. Nicholson said that while she trusts the director, having worked with him on “This” and on one installment of Adam Rapp’s “Hallway Trilogy” in 2011, being told to fail still goes against the grain. “I want to do it right immediately,” she said.

There’s a method to the badness of course. The playwright Itamar Moses, whose baseball-theme play, “Back Back Back,” Mr. Aukin directed at Manhattan Theater Club in 2008, said: “More than any director I’ve worked with, Daniel likes to explore the farthest emotional or dramatic boundaries of a scene as early as possible. He wants to figure out what the bandwidth is.”

Sunday Music: The Gaslight Anthem - "45"

 I'm still mulling over The Gaslight Anthem's new album Handwritten; it seems to move away from the overt Springsteen and Clash influences while maintaining the emotional specificity of Brian Fallon's lyrics. As you can see, the band has lost none of its energy.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Total Recall

I'm not sure what I was doing in 1990 that kept me from seeing the Paul Verhoeven-directed Total Recall, but my not seeing it then brings me to the new version with no expectations. Those more familiar with the source material and the first film than I am tell me that Len Wiseman's new Total Recall maintains the central conceit of the original (In the future, a company called Rekall can implant false memories in your mind.) and spins off into something new. Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) has a workaday  job in the factory that produces "synthetic" cops for the central government; a trip to his local Rekall branch is meant to be an escape from a life going nowhere. When police storm the room where Doug is getting his new memories the ensuing gunfight reveals that Doug has some untapped skills, and the recurring dreams he has about gunmen and an unidentified woman (Jessica Biel) begin to take on meaning.

Total Recall has been designed with an eye to carefully organized chaos; wars have driven much of the population to Australia, known as "The Colony", and the mid-air apartment block that Doug and his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale, the movie's greatest asset) live in has a crowded, Pacific feeling. The action scenes have been designed with some original thought for the use of space. There's a brawl in a moving elevator that's wonderfully abrupt and a shootout in zero gravity that I don't recall seeing before. Farrell is dogged and earnest as his memories slowly return and he discovers his true purpose,  but he's capable of more wit than he shows here and gets thoroughly outswaggered by Beckinsale. Playing a woman with her own agenda and motivated by both jealousy and careerism, Beckinsale stakes her claim as Hollywood's most unlikely female tough. Her ability to convey physical menace works best in the early scenes when Farrell's Doug is still figuring things out, but as the plot involving a rebel leader (Bill Nighy) and a dictator (Bryan Cranston) kicks in she's too much stuck on the sidelines. Total Recall is entertaining enough, but the emotional arc of a man relearning his life doesn't land and finally there's a coldness at the movie's center. If we're going to get remakes of Arnold Schwarzenegger films then Total Recall was a good one to get out of the way,but I'm very afraid of Kindergarten Cop.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Spike, all of him

I would have ranked Clockers higher for its mournful study of black-on-black violence and I think When The Levees Broke is a major work of American history. That said, this ranking of Spike Lee's films gets it just about right. I haven't seen She Hate Me but it's hard to believe it's worse than Girl 6. (Vulture)
In his diary on Christmas morning 1987, Spike Lee jotted down his ideas for his next movie: “I want the film to take place over the course of one day, the hottest day of the year, in Brooklyn, New York … The film has to look hot, too. The audience should feel like it’s suffocating, like In the Heat of the Night.” Beyond its other notable achievements, Do the Right Thing is a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy at a time of escalating racial tension in the city. But the film’s precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would have meant nothing without Lee’s wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A quick Olympic post

The United States women's soccer team plays for a gold tomorrow against Japan, the team that defeated them in last year's World Cup Final. There's a disputed study out that NBC's broadcasting choices are based on sex appeal, but the sexiness of the women's team covers a lot of ground and I'd agree that digestibility probably has as much if not more to do with what events are shown. On a side note, I'm hoping the final gets shown live tomorrow afternoon rather than being crammed into the prime time slot. Also, while I'm aware the above video is really just a Nike commercial, I love it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I can say with a high degree of confidence that I won't see a more unusual film this year than Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. Although it owes a clear debt to Terrence Malick, echoing The Tree of Life in its celebration of the interconnectedness of all things, the old-souled child heroine of Beasts is actually a cousin to the children of David Gordon Green's George Washington. Hushpuppy (the remarkable 6-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) lives in coastal Louisiana outside the protection of the levees in an area known as the Bathtub, a staggeringly poor but raucous community whose residents seem content to live outside of modern American society. Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is an unstable alcoholic whose body and mind are both failing. Hushpuppy is too often forced to fend for herself but is looked after by a loving and racially mixed community, especially the formidable teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana). It is Miss Bathsheeba's tales of melting ice caps and the wild cattle known as aurochs that ignite the movie. Zeitlin puts us inside the head of his young main character, cutting to images of polar ice and a digitally rendered herd of aurochs as Hushpuppy (in voice-over) tries to express what understands but can't express: her world is falling apart. It's probably easy to read too much into a child's performance, but Wallis' reserve and blankness suggest great depths. Both Wallis and the equally good Henry make their film debuts in Beasts; I don't want to overpraise their naivete, but any sense of process or performance in these characters would have ruined the movie and disconnected us from Hushpuppy's struggle for the most basic kind of survival.

Hurricane Katrina is never mentioned in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but to the residents of the Bathtub the name of the devastating storm that floods their homes doesn't matter anyway. Hushpuppy and Wink form an ad hoc community with a few surviving friends and wait for the waters to recede and it's here that Beasts runs into trouble. The movie's insistence on a pure, natural way of living outside the confines of American society (the Bathtub's surviving residents fight being taken to shelters) is noble and deeply American in its own way, but a scene of the transplanted Bathtubbers staging a breakout from their shelter is hard to deal with and a moment where Wink attempts to assure Hushpuppy's future is glossed over too quickly. More troubling still is Wink's involvement in the dynamiting of a levee after which (we're told) "the water goes away." Are we supposed to think that Wink caused flooding somewhere else? I'd like to sit down with a survivor of Katrina and show them this scene, and I wonder if they'd have a slightly different take from the critical mainstream. There's a good deal in Beasts that's outsized and even fantastical (those aurochs show up again), and that material doesn't mix well with scenes that skirt around the edges of the historical record. When Beasts sticks to its moving core relationship it's a truly unusual vision, but Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar (who wrote the play that's the movie's source material) want to make the movie mean too much. Yet despite its flaws, Beasts of the Southern Wild survives on the heart of its heroine. Hushpuppy is America in 2012: alive, angry, and waiting for what comes next.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Sunday Music: Bob Mould - "Hoover Dam"

Sugar's Copper Blue has just been reissued to appropriate acclaim; here's Mould performing a Copper track in what I think is an excerpt from one of those Burn to Shine films.

Cate on stage

 Ben Brantley offers a tribute to Cate Blanchett's stage acting. (NYT)
In my theatergoing lifetime, Ms. Redgrave has probably been the supreme example of the tightrope-walking stage star. Though not the most technically accomplished actress of her generation (a mastery of foreign accents continues to elude her), she has regularly and boldly ventured into scary, uncharted terrain. I remember watching her as the love-hungry Lady in Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” and thinking at first how implausible she seemed, with her big flailing gestures and a voice that evoked less the Italian matron she was portraying than an addled Scottish nanny.

But it wasn’t long before her clumsy, extravagant gestures and raw expressions began to assemble themselves into a painful, illuminated map of loneliness and longing, and of pride abandoned for passion. By the end, she had taken us to that place – a geography in which Williams specialized — where love strips its victims of decorum and defenses.