Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Music: Calexico - "Para"

  Here's Pitchfork on their new album Algiers, recorded in New Orleans but finding the band working in a familiar and rich vein.
On the other hand, if place defines Algiers as much as that album title signals, it must have done so in the creative process, as these songs never sound too far removed from Tucson or from the raft of Calexico's catalog. On one hand, there are no Mardi Gras trinkets on this album, no street bands or zydeco flourishes, no Quintron or Trombone Shorty or Dr. John, no hoodoo charms or Saints gear. Burns and Convertino went east to make another western record, one that even indulges Spanish-language lyrics and songs about sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl ("Puerto" may be the most overcooked thing Burns and Convertino have set to tape). Algiers sounds great, with a noticeable sensitivity to instrumental interplay and an emphasis on Burns' conspiratorial vocals, but the album is haunted by the missed opportunities to absorb the particulars of this neighborhood and reflect that in the music.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Novelist of Hope

Forgive the recent run of Michael Chabon posts, and here is one more. Taking off from the use of Barack Obama as a minor character in his new Telegraph Avenue, this long(ish) piece may be the best explanation I've read about the world view in Chabon's fiction. (Vulture)
Figuratively speaking, Chabon does go back to Columbia, again and again. “I seem, almost from the beginning, to be wrestling with the inevitability of failure, either as it’s played out through one person’s personal ambition or as it plays out through the effort to create a kind of utopia, the way the Columbia experience was for me.” Failure, I point out, seems like an odd obsession for such a successful writer. (When I asked Chabon if his parents had supported his career choice, he joked that they never had time to get to the “maybe you should think about law school” stage.) But he counters with, basically, the law of gravity: “Someone who has succeeded is as likely if not more likely to be stalked by the specter of failure, because experience and history shows that it can all be taken away from you in a blink of an eye.”

Chabon’s novels show this as well. His characters dream massive, America-size dreams: of a million-dollar comic-book empire, an alternate homeland for Jews, a ship to save children from the Nazis. Or, as in his new book, they simply dream America’s dream about itself: of a place where business is good, marriages hold, and citizens of all races live together in peace. And then the industry tanks, the mandate expires, the boat sinks, the store folds, the community changes, the marriage ends — or, more often, and more poignantly, the dream, whatever it was, just drifts along, slower and lower, losing air, ruptured against the mineral roughness of reality.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Early Sunday Music: No Doubt - "Settle Down"

 I'll admit I didn't go very far afield with this one, but I'm charmed by No Doubt's comeback single. If it's true that the band is having as much fun as it looks like doing the same thing they've always done, well I don't think enjoying it requires an apology.


What do you do when bringing a niche character like Judge Dredd to the screen, one whose only previous appearance on film in 1995 resulted in a thudding flop? Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland double down with the new Dredd, which is as blunt and brutal an effort as has ever been made for a character with such a long pedigree. While Travis honors the source material by never revealing the entire face of Dredd (Karl Urban, who would win an Oscar if "mouth acting" was a category), the effect of keeping him masked is to remove consideration of the man and the way his work affects him. Dredd as an efficient automaton of justice may work nicely in the comics, but on film the appealing Urban (McCoy in the last Star Trek) is turned into an undramatic cipher. Dredd and his psychic rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are investigating a murder in Peach Trees, one of the 200-story apartments that house the citizens of  the enormous and chaotic Mega City One. The investigation puts the Judges in the sights of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a drug dealer who's the sole purveyor of a narcotic called Slo-Mo that affects the brain's perception of time. When Ma-Ma seals Dredd and Anderson inside of Peach Trees the movie turns into a hunting expedition.

Dredd is about as subtle as throwing someone off a balcony, which is Ma-Ma's preferred method of disposing of inconvenient people. There are a few visual flourishes when characters are under the influence of Slo-Mo (I liked a shot of Headey entranced by slow-moving beads of water), but   what we have here is a movie about people blasting away at each other and Travis isn't shy about letting you know when someone gets shot in the head. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson is assigned what little rhetoric there is on the subject of making a difference, an idea which Dredd laughs off. Thirlby underplays her characters steely moments well enough, but I wanted a little more of Wood Harris as a dealer who becomes a prisoner of the Judges. The casual menace Harris brings to his scenes is the best attempt Dredd makes to individualize the bleak future the movie envisions, yet as good as Harris is his character is only a detour on the road to an ending that you don't have to be psychic to see coming. Dredd is for hard-core fans of the source material only, anyone who doesn't come in with some knowledge of the character won't have enough to hold on to. I wonder if Karl Urban is signed for a sequel; it may not matter because Dredd doesn't have a case.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

But not sexy enough!

I'm willing to allow that Brian DePalma's new Passion may be complete lunacy, but this review from Glenn Kenny at least advances a theory of what DePalma is trying to do in recent films that makes about as much sense as anything I've read on the director lately. Posting the trailer seems too on the nose, you can see it here. (Kenny probably doesn't mean to include The Black Dahlia in his analysis, but his line about representations of behavior certainly connects with that film for me.)
And this, some will intuit, is in the service of saying something about The Way We Live Now. In a way the real world has caught up with a vision that De Palma has always been putting forward, one that he and his fellow movie brats intuited from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom perhaps: that we are always looking, and we are always looking not at what is, or more to the point, ought to be, in front of us, but at something we're putting in front of us, some screen containing some contrivance of what we would like to think is our desire. This vision has become, for DePalma, so distilled (some would say rarified) that his best work of the past twenty years or maybe even more (hey, I really LIKE Femme Fatale!) has almost everything to do with that idea and nothing to do with the way actual human beings behave or speak.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visiting Artists

I'm always interested in stories of process and collaboration. Here's one that involves actor Michael Shannon, who's involved in a Broadway production of Craig Wright's play Grace that sounds very much like a family affair. There's also a good case made for responsible recreational drinking that I can relate to. (NYT)
Following those nine hours of technical rehearsal the men repaired to the nearby Lambs Club, a glossy, noisy night spot, and quickly consumed prodigious amounts of ale, rye and red wine and four plates of blistered shishito peppers. They cajoled a photographer into joining their banquette, insisted he have another cocktail and then mocked his order. Mr. Shannon — who occasionally donned sunglasses indoors, at night — called it “what my grandma would drink.”

After singing a little song about his own order of hot mixed nuts, he happily swigged the rioja Mr. Wright had ordered for him.

“That’s why me and Craig continue to work together,” Mr. Shannon began.

“Excellent wine pairings,” Mr. Wright finished.

Their eclectic conversation jumped from Shakespeare to Kerouac, Sir Mix-A-Lot to Thornton Wilder, Sigur Ros to Robert Frost, with pauses only for further whiskey orders.

The Words

The Words, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is a mess almost from the moment a novelist named Clay Hammond (a stiff-looking Dennis Quaid) opens his latest work (also called The Words) and begins to read to a packed and appreciative audience. Clay's book is the story of another writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), whose chance discovery of an old manuscript while on honeymoon in Paris provides a ticket to success at the expense of his soul. Rory passes the manuscript off as his own after his wife Dora (a lively and soulful Zoe Saldana) praises the book; she doesn't know he didn't write it and think Rory has made a breakthrough. Just after Rory becomes a media darling, a character known only as the Old Man (played at different ages by Jeremy Irons and Ben Barnes) arrives to set Rory and the audience straight. Meanwhile in the "real" world of The Words Clay becomes attracted to a fan (Olivia Wilde) who seems a little too interested in the origins of Clay's new bestseller.

 All creative work in The Words is performed in gushes of inspiration. The manuscript at the center of the story is written at a furious pace by the Old Man after a tragedy, while Rory (who has completed but failed to publish two novels) is most active when he's copying someone else's words. There's no sense of the daily work and process of writing, not that being a novelist is an easy job to portray on film. Little moments feel false too; Hammond reads an enormous chunk of his book, flirts with Wilde over wine, and then goes back on stage for round two? I don't think so. There's some point to be made about the ownership of one's story, or about the way artists make their own truth, but it's either too subtly laid in or not followed through on and the movie never takes off. The Words shouldn't have made it out of a studio slush pile.

Sunday Music: Antibalas - "Dirty Money"

 I discovered this Brooklyn band after hearing their performance on the David Byrne/St. Vincent album, and it's easy to see why Byrne would be attracted to their sound. Stay with this one; this song is not an instrumental.

Monday, September 10, 2012

New New Wave

A review of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, that has me very ready to see what sounds like a strong return to form for Baumbach. If you're a Baumbach hater be careful, some pretty grand comparisons are made herein. (HND)

The film was shot relatively quickly, on an even more modest budget than what Baumbach usually trades in, and without the stars that have headlined his most recent films. The resulting spontaneity seems to suggests an allowance for improvisation, which belies the fact that these characters and, in particular, their words are so carefully developed and finessed into such casually observant creations by Baumbach and Gerwig. The aesthetic of the film is likewise reflected in this intuitive approach, instilling the surface hues of Woody Allen's monochromatic Manhattan with the sharply cut montage dynamics of the French New Wave. As mentioned, the latter movement feels like an especially apt touchstone here. Not only do Frances's first new roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen, both seemingly snatched from real life and very funny as potential partners for Frances) have a poster of François Truffaut's Small Change hanging on their wall, but on a more personal level, the relationship between Baumbach and Gerwig itself—and the subsequent creative energy that it seems to have spawned—feels something like an angst-ridden inversion of the one between Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina a half century ago.

PTA Meeting

 This good Village Voice interview with Paul Thomas Anderson positions The Master among Anderson's other films, and Anderson downplays it as a Scientology expose.
So The Master is ultimately "about" Scientology in much the same way that Boogie Nights was about the San Fernando Valley adult-film industry of the 1970s or There Will Be Blood was about the California oil boom of the early 20th century. That is, it functions as a secondary concern, more setting than actual subject, more subtext than text. It is a way for Anderson to bring together an assortment of his typically idiosyncratic, iconoclastic characters and a conduit to larger themes of power and paranoia, domination and submission, free will and predestination. Indeed, no less than Anderson's previous film does The Master feel like a bold, somewhat cryptic meditation on underground forces that have shaped modern America. "Is it possible to live without some kind of master in our lives?" the movie asks, leaving it to us to decide.

For his part, Anderson is loath to see the movie as a variation on a pet theme. "Is it getting tired?" he asks when I say that Dodd and Freddie recall the surrogate father-son relationships in many of his films, beginning with the aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and his naive protégé (John C. Reilly) in Anderson's 1996 debut feature, Hard Eight. He prefers to think of his Master characters as unrequited lovers, a subtle, homoerotic tension that is triangulated in the film by the presence of Dodd's loyal, steely wife (Amy Adams). "But maybe that's just my way of dressing it up and thinking I was doing something different this time," he says.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

School Years

On the eve of a Broadway opening, Jessica Chastain talks of her school days. (NYT)
After high school she landed the role of Juliet in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and heard about Juilliard from Romeo, who was a student there. “I thought, ‘If that’s where he goes, that’s where I want to go,’ “ she said. No one in her family had ever graduated from college, but she nevertheless applied, and for her audition did what she now describes as a near-pornographic version of Juliet’s “Gallop apace” soliloquy.

“I’ve always made really strange choices, maybe because no one told me otherwise,” she said. “I thought the language was very sexual, so I was like ‘Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night, give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him.’ And it ended with me rolling around on the ground. I think it was probably pretty shocking.” She recalled that Michael Kahn — one of Juilliard’s renowned teachers — turned to her and said, “Jessica, did you have fun?”

Red Hook Summer/Lawless

On the surface Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer and John Hillcoat's Lawless have no resemblance to each other. Lee's film is another in a series of Brooklyn tales, this one alternating a coming-of-age story with an almost compulsive raising of issues as diverse as the state of black men, gentrification, and asthma in the area's housing projects that (Lee and co-writer James McBride assert) is caused by the nearby docking of cruise ships. Hillcoat, best known in America for The Road, celebrates American obstinacy in a fact-based tale of 1930's bootleggers who won't knuckle under for a corrupt district attorney because they simply don't want to. What makes it possible to review these two disparate films in one post is the attitude that each takes towards its main character; both feature men who for long stretches of screen time we aren't quite sure why we're watching.

Red Hook Summer is supposed to be the story of Flik (Jules Brown), a middle-schooler from Atlanta spending the summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn with his grandfather "Bishop" Enoch (Clarke Peters, a familiar face from The Wire and Treme). Flik is a shy young man, used to private school and hiding behind his iPad2, who isn't at at all sure he wants to spend the summer with a man he has never met working at the small church his where his grandfather is the minister. Enoch doesn't let up with the Gospel at home either, and Flik's only escape seems to be a new friendship with a girl named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). I don't know if Lee intended Red Hook Summer to become Enoch's movie, but Peters does remarkable work in making Enoch winning despite his single-mindedness. Brown and Lysaith, both new to film, are appealing but Peters' Enoch is the show here, along with a gospel/jazz score from Bruce Hornsby. Peters gets some sermons of prodigious length and the chance to lead some gospel numbers that come close to something ecstatic. We're interested in whether Flik will connect with his grandfather, but it's Enoch who we hope will change and grow. 

If you've read about Red Hook Summer and are viewing it attentively, you'll notice that Flik's mother (De'Adre Aziza) doesn't have much time for Enoch and that Enoch doesn't even know that Flik's father has been killed in Afghanistan. That's right, there's a secret, and it is delivered in a loud, tumultuous revelation scene that raises the question of how we're supposed to feel about Enoch and what exactly we're all doing at this movie in the first place. I'm not sure what Lee had in mind here as he ends things with Enoch's future in doubt and Flik headed back home, and I'm not sure even Peters' performance is enough to have made the effort worthwhile. Spike Lee is as socially aware a filmmaker as America has ever produced, but in Red Hook Summer an ungainly story gets in the way of his still-needed voice. 

Lawless is the story of the Bondurant brothers, Virginia bootleggers who in the early 1930's ran the best moonshine operation in a county where everyone was either selling or buying. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains with brass knuckles, Howard (Jason Clarke) the muscle, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) the youngster with ambition. LaBeouf is good here; Jack has a sweaty energy and smarts that are almost betrayed by his youth, and LaBeouf doesn't overplay a good hand. But like everyone else Jack looks up to Forrest, and the central problem with Lawless is that Forrest is a smart man who is almost totally inarticulate. When Forrest does talk, writer Nick Cave (working from a novel by Bondurant grandson Matt) gives him overblown metaphors or aphorisms about controlling fear. I also wanted more when Forrest is being seduced by the Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain, underused) who takes up residence around the Bondurant place. Forrest is interesting for one reason only: he won't pay protection to the psychotic lawman (Guy Pearce) hired to make the county's bootleggers a cash machine for the local D.A. The rest is violence; Gary Oldman turns up briefly as a gangster who becomes Jack's ally and the Bondurant's fellow bootleggers come to the family's aid in a climactic shootout. Lawless is handsomely made and strongly cast, but Hardy can't quite make Forrest into a real person and the forces arrayed against the Bondurants are caricatured too broadly. A story of Americans standing up might have been better served by filmmakers not so impressed by their own main character. 

Sunday Music: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "We Call Upon The Author"

From 2008. Seems like an apt choice to pick a (good) tune from Lawless screenwriter Cave, who in his script erred a little too much on the side of archetype over character.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

If this is criticism...

This Esquire "review" of Michael Chabon's new Telegraph Avenue manages to straddle the fence between praise and smug takedown without giving the slightest feeling of what reading the book is like. I'll be reading this novel.
This is the 11th book by Chabon, who won the Pulitzer in 2001 for his epic novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a wonder of escapism that held nothing back. I bought it the day it was released and happily lost a week of my life to it, enchanted by its comic books, Nazis, golems, Antarctic battles. Chabon has become the principal cheerleader for the Avengerization of literature — effectively making genre cool again in literary circles. If you imagine him raising a sunlit saber and leading the charge, his cavalry has grown mighty, among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One).

Chabon writes big. His hulking plots defy summary. When I read one of his novels, I feel a little like I do when I turn a corner in the Met and see the gorgeous sprawl and splatter of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm, when I crank up the volume on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — awed, hypnotized, overwhelmed. His maximalist style suits his maximalist stories, like the Zap! and Pow! sound effects of a comic-book panel.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Slow Turning

How one writer learned to read again, slowly. (The Rumpus/photo by Flickr user Wade Rockett)
This, after all, is the best thing I ever did for my reading, which might be the best thing I ever did for my writing.

When I first arrived at grad school, I received a list of 100 books. 100 books I ought to have read. I scanned it in a panic. Some of the titles I recognized. Many I didn’t. And I had read, maybe, five of them. So I got to work, driven by insecurity and hunger. I felt so far behind my classmates—and I felt such bloated pleasure in shoving all these stories into my eye. By the end of my first year, I had read every book on the list.

Maybe this was an accomplishment—I certainly felt good about it at the time—but really, I read with such speed and carelessness, nothing stuck. Ask me about The Magic Mountain today and I may puree some The End of the Affair into it. And didn’t Beckett write Time’s Arrow? Or maybe that was Calvino. I could not process and benefit from all those wondrous sentences and plots and characters, snarled together as they were in my mind.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Revising Kael

An welcome appreciation of Pauline Kael that focuses on her abilities, not her personality. (Atlantic)
She could talk well about popular art because she had not only seen all the movies that there were, she would have gone to all the opera performances that there were if she had not been so burdened with tickets to the cinema. When she talked about Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, her remarks were up there with the professional dance critic Arlene Croce’s because she, Kael, had been a connoisseur of dance all her life. She knew her way around a jazz band. Apart from mental equipment like that, her reading was prodigious in its volume, and fully serious in its content. Her house had all the Oz books in first editions—I saw them, and marveled; they looked as beautiful as her Tiffany lamps—but she was by no means restricted just to film-linked popular literature. When she reviewed a Russian movie based on a Dostoyevsky story, she could refer with daunting ease to anything by Dostoyevsky, including all the major novels chapter by chapter. Toward the end, this collection includes an outstanding piece about the Michael Cacoyannis movie of The Trojan Women: she draws, apparently without effort, on what seems a wide knowledge of Greek tragedy.

It’s important to note that none of this erudition seems dragged in. If she had dragged it in, there would have been furrows. Hers was the style least calculated to conceal pretension. In fact, in that sense, there was no style there at all. One thing you can trust her for throughout her work is a genuine enthusiasm for the arts, of which she so resoundingly took cinema to be one: something new, but something that fitted right in there beside the high traditions and that might include them all. You can trust her for that, and you can trust her diligence. The question is whether you can trust her judgment.

Sunday Music: The Blue Nile - "Happiness"

Finished an Ian Rankin novel that mentions this Scottish band and decided to look them up. The Blue Nile story isn't exactly one of high ambition; here's how they came to release their first music:

When local hi-fi manufacturer Linn Electronics heard their music, through friend and recording engineer Calum Malcolm, the company offered the band money to record a track that would showcase the sonic range of the company's high-end audio equipment.[4][5] Linn was so pleased with the result, they formed their own record label in order to release The Blue Nile's debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops, in 1983.[1] sample (help·info) Buchanan later commented that during that time Linn was not really a record company, and The Blue Nile was not really a band.[2] Although it received positive reviews, it sold modestly.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy, directed by Tony Gilroy, can't properly be called a sequel to the three successful Bourne films starring Matt Damon. Gilroy (Michael Clayton), who wrote the Damon-starring Bourne trilogy, instead builds out from the end of The Bourne Ultimatum and imagines a universe in which Jason Bourne is to new protagonist Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) essentially what Netscape is to the latest Internet Explorer. Remember the New York mayhem of The Bourne Ultimatum? The climax of that film is used as an inciting incident here, as the arm of the U.S. Intelligence bureaucracy (represented chiefly by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach) that's working on taking the next step in enhanced humanity gets nervous and decides to shut down. Field agents are killed and a massacre is engineered at the research facility that's tracking the agents' medical status. (Prolific character actor Zeljko Ivanek is wasted as the scientist-turned-assassin.) A scientist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) escapes the shooting and becomes a partner as Cross races to secure more of the medication that's the source of his new abilities.

 I don't know if Tony Gilroy meant to build an implicit critique of the way America does its business into The Bourne Legacy; what is the film's "Outcome" program but an attempt to easily mass produce more Jason Bournes through pills? In any event, Gilroy's conception almost requires Cross to be something of a blank slate; an important plot point that goes by quickly is that Cross was only accepted into the army because a recruiter lied about his I.Q. Jeremy Renner happens to be good at playing men who don't think too hard about what they're capable of though, and he gives Cross some welcome notes of curiosity and decency. By the time Cross and Shearing are running from another government assassin (part of the next wave of souped-up hit men) Renner has done more than enough to establish Cross as someone worth saving. There are stretches of necessary procedure and exposition in the film, mostly involving the tracking of Cross and Shearing. On their end, Norton and Keach (along with Donna Murphy and Corey Stoll) find something harried and specific in their characters that turns what could have been a series of slam-on-the-breaks info dumps into scenes about urgently trying to stick a finger in a dam.

The climactic action scene in The Bourne Legacy is a chase through a Manila shanty town that's pulled off with skill if not with the flair Paul Greengrass brought to last two Bourne movies. We always know where the characters are in relation to each other and where they're going; that doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it? Who knows if the Aaron Cross character will be brought back, but he really doesn't need to be and that's part of the point. There is only one Jason Bourne, and he is still out there swimming.