Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Music: Joe Jackson - "I'm The Man"

One day I'll review movies again, I promise. Anyway, here's one I heard as intermission music at a play last night. I can't remember if this was technically a hit, but it should have been.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bonus! Wild Nothing - "Paradise"

 For fans of Michelle Williams, and who isn't? At first I thought Michelle's Walkman signalled a retro-'80s concept, but then she started reading Iris Murdoch.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Music: Kristin Hersh - "Killing Two Birds"

 A "work in progress" from Hersh's New Orleans home base, originally offered as a bonus for the "Strange Angels" who support her music.


In the world of Rian Johnson's Looper the title characters are young men like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has made a deal with the crime syndicate that controls the entire world we see in the film. Joe kills and disposes of people whom the syndicate sends back from 30 years in the future, with the understanding that one day he will kill a future version of himself. Loopers are paid in silver for their trouble; killing oneself ("closing the loop") earns a payment in gold and 30 years of freedom until that bill comes due. Joe spends his days doing the bidding of his bosses (represented by Jeff Daniels as a future gangster assigned to Joe's present) and his nights clubbing with fellow loopers like Seth (Paul Dano) and a favorite escort (Piper Perabo). But then too many loops begin to close.

Looper the movie is an argument between the two Joes, the one played by a heavily made-up Gordon-Levitt in the “present” and the older Joe (Bruce Willis) sent back to die from 30 years in the future. Future Joe is fighting for a life he has already lived; in a montage we learn that Joe will blow his bankroll and return to crime before having his life changed by a woman (Summer Qing). The only way to prevent Joe from living the same life and then dying is for Future Joe to kill the present version of the Rainmaker, the crime boss who is closing all the loops. Got it? It’s to Rian Johnson’s credit that the movie is never unclear, but after a strong beginning Looper runs out of gas because Johnson sets up an impossible choice between trying to cling to the past and giving up agency over a life that one still has a chance to change. In the film’s present the Rainmaker is a little boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon), but before finding him Future Joe must first work through a list of suspects based on data he has obtained before coming back. The cavalier placing of children in jeopardy sets Future Joe up as the villain, but Willis’s character is the one with something at stake. Gordon-Levitt’s Joe doesn’t have an idea in his head beyond killing the older version of himself, there’s never any real conception of what his life might be beyond his life as a Looper (besides, we’ve already seen what happens). It’s essential to Johnson’s construction of the film that Joe was an orphan drafted into criminal life as a child, otherwise he’d have to explain his choices. The present moment is all that counts for Joe; we’re supposed to be moved by his defense of Cid and his mother (Emily Blunt), but Joe’s behavior is selfish. Killing Future Joe would only ensure the same events reoccurring.

I wonder if someone has already made one of those deconstructionist YouTube videos full of questions about Looper. Why does the bulk of the movie take place on a farm? The only farm work Blunt’s character does is use an axe on a stump. Hasn’t Future Joe already changed history by surviving so long in the past? What does Jeff Daniels’ character do about the present version of himself? There are pleasures to be had, it has been a long time since I’ve seen Willis look this interested in what he was doing and Emily Blunt gives a fiercely stripped down performance as a woman trying to figure out an unexpected life day-by-day. But the rules Johnson sets up for his world smother the movie; Looper is like adding a number and the negative of the same quantity together , the result has an elegant shape but leaves an empty feeling.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

If all movies were made under the conditions which Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower then Hollywood would be a very different place. Chbosky's film is based on his own novel of the same name, published in 1999 and set in an early 1990's that doesn't go heavy on the period detail. The film of Perks honors the gentle tone and kind spirit of the novel, and it benefits from a remarkably good ensemble of young actors who each give their roles a special kind of honesty. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting high school after some time in the hospital following the suicide of a friend and the death of his beloved, eccentric Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). Chbosky uses the novel's device of Charlie's diary-like letters to a "friend" as a framing voice-over, but doesn't go too heavy on the boy's awkward thoughts.

The soul of Perks lies in the stepsiblings who soon arrive to take Charlie under their wing. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is an unrestrained senior carrying on a secret affair with the school's quarterback (Johnny Simmons). Miller is playing a 2012 gay teen as opposed to one who would have existed in the year that the book unfolds, but it's a warm, memorable performance that hits fragile notes at just the right moments. Patrick's stepsister and near-constant companion Sam (Emma Watson) quickly becomes the center of Charlie's new world. Watson is very good here; Sam is an obvious candidate for Manic Pixie status but Watson wraps her in layers of self-doubt over everything from her application to Penn State to her relationship with a jerk of a college boyfriend (Reece Thompson). Sam is a small triumph, a role that heralds good adult work from Watson in years to come. The story proceeds through Charlie's ups and downs, from dabbling in light drugs to a tentative first relationship with one of Sam's friends (Mae Whitman). Chbosky's restraint is the film's guiding impulse; no music-video montages here, there's a specificity that anchors Perks all the way down, from the worn copy of Catcher in the Rye Charlie receives from his English teacher (Paul Rudd) to all of the carefully constructed mixtapes and the way that the one phone line in Charlie's house is tied up by a talkative friend. Finally Perks is about young people trying to be their best selves, a pleasant surprise in a movie landscape where teen characters get exploited because of all the things they aren't yet. In its own quiet way The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the year's best films. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Master, finally (mild spoilers)

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master several days ago, but I haven't been able to bring myself to write about it until now due to a combination of lack of time, conflicted reactions, and the almost always unsatisfying relationship between expectations and what's finally onscreen. Did I like The Master? Yes, but I wonder if finally I admired its ambition and craft more than I actually enjoyed it. The Master finally belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as the drifting World War II veteran Freddie Quell is both physically disciplined (Where did that walk come from?) and pulsing with barely concealed desires. Freddie is yearning for physical contact but can't follow through, as in the scene where he falls asleep while on a date, but Phoenix's performance suggests an intelligence and a desire for the life that he and his fellow servicemen are promised upon returning home. ("A few acres of land....a gas station...") In a gorgeously shot moment Freddie spies Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) hosting a shipboard party. Freddie sneaks on board the boat and embarks on the next chapter of his life.

The Master wants to be about too many things, and that becomes its central flaw as the movie goes on. In postwar America sex and opportunity are pretty easily available but no one has taught Freddie how to handle either one. In Dodd and his pseudo-religion "The Cause" Freddie finds a belief system that seems geared towards the new post-atom bomb America; The Cause is all about casting off old emotions and getting man to his "natural state of perfect." We're exposed to a number of Cause "applications" during The Master, most notably the "processing" that is modeled on the Scientology practice of auditing. Dodd asks Freddie questions about his life and memories, and Freddie (in tight close-up) breaks through and admits that he is haunted by memories of an aborted romance with a hometown girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty). Anderson splits the movie into two branches about here: We follow Freddie's fast rise to become one of Dodd's lieutenants, and at the same time a series of scenes are devoted to Dodd's fight to gain acceptance or the Cause and produce a second book. It's this second group of scenes that slows the movie down; Hoffman gives an outsized, showman performance of exquisite control and he is matched by a fierce Amy Adams. Yet while Anderson doesn't and shouldn't indicate how we should feel about Dodd, I wish that I felt Anderson himself had made up his mind. I wanted to see more behind the veneer that Hoffman gives the character. At one point a follower (Laura Dern) questions Dodd about a change in Cause philosophy and Dodd starts to blow up at her, but Anderson doesn't let the moment go anywhere.

Why does Anderson spend so much time on the internal workings of The Cause? He is really interested less in belief systems than in the relationship between two American archetypes, the conner and the conned.  (The question of which is which is much more complicated in There Will be Blood than it is here.) Freddie is looking for something and Dodd, for a time, provides it for him, but the movie doesn't let Freddie breathe in the outside world until it's too late. I'd argue an excellent ending for The Master would have been to leave Freddie outside Doris's house after his strained conversation with her mother (Lena Endre). But we're due one final scene with Dodd, and so it's off to England and a reunion with Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons). Val expresses doubts early on about his father, but we're never told why or what happens to change his mind. That much discussed final scene between Freddie and Dodd is a fine acting moment for both Phoenix and Hoffman, but I wish I had the first idea what it meant. As a fan of Anderson's love for outcasts and misfits (Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and most of the cast of Magnolia) I wanted badly to be more moved by Freddie's quest for meaning, but in trying to say something about our modern need for guidance I think The Master just doesn't say enough.

Sunday Music: David Bowie - "Young Americans"

From 1974; this is probably one of my top 5 YouTube performances of all time.....

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

There isn't a moment in Trouble with the Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, where you can guess what's coming and be wrong. That doesn't mean that the movie doesn't have its low-key charms or that it isn't a small pleasure, but the pleasure of Trouble with the Curve comes from confidence in knowing that the film is headed in the direction we would all like it to go. Gus (Clint Eastwood) is a scout for the Atlanta Braves with a decades-long resume of signing great players. As the Braves prepare for a draft and the possible selection of a young slugger named Gentry (Joe Massingill), Gus learns the vision problems that have been slowing him down are actually the first signs of serious eye trouble. Enter Mickey (Amy Adams), the estranged daughter of Gus and now a workaholic attorney. Mickey is of course a scouting savant, and she joins her father on the road to help him work, get some emotional closure, and maybe save her dad's job. The emotional arc of Trouble with the Curve builds to the scene where Gus reveals why he sent Amy away to relatives and boarding schools after her mother died, and it's a scene where Eastwood (who is helped enormously here by having Adams to play against) makes something moving out of his natural economic acting style. Amy Adams is the central reason to see Trouble with the Curve, she makes Mickey's anger at her father legitimate and gives her a growing sense of confusion at what she wants out of life as a partnership at her firm falls into jeopardy. A budding romance with a fellow scout (Justin Timberlake, not really believable as a former hot prospect) is used mostly as filler, but it does give the usually serious Adams a chance to flash her too little seen smile on screen.

Trouble with the Curve is as conservative in its view of baseball as it is in its storytelling. Think of this movie as the anti-Moneyball. Gus has a young rival (Matthew Lillard) whose player evaluations are statistics-based and who doesn't seem to get out of the office much. The art of scouting isn't explained much; there's a lot of talk of listening and the difficulties of hitting off-speed stuff. I much preferred Eastwood here to his work in Gran Torino; there's some vulnerability built into the role that he meets head-on, though he hasn't gotten much more expressive since the last time you saw him. Trouble with the Curve is satisfying (if too familiar) in almost all respects, a tale of reconnection in the autumn of a life spent watching young men play in the spring.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

People Like Us

David Byrne's True Stories has been around for 25 years, and it's starting to look more and more like Byrne predicted the future. I wrote a 2010 post on True Stories. (Austin Chronicle)
The Narrator's attitude toward exurban sprawl is ambivalent as he cruises in the car past cow pastures stretched to the horizon: "You know, in a couple of years, this'll probably all be built up." Indeed, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex where the film was shot is choking with traffic, chain stores, and McMansions now. Production Coordinator Christina Patoski, who lives in Fort Worth, provided me with a list of addresses of shooting locations. Not only have most of the sites been bulldozed, the maps have been redrawn. Municipal borders have shifted with the construction of corporate campuses, conference hotels, and private hospitals – business prone to establish proprietary street names that are subject to the whims of economic turnover. Town names are retired where growth is lagging (Sterrett no longer exists), while new ones are introduced in wealthy sectors (computer factory interiors were filmed at a now-extinct proprietary address in a part of Allen that is now called Fairview). Like a dry-erase board, the flat north Texas landscape is perpetually wiped clean.