Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve Music: Patti Smith - "People Have The Power"



An old song for a new year. Best wishes for 2013.

What's Ahead

Indiewire asks critics about their most anticipated movies of 2013, and the responses reveal plenty of enthusiasm and anticipation for new work by Malick, Linklater, Del Toro, and Jarmusch.
Glenn Heath Jr., SanDiego.com/Slant Magazine/MATCH/CUTS: "My most anticipated film of 2013 is Jim Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive.' Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as melancholy vampires who've been in and out of love for centuries, this latest whatsit from the director of 'Dead Man' and 'The Limits of Control' is sure to be just as strange and resonant as his other subversive efforts. This will undoubtedly be in competition at Cannes come May."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook

Your tolerance for David O. Russell's The Silver Linings Playbook will depend upon how long you can endure the movie's manic energy and its habit of having characters engage in loud, declamatory conversations about how they're feeling and what they need. In the opening scenes Pat (Bradley Cooper) is taken out of a mental hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver) and brought home to Philadelphia. Pat has been away for eight months after a breakdown that has (for the moment anyway) put his marriage in jeopardy and cost him his job; his dad Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) isn't sure Pat is ready to come home. Bradley Cooper's performance gets better the better Pat gets. In the early scenes Pat, who resists taking his meds and flips out when he hears his wedding song, seems more irritated than manic and it's difficult to imagine anyone being afraid of him until he strikes his parents while searching for his wedding video. Russell doesn't try to jazz up this scene with edits or music, and it's exactly as disturbing as it needs to be. After Pat hits bottom and begins to really work on his recovery Cooper is much stronger; he has a chance to display the decency that makes him an ideal center point for the comic nonsense of the Hangover movies.

There's another damaged soul in The Silver Linings Playbook. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a friend's widowed sister-in-law whom Pat meets at an awkward dinner table scene where the two compare antidepressant dosages. David O. Russell writes too many conversations that could only occur in movies; I didn't believe Tiffany would be quite so free with the story of the behavior that got her fired, though Lawrence is magnetic in the scene. Indeed it's Tiffany's need for connection that gives Playbook its heart. We don't quite realize how much hope she has placed in Pat until a late scene when it appears Pat's wife may have reentered the picture. With one line to Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles), Lawrence manages to convey just how close Tiffany is to coming alive again and how far having her hopes dashed would set her back. It's the kind of scene that gets replayed at awards shows. Jennifer Lawrence makes the movie work in spite of the way Russell can't help himself at times when it comes to pulling the movie's emotional levers. Lawrence both jolts the movie and settles it down in a way that I can't quite compare to anyone else. though many others will try. The rest of the story is a contraption involving the obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fandom of Pat Sr. (DeNiro does his most interesting work here in some time) and a ballroom dancing competition that thankfully Russell doesn't require Pat and Tiffany to have to win. The Silver Linings Playbook is a big-hearted mess, but  a winning one; it's probably Russell's best film since Three Kings and a strong argument that Jennifer Lawrence is more than just the next big thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day Music: Graham Parker & The Rumor - "Protection"



I meant to get this up earlier, but here's a vintage clip of Parker performing a song that's also heard in This Is 40. Parker plays himself in the film, where his "character" is probably a little too excited about getting a song on Glee.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Django Unchained


What happens when one of the few American directors with a recognizable brand name reaches for something bigger? The result might be something like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the director’s attempt to wrestle with both the most American of cinematic archetypes (the Western) and the stain of slavery on our history. Django is Tarantino’s most formally ambitious film for containing his most straightforward narrative, there are no pop culture riffs or anime sequences for him to fall back on. The final product contains moments that Tarantino’s fans will recognize as his own (including moments of graphic violence), but long stretches are stifled by the fact that Tarantino is working in a period that doesn’t allow for irony as a default setting.

Texas 1858: A bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) breaks a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) out of the leg irons that shackle him to a group of other newly acquired slaves. Schultz has a mission in mind; he’s tracking three men with a price on their head and knows that Django can identify them. The first section of Django feels the most like some sort of odd revisionist Western. Schultz and Django, newly minted partners, hunt wanted men while on the receiving end of a steady stream of ugly stares; no one can abide the idea of a black man riding a horse. Schultz, whom Waltz plays with a manic Old World courtliness that’s great fun to watch, is a deadly shot with a rifle and Django soon becomes a gunslinger. There is a comic epic to be made with these two shooting their way across the South while at the same time charming plantation owners like Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Tarantino includes a bizarre and very funny sketch-like scene of Johnson’s character leading a group of hooded men after Schultz and Django, but what happens when the hoods don’t fit?

The word “vengeance” is on the posters for Django Unchained, and though I think the film finally doesn’t work it’s fair to say that Tarantino has tried to make something personal and specific, as opposed to an ahistorical, blacks-kill-whites revenge fantasy. He doesn’t have it in him. Django and Schultz uncover the whereabouts of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and it’s at this point that things go badly wrong. The last section of the film revolves around a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the necessity for Schultz and Django to pose as slavers trying to acquire men for “mandingo fights” (black-on-black fights to the death for the entertainment and wagering of whites) in order to gain Broomhilda’s freedom. Jamie Foxx may have the fewest lines of any main character in a Tarantino film, and though Foxx gives a credible and realistic performance he is giving it in the wrong film. Django is badly underwritten in the second half of the film and is reduced to merely an avatar of revenge as opposed to a character. There isn’t time to consider the cost to Django’s soul for allowing other slaves to be brutalized; although Foxx is capable of playing those scenes, Tarantino isn’t interested in writing them. Kerry Washington, who deserves a great role one of these days, has the same problem. Broomhilda is a object to be won, and though Washington (who has wonderfully expressive eyes) gives it her best she can’t transcend the narrowness of the part.

The actors who fare the best in Django Unchained are the ones who understand what kind of movie they’re in. Leonardo DiCaprio has a ball as Candie, it’s as if DiCaprio decided no one would recognize him with facial hair and so decided to have some fun. The most complicated and revelatory performance in Django Unchained is given by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the man responsible for running Candie’s household. Stephen has internalized his role so much that he is unable to accept any assertion of strength among the other blacks at “Candie Land.”  This character is to my mind the one who should make African-American audiences the most uncomfortable; watching Stephen cozy up to his masters is deeply unpleasant, precisely because it pulls from strain of history too often ignored. Jackson does a sustained, sarcastic version of his usual schtick, it’s too modern but serves Tarantino’s vision of the role well.

Once a director is established, how much ambition does he owe his audience? The trailer for Michael Bay’s new Pain and Gain runs before Django Unchained, Bay’s inclusion of irony feels like as big an advance as Chaplin including sound. Quentin Tarantino wants to work in different periods and genres, but the central action of Django Unchained (man wants wife back) is too general for the film that Tarantino wants to make. We are left with attractive pieces, all oddly stuck together., I don’t know what will turn Tarantino’s head next, but there are some subjects that cannot be breezed through, Tarantino may have earned the right to make it, but Django Unchained is an honorable failure.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This Is 40


This Is 40 is being advertised as a “sort-of” sequel to Knocked Up, and indeed writer/director Judd Apatow takes us back to the world of his earlier film, only this time there’s no sign of Katherine Heigl or Seth Rogen and his motley band of stoners. This Is 40 follows Debbie (Leslie Mann), the sister of Heigl’s character in Knocked Up, and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) through their fortieth birthdays and a few weeks of reckoning with oncoming change. Pete runs his own financially strapped record label and has maybe too much riding on a new release by Graham Parker. (Parker appears as himself and has great fun being realistic about the state of his career.) Debbie is first seen denying her age and secretly smoking; it’s her determination to make the most of life that sets the movie in motion.

 Judd Apatow is interested in families, from the employees at the electronics store in The 40-Year Old Virgin to the comics of Funny People to Pete and Debbie’s here. This Is 40 is a rambling movie in tune with the rhythms of daily life; the management of two daughters (a wonderful Maude Apatow and her younger sister Iris) requires constant attention and a life-changing surprise can come at any moment. The fights between Debbie and Pete, which are mostly about honesty and money, don’t feel melodramatic but rather like sections of a long-running discussion that usually simmers in the background but that has begun to come to the forefront a bit too much. Yet it’s to Apatow’s credit that he never tries to create tension by putting the marriage at risk. There’s a scene in a nightclub after a night of dancing with her employee (tart Megan Fox) when a real opportunity opens up for Debbie, and Leslie Mann nails Debbie’s awkwardness and confusion that someone might see her as something other than a wife and mother. Apatow’s script never invites us to like Debbie, and Mann’s complicated performance doesn’t shy away from the character’s neediness and frustration. The bawdy humor you might expect from an Apatow film is here, but it’s never a distraction and always feels like something that Pete and Debbie use to blow off tension. One of the few false moments occurs between Mann and an employee played by Charlyne Yi, the scene feels imported from one of Apatow’s earlier films. A scene where Debbie yells at her daughter’s classmate isn’t played for laughs, it’s the behavior of woman who genuinely isn’t sure what he’s doing. (A follow-up scene with Melissa McCarthy as another mother is broad but well-acted, and McCarthy gets some great lines out in the closing credit outttakes.) I have liked all of Apatow’s movies, but This Is 40 improves upon the success of Funny People. Apatow is writing people who are more than just vehicles for his jokes.

 I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t any fun to be had in This Is 40. The cast is well-stocked and Albert Brooks is best of all as Pete’s dad, a selfish man learning that it isn’t too late to make a connection. John Lithgow, Robert Smigel, Chris O’Dowd, and Lena Dunham also show up in smaller roles, and Jason Segel has a funny riff as Debbie’s personal trainer. Whatever film Apatow has planned next, I hope he thinks about revisiting these characters in a few years. There is rich territory to be explored here, and Apatow shows no signs of getting tired of family life.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Music: Beach House - "Myth"



Found this one while looking through some lists of the year's best songs. Would you have rather had Taylor or Rihanna?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Flight



Flight is an excellent performance in search of a better movie. I had read descriptions of Denzel Washington’s walk in other reviews, but from the moment his Whip Whitaker swaggers out of a hotel room after a night of drugs, drink, and sex with a stewardess (Nadine Velazquez) I knew I was in good hands. Whip’s life is a mess, he’s divorced and in the thrall of his addictions, but that’s nothing compares to what happens to him when a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta goes bad. The airborne sequence in Flight is a piece of genuinely harrowing bravura filmmaking, and we can all be glad that director Robert Zemeckis decide not to shoot this movie with that weird animation technique from The Polar Express. The simple image of a terrified flight attendant reacting as the plane turns upside down suggests many horrors, and Zemeckis (working from a script by John Gatins) makes the moments after the crash a blur of image and sensation. It is the high point of the movie.

 After the crash Flight becomes a movie about a man running into a wall. It’s obvious from the moment Whip pours vodka into his in-flight orange juice that there’s a problem, but Zemeckis and Gatins need to keep reminding us. There’s a character Whip meets after the crash, an addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who becomes a part of his life for no other reason than to give him someone to talk to. Nicole is a mirror, a character who exists only to reflect Whip’s behavior, and she disappears from the movie when her purpose is used up. Whip keeps stumbling and trying to right himself as the crash investigation proceeds, there are a jumble of procedural details involving a lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a union rep (Bruce Greenwood, doing one of a number of inauthentic Southern accents) who are working to clear Whip’s name. Perhaps it’s honest that it takes so long for Whip to face himself but it never feels like there’s more than one way that Flight can end. The trials come on cue, most egregiously an unlocked door that gives Whip access to alcohol at the moment he needs it the least, and the final choice between responsibility and dishonor can be seen coming from pretty far down the road.

 What are we left with? Washington is marvelously specific about levels of intoxication, from morning after bleariness to the incoherence of an evening spent next to a whiskey bottle, and the way he snaps to another level after some help from his supplier (John Goodman, in a part not worthy of him) will chill anyone who has spent time around But addiction. But there are too many bum scenes, especially a hospital visit between Whip and his injured copilot (Brian Geraghty). Whip wants to make sure the copilot won’t testify against him, but the scene is just another turn of the wheel that’s moving Whip to where the movie wants him to go. The copilot turns out to be a Christian with a wife who only says “Praise Jesus”, and for no particular reason he enables Whip’s behavior for a little while longer. Flight is a movie jury-rigged to support a great performance and Denzel Washington more than carries the weight, but he’s acting in a vacuum because no one else has room to breathe.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This is Judd (and Fiona)



Judd Apatow on how music infects his new This Is 40, and I have to admit the soundtrack choices (including the above new song from Fiona Apple) sound promising. Apatow identifies with musicians who have been able to work in a personal vein over time. (Pitchfork)
Back in the old days, everyone was shocked if a band had a sponsor for their tour. Now, Bob Dylan can do a commercial for Victoria's Secret and people don't really blink; the Beatles' songs are in all sorts of commercials these days and it doesn't seem to offend anybody. The times are changing. Hopefully, everything will reconfigure so that we still get the same amount of great rock bands, but you do notice that a lot of bands that are great disappear a little bit faster than they used to. They don't get as much support for the long haul. You have to be pretty tough to hang in there. That's why I've always appreciated people like Graham Parker or Loudon Wainwright III, who spend their entire lives writing songs and working their asses off just to have complete artistic freedom. They're just sharing their lives with you through their music. That's the same kind of work that I'm trying to do, in my own weird way.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Smashed


Smashed is a movie about addiction that doesn’t follow a predictable arc or aim to be redemptive. The script by director James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke instead makes a more difficult choice; Ponsoldt and Burke are less interested in the broad humiliations of drunkenness than they are in the cold reality of new sobriety, and what that sobriety can do to one’s relationships. Elementary school teacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enjoys a boozy home life with her good-natured husband Charlie (Aaron Paul). Kate is just beginning to think about the toll her life is taking on her when an incident in front of her class and a chance encounter outside a bar bring her issues to the forefront. Charlie is content to think that they can “chill out” on their drinking and get by, but Kate’s coworker (Nick Offerman) takes her to an AA meeting and the honesty required by the 12-step culture forces Kate to take a hard look at her life. Smashed is the only cinematic treatment of alcoholism I’m aware of that acknowledges sobriety isn’t a magic bullet for life’s problems.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one of the best performances of  the year as Kate, a woman whose frightened eyes in the opening scenes (as she drinks beer in the shower before school) are gone by her climactic speech. Winstead and the filmmakers never come close to trying to romanticize Kate’s drunkenness; after an evening of drinking Kate is a loud, overbearing mess who can’t control her bodily functions. Yet Winstead also makes Kate someone worth saving, a woman whose disposition towards alcohol is a function of the way her mother (Mary Kay Place in a brave cameo) reflexively thinks a Bloody Mary would enhance any situation. Smashed is observant and honest enough to portray AA meetings as things where life-changing revelations don’t happen on a routine basis, indeed I’m not sure I even knew before this movie that meetings have built-in breaks. But the heart of the movie is in the relationship between Kate and Charlie, a man who hasn’t come to grips yet with the extent to which alcohol is the central dynamic in his marriage. Unlike his Breaking Bad character, Paul’s Charlie is a man in the grips of something he doesn’t understand who can’t see the consequences; his attempt to finally do right by Kate is all the more tragic for being too late. A scene between Kate and her sponsor (Octavia Spencer) hits at the essential truth of Smashed: Life is difficult. Smashed is a movie big-hearted enough not to run away from that fact.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck



Dave Brubeck has passed away, and while you can hear "Take Five" and other familiar songs anywhere I had to share this old clip I stumbled upon. Hearing an artist explain themselves so simply is quite moving (not that Brubeck comes off as modest here) and I love the Charlie Rose-like seriousness of the interview.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Final thoughts (in the right format?)


A short review of the new David Foster Wallace nonfiction collection argues that Wallace's reviews and journalism might be the fastest route to figuring out what he thought mattered. (House Next Door/photo by Janette Beckman)
For years we waited for the author's next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace's tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else's, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author's growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Music: Dinosaur Jr (w/ Johnny Marr and Kevin Drew) - "The Wagon"



From LAST NIGHT in New York, Dinosaur Jr plays the hits along with Johnny Marr and Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene.

Killing Them Softly


Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, is based on a George V. Higgins novel called Cogan's Trade published in 1974. Dominik sets the film in the days leading up to the 2008 election, a time when the American economy seemed to have come undone and when the small-time hoods of Higgins' Boston find themselves in as much need of a bailout as any automotive company. The inciting incident is the robbery of a card game, a robbery that leaves a low-level player named Markie (Ray Liotta) in bad standing with his superiors. The robbers are on an even lower rung of the criminal infrastructure. Frankie (Scoot McNairy of Argo) and drug-addled Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) both hope to use the money from the job to launch new schemes; Johnny (Vincent Curatola), the man who hires them, needs an infusion of cash for an ailing dry cleaning business. No one in Killing Him Softly ever mentions TARP or failing banks (Obama and Bush are frequently heard in the background), but after the Mob sends in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) the point becomes clear. Frankie, Russell, and Johnny are parts of a machine; in Dominik and Higgins' world the gap between those with power and those who do the work is enough to fuel years of Occupy rallies.

George V. Higgins (who died in 1999) didn't write plots, he wrote conversations and digressions i which information was dispensed at oblique angles. The screenplay of Killing Them Softly reproduces Higgins' structure to great effect; there is very little action in the film but rather a series of dialogue scenes that ping with the resonance of long associations and half-forgotten bad choices. The scenes between Pitt's Cogan and a character known as The Driver (Richard Jenkins) are a study in the art of delivering exposition. The Driver is the representative of Cogan's superiors, a never-seen group of criminals who are just as mindful of budgets and just as bad at making decisions as any large corporation in bad times. Richard Jenkins infuses this role with great humanity; the Driver blanches at Cogan's talk of who needs to be whacked and how much a gunman from New York (James Gandolfini doing his impression of one of Tony Soprano's short-lived henchmen) might cost. Pitt is wonderful here as well, and his Cogan has great fun teasing The Driver's naivete and laying out the facts for his boss. Cogan is a man who has achieved a certain amount of respect by doing things right, and in a kicker of a final scene Pitt does of the best acting in his career as he explains the philosophy that has kept Cogan alive.

If Killing Them Softly loses its edge at any point it's in the way Dominik films violence. The violent acts in the film are transactional, that is to say investments in future plans or payment for services not rendered. One character receives a brutal beating, and later the shooting of the same character is drawn out in bloody slow-motion that looks like something from the drugged-out scenes in Dredd. Domink has a great eye but he's showing off here, the violence seems to mean more to him than it does to the characters themselves. Despite the hiccups Killing Them Softly is pungent and haunting effort with a surprising amount of relevance, and it stands as proof that the art of adaptation is just that.