Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

I was reading articles about Ain't Them Bodies Saints before the film came out, pieces on blogs and in the New York Times praising the directorial debut of David Lowery (best known as editor of Upstream Color) and the still unfolding talent of Rooney Mara. It's unfortunate when the idea of a film takes greater hold than the film itself. Ain't Them Bodies Saints passed through theaters without making an impact either at the box office or on awards conversation and landed on that never-shrinking pile of films we all mean to get around to seeing. Lowery's film is more than worth your time.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints pulses with the spirit of the best freewheeling 1970's films, and the film is indeed set in '70s Texas. Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are a pair of young bank robbers whose criminal career ends in a shootout on some abandoned property owned by Bob's late father. Ruth wounds a policeman named Patrick (Ben Foster) but Bob takes the blame and is sent to prison. A few years later Ruth is quietly raising the couple's daughter Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) in a house owned by a man named Skerritt (Keith Carradine) who seems to be the father of another man killed in the original robbery. Lowery's script is a little vague on Skerritt; there's a suggestion that he's benefiting from the robberies and he later hires some gunmen who have shown up looking for Bob at someone else's request. When word comes that Bob has escaped from prison the film becomes a waiting game as Ruth prepares for Bob's intentions to become clear. Some plot details could have been made more explicit, but the film works anyway thanks to a steely performance by Rooney Mara as Ruth. Even when Ruth and Bob are swooning over each other in the first few scenes Ruth is unromantic and clear-eyed about the challenges of life ahead. Each performance I've seen Mara give seems entirely different from the one before, and here she's excellent as a person saddled with guilt who's slowly figuring out that her life has changed irrevocably. Ben Foster has a great sober dignity as Patrick, whose feelings for Ruth are becoming hard to contain, and Casey Affleck is the ideal actor for Bob's earnest and slightly overwritten declarations of love for Ruth. The overwriting is by design I think, since Bob is the one still frozen in the great love he and Ruth shared before he went away while Ruth has moved on to the concerns of work and parenting. David Lowery gets great support from cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart. Ain't Them Bodies Saints looks gorgeous and feels entirely from another time, establishing its setting through clothes and architecture rather than played out music cues or cultural references. Those yet to discover this film are in for the pleasant surprise of a film that looks backwards and forwards in equal measure.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

American Hustle

Attitude, energy, and bravado are qualities sorely lacking in much mainstream American cinema, or when they are present they are so often used to excess. Director David O. Russell finds himself at a transitional point with the new American Hustle. Russell's The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook, both made with plenty of the above qualities, have won Oscars and put Russell in the position of being able to make the films he wants to make with the actors that he wants to hire. So here we have American Hustle, a splashy period film that serves Russell's strengths but also succumbs to the director's need to remain in the same weight class. We open in 1978 on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale with a gut and a comb over), a small-time businessman who makes ends meet by peddling fake art and other low-level cons. The thematic concerns of American Hustle are revealed in this opening shot: life is a performance and what's behind the curtain usually isn't pretty. The problem here is that David O. Russell wants to light an entire movie with that superficial shine.

Things move quickly after Irving is introduced. Russell's script (written with Eric Warren Singer) uses voice-over to advance the story and get inside the characters' heads, and the narration and period soundtrack have prompted comparisons to Goodfellas. I hope Russell is flattered by the comparisons; he should be. Using the same narrative devices to tell a story doesn't mean one has made a comparable film. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two are soon running a more ambitious con involving fake high-risk loans. When Sydney is arrested (in her persona as an Englishwoman named "Edith" with banking connections), she and Irving become pawns of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in his efforts to make high-profile bribery cases. The rest of American Hustle involves Irving and Sydney's attempts to free themselves from Richie's control while Irving ponders whether the group's attempts to nail a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) are justified. All this plot has the makings of either a crackling procedural drama or a good caper comedy, so it's surprising how little emotional weight the twists and turns of the story carry. What comes through most strongly is the performance of Amy Adams, whose character's desire to live free of cons and aliases is an anchor for both character and actress alike. This is the most showy role Adams has ever had but she resists the temptation to go over the top and gives a performance of real subtlety. Jennifer Lawrence is almost Adams' equal as Irving's wife Rosalyn, who gets most of the best laughs and is the one character in the film who knows exactly who she is. 

It is supposed to matter a great deal that Renner's populist mayor and a series of anonymous Congressmen get nailed for taking bribes, but it isn't clear why or if any of them were even doing anything wrong before the events of American Hustle unfolded. Russell is lazy about procedure; I'm certain that no one like Cooper's Agent DiMaso has ever existed on earth or if he did he certainly didn't carry a gun and badge. A major plot point involves DiMaso persuading his boss (Louis CK) to use a Plaza Hotel suite for a sting, but the movie spends no time on the consequences of DiMaso assaulting that same boss when he doesn't get what he wants at first. Also, the idea that Sydney could create a fake identity that fools the FBI for half the movie (DiMaso thinks she's Edith for far too long) seems a stretch. When Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia boss who must be dealt with for DiMaso's sting (a fake casino financed by a sheik) to work, the movie slows down for a moment as events acquire some weight. The effect is like going from a sitcom to Shakespeare; it's a turning point both in the story and in our understanding of how little what we've seen up to this point has mattered. A sense of trying too hard pervades American Hustle, and though the movie does contain pleasures it also suffers from wanting to be something great and merely being something pretty. 

Monday, December 16, 2013


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was a graffiti artist and painter and one of the darlings of the New York downtown art scene until his death from a drug overdose. A biographical film about the artist might have consisted of scene after scene of lurid behavior and name dropping (Basquiat crossed paths with a young Madonna in the early '80s) mixed with overly literal attempts to trace the roots of Basquiat's art. How fortunate then that the 1996 film Basquiat was directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow artist and friend of Basquiat and one of the few people (Schnabel's script suggests) who cared for Basquiat without wanting anything from him.

  Basquiat doesn't spend much time on the particulars of the artist's life, though it's clear that Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) was affected by the mental illness of his mother and the coldness of his father (who kicked him out when Basquiat was in high school). Schnabel prefers instead to reflect on the way people use each other, like the way writer Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) and gallery owner Annina Nosei (Elina Lowensohn) look at Basquiat and see not only an artistic prodigy but also the marketing novelty of a young black painter. (Ricard uses a different, more offensive word.) There are wonderful scenes of Basquiat firing back though, both at a potential customer (Tatum O'Neal) and at a journalist (Christopher Walken) who tries to bait him with inflammatory quotes. Basquiat wasn't above marketing himself though, and his attempt to sell art to Andy Warhol (David Bowie) in a restaurant leads to a friendship that both helped Basquiat's career and seemed to center him as much as anything did. I can't tell whether Bowie's performance is either good or bad in an objective sense, and I'm not sure it matters since Schnabel and Bowie wisely choose to let Bowie's natural eccentricity fill in what we think we know about Warhol and don't try to get under his skin. Jeffrey Wright's performance as Basquiat is one of the early markers of a great career. Wright does get under his character's skin, and his to his credit neither he nor Schnabel is afraid to show Basquiat as both a brazen self-promoter with real chops and as a man who never got a chance to come of age emotionally. The rest of the cast fills in well, especially Claire Forlani as a woman who put up with Basquiat until she couldn't, Gary Oldman as a Schnabel stand-in, and Courtney Love in a cameo as a victim of Basquiat's charms. Julian Schnabel has directed Basquiat with great affection, both for the talent of its subject and for the young man who made noise rock and sold postcards downtown to survive before anyone had ever heard of him. In an early scene before Basquiat becomes famous he is warned by a buddy (Benicio del Toro) that fame will mean having to repeat himself artistically. The film ends with the disturbing sense that Basquiat was as much a prisoner of his talent as he was a victim of  his success.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Music: The Rolling Stones w/ Joshua Redman - "Waiting On A Friend"

Watched the movie Basquiat this week for the first time in many years, and this gem from Tattoo You was on the soundtrack. Redman does a good job filling in for Sonny Rollins.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Punk Singer

Trailer for The Punk Singer, a new documentary about feminist punk rocker Katheleen Hanna. Review here.
Directed by Sini Anderson, "The Punk Singer" makes its intentions clear from the title alone; though told through the reminiscences of the circle of artists and allies who know Hanna, this isn't the story of an instant hero to third-wave feminism. Instead, it's a layered portrait of a complex, constantly evolving woman who found herself thrust forward as the public face of a movement. While the art school/stripper background makes for easy copy for the lazy chronicler of this time (and indeed, mainstream outlets often reduced Hanna and her peers as nothing more than victims with guitars), "The Punk Singer" does an excellent job of underscoring that Hanna, Bikini Kill and the other artists and voices of what would become known as Riot Grrl (a catchall for the alternative feminist action of that time) weren't necessarily exorcising personal demons, but creating a specific space—one that was safe, open and crucially focused on the issues women weren't able to address comfortably elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Drinking Buddies

I've spent more time reading about ultra low-budget auteur Joe Swanberg than I have watching his movies, so I don't know if Drinking Buddies is his best work but I'm pretty sure it's the closest he has come to a mainstream relationship film. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together at a Chicago brewery and are frequent hangout buddies over after-work beers, but both are in other relationships. Luke loves long term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) while Kate is reaching a transition point with the more restrained Chris (Ron Livingston). Fault lines are revealed when the couples take a weekend at Chris's cabin in Michigan but Swanberg never pushes the melodrama or forces our reaction. Wilde is the revelation here, playing a woman who doesn't even understand her own need for connection. The conclusion is refreshingly low-key and open ended and while I admire Swanberg's devotion to the Luke-Kate relationship I wanted more of the marriage-ready Jill, whose last scene hints at an intensity that the movie doesn't have enough time for. There's a shot of Johnson and Kendrick together on the deleted scenes that's like something out of Cassavetes. Swanberg wrote an outline but had his actors improvise their dialogue, there are a few slow moments but the tensions in each scene are nicely articulated. I don't know what Swanberg has planned for the next act of his career, but Drinking Buddies proves that his small-scale style can work on a bigger stage. 

Monday, December 09, 2013

Keep The Lights On

Keep The Lights On, directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is drawn from the director’s long-term and now concluded relationship with a man fighting a drug addiction. The stand-in for Sachs here is Erik (Thure Lindhardt) , a Danish filmmaker working in New York who in 1998 spends an evening with an publishing house attorney named Paul (Zachary Booth). Paul has a girlfriend when he first meets Erik, but she’s soon out of the picture as the men’s relationship deepens and they move in together. The movie, with a few time jumps, follows the tumultuous relationship until 2006, with the tumult being caused primarily by Paul’s drug use and his habit of disappearing for long stretches. Erik, outwardly confident but upset by Paul’s inconsistency, must finally decide if the relationship is worth the stress.

 A description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the success of Keep The Lights On, a film full of memory of nuance. Sachs has a way with details and moods, from the play of light on a New York street to the way that a drive outside the city can feel like skipping school. The film takes place in a series of apartments, art galleries, restaurants, and all the places a downtown life might unfold. There’s a wonderful lazy Sunday quality to the happiest moments, and so when things go bad it’s all the worse for Erik since the couple’s cozy life offers few options for escape. I had never heard of Thure Lindhardt before I saw his performance as Erik, but it’s a performance that will serve as a fine calling card for future work. We’re told Erik comes from money but don’t get many details; he’s determined to make his own name yet money is never an issue. Sachs’s script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) is very good about the ways that being a caretaker can grind on you. No matter what success Erik enjoys (a documentary he makes wins a film festival award), his worry that Paul is slipping into trouble overwhelms his life. Lindhardt gets this conflict and turns in a performance of great sensitivity. Zachary Booth is off screen for stretches but is equally good and never overplays Paul’s addiction. We worry about Paul the last time we seem him, just like Erik he’s a picture of confidence masking inner troubles. I don’t know anything about how Sachs works, but there is plenty of credit to go around between him, Lindhardt, and Booth for these lived-in., utterly convincing characters. 

There is another strand to Keep The Lights On worth discussing, one that connects it to its audience and its city and other filmmakers and artists here and yet to come. The documentary Erik is working on is about Avery Willard, a gay photographer and filmmaker, and Sachs uses the theme of an earlier New York gay life as a background to his characters’ struggles. Of course Erik and Paul have straight friends (including Julianne Nicholson as a woman interested in Erik fathering her child), but they often seem to exist in a sort of self-selecting world that in Sachs’s vision has existed and will continue to do so as people pass through it. Erik interviews Willard’s contemporaries for his documentary, and they bring their own memories of how their friend carried the fire of what was then an illicit subculture. Late in the film Erik enjoys a flirtation with a younger man (Miguel del Toro) who is still flitting from relationship to relationship, excited by the possibility of what’s to come. Erik and Paul are searching for their own places on this continuum, and as they end the film in transition Sachs gives us an appropriate Arthur Russell lyric to focus on: “Every step is moving me up.” I would describe Keep The Lights On as a Gay Human Drama, with equal emphasis on both of those adjectives. Ira Sachs knows where we’ve been and wants to find out where we’re going.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sunday Music: Arthur Russell - "This Is How We Walk On The Moon"

It's funny how things connect. The late cellist/vocalist Russell figured in this nonfiction book I read recently about the music scene in 1970's New York City. His music pops up in Ira Sachs' excellent Keep The Lights On, a very New York-centric film that I hope to write more about soon.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


Philomena isn’t the film we’ve been led to believe it is. The marketing suggests a warm and affirming Oscar vehicle for Judi Dench, but in fact there is something both darker and richer on display. The fact-based Philomena is on one level a story of great anger and surprising political bite, but also that rare film where words like “guilt” and “forgiveness” carry real weight. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a retired Irish nurse whom we find thinking of the son she was forced to give up almost 50 years before. Philomena’s son Anthony was the product of a chance encounter, and because of her status as a single mother the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was forced to raise him under the “care” of nuns while she worked in a laundry and only saw her son for an hour a day. The flashback of Philomena’s girlhood (and Anthony’s adoption by an American couple) is filmed by director Stephen Frears with the haziness of a bad dream that Philomena is still having half a century later. It isn’t until she crosses paths with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) that Philomena is able to take action and learn what happened to Anthony. It is because of Sixsmith (whose book on the case is the basis for the film) and Coogan (who produced and co-wrote the screenplay) that we know about Philomena, and Coogan as both writer and actor more than does his part to honor her story. When we meet Sixsmith he has just been fired from a government post after a gaffe and he regards taking on Philomena’s “human interest” story with apprehension for the way it might changed how he’ll be perceived. Coogan plays him by shedding his own comic persona, and I liked how Martin’s anger at what he uncovers about Irish society is gradually muted by his appreciation for the way Philomena simply wants to know what happened.

It takes a trip to America before Philomena and Martin learn what has become of Anthony, who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents. The most surprising and necessary choice made by the makers of Philomena was to not make their main character a woman ahead of her time. Though Philomena (who went on to marry and have another child) is unfazed by most of human behavior thanks to her years a nurse, there is a degree to which she blames herself for losing Anthony that will seem alien to most of the American audience for this film. There are only a few moments of outright comedy here, as when Philomena ponders watching Big Momma’s House or piles on the croutons at a salad bar. Judi Dench’s excellent performance gets at the darkness that Philomena carries with her. A scene where Philomena lectures Martin about how to treat hotel staff comes from a belief that any of us could be punished at any time for the choices we make now. Dench burrows deep into herself to play this part, and it’s a performance that’s a substantial distance removed from the steely Englishness we’ve come to expect from her in year-end movies. While it might have been my choice to make a film that more squarely hit the Irish Catholic Church for the systemic use of single mothers as indentured servants and income generators, I couldn’t help but be moved by Philomena’s truly Christian reaction when she confronts the nun (Barbara Jefford) who prevented her reunion with Michael. There is a running argument about God and religion throughout Philomena, but in the end one faithful woman is able to transcend the institution that changed her life. Philomena forgives the Church, and more importantly forgives herself.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Haskell on Nashville

Great piece by Molly Haskell on Nashville, with particular attention to the contributions of writer Joan Tewkesbury.
Because of Altman’s way of working, of absorbing other people’s contributions into his own artistic pageantry, we may never be able to fully appreciate what Tewkesbury brought to the table. She was especially interested in the women and their conflicted ambitions (she herself had left her husband and child behind to work with Altman, first as script girl on 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). With a background in theater and dance that began with a stage mother, she had performed with, directed, and hung out with actors for most of her life—which served her well as a writer. She understood the symbiotic relationship between stars and the backup men and women who support and manage their careers. And from her perceptive take on the musicians she’d come to spy on, she grasped the particular fragility of women country singers, trying to keep their dignity in a world run by men. One can see her sympathetic hand in the breathtaking balance between defiance and humiliation maintained in the striptease performed by Welles’s Sueleen, and in the ferocious power duel between Blakley’s Barbara Jean and her husband-manager, played by Allen Garfield. Tewkesbury would step in when things got too sticky or one-sided and, working with the women, gently nudge the dialogue, the emotion of the scene, toward a more expansive sense of the women’s point of view.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sunday Music: Kristin Hersh - "Gazebo Tree"

An acoustic performance from 2001. For Kristin's more recent activity, check out this NYT review of Throwing Muses new Purgatory/Paradise as well as this short chat with Rolling Stone.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire brings up the question of how one writes critically about a film that had to be made. When I say “had to be made” I mean not made out of creativity or passion but rather as the fulfillment of obligations, both to the fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels and to those who benefited from the success of the first Hunger Games film. The arrival of Catching Fire then allows balance sheets to be completed and the arcs of various careers to proceed in their course. It’s an awfully cynical attitude to go into a review with, but perhaps it’s best to just acknowledge and move on. Catching Fire finds Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just as she embarks on her Hunger Games victory tour alongside co-champion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss and Peeta both have new homes in the “Victors Village” of District 12, but life in the District hasn’t improved for the other residents. (The victor’s house occupied by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch looks like the stuff of Don Draper’s nightmares.) The film’s central concern is the degree to which Katniss, whose subversion of the Hunger Games during her win has placed her in opposition to the government, can play along with President Snow (Donald Sutherland in fine, oily form) and convince the public that her behavior during the Games was only motivated by love for Peeta. The victory tour goes badly wrong and leads to more violence. At Snow’s direction Katniss and Peeta are thrust into the “Quarter Quell”, an every 25th year special version of the Hunger Games, and forced to fight for their lives against fellow former winners.

Francis Lawrence takes over the director’s chair from Gary Ross but keeps up the overarching vision of a world where it always looks like winter. Catching Fire works well enough as an action movie; the Quarter Quell itself is a tense chase through a jungle arena manufactured by game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) . The group of former winners is filled out by a strong cast that includes Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, a touching Lynn Cohen, and Jena Malone as a politically savvy foil for Katniss. What Catching Fire isn’t is an interesting love story. Neither Peeta nor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) can offer Katniss much more than a kind of all-purpose adoration, and I’m not even sure that Collins is really interested in which one wins her heart. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t break any new ground as Katniss but of course she doesn’t have to. Lawrence plays Katniss as a mirror of the movie’s emotions; she’s believably tough when it’s called for and displays an impressive amount of fright when the terrors of the Games begin to mount. What Katniss isn’t though is a politically engaged person, and the film repeats what I thought was a problem with the novel. Katniss is repeatedly confronted with signs of a changing political climate; there’s the quiet subversion in the behavior of Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) on her support staff and the brutal repression on display when Gale is flogged by a District 12 functionary. There are also multiple scenes where Katniss watches footage of riots on television, but it’s never made clear that she understands the scope of the situation or her own value as a symbol of hope. The film and the novel present Katniss’s political awakening as a “plot twist” but by the time it happens we’re already way ahead of her. There are one novel (that I haven't read) and two films left in the Hunger Games, and while I look forward to seeing how the series broadens the point of view of its heroine I just wish that the process had begun a little sooner.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back is an above average example of a familiar type of movie, one in which a teenager grows up and gets some adult perspective over the course of a summer. 14-year old Duncan (Liam James) isn't happy about spending the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) at Trent's beach house. Casting Carell as a jerk was a smart choice by co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants. Trent insults Duncan's shyness in the opening scene, and we instantly feel like we don't know what's ahead. Faxon and Rash have cast their movie well; the presence of Carell, Collette, Amanda Peet (who wrote this), and especially Allison Janney as a drunken neighbor turns the beach house scenes into a sour, uncomfortable hell for Duncan. It isn't surprising that Duncan would want to escape, nor is it surprising that he would find a friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the garrulous, goofball manager of an aging nearby water park. I was waiting with some dread for the scene in which Owen turns out to be a disappointment, but Faxon and Rash sidestep this moment by making him a man acutely aware of his own flaws. (The always welcome Maya Rudolph plays the woman who wants to straighten Owen out.) The ways in which Duncan gains confidence (impromptu break dancing, sneaking off to a party at which he's forbidden to drink) are fresh and honest and his attraction to a local girl (AnnaSophia Robb) feels like the beginning of something rather than a screenwriter working out an old crush. The Way, Way Back sneaks up with its emotional honesty, and the final moment between Duncan and Pam is well-earned. This is a movie that will win you over.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Music: Bob Marley - "Cornerstone"

I caught some of Kevin MacDonald's Marley on TV and was struck both by the simple beauty of this song and by its supposed genesis in Marley's rejection by a father he barley knew. See below for a clip from Marley.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World must be considered in light of its place in Marvel Studios’ attempt to create an epic, interlocking series of films that involves both core characters like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and lesser known heroes in films yet to come. This installment of Thor has a job to do then ; it must carry the macro-story forward while still developing the characters and situations introduced in Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor film. That The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, succeeds to a large degree should be considered a sign of the overall health of the Marvel project. The opening scenes find Thor bringing peace to the Nine Realms (locations like “Vanaheim” appear in titles on the screen) with the help of old friends like Sif (Jamie Alexander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson). A reluctant Thor is being groomed to become King of Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) while brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) languishes in prison because of his actions in The Avengers. In the unlikely event that The Dark World is your first stop in the Marvel Universe then you should know that Hiddleston’s Loki is looking like Marvel’s insurance policy, a character that can be hauled out at any point to make mischief. That certainly happens here, but only after a good deal of the story has already unfolded.

The central villain of Thor: The Dark World is called Malekith and played by an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston. There’s a good deal of exposition around Malekith’s desire to use a substance called the “Aether” to bring darkness to the universe. The search for the Aether intersects with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her Earthbound friends Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kat Dennings, holding up the comic end well). Jane discovers a dimensional portal which leads to her merging with the Aether, a reunion with Thor, and an a race to stop Malekith from destroying everything. Though The Dark World lacks some of the charm of the first Thor it tells its story with great efficiency. The battle scenes aren’t overlong and Hemsworth is good at conveying just how much Thor’s efforts cost him. I wish that Malekith had been individualized a little more, he’s a little too close to the anonymous aliens of The Avengers, yet Eccleston layers on the menace skillfully and makes a little something out of the part. The rendering of Asgard has improved since the last film, but the people there are still far less fun than Jane and her crew. Only Idris Elba as the watchful Heimdall suggests depths beyond his function in the plot. I’ve no doubt that there are hidden things here that non-comic readers like me will miss; that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the film. Finally The Dark World is a bridge from one Marvel film to another, but if you’re already on the ride then it’s a bridge worth crossing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Master class

The genius of Alfre Woodard. (Ebert)
Sitting on her porch with Solomon and the continually violated Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), Mistress Shaw smiles at them and presides over a kind of mad tea party. Mistress Shaw, as Woodard plays her, is maybe a little mad, but her madness could also be seen as will power. There's something deliberately absurd, or absurdist, about her, and she can afford this luxury because she has come to some conclusions about her place in the world and her debased milieu. McQueen has given Woodard what seems like the key line of his film, and she pronounces it with such airy authority that it has haunted my consciousness ever since I heard her say it. "The plague of the Pharaohs is but a poor sample of what awaits the plantation class," she says to Solomon, in a way that makes it seem like an open-and-shut case that barely touches the hem of her own private, locked-away consciousness. This line augurs earthly punishment for the American South, but Woodard suggests much more than that. Will there really be a judgment for human evildoing after death? I'm assuming you've given this idea some thought at one time or another. I’ve never been sure. But I’m slightly surer that there might be because of the smilingly certain way that Woodard says that line.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing

Nobel Prize winning novelist Doris Lessing died yesterday at age 94. This 1969 article by Roger Ebert reveals that Lessing had a healthy degree of skepticism about the world and the place of the novelist within it. (Photo by Ida Kar)
About her own work, Ms. Lessing is less expansive. "I keep on writing," she said. "I consider that professionalism. But I don't see the use of it sometimes. I really do believe there's no use. Sometime in the next few years it's all going to end. It will be the bomb, or bacterial warfare, or we'll simply foul our environment beyond help. We're too stupid to make the decisions we have to make, and so we'll commit suicide. Sometimes I think man is programmed to destroy himself. So writing novels is a useless occupation. I wonder if small groups of us—of mankind, that is—will survive here and there and be able to carry on. I wonder what the conditions of survival would be. You see, these are absolutely the most important questions but nobody cares about them."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Music: Ben Sidran - "Nardis"

I didn't know much about Sidran until I heard him on the WTF podcast, but this performance (Sidran's lyrics over the Miles Davis-written tune) would seem to be a good example of the jazz niche that he has carved out for himself. Sidran is obviously a smart man; the podcast is worth checking out and I'd like to read some of his interviews with other jazz musicians.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the film we have waiting for about slavery, and in an important way it is the film we deserve as well. We are used to screen stories about African-American life that follow arcs of hardship followed by easy uplift, or those that push well-meaning whites into the foreground while making supporting characters out of those who need their stories told the most. Director Steve McQueen, working from a rich screenplay by John Ridley that is itself a work of art, has refused to accept shopworn notions about the ways Americans are willing to look at their history on screen. McQueen’s hand is almost invisible here; we are not invited to feel empathy for and certainly not to pity the slave characters but rather simply to be with them and acknowledge both their humanity and the brutality of their captors. 12 Years a Slave is drawn from the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which was published in 1853 after Northup had been freed from slavery. Once a free man with wife and children in New York, Northup is kidnapped after being tricked by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who profess to admire his talent for the violin. Solomon is transported to New Orleans and becomes the property of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man with no real appetite for what slavery entails who comes to appreciate Solomon (mistaken for a Georgia runaway and renamed “Platt’) and his intelligence. After things go wrong at Ford’s Platt is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal master who owns him for the rest of years in slavery.

John Ridley’s script is clear-eyed about the mechanics of slavery in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. It isn’t for nothing that McQueen includes shots of the boat churning away as it takes Solomon and others newly kidnapped south to be sold. There is also a stunning overhead shot of newly kidnapped slaves stuffed into the back of a wagon like the product they are. The auction at which Ford buys Solomon/Platt is conducted in the home of a middleman (Paul Giamatti) and would almost be funny for its dry gentility if it didn’t echo with the sounds of a mother pleading not to be separated from her children. There are multiple levels of control even at Ford’s plantation, a place presented as an outpost of relative civility. Platt runs afoul of a low-level white boss (Paul Dano in the film’s most shaky performance) and Ford can only sell Platt  to Epps because, as he tells Platt, “You’ve made a reputation for yourself.” Platt’s value as property is down, and not even Ford considers him in any other light. It is this sobriety about the way that the human economy of slavery sustained the culture that might be the most valuable gift of 12 Years a Slave. Ridley and McQueen don’t view slavery as an obstacle against which dignity must be maintained but rather as a systemic imposition on that dignity. The meagerness of the psychic comfort available to the slaves  - mostly singing, there’s no laughter even in their interactions with each other - is recognized and faced squarely.

When Platt arrives at the Epps plantation his already difficult life becomes even harder. There are daily whippings for those who can’t pick a consistent amount of cotton and Epps drags Platt and his other slaves into the middle of his tumultuous relationship with his wife. (Sarah Paulson). It is impossible to know how  to divide responsibility for the conception of the Epps character among McQueen, Fassbender, and Ridley, but it is with Epps that 12 Years a Slave loses some of its footing. Epps is a religious man saddled with what looks to us like a welter of  psychological problems from alcoholism to manic fits, and these are compounded by his erotic fixation on the young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’ attachment to Patsey and his conflict about it lead to the single most difficult to watch scene in the film, when Platt is dragged into the middle of Patsey’s punishment for getting a bar of soap from a neighboring plantation. The problem with all of this isn’t that masters didn’t sometimes take sexual advantage of their female slaves, we know they did, but that Patsey exists in the movie only to sexualize Epps’ behavior. Nyong’o is obviously a talented actress but she has little to do other take the brunt of her master and his wife’s abuse. Patsey’s biggest scene involves a speech where she pleads with Platt to kill her; Nyong’o brings a terrific ferocity to it but she should have been made more than a symbol. Adepero Oduye fares somewhat better as the mother who lost her children and in a remarkable one scene role Alfre Woodard brings home the horror of an outwardly comfortable woman who has sacrificed much to avoid the work of a slave. The existence of Woodard’s character alone is argument for  fuller treatment of Patsey. It is as if the filmmakers weren’t comfortable treating the sexual politics with the same dispassion they bring to everything else, except perhaps in the moment where Mistress Epps hits Patsey with a bottle. I’m not sure that making Epps a man in conflict between his God and his sexuality adds to our understanding of or horror at the institution of slavery in any way, it merely makes for a louder film.

12 Years a Slave never seriously considers the possibility of Platt running away, it is made clear that to attempt escape would mean death. Ridley’s script doesn’t pause to note time passing but rather piles day upon day upon indignity. The circumstances that lead to Platt becoming Solomon again involve an itinerant handyman played by Brad Pitt, who gets a scene about how slavery will one day pass away that feels forced and overwritten. Yet it is appropriate that the moment where Solomon reunites with his family is the one moment where he shares his emotion both with them and with us. Even Hans Zimmer’s spare score becomes something more than accent here. I wasn’t a fan of Steve McQueen’s last film Shame, a study of sex addiction which I thought draped excessive stylization over recognizable human behavior, but in 12 Years a Slave McQueen is working at full mastery. He is helped by an excellent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who like his director never asks for a emotional reaction when he can play the full complexity of a situation. Though they stumbled at moments over modern questions of motivation, the artists behind 12 Years a Slave have succeeded in producing an important work of great specificity and sincerity. 12 Years a Slave is an essential American film.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Girl Most Likely

It's a good sign that Kristen Wiig chose Girl Most Likely for her first major role after Bridesmaids. That choice coupled with the fact that she's not interested in doing a Bridesmaids sequel is proof enough for me that Wiig is interested in a career as opposed to momentary success. I only wish that Girl Most Likely, which unlike Bridesmaids Wiig didn't write, wasn't so uneven and so casual with the talents of a good cast. Wiig plays Imogene, once the winner of a prestigious playwriting  fellowship who is now most famous for never having produced any work. After years as a New York society girlfriend Imogene is single and back at home in New Jersey with her compulsive gambler mother (Annette Bening) and eccentric brother (Christopher Fitzgerald). There's also a boarder named Lee (Darren Criss) who helps Imogene open up emotionally and get ready to face the world again. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini get good performances out of their cast; if I didn't already know I would never have guessed that the restrained Wiig was a Saturday Night Live veteran. I especially liked Fitzgerald as a man so committed to his own shyness that he builds an exoskeleton even as his crush on a sweet boardwalk girl (Natasha Lyonne) is helping him see that there is life beyond the Jersey shore. The tone varies wildly; there are broad caricatures of New York book parties, good moments with Bening as a woman realizing what a bad mother she was, and a sequence with Bob Balaban that's out of a Wes Anderson movie. Just as things are settling down we get a bizarre, broad scene that resolves the fate of a character played by Matt Dillon who may or may not be with the CIA. Kristen Wiig can clearly handle what is asked of her dramatically, and so I wish the movie had been allowed to breathe a bit and not be turned into such mishmash of moods and styles. There's nothing in the writing to paint Imogene as woman of the theater. We're told that Imogene has playwriting ambition but not shown any until it's too late, but I can't totally dislike any movie that gives Whit Stillman a cameo as an impressed theatergoer. Girl Most Likely is a good line on Kristen Wiig's resume but finally a movie where too many ideas get in the way of a beating heart.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Gay teenagers would dress up as her for Halloween."

Lena Dunham interviews Mindy Kaling.
LENA: Let's start light: What would you like your legacy to be? For example, I hope to have made it easier to be oneself in this hardscrabble world and to have rescued at least 15 animals from certain death. I'd also like to be known as "prolific, iconoclastic, and winsome."

MINDY: "She threw the most amazing parties and she had the most gorgeous and cheerful husband. Gay teenagers would dress up as her for Halloween. She seemed to have read every book, yet no one ever saw her reading. She had the appetite of an Olympic swimmer and the physique of an Olympic figure skater. She dressed like Chloë Sevigny and could fuck for hours. . ."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Who Is Lorde?

Having recently become aware of just who this Lorde person is, I was intrigued to read this piece detailing not only her strong family background and slow arc to success but also some strong opinions on her contemporaries. But could she really become the next Kate Bush?
One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.

“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?” She’s also conscious of the influence she has on other young women. “Taylor Swift is so flawless, and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls."

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Kings of Summer

Although it relies slightly too much on musical montage, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' The Kings of Summer is a very winning, low-key tale of the moment when childhood passes away forever. In this case the "moment" is a summer when teenage friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) each reach their breaking point with life at home and decide to light out for the territory. In their case freedom means a shack constructed in the woods just far enough away from home that no one will think to look there. Joe can't take life with his widowed father (an excellent Nick Offerman), who doesn't know how to relate to anyone as a single parent. Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are sketched much more broadly but let's just say that their son is afraid of being stifled by boredom. There's a third traveler in the party, a strange kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who's in the movie mostly to move the plot along but who does provide some of the best laughs. Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio live well in their idyll for a time, swimming and playing and not admitting to each other that their food comes from a Boston Market on a nearby road. When trouble comes it comes believably in the form of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a good-hearted girl drawn to the boys' rebellion who can't help but come between two lifelong friends. There's fun around the edges of the movie, from Arias and Mullally and from Mary Lynn Rajskub as a cop, but Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta are honest about the fact that there's no going back for Joe and Patrick. The Kings of Summer ends with a brief moment of connection followed by a simple, heartbreaking image of life moving on. Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made a very good film about growing up in America.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Music: The Connells - "I Suppose"

Saw these guys for the first time in 20 years or so the other night, and while I'm not sure what the prospects are for a comeback the old tunes still sound pretty good. There are two videos of this song on YouTube, I picked this one because the vocals are clearer.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

All Is Lost

In J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost we are invited to consider the weathered face of Robert Redford, who plays an unnamed man piloting a small yacht through the Indian Ocean alone. We’re given only the barest scrap of information on Redford’s character; there’s a letter written by the character (whom I’ll just refer to as “Redford”) and read in voice-over at the opening in which he expresses deep regret to someone for something gone wrong. Though the story is structured as a struggle to survive at sea it isn't a leap to wonder if the title of the movie we’re watching has at least two meanings.

 After the hull of Redford’s boat is punctured by a stray shipping container he moves swiftly to patch the hole and continue on, though the fact that the water has destroyed his radio isn't a good sign. It’s the subsequent storm that makes survival a question, and it’s in these scenes that the movie takes hold thanks to the marvelous and somewhat unexpected work of Redford the actor. It seems to me that All Is Lost could only have been made with a star of Redford’s iconic value and this solo turn doesn’t allow him to hide behind charm or irony. Robert Redford is 77 years old, and although as a director he has made films of great sensitivity I don’t know that I’ve ever seen give as simple and moving an acting performance as he gives here. There is a keen intelligence to the character, but also a reserve of anger that the world hasn’t conformed to his vision. In a movie with almost dialogue how would I know what Redford is angry about? If All Is Lost has an idea about anything it is that even at sea and far from everyone there is no escape from the business of the world. The sneakers that bob out of the shipping container that strikes the Virginia Jean were clearly meant for someone, and the huge cargo ships that Redford (now on a life raft) encounters look like anonymous floating cities. The character is a man on the run, but Chandor doesn’t let us forget that the spinning of the world is an immutable force. These scenes of “contact” with the world outside of Redford’s boat are the only time we feel a directorial hand at work, but they are brief enough and they don’t spoil the movie’s unique spell. The technical achievement here is less showy than that on display in Gravity but at least as impressive. Chandor, working with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, knows how to make the Virginia Jean cabin and the inside of a life raft feel like spaces in which anything is possible. The other major character in the film, in a sense, is composer Alex Ebert, whose score is plaintive and restrained but never trite. Ebert’s music reminds us we’re watching something elemental, but it never gets in the way.

 I want to consider All Is Loston its own merits, of which there are many, but in a season of two formally rigorous films that are each built around a single actor and an imaginative director it is hard not to draw comparisons. Both All Is Lost and Gravity are about people making a choice to fight for life against great odds, but in Gravity the value of that choice is hammered home again and again while J.C. Chandor dares to suggest that the choice may have no meaning at all. Gravity neatly closes a circle for Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, but in doing so it highlights the overly determined nature of its plot. All Is Lost is less obviously accessible but has a much more deft touch in the way it doesn’t attempt to force certain answers. Then again, reading over this paragraph makes me question the prejudices that I bring to the film and I’ll give All Is Lost further credit for getting that response. Finally it matters little whether All Is Lost is better or worse than Gravity or any other film. It is a work of great maturity made by two artists working at their best; one is a director steeped in both cinema and the ideas that art exists to confront , and the other an actor with nothing to prove but much left to give.

Monday, November 04, 2013

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career, the 1979 film responsible for the careers of Judy Davis and Sam Neill and the feature film debut of director Gillian Armstrong, feels like a gift wrapped long ago but newly discovered. This tale of a young woman discovering her purpose in late 19th-century Australia is as vital and urgent as any of the well-remembered films of the 1970's but is all the more remarkable for having been made by unknowns entirely outside of the Hollywood system. My Brilliant Career is also one of the best films I've ever seen about a female main character, and it's certainly deserving of being more widely remembered than it seems to be today. Based on a novel by Miles Franklin published in 1901, My Brilliant Career is the story of a young, would-be writer named Sybylla (Davis) growing up in the bush with literary ambitions and no immediate prospects of marriage. Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother (Wendy Hughes) and other relatives to avoid  becoming an economic drain on her family, and that time away helps her cement an indomitable sense of self. A possible future arrives in the person of Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a neighbor with property who's smitten by Sybylla's independent spirit. My Brilliant Career is as much a movie about economics as it is a love story - it reminds me of Jane Campion's Bright Star in that respect - and Armstrong (working from a screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe) is very specific about the pressures on Sybylla and the reasons that Harry may be a godsend. Armstrong and Witcombe are also resolute about honoring the point that marriage to Harry is truly a choice for Sybylla, and not a necessity.

Judy Davis pops up in movies these days as a brittle comedienne, but in My Brilliant Career she's something very different and an absolute wonder. The first meeting between Sybylla and Harry is a classic, with Harry assuming Sybylla is a servant and Sybylla playing along by affecting an Irish accent. Davis is very good at capturing the fine shades of Sybylla's roiling emotions and one wonders if other roles in this vein were available to her and if not then why. Only a few years later Davis was playing Adela in A Passage to India, not exactly one of literature's great wild spirits. Watching the way Gillian Armstrong films Australia (verdant, empty, a little scary) makes me wonder what she could do with a Western. My Brilliant Career is a gorgeous film; its cinematography (by Donald McAlpine) and production design are detailed but never feel stiff. When there's so much sameness in film it's a joy to discover a work as fresh and open as My Brilliant Career, a film that still has much to say to audiences and to the way that other films depict their female characters. 

Soderbergh's favorite Bond

Here's a great and somewhat out of the blue post by Steven Soderbergh on On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a film ahead of its time but also one doomed to semi-obscurity because it was George Lazenby's only turn as James Bond.
Also, Lazenby has a vulnerability that Connery never had—there are scenes in which he looks legitimately terrified and others in which he convinces us that he is in love with Tracy (particularly in the final scene), which brings us to another reason OHMSS is so distinctive—it’s the only Bond film with a female character that isn’t a cartoon, and the only film in which Bond is so completely frustrated with his bosses he wants and tries to quit. In fact, everything about the film suggests a reboot before the idea of rebooting was even in the air, much less fashionable (especially the ending, which you could never get away with today)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sunday Music: Jason Isbell - "Stockholm"

A song from Isbell's recent Stockholm album with the singer's wife Amanda Shires contributing backing vocals and violin. On a side note, I'm happy to announce that with my posts today I've exceeded last year's post total and marked the first time since 2007 that the number of posts here has ever increased over the previous year.

No Such Thing

There's a certain amount of sweet nostalgia involved when I review a Hal Hartley film. Hartley, who in his career has only come within shouting distance of the studio system (Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope produced No Such Thing), will for me always be a symbol of the independent film boom of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Years ago I found a VHS copy of Hartley's Simple Men in a Tower Records clearance bin in suburban Atlanta, and it feels like I've had to work just as hard to see most of his output since then. I had no idea until now, for instance, of Hartley's involvement in this ambitious project. 2001's No Such Thing feels like as much of a bid for mainstream acceptance as Hartley is capable of. There are well-known names (Helen Mirren, Julie Christie), a young star with credibility (Sarah Polley, now a hot director herself), and a plot elemental enough to resonate with audiences. Polley plays Beatrice, a young journalist whose fiancee has disappeared while investigating the supposing sighting of a monster in Iceland. (No Such Thing was funded in part by the Icelandic Film Council, and not to be cynical but I think the funding at least in part explains the setting.) Beatrice takes off for Iceland with the blessing of her producer (played broadly by Mirren) but on the way she stumbles into celebrity when she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean. Put back into the world thanks to a kindly doctor (Christie) and a bizarre operation, Beatrice is soon among a group of villagers who view her as an ideal sacrificial candidate to appease the Monster (Robert John Burke).

Hartley's conception of the Monster anticipates a complaint we've heard all too often in the last decade: Modern life has become both too fast and too trivial ("No one's scared of me anymore."), and it's enough make a monster want to kill someone. Or in this case, many people. Despite it's beauty and the beast trappings No Such Thing isn't a story about inner beauty or appreciating differences, but rather about checking out to follow one's own path. Hartley works in his usual dryly funny style; there's an almost-blind scientist (Baltasar Kormakur) who's good for some slapstick humor and who may hold the key to the Monster's future. Burke plays the Monster with the same air of resignation he brought to Hartley's Simple Men and Polley brings the same flinty intelligence to Beatrice that is on display in all of her work. There is no interest in ending the film on a note of conventional uplift, but that's hardly surprising. Both Hartley and his characters are dissatisfied with what they see around them, but if No Such Thing has a central idea it's that there's nothing wrong with choosing to exist on one's own terms. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, is the fact-based story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of an American cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama. Greengrass, director of the most popular films in the Bourne series, has brought his usual immersive style to the story and he gets a strong, centering performance from Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips. Although Captain Phillips has been marketed as an action movie and the film’s third act (after Phillips has left the ship in a lifeboat in the pirates’ custody) does involve the heavy presence of the U.S. Navy, the heart of the story lies in the relationship between Phillips and the leader of his captors. Muse (Barkhad Abdi, displaying either remarkable talent or the best case of acting beginner‘s luck in recent memory), is under as much pressure to hijack the Alabama as Phillips is to complete the ship’s journey. There’s a warlord who depends on the income that Muse and his crew deliver with their hijackings and if Muse can’t keep up the cash flow then the film implies that he won’t have a long retirement to look forward to. Captain Phillips wants to tell a story about the human side of a global economy.

Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, and writer Billy Ray (working from Phillips’ own memoir) deserve credit for not turning Richard Phillips into a swashbuckler or a gung-ho patriot. (Imagine how bad this film would have been if it had been made in the 1980’s.) Phillips is a grinder, obsessed with detail and not that interested in the crew’s complaints about sailing into dangerous waters unprotected. Some of Hanks’ best moments are when Phillips is at his most dismissive when a crewman (Chris Mulkey) invokes his union membership and starts to incite dissent. Ray starts his screenplay with a rather too on-the-nose scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) about family compromises and corporate cost-cutting, and when he’s in the lifeboat with Muse later Phillips is all too aware that the Navy will not allow the pirates to win even if it means his own death. In Greengrass and Ray’s telling, Richard Phillips is a man aware of his place on the balance sheet. Again though, the script hits awfully hard on the parallels between Phillips and Muse as pawns in the global economy. Could Phillips really have been this insightful about his own situation while tending to the injured foot of one his captors? Hanks underplays everything during the long lifeboat section with masterful control until a breakdown at the end, but we still can see the hands of a screenwriter at work. Events speed towards their inevitable conclusion when the Navy shows up to bring Phillips home. Lip service is paid to resolving things peacefully but any moral debate is pushed aside in favor of a protracted standoff between SEALS and the pirates. But then there’s that breakdown at the end. The film finally works because of Paul Greengrass and his command of energy and pace, but most importantly because Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi never let us forget the human stakes of what we’re watching.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Some art is real"

Klosterman on Reed.
Reed died yesterday — somehow both predictably and surprisingly — at the age of 71. You probably won't find an obituary that fails to mention the cantankerous complexities of his character. In the punk oral history Please Kill Me, Reed's nastiness is literally described as "famous," which is completely accurate. He was uncommonly famous for acting like a prick; it was essential to who he was as a public figure. He was the single-most famous jerk in an idiom supersaturated with jerks who hope to be famous. But that's not why his death is such a loss. That's not what's important. What's important is that this universally shared opinion about Lou Reed's persona never made anyone question the merits of his music. You were allowed to think whatever you wanted about who he was as a person (mostly because he didn't seem to care), but there was never any argument over the veracity of his genius. Few rational listeners injected their discomfort with Reed's personality into the experience of hearing his records; even fewer concluded that the way he sometimes acted in public eroded the insight of his output. You might say, "I hate Lou Reed," but you couldn't say, "I hate Lou Reed and I hate all his music." If you did, it only meant you had terrible taste in everything. This is why Reed's life was such a profound, unparalleled success: He proved that the only thing that truly mattered about an artist was the art.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Wisdom of Lou

From the '90s Miramax movie Blue in the Face.....

Sunday Music: Lou Reed - "Sweet Jane"

Lou Reed has died at age 71. I had thought of posting a lesser known song but I do like this performance of "Sweet Jane" (from Julian Schnabel's Berlin) despite the closing credits. Here's a 1989 Rolling Stone story that I read just about the time I discovered Lou and the New York album.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dept. of Advance Notice (12 Years a Slave)

Here is an excellent piece by Wesley Morris which puts 12 Years a Slave in context against decades of white-centered, "uplifiting" movies about race. Morris loses me a little bit when he tries to rope in Miley Cyrus. Whatever one thinks of the VMA routine, the African-American dancers who appeared with Cyrus were compensated and not performing against their will. Ascribing racist intent to Cyrus at this point just feels like piling on. Nevertheless, Morris has me eager to see the film and so does Glenn Kenny. Be warned, Kenny goes into a bit more specific detail on plot than Morris does but if you're worried about spoilers then 12 Years a Slave isn't a movie for you. Morris:
The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn't know whether he'll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides. When one Sunday Solomon fetches Patsey from a neighboring plantation and the woman of the house, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), explains to her guests her strategy for survival, he simply listens. Woodard invests that monologue with all her flighty, baroquely accented authority. It's an exquisite piece of writing that acknowledges the cunning and self-delusion some slaves could deploy to make the best of a terrible situation. Ridley typed it up. Woodard turns it into cursive.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In the tradition of....

Those who found fault with the most recent "twist" on Homeland don't know enough about thriller plotting. (Thompson on Hollywood)
"Undermining the believability of what we see" (a sore point with the above sorehead) is a staple tool in the thriller writer's kit, and not only of those on the far end of the noir spectrum, such as Woolrich and Bardin, whose anti-heroes are often unreliable to the point of psychosis. A more mainstream example, Robert Ludlum's novel "The Bourne Identity," though not the film version, employed major efforts of misdirection to convince Bourne himself, and the reader, that the amnesiac fugitive is actually Carlos, the Most Wanted Terrorist of the era in which the book was written. Does that make Ludlum, too, a "cheater"?

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Day with the Cup

Six-time Stanley Cup winner Ken Dryden retired before the "Day with the Cup" tradition began, but he still managed to get his turn. Being maybe the greatest goalie of all time has its perks. This story feels like it could only happen in Canada. (Grantland)
At one point in the evening, Monty Magarrell, the master of ceremonies, Jen's father-in-law, asked those who had helped out at the rink at any time during its history to stand. Astonishing those who had come back home to see the Cup, and astonishing each other as they looked around, most of the rink stood. A small town runs on volunteers. There's not enough money to hire others to do what needs to be done. There's too much to do. And now there are lots of nice new arenas. Even Winnipeg doesn't seem so far away. At times, the most fervent volunteers wonder why they do what they do. But if they stop, things break down, the challenge to live where they do grows, and their reason to stay diminishes. The Cup gave the people of Domain and area a need to get together to do what didn't seem possible. And in doing it, to remind themselves why they volunteer, why they live in Domain, why their rink matters; to feel proud and, as Jen Magarrell put it, for "bragging rights to boot!" Two years later, people still talk about "the night the Stanley Cup was in Domain."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Music: Mark Mulcahy - "Ladies From Town"

A great, recent live version of a Miracle Legion classic. This song has always been one of my favorites.

Enough Said

The career of the writer/director Nicole Holofcener is an unusual and precious thing in American movies. Since her 1996 debut Walking and Talking, Holofcener has reemerged every three or four years with another smart, well-acted, female-driven drama that's grounded in emotional reality. Holofcener is one of a very small number of major filmmakers of either gender who seems interested in how 21st century Americans relate to each other, and her new Enough Said demonstrates that her talent is only deepening. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the most substantial film role of her career) is a divorced L.A. masseuse whose days are filled with work and worry over her daughter Ellen's (Tracey Fairaway) impending departure for college. Eva is an attentive Mom with a slight need to be the cool parent; her advice to Ellen's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevenson, trying to transition into acting after becoming known for fashion blogging) about a boyfriend is something that most parents wouldn't say to a child who wasn't theirs. During an evening out with friends Eva is introduced to Albert (James Gandolfini), who will become her boyfriend, and to a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener, who has worked with Holofcener since Walking and Talking) who will become a client and confidant. Albert and Marianne used to be married. Then things get complicated.

I hope that James Gandolfini enjoyed playing Albert, because he is very good in the role and he demonstrates once again that there was so much more to him than just Tony Soprano. Gandolfini performs with great dignity, making Albert a man who's comfortable in his own habits but still has a strong need to connect. Albert's weight is an issue in the movie, and Gandolfini (like Louis-Dreyfus and Keener as well) isn't afraid to appear either physically or behaviorally unattractive on screen. Holofcener has a gift for getting vanity-free performances out of her cast, but when the (often very funny) writing is this good then actors are happy to play along. As good as Gandolfini is, Enough Said belongs to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The movie is a little coy at first about the ways in which Eva is a mess, but as her relationship deepens with Albert she's also unable to let go of the friendship with Marianne despite the fact that Marianne will run down Albert at every turn. There's a tricky speech that Holofcener writes Eva near the end in which she tries to justify her behavior, but Albert gets to call her out on her duplicity. It's a moment when Eva could look either monstrous or stupid, but Louis-Dreyfus nails the scene. Enough Said is, at its heart, a movie about the different kinds of holes people need to fill. Old wounds are exposed in a marvelous dinner scene that brings Eva together with her ex (Toby Huss) and their friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone). It's the kind of moment that happens every day in real life but that movies almost entirely miss, and it's refreshing to see Holofcener find it here. There's so much in Enough Said that Holofcener almost doesn't have time to explore it all. Albert and Eva's relationship is played with a very sweet tentativeness, but there's also the full lives of the two teenage girls and a subplot (which reminded me of Holofcener's Friends With Money) about Collette's character being unable to communicate with her maid. Enough Said doesn't end so much as it stops and that's not a bad thing here, since Nicole Holofcener is so skilled at creating rich, full on screen lives for her characters that will continue long after the credits have rolled.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mingus Yes Yes

Great piece on the irascible Charles Mingus, whose idea of his own life wasn't bounded by the limits of his art form.
Mingus wasn’t afraid of the new, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. In his liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (1959)—on the cover of which he appeared in Chinese imperial robes, with a Fu Manchu mustache—he grumbled, “ten to fifteen year cycles in jazz are camouflages for insecure musicians who hide behind the current style.” (“Camouflage” was the ultimate insult for Mingus, for whom art was nothing without self-exposure.) Just as “sham copies” had dishonored Parker’s genius, so young jazz musicians were now “hanging on to a few of the rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create.” In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself. Jazz had always been an art of quotation and allusion, a palimpsest of commentaries on other musicians’ interpretations of the same material. But with Mingus, who came into his own as jazz reached middle age, it acquired a more acute sense of historicity, even if his own work—a one-man genre he called “Mingus music,” as expansive and restless as the man himself—seemed to defy periodization.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2 on the Horizon

Kechiche takes his time too, giving his film three hours to "breathe," as he put it at the Q&A after the press screening—where he also said that he plans to add 40 minutes more to the final cut. But except when the director spells out a theme a little too literally, foreshadowing Adèle and Emma's meeting with a discussion in Adèle's class of an 18th-century novel that, as Adèle says later, really "puts us inside the skin" of its heroine, the film never feels padded or tiresome. Other scenes that feel a bit over-determined at first, like the meet-the-parents dinner with Adèle's parents that is a too-neat mirror opposite of the one they just shared with Emma's, redeem themselves by building on the symphonic emotional arc that is this movie's backbone, the actresses' nuanced reactions telling us more about the love that is keeping this couple together and the forces that are pulling them apart.

Q: Why were vampires such an interesting subject for Jarmusch?

A: “For me, it was obviously not a horror movie as most vampire films are...I think it's just the overview that it allowed, that they've been alive so long to show a love story that spans that amount of time...we're just observing these characters that happen to be very strange and interesting," he said. "So to be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time was, I think, really attractive to me, and their own love story to span that time was what drew me to it.” “Vampires start as humans, they're not zombies that return from the dead," Jarmusch continued. "So in any case they are not just metaphorically humans. They are humans that have been transformed. They’re still humans so that was interesting.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Music: David Murray - "Flowers For Albert"

I've been reading Will Hermes' Love Goes To Buildings On Fire about the 1970's New York music scene, and I picked out a 1978 performance of a minimalist jazz classic.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


This review contains mild spoilers. Read at your own risk. 

The first few minutes of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity could be an advertisement for how much fun it is to be an astronaut. With Earth in the background, a NASA veteran named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) putters around while extolling the performance of his jet pack while first-timer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works to install a new guidance system on the Hubbell Telescope. Kowalski is exactly what one would expect George Clooney to be like if he was an astronaut, full of jokes and banter with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) while the nervous Stone is focused on her work. During these initial scenes it isn't hard to notice how beautiful space is. The sumptuous visual effects and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography combine to create something new, a skyscape that's gorgeous but also textured. The American shuttle and the other spacecraft encountered in the film feel fragile and all too real; there's nothing "science fiction" about Gravity. Cuaron, whose last film was the too long ago Children of Men, is testing his limits here and the for a while the results are exhilarating since his vision of Earth orbit is both wonderfully cinematic and a place where someone could die. Gravity was made to be seen with the benefit of the new, immersive 3D technology. Yes, water and pens and other objects float toward the audience but the intent isn't to make you jump back from the screen. It's to invite you inside of the place we all share.

Things go badly wrong when a debris field (caused by the destruction of a Russian satellite) destroys the shuttle and leaves Stone and Kowalski stranded. (The other American astronauts are only voices.) It is at this point that the true purpose of Gravity begins to reveal itself and that the visual magic begins to wear off a little. Cuaron wants to remind us to embrace life no matter how bad things get, because it's a beautiful planet and the other options are few. Since the astronauts don't have much else to do in space their back story is dropped directly onto our heads. It's Kowalski's last mission and Stone lost a young daughter in an accident (Kowalski asks Stone questions like they've just met in the air lock.), so if you're going into the movie cold the question of which character needs a wake-up call is answered even before things get dicey. Gravity is Sandra Bullock's show and her performance is so full of grit and pain that I wish there was a more fully fleshed-out movie around it. It is to Bullock's credit that she transcends the somewhat schematic nature of Cuaron's vision, for her character is nothing less than a floating symbol of human resilience. The bravura action sequences, including an attempt to travel between spacecraft with the aid of a fire extinguisher, are superbly done and worth dealing with the movie's other issues for but they also reduce a complicated woman to a set of base human needs. Cuaron (who wrote the script with his son Jonas) could maybe get by with playing the vastness of space off against the primal instinct to survive, but he also has to give the movie an ending. Gravity is finally a strange hybrid of a movie about both inner strength and jet packs, and in space inner strength will only get you so far.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sunday Music: Ha Ha Tonka - "Usual Suspects"

Again, sorry about the light blogging but movie reviews should resume soon. Here's a song from a band that's new to me, and proof that every once in a while the unsolicited things in your Facebook feed are worth checking out.

Monday, September 30, 2013

In Birmingham...

Sorry for the drought in posting. Meanwhile, a new documentary on the unique role of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in music history is a reminder that Puritans misunderstand America. The "Swampers" included David Hood, who is the father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers.
At the moment, the puritanical tradition in American politics finds its fullest expression in a political party that has evidently lost its ability to win national elections but is willing to shut down the government and risk the entire country’s economic future rather than compromise its ideals. No doubt that seems courageous and inspiring to those who share those ideals, which, as I wrote last week, are not as crazy as they seem at first glance. (Republican strategy for holding power: bread and circuses, without the bread.) But there’s a current of nihilism, of ritual self-purification, of red-white-and-blue seppuku, that has an epidemiological grip on the American right, and it’s disturbingly strong right now.

It’s almost impossible to say anything clear-headed about the hyper-patriotic zeal of Tea Party people who put those giant screaming-eagle stickers and “Terrorist Hunting Permits” on the back windows of their F-150 pickups, about the desperate ahistorical yearning to recapture some libertarian white-people wonderland that never existed in the first place. But let’s try this: That’s an American tradition, but it’s not the American tradition. I firmly believe that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, and that flag-waving does little more than reveal the weakness of one’s argument. But it is a matter of fact, and not political opinion, that the dominant current of American culture has always been a heterodox and dynamic flow, full of surprises and unexpected combinations and cultural and racial miscegenation of all sorts. That is the lesson of Muscle Shoals, and of Camalier’s film “Muscle Shoals.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013


(I don't think I've given away anything that isn't in the ads, but read at your own risk.) 

Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, succeeds as a tense and exacting thriller that finds a way of asking it audience to do the same moral work that confronts its characters. While on the surface Villenueve has made a crackling crime story with a plot much more complicated than movie’s marketing suggests, he and writer Aaron Guzikowski also continue to switch points of view and sympathies to create a nuanced  piece of adult cinema that speaks with remarkable lack of judgement. On Thanksgiving Day, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their two children down the street to eat with their good friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch. After dinner the Dovers’ young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the Birches’ Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). The disappearance is quickly tied to an old RV seen in the area and its driver Alex (Paul Dano, in a high wire act of a performance) is arrested by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Alex is a childlike young man whose level of understanding is questionable. He is released into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence; then Keller takes matters into his own hands and the movie becomes something else entirely.

When Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex we understand his behavior even as we abhor it. The ambivalence with which Franklin and Nancy react is a mirror for our own feelings, and Villenueve doesn’t flinch from the horror of Keller’s actions. Some have suggested Prisoners is an allegory for American behavior post-9/11, but while the movie is without doubt located in the present it isn’t overtly political  and rather tries to speak to the way that violence can flow across generations. Keller has a world view (“Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”) that movies usually marginalize as nutty or dangerous, but from the first scene Guzikowski and Jackman locate it deep in Keller’s psyche. His behavior is the result of the man he has been formed into, and that’s why (though the uselessness  of torture is addressed) I largely resist a political interpretation. Keller has to do something because he can’t do nothing, and our reaction is complicated by the way that he slowly realizes he isn’t accomplishing anything. Hugh Jackman plays Keller with a focus and intensity that his more celebrated roles don’t allow for. There is no room for Jackman to be grumpy or sarcastic a la Wolverine, and so he isn’t. If Prisoners finds an audience then this is a career changing performance, and one supported by excellent work from Gyllenhaal and Dano.

The marvel of Prisoners is the way it complicates our reactions. From one scene to the next we can see how Keller views Loki (dedicated to the point of obsession) as brusque and indifferent and how Loki looks at Keller as a man folding in on himself who is capable of anything. The great Viola Davis is on screen much less than the male leads, but after only a few minutes the way that Nancy can show a kind of situational compassion feels completely consistent in the world of the movie. There is room enough in a two and a half hour running time both for a study of Keller and for a police procedural that rewards close attention.  Denis Villenueve is a young director worthy of regard. I actually didn’t care much for his celebrated Incendies, but that film shares with Prisoners a sense of the past at work in the present in a way that we can never escape. If there is a flaw here it is the irony of the ending, which can be anticipated (in a general sense) after we experience the heat of Keller’s rage. Yet it’s the ending and the full horror of Prisoners, not just the initial abduction, that elevates what could have been a superbly made crime movie into a genuine tragedy.