Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wednesday Music: Wilco - "Blasting Fonda"

I discovered this deep catalog Wilco song from watching the end of the forgotten '90s faux-noir Feeling Minnesota. Did you know Bob Dylan covered "Ring of Fire"? This movie made so little impact that it came as quite a surprise to me it's on the soundtrack as well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Sorry about the the post-free week, I'm still processing both Amour and Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars. Taking a detour into the world of public health, here's an account of why we need men like the late C. Everett Koop now more than ever. (New Yorker/HTV)
Because Everett Koop, the grumpy man who dressed like a nineteenth-century preacher and wore a beard that made him look like Lincoln, was the most utterly consistent public servant I have ever seen. He simply required scientific decisions to be governed by science. People rarely asked him about that—because few believed it was possible. If they had, he would have told them what he told me when I talked to him a few years ago, for a story I wrote about the George W. Bush Administration’s many attempts to bend scientific facts to fit its political vantage point. “You have to separate moral questions from the questions of science,” he told me at the time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Guest Post: Rigoletto in HD

(Dr. Stanley Crowe, aka my father, reviews the recent HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera production of Rigoletto. Read Dad's previous guest post here.)

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" was broadcast in HD in cinemas on Saturday, 16 February. Newspaper reviews of the production had been generally positive, for the performances were strong, even if some aspects of the production were controversial. The action has been updated from 16th Century Mantua to 1960's Las Vegas. The Duke is an entertainer who owns a casino, and the courtiers and Rigoletto are his entourage. Thus a social distinction is blurred between the courtiers and Rigoletto, who in the 16th Century version is a jester and very much the social inferior of the courtiers. The costuming of this updated version suggests that a social distinction still is present, but if that's the case, it's not clear exactly what Rigoletto's role is in the casino owner's world.

But never mind. There were other things to think about. Let's agree that opera is not just about the music -- there is a histrionic dimension and a dimension of what we might call spectacle. The updated sets looked great. Lots of neon, period-appropriate costumes, and lots of little domestic details. The acting too was good, given the constraints of having to sing. In such updated productions, a viewer familiar with the opera is always going to be thinking, "I wonder how they will stage this or that particular scene or piece of business?" And I wondered that a lot -- and was always struck by the cleverness of the solutions to the potential staging problems. Was having my mind on these matters a distraction, or was it part of the pleasure? A little of both, maybe, depending on the particular scene.

The singing ranged from very good to excellent. Piotr Beczala's Duke looked good, acted well, and sang very solidly. He was better, I thought, in the duets and ensembles than in his solos, but these weren't bad, especially "La donna e mobile." The cabaletta in Act Two, "Possente amor mi chiama," used to be often omitted in performance, and it might well have been omitted here -- it was Beczala's weakest moment of solo singing (and besides, it's not all that arresting as music). The Serbian baritone Zelko Lucic was Rigoletto. He has a good-sized and reliable voice that isn't typically rounded and smooth, but he can deploy it effectively throughout its range and he sang his passages with his vulnerable daughter, Gilda, movingly. I was reminded of another Rigoletto, the Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell -- also non-Italianate in sound and also effective. As an actor, Lucic was adequate, but the sincerity of his singing carried the day. The most impressive performance was Diana Damrau's Gilda. She has the hardest music to sing and was able to covey the inner conflicts of her character while singing it. Her singing was also the most polished, expressive, and varied of the main characters. It was a very impressive performance. A special shout-out should go to the bass who played Sparafucile, the assassin -- pretty reliably solid of voice and enjoying the nastiness of his role.

In the intervals, the soprano Renee Fleming interviewed the cast members. She asked all of them (who all had experience in more traditional productions), "How did you have to adjust your interpretation for this production?" The answer in all cases was, "We really didn't. After all, power, sex, money, father-daughter relationships are as powerful motivators now as they were in Verdi's time." Which raised the question in my mind, "So . . . did we really NEED an updated production? Maybe not -- but it was a good show.

Footnote: We can complain about problems caused by updating, but even in Verdi's original 1851 scenario there were problems. In that version, we learn early on that Rigoletto lives "in un' remoto calle" -- in a hidden-away street, where he is, of course, trying to keep his daughter away from the attention of the court. And yet, when the courtiers come to abduct her, they succeed in tricking Rigoletto into believing that it's the Countess Ceprano they want to abduct. So Rigoletto lives next door to (or across the street) from a nobleman? That's no more credible than Las Vegas!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Music: Lucinda Williams (w/ Sara & Sean Watkins) - "Lafayette"

Thought of this tune after hearing Lucinda Williams on the WTF podcast, during which Marc Maron once again demonstrates how a need to be seen as cool can get in the way of a good interview. Still it's a great song, and I also recommend John Mellencamp's cover version.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Work By Friends: Jody Blackwell - "Native"

Jody Blackwell is my oldest friend, in terms of seniority for sure if not consecutive service. (Though I like to think our friendship has gone straight through, with long pauses.) She has been making music for years, and it all adds up to something that sounds like this. I'm so proud to share this; read more about Jody here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Side Effects

I walked into Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects about 20 minutes late after misreading my ticket and going into Identity Thief. (I sat through all the commercials and previews and didn’t realize my error until the feature started.) I wish I could say that Side Effects is so thematically rich, so visually stunning, or even just so densely plotted that I have to seen it again in order to give it a fair review, but Steven Soderbergh’s “final” film neither requires nor deserves eight more dollars from me.

  Side Effects is nominally a film about psychiatric medication, like the pills Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) takes to combat depression. Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just come off a short jail sentence for insider trading, and early in the film Emily drives her car into a wall in an apparent suicide attempt. Neither Doctors Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) nor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) can come up with a prescription that works for Emily until Banks prescribes a drug called Ablixa, a drug he is being paid to recruit patients for in a clinical trial. Things appear to be working at first, but when Emily is jailed for murder Banks’ judgment is questioned and his career begins to fall apart. There were a few moments in Side Effects when I thought Scott Z. Burns’ script might turn into an examination of modern-day medical ethics, but no such luck. I wasn't clear why Banks (rather than the drug company) was liable for what happened to Emily, and the way in which he seems to be working both as Emily’s doctor and with the police during her trial is a plot point that would get called out in a Law & Order writers’ room.

 The stew of plot devices that is Side Effects feels like something one would find in a Lifetime movie as opposed to a script worthy of Soderbergh. Drugs, murder, dueling psychiatrists, insider trading, and (my favorite) situational lesbianism all get their moment and the result puts all the right people in their place but the movie never takes hold. Banks is meant to be a creature of the post-recession world, taking on too much work when his wife (Vinessa Shaw) loses her job, but the ease with which he manipulates others while fighting for his life is a bit much to take. Rooney Mara is the highlight of Side Effects, believable when she’s supposed to be lost in a haze of medication and also as something much more dangerous. It’s a bold performance and different enough from her signature Dragon Tattoo role to confirm that she’s the real thing. Both Rooney Mara and Steven Soderbergh (who directs in his usual dry style when something else was needed) deserve better material, but at least we know when Mara will be back.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Everywhere a classroom

I enjoyed this post about a writer's life lessons and a Lorrie Moore reading. (This Recording)
Lorrie Moore (to get back to the subject at hand) had this to say about the function of writers programs: that they are there to thicken your skin, to make you tougher, to serve as an “inoculation” or “vaccination” for all the rejections and the heavy indifference and the lack of page views or book sales or the gentle or not-so-gentle criticism with which you will (inevitably) collide at some point in your future “career” as a “writer.”
All over the Midwest,” she confided, there exist “survivors groups” for those still traumatized from the experience of being workshopped at Iowa. The Iowa Writers Workshop is the “worst,” she told us, “they are famous for the way they tear each other apart at Iowa.” We loved this. We found this profound and wonderful, possibly because many of us in the room had not been admitted into Iowa…

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Music: Eighth Blackbird - "Tied Shifts"

I've just become familiar with this ensemble (as in earlier today), so maybe others can tell me if this is a representative clip (from 2006). The music is composed by Derek Bermel.

Criterion #636: Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (Part One)

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is widely held to be the end of a “golden age” of Hollywood filmmaking that began with Bonnie and Clyde and the end of the old studio system. Directors like Scorsese, Altman, and Bogdanovich (and Cimino himself with The Deer Hunter) produced personal and revelatory works financed by major studios in the late 1960’s and 1970’s; for the first time it seemed as if Hollywood was talking to the country as opposed to talking at it. By the time Heaven’s Gate arrived in 1980 (on the heels of Apocalypse Now, another film perceived by many in its day as a piece of directorial megalomania) our tastes had changed. In the wake of Jaws and Star Wars audiences wanted spectacle and studios wanted franchises and films with foreign box-office potential. Heaven’s Gate, expensive for its time and politically out of step, was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. Cimino’s career was effectively over. All of this is well-covered ground of course, but in late 2012 Criterion released a 216-minute “definitive” version of Heaven’s Gate on video. Michael Cimino was involved in the film’s restoration and re-release; the Heaven’s Gate we have now is finally the film that its director wanted to make. It seems fair to take a look at what exactly we have on our hands.

Heaven’s Gate grew out of Michael Cimino’s interest in The Johnson County War, an armed conflict between ranchers and immigrants in 1892 Wyoming. Cimino wasn’t afraid to edit the facts to suit his message about class and the ways money corrupts the American spirit. Two of the central characters in Heaven’s Gate, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), were actually hanged before the War began. Part One begins in 1870 at Harvard, as Averill graduates with his friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt). This sequence was filmed at Oxford and includes an exhortation to service by a college elder (Joseph Cotten) and an amazing number of extras for a celebratory post-graduation dance sequence. The point of this prologue is to establish Averill as a product of privilege, but it’s easy to think of ways this fact could have been established more quickly and cheaply. Twenty years later Averill is traveling back to Johnson County after a trip to Saint Louis. He has become a federal marshal, though I only learned this from reading the Criterion liner notes; Cimino could have been clearer on the reason why anybody listens to Averill. Hearing about the planned “invasion” of Johnson County by mercenaries hired by the Stock Growers Association, Averill invites Ella to go away with him while at the same time preparing himself for violence. In Part One the Association is represented by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken, miscast I think), a foreman who also holds a place in Ella’s heart, and Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). Canton gives voice to the Association’s “death list” plan, which offers money to hired guns who kill Johnson County’s immigrants.

It isn’t hard to see where the 40 million dollars spent to make Heaven’s Gate went. Cimino talks in an interview on the disc about the craftsmanship required to construct period buildings and restore old buggies doesn’t exist today. What effort must have gone into the roller-skating sequence, which includes live music (led by the film’s composer David Mansfield as a skating violinist) and another platoon of extras. This scene is a celebration of community on a par with the weddings in the Godfather movies, but in Coppola’s films those scenes also advanced the plot and deepened our understanding of family dynamics. The roller-skating and the dance between Averill and Ella that follows are a visual and musical feast but they don’t have the same storytelling impact as Coppola’s work. This seems like a good point to stop and acknowledge cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Heaven’s Gate contains both epic images of America’s promise and the finest gradations of light. The restoration only serves to highlight what a gorgeous looking film it is. Part One ends as Averill learns that he won’t be able to count on any help from the military in fighting the Assocation, thus effectively sealing the fate of the immigrants. Of course it isn’t fair to consider Part One on its own, this isn’t a Harry Potter film, but the film’s length demands it. Heaven’s Gate feels epic, personal, and underwritten all at the same time; the film’s seams show even in this cut. The fact that the government Averill works for turned on Americans is a central irony, so why isn’t it clearer that Averill is a marshal? What is the basis of Ella’s attraction to Champion? What are the loyalties of the bartender Bridges (Jeff Bridges), who runs a healthy side business making book on cock fights? Some of these questions may be dealt with in Part Two of course, but one wonders if Cimino had been willing to temper his vision and tighten his script if the film and his career might have turned out differently.

(An essay by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan included in the Criterion package was helpful in the writing of this post.)

Saturday, February 09, 2013

In defense of....

I didn't write a review of Joe Wright's Anna Karenina because I didn't quite know what to make of the film's mix of artifice, design, and Keira Knightley. I also wasn't familiar enough with the source material to talk intelligently about Wright's choices. Here's an argument for how the director got Tolstoy right. (The Millions)
But if Wright doesn’t demonize Anna, nor does he glamorize her, as is so often the case with filmmakers and readers alike. When Tolstoy first started working on the novel, he envisioned Anna as a kind of empty tramp, but the more he wrote, the more sympathetic he became to her plight. Still, at no point does he absolve her of moral responsibility for her own decisions, as some readers are too apt to do. Anna is a tragic figure, not merely because she is an emotionally deprived woman in a loveless marriage surrounded by empty hypocrites. She is also a victim of her own her romantic illusions, of making, in Tolstoy’s words, “the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.” By giving herself over to the fantasy of complete liberation, Anna becomes a slave to her passions, a star in a tragic story partly of her own design. She is a stark illustration of Tolstoy’s belief that one of the central problems of modern social life isn’t just that we’re all playing roles on a stage, but that those roles often end up playing — and destroying — us.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Memories of Lost Things

Memories of bookstores...... (New Yorker)
A writer keeps an interior map of bookstores, like a hungry person and soup kitchens. I remember where bookstores are. I like to go in them, just to be among books and the people who like them. I know who else will be there: needy people like me, who walk slowly along the shelves and touch the spines. People who pull out a volume and open it, read a little, just to remind themselves of how they love this volume, this writer. People who may buy a book they hadn’t thought they needed. People who believe that this soup is important, who know how it fills us up and warms our bones.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Olivier Assayas

Director Olivier Assayas discusses his autobiographical Something In The Air and shares a few thoughts on film criticism and the state of Hollywood filmmaking today. (Playlist) (The image is from Assayas' Summer Hours, one of my favorite films.)
Q: How do you feel about Hollywood cinema in general these days?

A: To me what is happening now in the U.S. is ultimately the big franchise movies, they are closer to animation than to actual cinema, to me there is an increasing gap between movies that involve special effects and movies that involve actual individuals that you are filming in real light. It’s major. And I do respect some of the visuals and the inspiration of big Hollywood movies, but it’s becoming two completely different art forms -- it involves completely different skills and completely different knowledge.

What I love about movies is the possiblity to capture reality. I don’t believe in enhanced reality, I don’t believe in tampering with reality because if you start touching special effects you end up thinking that, for instance, this view through the window, it’s not good enough. Why can’t the sky be blue? We are in Sweden, it’s winter, why not have a little snow falling, it would be cute? And it becomes conventional, it becomes some sort of archetypal vision of the world. I’m really happy to be filming someone and in the background have something that feels real -- I don’t want to control it. I’m interested in the way it is, as it is: random.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Go For Sisters trailer

A trailer for Go For Sisters, the new film from John Sayles starring Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, and Isaiah Washington. I hadn't heard anything about this film, which appears to be a dark return to the border regions Sayles explored in Lone Star.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Reviewing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at this late date feels a bit futile. The film arrives as a presold property, banking on audiences familiarity with not only the J.R.R. Tolkien source material but also the three Jackson Lord Of The Rings films. There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker working in the same vein of course, but Jackson plans to make three films out of The Hobbit. What we have here looks awfully like a cash grab.

 The time Jackson (working with cowriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) spends setting the scene is some of the deadliest I've ever spent at the movies. We get a bit of old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood, briefly) at home before flashing back 60 years to the moment when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has his quiet life forever disrupted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of dwarves. The bumbling, burbling dwarves stage a raid on Bilbo's pantry in a series of scenes meant to be hilarious before inviting Bilbo to journey with them in an attempt to win their homeland back from the dragon Smaug. The story of the dwarves' previous encounter with Smaug is given its own serie of expository scenes, which also serve to explain why dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) won't accept help from any elves. The other dwarves in Thorin's party are barely individualized, though if you look carefully you might recognize familiar character actor James Nesbitt as the good-natured Bofur.

 I didn't reread The Hobbit in preparation for seeing the film but as I watched I found myself wondering if certain scenes and characters were from the novel or taken from somewhere else in Tolkien's universe. I didn't remember a pale orc called Azog who hunts Thorin to avenge an old grudge and who bears a resemblance to that giant from the God of War video games. Nor did I recall a sort of hippie wizard names Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) who is introduced nursing a hedgehog back to life and who serves as a warning of the rise of the dark lord Sauron. (Both Azog and Radagast play small roles elsewhere in Tolkien's writing.) Did you know Benedict Cumberbatch was in The Hobbit? IMDB tells me Cumberbatch plays a necromancer who figures more prominently in the next two Hobbit films. Why does any of this matter? Jackson doesn't owe The Hobbit more fidelity than any other filmmaker adapting a novel, but his additions overstuff the film and exhaust even the audience members most willing to be won over. Only the key sequence in which Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds the Ring has the magic of the original trilogy. Serkis continues to be brilliant in this role, and the scene introduces the theme of power and its possible corruptions that is so rich elsewhere in Tolkien.

 No one is obligated to prefer a book to a film, or vice versa, but in discussing that film it is fair to bring up the motives it was made and the sort of experience it provides. This first installment of The Hobbit feels both like Peter Jackson had too many toys and too much to prove, though his command of this world isn't in question. I hope Jackson chooses to trim some fat from future films as Bilbo and his company get closer to The Lonely Mountain.

Sunday Music: Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys - "I'm Working On A Building"

We break out of our usual genres this week and dedicate this one to my friend Crystal, who dared to ask the question (while listening to two guys playing "Casey Jones" on guitars in a bar) "What Is Bluegrass?"

Redbox Diaries #3: Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister's Sister is above-average example of a kind of character study that too easily gets lost in today's crowded film marketplace. After looking back at my review of writer/director Lynn Shelton's Humpday (which I liked better than I remembered) I can report with pleasure that Shelton seems to have taken a step forward here; she's after trickier emotions and embracing an alternative definition of family. Jack (Mark Duplass) is mourning his brother Tom and after a year doesn't seem to have made much progress. He is sent away by his best friend (and Tom's ex) Iris (Emily Blunt) for some recuperative time at a cabin located far away from reminders of better times. Your Sister's Sister makes full use of its Pacific Northwest locations; there's a beautiful sense of moodiness in the air and light that reminds me of the films of Kelley Reichardt. The presence of Iris's half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) at the cabin is unexpected and sets the film in an entirely new direction. DeWitt is the best thing going on here, and while she's usually the character having to react to other people's nonsense (Mad Men, Rachel Getting Married) as Hannah she gets to create some nonsense of her own. Your Sister's Sister clocks in at 90 minutes and if anything this well-conceived and strongly acted film needs a bit more time. There's a revelation about Hannah's behavior that's glossed over too quickly and a developing attraction between Iris and Jack feels imposed rather that organic to the characters. Still, Shelton has a way with actors and a sense of how to write sadness that will serve her well in future films, and Your Sister's Sister is worth seeing thanks to good work by all involved.