Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Maps"

A classic on the eve of a new album. This NYT piece paints the band as having transcended a "scene" by doing things their own way.
Karen O, whose real name is Orzolek, was the most intriguing face of this movement. Her stage antics — skipping around in leotards, ripped-up fishnets and sneakers, spewing beer, fellating the microphone — established her as the first postfeminist rock star, a descendant of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury who also happened to be a girl. But despite the heedless ambition they seemed to exhibit as a live band, they simply didn’t have the fortitude required to tour and record constantly. Instead, in 13 years they have put out just three albums and two EPs. The making of these records has been so fraught that they’ve finished each wondering if it would be their last. And yet, on April 16, the band will release its fourth album, “Mosquito,” to the kind of interest and acclaim few of their 2001 brethren still enjoy. “Being in the shadow a little bit preserved us,” Orzolek says. “Coming up in a real moment baptized us as special, there’s no question. But we’ve been allowed to evolve.”

Spring Breakers

The most provocative thing about Spring Breakers is how boring it is, and the extent to which writer/director Harmony Korine is willing to bounce along on the movie’s faux-shocking surfaces even though he’s got the skills for something deeper. I think Korine wanted to make an ironic film about the ideas of “spring break” as a paradise and the naiveté of young women searching for self-definition, but he loses himself in the shiny things and lets one actor’s personality overwhelm everything else.

On a nondescript college campus somewhere cold, three girls are plotting a spring break trip. Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) don’t want to be the only ones not going to Florida but they lack the cash for the trip. Another friend, the younger and Christian Faith (Selena Gomez), wants to come too but is wary of what trouble Brit and Candy might get her into. An impulsive decision leads to a robbery that provides the money, and our heroines are soon on their way to sunshine and their idea of freedom. Once they arrive in Florida there’s an extended montage of partying; what begins with shots of topless women doing things with guys and beer on the beach turns into the drug-fueled party at which the girls get arrested. We see this first section through the eyes of Gomez’s Faith, who is frightened by her friends at the same time she’s drawn to the idea of the trip as a new beginning. Faith’s phone calls to her grandmother are heard in voice-over, and they’re as representative of a soul in crisis (if less well articulated) as anything in The Thin Red Line. We see Faith early on looking out-of-place at a campus bible study, and the phone calls reveal someone who isn’t fully formed yet. I wish the same point had been made by the character’s behavior, but Gomez does the best she can with her expressive eyes.

Another character enters Spring Breakers after Faith and her friends go to jail. Alien (James Franco) is a small-time drug dealer who sees the girls as potential soldiers in his war against a rival (Gucci Mane). I would much rather watch Franco do something like this than the Oz movie; he walks the line between funny and scary here and gives the movie a jolt of energy. The only problem is that Spring Breakers gets so involved with Alien’s story that it largely forgets what’s going on with the girls. I couldn’t quite fathom what Alien’s struggles as a small businessman have to do with these girls’ self-discovery, but Korine seems to think it’s awfully important. (Alien gets his own voice-overs too, but they don’t reveal much.) The effect of shifting focus to Alien is to strand Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, whose performances both suggest levels of antipathy towards their own lives that the movie doesn’t have time to deal with. Both Brit and Candy make phone calls home before the climactic shootout, but in the absence of better developed characters it’s hard to tell whether Korine means for us to take these moments ironically. Instead Benson and Hudgens are turned into hot, bikini-clad accessories.

Spring Breakers is underwritten but beautifully shot; Korine deploys flash-forward, voice-over, and shifts in pace and tone with splendid control. The technical proficiency is fun to watch for awhile, but finally we needed stronger characters in order for what is on screen to be more than a pretty postcard.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blog news

The unintended consequence of Amazon purchasing Goodreads is that it may force me to write more book reviews here. I have removed the "What I'm Reading" box from the right hand column because like so many others I'm a little nervous about what the change means for an independent web community whose members didn't have any say in what happens to their home. Maybe it will return, maybe Powell's will invent something similar.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Music: Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile - "Bottle Up & Explode"

This discovery of this Elliot Smith cover from a 2011 performance was a very happy surprise, and more from this performance is available on YouTube. I love how quiet the audience is. Wouldn't you love to hear these two record together? Mehldau and Thile are on a short list of people I consider brilliant in original ways, artists in all fields who are continuing to push and have more great work ahead of them.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stoker (mild spoilers)

I have an idea for a website where I would post high-gloss fashion shots, the kind that make up much of every issue of Vogue and W. You know the kind I mean; they are ridiculously high-concept and far removed from any standard of beauty or reality that most of us would recognize. I’d write a literal one-sentence caption for each shot (“Mia Wasikowska sitting fully dressed in a bathtub.”) and call the site something like “Inexplicable Gorgeous Product.” Mia Wasikowska’s new movie Stoker, directed by Park Chan-Wook, is a feature-length piece of Inexplicable Gorgeous Product. Stylized to the point of asphyxiation, it purports to be a psychosexual thriller but fails on all counts. Stoker wants to be shocking and if it had been made 25 years ago it might have been, but writer Wentworth Miller’s presentation of aberrant behavior in placid surroundings feels like something we’ve already grown accustomed to. What we have here is third-rate David Lynch with two important differences. Lynch has a sense of humor, and he likes women.

The worldview of Stoker is spelled out in an opening bit of voice-over: We are entirely shaped by external forces and there is no such thing as personal responsibility. The short piece of narration reveals far too much about where things are headed. India Stoker (Wasikowska) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday at her family’s spacious Connecticut home. It’s the sort of place that even a modernist architect might reject as “too cold.” The house is austere except when Chan-Wook needs it not to be. The bedroom of India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) would work for a Tennessee Williams play; it’s painted bright red and serves as an outlet for other things she can’t express. India makes an important discovery in the dank cellar, and her habit of swinging the lone light source around for no reason is just another of the movie’s visual tics. There is also an unusually high number of bugs and spiders in the house, and they end up in the most symbolic of places. India’s birthday coincides with the accidental death of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) and the arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a traveler with no discernible income or career. Stoker reveals itself as the story of India discovering her true nature, and it’s at this point that things begin to go badly wrong. We’re meant to understand that Charlie was the one missing piece needed for India to come into herself as a sociopath. Is this movie really a story of self-acceptance?

Mia Wasikowska has been excellent and brilliantly sensitive in other roles (In Treatment, The Kids Are All Right), but in Stoker  her character must serve as the movie’s expression of how the world works. Wasikowska has no room to breathe and she has never has a chance. What might have been accomplished if the character had been grounded in something human and recognizable? There are moments: a piano duet between India and Charlie is a small triumph of eroticism. India stands on a spinning piece of playground equipment while talking to a high-school boy (Alden Ehrenreich); as she advances towards and retreats from the camera we seem to see her at a tipping point. A scene involving India’s burgeoning sexuality is unfortunate; I wish Stoker didn’t make the line between unfulfilled sexual desire and psychosis so thin. Nicole Kidman plays Evelyn as a bundle of unmet needs and gives the movie’s best performance; she’s the most relatable character onscreen but still seems to be one wine-free night away from a psychotic break. There’s a strange fear of what women are capable of that runs through Stoker; that and the obsessive production design make it an early candidate for the silliest movie of 2013.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jane in flux

It's hard to know what's going on with Natalie Portman's new film Jane Got A Gun, but the abrupt departure of director Lynne Ramsay is occasion for a look at the way we discuss women directors. Michael Fassbender and Jude Law have both left the project, and the list of actors being considered to take the villainous role they left vacant is getting interesting. (photo by Robert Hanashiro)
Anyone passingly interested in this sort of industry gossip will have no doubt heard by now that, on Monday morning in Santa Fe, director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) declined to appear for the first day of production on her new film “Jane Got A Gun”, allegedly abandoning the 25 million dollar project and its 150 eager crew members in the process. This decidedly minor news item, though conspicuously light on both detail and corroboration, has already proven compelling to those most predisposed to casual indignation, circulating widely after Deadline broke the exclusive and commented upon extensively and ceaselessly by the web’s vocal peanut gallery since.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In Development

Is A Topiary among the greatest films we'll never see? Judge for yourself after reading this piece about what Upstream Color director Shane Carruth has been up to for the last decade. (Wired/Kottke)
Carruth knows Upstream isn’t some four-quadrant crowd-pleaser. But he needs it to be at least modestly successful, however one defines “modestly successful” for a low-budget, self-released indie movie nowadays. Carruth says he’s ready to start another film—a darker take on the maritime romance he began almost a decade earlier—but only if he can once again finance it himself. “My ability to make another film is directly connected to whatever revenue this movie generates,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘Maybe I can buy a house someday.’ It’s more like, ‘I get to make this film exactly the way it needs to be.’ ”  It is almost as if the movie already exists, as if Carruth’s role is merely to discover it. Maybe it’s what he’s been working toward this entire time. Maybe he’s just only now able to see it.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I'm not aware of Lena Dunham making any response to the furor over the Adam/Natalia sex scene in last week's Girls. She didn't have to. Dunham knew the whole time that she had this week's Adam/Natalia interaction in her pocket, a brief scene in which we learn that Shiri Appleby's Natalia has both resumed the relationship and asserted her right not to be a part of Adam's sexual fantasies. I like this take on Natalia as a sort of mirror of Dunham's devising, one that's supposed to show exactly how insular and far from together Hannah, Marnie, and Shoshanna are. (Though I actually enjoyed the Ray/Shoshanna story line.) I don't agree that Adam's drinking is irrelevant to this storyline, as I argued elsewhere I think there is a pretty clear arc that led Adam to last week's crisis, but I do think we could all use more Natalia. (LA Review of Books)
In the second season of Deadwood, all of the characters are embroiled in their usual hijinks, and the town is beset by the arrival of a man named Wolcott who goes on a murderous rampage that sets the town on edge. But, at the end of the season, the real crisis arrives in the form of that man’s employer George Hearst. If Wolcott’s violence was part of the town’s landscape, Hearst’s arrival is a sundering of that landscape. It’s hard for me not to think of Natalia as this season’s George Hearst. We’ve spent a season of television ruminating on the idea of maturity within this expanded but still insular group, just the way Deadwood’s second season had dealt with the contours of evil within its own local geography. Little did our band of merry hipsters know, but there is such a thing as a young adult in the world, and she is not cool with crawling around on your filthy floor.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Music: Depeche Mode - "John The Revelator"

I was mulling over including a song from DM's forthcoming Delta Machine, but I'm not ready to go there yet, so here's one of the band's stronger recent tracks. I wonder if Dave Gahan ever secretly wants to be in a band where he can interact with other musicians on stage?

Saturday, March 16, 2013


Emperor begins in the days immediately following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his officers arrive in a bombed-out Tokyo as occupiers tasked with rebuilding a country. Among the  staff officers is a younger general named Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, still in dogged Jack mode), whom MacArthur will task with arresting the upper echelon of the Japanese government. It is Fellers’ job to make sure that former Prime Minister Tojo (Shohei Hino) and others don’t commit suicide but rather are able to stand trial for war crimes against the Americans. Fellers carries out his duties with dispatch, but then his mission changes. Acting at the President’s request, MacArthur orders Fellers to determine if Emperor Hirohito should be deposed and arrested. Doing so could touch off a revolt among the newly conquered Japanese, but there is also a risk to leaving him in power when it’s uncertain what kind of a partner he’ll be in peacetime.

The bulk of Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, is structured as a detective story in which Fellers interviews a succession of grim, reticent Japanese men who equivocate as to whether or not Hirohito ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fellers also has a personal agenda in Japan; in flashback we see the story of his pre-war romance with a shy teacher named Aya (Eriko Hatsune) he meets at college in America. Fellers’ increasingly intense search for Aya is the other strand of Emperor, but Aya spends so much time helping Fellers write his thesis that all we take from these scenes is how curious about and sensitive to Japanese culture Fellers is becoming. By insisting upon the inscrutability of Japanese culture, the movie makes it harder to care about the Japanese as people. Given 10 days to learn to the truth about Hirohito, Fellers is able to gather almost no information until the last minute when a key source unfolds a tale of fault lines in the Emperor’s cabinet and an aborted rebellion. Before that we hear the words honor and duty a little too often, as well as elaborate descriptions of the semi-divine status that Hirohito enjoyed in Japan before the war. The ritualistic aspects of Japanese culture take the drama out of the story; I wanted to be shown the different forces at play in Hirohito’s world instead of just hearing them recounted. The best scene in Emperor is the meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka); it’s the only time the Emperor is shown full-face; and the extent to which he knows MacArthur has the upper hand creates the film’s most affecting moment. The subject matter of Emperor is fascinating and it will continue to inspire works of history and fiction, but I wish this film had done a better job of letting us into the world it so respects.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mars Money

I'm as happy as anyone else to hear about plans for a Veronica Mars movie after a record-setting Kickstarter campaign, but I also agree the constant demand for more of older TV shows often says more about the people doing the demanding than the shows in question. (Veronica Mars has natural places to go with a continuation of its story, unlike Arrested Development.) This Vulture post puts it well:
Nostalgia is grasping for the impossible: You don’t want more of what you remember fondly; you want to be back at the time when you enjoyed it, which is an impossibility. Fervent campaigning for more, more, more is really a rally for time to move backward. The disappointment of the Star Wars prequels wasn’t entirely the fault of the subpar movies, it’s that adults would never be able to see them with the same wonderment that they did when they were kids and played Luke and Han in their backyards. It was fun to beg for more Indiana Jones adventures, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was unsettling: Old Indiana Jones? We’re old — I don’t want to be reminded of that! Make him young; make us young! Witness the mass mind-losing over Girl Meets World. Once the thrill fades of first seeing the old Boy Meets World faces reunite, will there be any reward to seeing them deliver TGIF-caliber humor? And if it suddenly becomes smart, adult comedy, wouldn’t that feel just as wrong?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dept. of New Art

Meet Destin Daniel Cretton, whose Short Term 12, starring Brie Larson, has won the top narrative film prize at this year's SXSW Festival. You can watch a trailer for the 2008 short film version of Short Term 12 above, and a trailer for Cretton's 2012 I Am Not A Hipster is available here.
I was born and raised on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where I spent the first 19 years of my life. I moved to San Diego for school, and after graduating, I spent 2 years working as a line staff in a group home for at-risk teenagers. When I started that job, I was scared out of my mind. I felt completely inadequate to be playing the part of a surrogate parent for the 18 teenagers on our unit, many of who were only a few years younger than me. Every day felt like a war-zone, where one bad decision could potentially bring more harm to a child who already had enough to deal with. To this day, it was the most difficult job I’ve ever had, and an experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Short Term 12 is a story that was deeply inspired by the resilient kids and fearless staff members I met during my time there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

To The Wonder trailer

We're in a post-Oscar season trough and I'm reduced to posting trailers, but I'll suspend all rules for a new Terrence Malick film. To The Wonder looks like both what we expected and something quite new.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Art of a Thousand Choices

I like this analysis of the opening moments of Rian Johnson's Brick, especially as evidence of the way accident, necessity, and intention can combine to make something unexpected. (AV Club)
Even before the first image fades in, Brick already has a leg up on the vast majority of indie films, which are generally not renowned for their scores. All of Rian’s films to date have been scored by his cousin, Nathan Johnson, and while Rian beats the drum for Nathan almost ceaselessly, I think Nathan’s contribution still tends to be severely underrated. His theme for guitar and xylophone here ranks among the most haunting pieces of music I know—in part, I think, because the xylophone doesn’t quite sound like a xylophone. It sounds more as if someone’s playing frozen, empty milk bottles. Viewers have no idea at this point who these two people are, or what they mean to each other, and Gordon-Levitt has clearly been instructed not to emote (which is a wise choice), so the sense that something has gone horribly wrong has to be conveyed entirely by the filmmaking. That plaintive rattling over gentle strums suggests a whole world of sorrow.

Rian Johnson: As far as drum-beating goes, I am and always will be Nathan’s Neil Peart. So many of the pivotal scenes in the three movies we’ve made together work on the screen because of what Nathan brought to them. The theme he uses here (he called it “Emily’s Theme”) is still my favorite of his; it not only elevates the scene with a melancholy weight, but sets the tone for the movie as a whole.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Music: Ornette Coleman - "Lonely Woman"

I've told the story before of doing a 2-hour all Ornette Coleman radio show in college, an act that now seems like the height of arrogance. I thought I "understood" Coleman because I had bought a boxed set and read a biography, but now I can see Coleman doesn't care about being understood. A better way to put it is that he wants the audience and fellow musicians to share in the experience of what he's doing. Or that's what I believe now anyway. Coleman turned 82 yesterday.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Frances Ha

I'm irrationally excited to see a trailer for Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, both because of the presence of star/writer Greta Gerwig and because I've been a fan of Baumbach's since his debut Kicking and Screaming. When Kicking and Screaming came out one still had to work to see an independent film one was interested in, and for me that work consisted of reading about it in a magazine and then waiting until it was in at Blockbuster. I don't know that I've ever been happier to see a movie make it to Criterion. Anyway, I look forward to Frances Ha and hope that Gerwigs involvement might signal an exciting new phase in Baumbach's career.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sunday Music: Chelsea Light Moving - "Frank O'Hara Hit"

If you're wondering what Thurston Moore has been up to since he and Kim Gordon separated, here's your answer. Here is a Pitchfork review of the Chelsea Light Moving debut.
Since then, Sonic Youth-- which has, for some 30 years, been the central outlet for Moore's screeching rock'n'roll id-- has drifted into an unofficial, maybe-permanent hiatus spurred by the guitarist's break-up with his wife and bandmate, Kim Gordon.

Rather than give his ears a rest, Moore, now 54, opted to start a louder, younger band. Chelsea Light Moving, named for a moving company founded by Phillip Glass that briefly employed his fellow composer, Steve Reich, is a quartet featuring guitarist Keith Wood, of Hush Arbors, and Sunburned Hand of the Man drummer John Moloney. Samara Lubelski, who's released some great, retro-leaning psych-pop solo records, plays bass.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

The foundation of Beautiful Creatures is the kind of Young Adult romance that has studios seeing box office gold in the post-Twilight era. An attractive young boy and girl meet and fall in love, but a barrier exists that threatens not only their relationship but the wider world as well. Yet Beautiful Creatures is an example of what a few ideas and an above average cast can do to a boilerplate scenario. I don’t know if we have the next big franchise on our hands but there is a jolt of energy here that is worth watching.

There is a boy named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, whose young DiCaprio qualities are well-used) in a small South Carolina town who dreams of getting out. Ethan reads Vonnegut and Bukowski and has recently broken up with a popular girl. With a mother recently dead and absent father, Ethan has only his books and family friend Amma (Viola Davis) for company. When Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) arrives at Ethan’s school he is naturally drawn to another outsider, but Lena brings a very different set of issues to the table. The youngest in a broken family of “casters” (witches), Lena is nervously awaiting her sixteenth birthday and the moment when her powers will be “claimed” for either the forces of light or dark. The idea of claiming is central to Beautiful Creatures and is well-tailored to the film’s young audience. Ethan wants out of South Carolina but isn’t exactly sure how to go about it; when asked about his plans for college he says has applied to “all of them.” He is waiting for life to find him because he hasn’t yet learned how to take what he wants. Due to a Civil War-era curse Lena believes she has no control over her future, but as her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) reminds her she has a part to play in her own fate. Englert and Ehrenreich make an appealing couple, but it’s Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson (as Lena’s mother Sarafine) who give Beautiful Creatures its sense of something at stake. The conflict is a classic one: Macon accepts the fact that casters have to live in the human world while Sarafine wants to use Lena’s power for her own ends. Irons and Thompson are both having a great time, and part of the movie’s pleasure is the personal charisma they bring to their roles.

Writer/director Richard LaGravenese, adapting the first in a series of young adult novels, isn’t afraid to use the special effects the story requires. A showdown between Lena and her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) is a key scene, since Lena must control her emotions in order to master her own future. Yet what separates Beautiful Creatures from its peers in the paranormal teen romance genre is the way its characters get what they want by reading and thinking. Ethan has constructed his view of what he wants his life to be from his books, and in order to break the curse Lena must do research at a caster library. These teens aren’t swept away by capital-letter forces like Love and Destiny, rather they’re gaining knowledge they need to navigate the adult world. It is that distinction, plus a fine cast in good form, that makes Beautiful Creatures so welcome and any future installments so promising.