Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mr. James

It's very hard to bring Henry James to the movie screen, let alone finish some of his books, as this article explains. I think we're overdue for a reconsideration of Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, but for now here's an intriguing trailer for What Maisie Knew. I like the cast and the contemporary setting, and so it's time to head to the book (as well as Colm Toibin's The Master, in my to-read pile).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Music: George Jones - "I Always Get Lucky With You"

Jones passed away at age 81 this week, and in his memory (and to attempt to address the lack of country music in this space) here is one of his hits. Jones depended on songwriters for his material, this song was co-written by Merle Haggard.
Even as he was being lionized in songs by succeeding generations of fans and singers — among them Alan Jackson, whose 1991 hit "Don't Rock the Jukebox" asked patrons of a honky tonk to skip the rock numbers because "I want to hear some Jones" — Jones himself was grappling with a dearth of new material to work with and dwindling commercial prospects. "If you ain't a cute little fellow or a girl with a cute butt, they're not interested," Jones told The Times in a 2006 interview. Consequently, songwriters would offer their best material to those currently at the top of the charts, rather than veterans like Jones who were kept off the radio airwaves. He finally broke through with "Cold Hard Truth," widely acclaimed as his best album in nearly 20 years.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


It is becoming more and more difficult to make a film about an American’s relationship to his own country. When I use the word “country” I mean the land itself, the specific tone and tenor of a place that doesn’t look or feel like any other. There is a documentary about the band Wilco called Ashes of American Flags in which the musicians talk about the small towns that are ignored by the highways the band travels on. The towns are part of a fading America that is disappearing only a little less quickly than the Polaroid film one band member uses to remember them, and within another generation they may feel impossibly far away. The new film Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is concerned with loss and change in a similar way. Mud is about many things, including crime, love, and the purity of young friendship. Central to its concerns are childhood and the permanence of one’s childhood home, both things that recede from us even as we live through them.

Mud takes place in the same Arkansas that was a character in Nichols’s previous Take Shelter and his earlier (unseen by me) Shotgun Stories. Seeing Mud a few days after another film not set in a major city (The Place Beyond the Pines) is a refreshing experience, and a reminder that vital filmmaking need not have a New York accent or a Los Angeles body. The lives of 14-year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) depend upon the river that passes by their Arkansas town. Ellis’s father Senior (Ray McKinnon) sells the fish he traps from the family’s houseboat in town, and the family is part of a shrinking community of river dwellers that also includes a recluse named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). If Senior and Ellis’s mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) decide to divorce then the houseboat will be lost, since it belongs to Mary Lee and state law allows for the destruction of anything on the river abandoned by its owner. The fate of Senior and Mary Lee’s marriage is tied to the fate of their son’s way of life. An exploration on the river leads Ellis and Neckbone the discovery of a boat trapped in a tree (a fine image of nature’s relationship to the people who depend upon it) and to a meeting with a odd character named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is making the boat his home. For the rest of the movie we learn more about Mud’s complicated history even as Ellis and Neckbone receive a lesson in the hard choices and unhappy outcomes of adult life.

Matthew McConaughey was supposed to be the next Great American Movie Star almost 20 years ago. That never quite panned out, but just by continuing to show up McConaughey has slowly revealed himself as a substantial talent. (I say that without even having seen Magic Mike.) If Mud were released later in the year then McConaughey’s performance would certainly be mentioned for awards; his Mud is a well-detailed portrait of an inveterate screw-up who’s also just learning some of the things that Ellis and Neckbone come to accept during the course of the film. Mud must also carry a good deal of symbolic weight; the boys initially see him as a swashbuckler and a vision of what growing up could be. McConaughey will be justly celebrated for this role, but Mud is always very much the story of Ellis and Neckbone. When the boys set out together for the first time there isn’t anything that seems impossible, but by the end of the film they come to realize both the permanence of their friendship and the fragility of everything around them. Mud’s tempestuous relationship with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) drives much of the plot and eventually brings a vengeful father (Joe Don Baker) and his gunmen into the boys’ lives. Yet even though sex, violence, and divorce lurk at the film’s edges, Mud has the quality of a great boys-book adventure. Ellis and Neckbone (both played with an unforced poise) are living the movie of their lives and it’s the details that will linger with both with them and with us. The kiss Ellis shares with an older girl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the outsized diving helmet of Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon), and the boys watching Mud wield a chainsaw while suspended from a tree are all given a wonderful and specific weight.

Mud ends outside an anonymous block of apartments, but of course it hasn’t ended for Ellis. We all come from rich, strange places that deserve to be remembered, but the joy of Mud is its celebration of the places we discover in ourselves.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Men with long hair, and Natalie Portman

I'm more excited about this than I am about Iron Man 3, and not just because of the presence of Natalie Portman. The first Thor was wildly uneven, but it had a sense of fun about how people might deal with a superhero from another world in their midst. This installment appears to be more about evoking mythology from the comics and the rivalry between Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, yet I choose to be optimistic. Here's my review (which needed a proofreader) of Kenneth Branagh's Thor.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dept. of Next Chapters

Here is a fantastic New Yorker profile of Noah Baumbach. Baumbach's personal and creative relationship with Greta Gerwig is the spine of the article, but if (like me) you're a Baumabach fan from way back you'll want to read this for the context it gives to certain received ideas about the director regarding his personality and the autobiographical nature of his work. Baumbach has a number of projects in the offing, including an animated film, but the biggest surprise in his resume is that he is a credited co-writer of Madagascar 3. Watch the trailer for Baumbach and Gerwig's forthcoming Frances Ha here.
Baumbach described “Frances Ha” as a more even collaboration than past ones, in which he’d either supported someone else’s vision (Anderson) or asked others to support his (Leigh). Gerwig recalled worrying that if she acted in “Frances Ha” people wouldn’t believe that she really co-wrote it; because of the improvisation in her past, “It would be ‘He shot her while she was talking and gave her a credit.’ ” A writing partner who deepens someone’s work even as she lightens it does not want to be mistaken for a director’s muse, like the actresses who inspired Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, or John Cassavetes. When we talked in New York, Gerwig said, “Noah’s a realist and pragmatist, and he sees things without adornment. Which is helpful for someone writing about how people actually are and how they feel. For me, I feel like the adornment sometimes is what is true.” Gerwig occasionally goes to church. “Noah says, ‘You do that because you’re a guilty person.’ ” She laughed. “No, I think I do it because it connects me with a story that I don’t think is true, but I think is somehow resonant. Everything doesn’t have to be true to have power.”

Sunday Music: John Prine - "Bruised Orange"

I came to this song through the Bon Iver cover but I much prefer the original.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

I don’t know what the favorite films of The Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance are, but if I had to guess I would say that he has an affection for the celebrated American movies of the 1970’s. Pines, like Cianfrance’s previous Blue Valentine, is emotionally complicated and seems to have been created in a different world than the one that pushes out Hollywood films with likable characters and predictable endings. Finding today’s films inferior to those of the past isn’t the most original form of criticism, but Cianfrance is marked as man out of time by more than just his films’ lack of Hollywood sheen. We are watching an artist find his voice. Blue Valentine was a raw piece of chamber music about two people running out of love, but in The Place Beyond the Pines Cianfrance displays both a larger reach and a stronger grasp. Pines is a structurally unusual film that asks large questions about what fathers give to their sons and the extent to which escaping the limits of one’s parentage is really possible. Cianfrance has gone beyond the promise of his previous work with a film of real ambition and consequence.

We are in the small towns of upstate New York, and in the lives of working-class people. Luke (Ryan Gosling) works at a traveling carnival and is part of a motorcycle attraction that involves challenging the laws of physics in a round metal cage. A chance encounter with Romina, a former fling (Eva Mendes, very good as a woman clinging to a hard-won dignity), leads to the revelation that Luke is the father of a baby boy named Jason. Luke wants to change his life and be a provider to his family, but Romina has another man (Mahershala Ali) and Luke has neither the money nor the skills to be a reliable presence in his son’s life. Luke isn’t very articulate for the first few minutes of The Place Beyond The Pines, and I was worried that Cianfrance was going to turn Luke into a fetish object of the sort that Gosling played in Drive. Thank goodness for Ben Mendelsohn; he gives Pines a great jolt of energy as Robin, the new friend who gives Luke a job and a place to stay as well as the impetus towards a career in robbing banks. If you’ve read anything about The Place Beyond The Pines then you know that the culmination of Luke’s criminal career brings him into the orbit of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a Schenectady cop with a wife (Rose Byrne) and a young son of his own. It is at this point that Cianfrance reveals what he has in mind, since Avery takes over as the main character for the next segment of the film. Watching The Place Beyond the Pines is like reading short stories that are set in the same world, one where fathers continue to leave their sons feeling rudderless. Luke and Avery couldn’t be more different, since Avery is educated with a stable home life. But Avery also has a father (Harris Yulin) who expects something out his son that Avery doesn’t know if he can or should give. Pines is my favorite Bradley Cooper performance to date; his energy is Silver Linings Playbook was what was required, but here he displays a sense of confusion and frustration about what his life should be that cuts deeper than anything that I’ve seen from him before.

The central section of The Place Beyond the Pines is where the film does sag a little. Avery draws the attention of some dirty cops led by a detective (Ray Liotta, who plays this type of role better than anyone these days) who is looking to enlist Avery as an ally. The choice that Avery makes reveals that he is more like his father than perhaps he even knows. As good as Liotta is I wish that the details of police corruption had been detailed a bit better; these scenes feel a little too much like an engine that drives Avery to where Cianfrance needs the character to go. Fifteen years later Avery is a politician and we’re into the film’s third act. Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) and Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) attend the same high school, and while the particulars of what happens to them may not be hard to anticipate the story of the two young men dovetails with what has come before. Both Jason and AJ feel the absence of their fathers even as they are walled in by their choices. In Jason’s case, despite a supportive stepfather, Luke’s life is a sort of unavoidable mystery that he can’t stop trying to solve. Dane DeHaan is excellent as Jason and easily as strong as his more established adult cast mates. Jason is someone who doesn’t know how smart he is, and DeHaan makes that intelligence bang up against the limits imposed on Jason from the outside.

The Place Beyond the Pines ends with an open road and Bon Iver on the soundtrack, and it leaves one thinking about the things we can’t escape no matter how far we travel. It is a wonderfully ragged film, roiling with heart, and it marks Derek Cianfrance as a major presence in American filmmaking.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Josh Ritter

I have neglected the great music site I Am Fuel, You Are Friends for far too long, so when I went back there recently it was a pleasure to find this group "album club" interview with singer/songwriter/novelist Josh Ritter. Ritter has a new album called The Beast In Its Tracks that draws on his failed marriage, and as he remarks below the process of working through painful events may set him off in a new creative direction.
So I really think I got to that point with So Runs the World Away, and I didn’t really know what else I was going to do, and then that stuff came along and knocked the wind out of my sails and made it kind of impossible to write about any other stuff. Other stories just pale in comparison to your own story when it’s happening, you know what I mean? It’s more fun to wallow in your own story than in some other story. I think this might be the beginning of some new stuff, although I don’t think about it as necessarily autobiographical, so much as like… there are great albums like Wildflowers, that beautiful Tom Petty record, or Time (The Revelator), a Gillian Welch record, which aren’t autobiographical, but have a beautiful personal voice to them, without being larger stories.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

New World Order

It's rare that I look forward to a Tom Cruise movie, but the new Oblivion is worthy of attention for being an original sci-fi script and not based on a pre-existing property. Here's a chat with director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) about process and influences.

Q: So in terms of the visual look, the influences like architect Mies van der Rohe have always been there as well.

A: Oh, yes. Mies, he has two favorite sayings: “Less is more,” which when it comes to design I firmly believe in, and the other is "God is in the details." That one deals not only in the notion of building the set, but also every aspect of the film, from story to character to props -- understanding the world so well that you know what's around every corner. And I think an audience can sense a world that's completely figured out, versus one that's only what you're seeing on screen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Music: Cowboy Junkies - "Sing In My Meadow"

In searching for a song this week I came to track from a band I've loved but lost touch with. It's the title track of on of their "Nomad Series" of albums and reveals a side of the group that those who only know "Sweet Jane" would never suspect. Here's a review of the full album.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dept. of Process

Olga Kurylenko and Jessica Chastain (above) discuss working with Terrence Malick, and the word "dance" comes up not for the first time. I'd forgotten that a Chastain performance was cut out of To The Wonder, part of a alternate movie that we now will never see.
Whether the heroines reinforce notions of women as the earthier, more loving and emotional sex, they do represent the filmmaker’s cinematic project, to which those same attributes can be applied. Both Ms. Chastain and Ms. Kurylenko described a shooting process in which cast and crew, character and director, the film set and real life, work as one. Working in a Malick film, Ms. Chastain said, is like being part of “a ballet dance company without a soloist.” She added: “We’re all moving together, and that includes the cinematographer, the focus puller, the camera operator, Terry and the actor. It’s all five of us contributing to the shot, to seeing what the moment is.”

Ms. Kurylenko also described the process in terms of ballet — “They dance with the camera in their hands” — but said that each character, hers included, was ultimately an articulation of the director’s feelings and philosophies. “On a Terrence Malick set, your thoughts are his voice,” she said. “You think you’re thinking, but actually he’s thinking for you. He speaks to you, and he’s the voice in your mind.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Early Kubrick

An interview with James B. Harris, producer of Stanley Kubrick's early films and a partner who was, it seems,  much trusted. Harris went on to a directing career of his own. I have seen his 1993 Wesley Snipes/Dennis Hopper action movie Boiling Point (the last film Harris has directed to date) but can offer no memories.
Q: Kubrick showed you his second film, Killer’s Kiss (1955), early on in your friendship. What appealed to you as a prospective producer?

A: What impressed me was that he’d completed it. In those days, you’d hear somebody was making a film, and making a film, but never see the film. What happened? They got halfway through and ran out of money, or it didn’t work. Stanley completed his film. He shot the picture with a wild track; he had to lip-sync everything in postproduction. That was intensive, precision work back then. I was very impressed. I had access to funding, and so proposed a partnership.

I came across Clean Break, by Lionel White; a fast-paced novel about a racetrack robbery shown from many points of view. It was a terrific story. Stanley read it the day after I did and agreed that it was great for us. Stanley wrote the screenplay and Jim Thompson contributed some dialogue; we called it The Killing. We were determined to keep the offbeat time-structure from White’s book.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Roger Ebert's last review....

....was of Terrence Malick's To The Wonder.
A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Sunday Music: Waxahatchee - "Sister Saint"

Waxahatchee, a.k.a. Katie Crutchfield, came to my attention after I read this and this. This song, which I quite like, seems to be on neither of her two albums.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Nobody's Eye Candy

A good salute to the still-ascending career of Rosario Dawson, whose list of credits is both longer and more varied than I'd realized. Favorite Dawson roles: 25th Hour, Death Proof, and Unstoppable. Dawson will soon appear in the promising Danny Boyle film Trance.
The story of Rosario Dawson's discovery speaks to her enduringly cool credibility as an actress. A New York native who grew up in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Dawson had only a Sesame Street appearance under her belt when she was spotted, on her stoop, by budding director Larry Clark, who, at the urging of then-fledgling screenwriter Harmony Korine, went on to cast her in Kids. She was 15.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Lord of the Dance

Must character only be revealed through behavior? This tribute to the iconic dance scene in Godard's Band of Outsiders includes some rare behind-the-scenes footage. Follow the links for a clip from Hal Hartley's Simple Men, a favorite of mine that owes Godard a debt. Here is my 2011 post on Band of Outsiders. (Front Row)
For that matter, it distinguishes the scene from so many scenes in so many films where so many filmmakers are so concerned with bringing out their characters’ emotions solely by means of action. The fussily naturalistic framework of most movies by most filmmakers is more or less rendered obsolete in advance by this little scene. Filmmakers unwilling to break the sacrosanct continuity of action compel themselves to reveal character through action—and little is more tiresome in movies than scenes showing action that is supposed to reveal some aspect of character. That’s why many movies—and many wrongly hailed—give a sense of being constructed as illustrations of script elements, the connections of dots planted in just the right place to yield a particular portrait. Godard’s example is as much a lesson in substance as in style—in composition through fragmentation, in expression through directness and audacity, of artistic impulse combining with necessity as a means to enduring innovation. Whatever an experimental film might be, this sequence is one—it’s an experiment the discoveries of which have yet to be fully assimilated by the world of filmmakers, almost half a century later.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger and Ruth

The online community of film lovers is mourning the deaths of Roger Ebert and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala today, two very different writers whose lives were arguably even more interesting than the work they produced. I've been aware of Ebert since a young age of course, seeing him argue with Gene Siskel on PBS and at some point (when I read a book he wrote on covering the Cannes Film Festival) becoming aware that being a film critic was something one could do for a living. Later, when Ebert got sick and lost his voice, we got to know a different man. Ebert was a warm-hearted liberal with a huge sense of the world's possibility, and writing his blog for the Chicago Sun-Times seemed to open him up. To say nothing of his Twitter feed. Ebert's writing on the joys of Twitter connections marked the only occasion I have taken someone else's suggestions on whom to follow, and I'm glad I did. Ebert's memoir Life Itself is a revelatory read, a happy account of his childhood, college years, world travels, and days working in a newspaper-centric town. Even the later chapters on illness have Ebert's thirst for experience. The book unlocks the decency at the heart of Ebert's criticism, which has probably influenced my own writing more than I've realized until now. I don't know if Ebert saw Spring Breakers, but when I wrote about the way even this supposedly transgressive movie treats its women I think I was catching something that Ebert would have noticed. I will always appreciate Roger Ebert the critic, but I'm very happy that through his personal writing I got to know Ebert the man.

My connection to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the only woman two win two Oscars for screenwriting (A Room With A View, Howards End), is a little more tenuous but no less meaningful. When Merchant Ivory films hit their peak of popularity in the early 1990's it was still unusual for them to play in my local South Carolina theater. In order to see Howards End it was necessary to go to a single-screen theater (now closed) in Atlanta, an experience my mother treasured long afterwards. (Thanks to her I also saw Clerks at the same theater.) My mother died in December, but she always loved the richly human period films that Jhabvala wrote and she never lost her pleasure at being surprised by all kinds of movies. She laughed uproariously at Knocked Up and thought the ending of Juno hid an uncertain future for the baby. She also read at least one of Jhabvala's novels, which I haven't. The obituary I linked to above suggests a life filled with travel, family, and an enviable artistic purpose, and I look forward to discovering more of the work that consumed Jhabvala's life. I'm also excited to see what direction my criticism might take in years to come, and I have to thank Roger Ebert for helping start me on that journey. Gifts can be given long after someone is gone.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Why It Works

The season premiere of Game of Thrones last Sunday was a fine example of how good the show is at sucking one into its highly detailed world. I have tried to read each of the first three novels in George R.R. Martin's series and each time gotten bored after about 150 pages, yet I have enjoyed the show as a superbly produced piece of entertainment that I have no emotional investment in. This piece by John Lanchester is a good argument for why the show and the books work,and it raises the question of why more people aren't willing to read fantasy. (One possible answer is the length of the books.) I see Martin still isn't getting a break from his fans. Read at your own risk, this article contains spoilers.
There’s one more point to be made concerning instability and unpredictability. That is the issue of how long it’s going to take Martin to finish the books. After getting hooked via the first TV series, and before starting out on the books, I did something I hardly ever do, and looked up Martin’s Amazon reviews, to see how far he was into the series and how long he had to go. The world of Amazon comments on Martin is, even by the standards of Amazon-comment-world, peculiar. (My single favourite fact about Amazon-comment-world: Newt Gingrich’s Amazon reviews, which I unironically recommend for anyone interested in his core field of geopolitical history, says he is ‘the’ Newt Gingrich, with inverted commas around the ‘the’.) Everyone loves Martin’s books, which have hundreds of maximally favourable ratings, but that’s not what you’re likely to encounter first when you look him up. Instead you’re greeted by dozens of posts with headings such as ‘Do not buy any product by George R.R. Martin’ or ‘Do not read this book’ or ‘Warning! Avoid!’ This fan ire has its basis in the fact that Martin hasn’t got closer to finishing the series. That’s a trifle harsh, one might think, given that he has written several thousand pages so far – but the fans’ point is that the rate has been slowing down. A Game of Thrones came out in August 1996, A Clash of Kings 27 months later, A Storm of Swords 21 months after that, but then the gap between the books grew: A Feast for Crows took five years and then A Dance with Dragons six years more. Half a decade is a long time between books in a work that is conceived and published as a series. At the current rate, even if the sequence doesn’t expand any further, he won’t be finished until 2020. It’s also the case that the narrative momentum of the series has slowed in books four and five, and the exploration of Westeros feels more leisurely and expansive, with the books’ stories in many cases overlapping and simultaneous.