Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mavis Staples & Jeff Tweedy - "Wrote A Song For Everyone"

Since I've been off the blog for a few days and in celebration of a new John Fogerty album, here's an off-the-cuff CCR cover that I'm not sure how I missed the first time.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cannes Conversation: Jarmusch Edition

This review of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive makes it sound just about exactly as good as I hoped it would be. (Playlist)
From the very first opening titles, written in a Germanic font that immediately conjures everything from “Triumph of the Will” to images of big-busted ladies screaming in campy close-up in 1970s cheapie horrors (it may be the only time in Cannes that a film got a big laugh for a typeface) it’s perfectly clear that the Jim Jarmusch in whose company we’re about to spend a couple of hours is not the wilfully obscure surrealist of “The Limits of Control,” nor the considered, melancholic philosopher behind “Dead Man,” nor even the oddball ragtag troubadour of “Down By Law." In fact, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch’s take on the vampire myth starring recent muse Tilda Swinton and Tom “fast becoming everyone’s favorite actor” Hiddleston, finds the maverick filmmaker on playful, referential and mischievous form with hugely enjoyable, if not exactly weighty or important, results. It’s an offbeat, fun, and frequently very funny film, lifted out of disposability by some wonderfully rich production design, music cuts and photography, and by the cherishable performances of the leads. It’s also, bearing in mind the director’s recent output, by far the most accessible film he’s made in a while, albeit still a tad on the languid side for many, with its genre roots allowing the director to give full rein to his inherent weirdness within a comprehensible context, thereby not necessarily losing half the audience in befuddlement.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to build on the collective joy that Trek fans felt at the reset of the film franchise in 2009. That first film provided a context for many things we’ve come to love about the Enterprise crew, including Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) Vulcan/human conflict and the sometimes roguish behavior of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), At the same time, the time-travel plot involving the destruction of Vulcan allowed director J.J. Abrams (who returns for Into Darkness) to begin to write a new history for the franchise while also being able to draw upon mythology and incident familiar to a hypercritical fan base.

Into Darkness is working in the tradition of Trek as social commentary, or at least it attempts to. A bombing at a secret Starfleet facility puts Kirk and Spock on the radar of an Admiral (Peter Weller) hoping to militarize the fleet in anticipation of a war with the Klingons. The attack is blamed on a rogue officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), but Harrison is soon revealed to be a familiar and beloved villain from the Trek universe. The central question of Into Darkness is whether the Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet will abandon the values familiar to those who cherish the Trek world in the name of unbridled militarism. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that the film chooses the side of order, but this theme provides Abrams an excuse for several well-staged action sequences. There’s a close fight with a Klingon patrol and an old-school brawl between Spock and Harrison on top of moving vehicles. If there was ever a film franchise that needed glossy action less than Star Trek then I’m not sure what it is, but the success of the new films cannot help but make each succeeding installment more of a product. Though the Enterprise may be outgunned when it goes up against the mega-starship of Weller’s Admiral, there’s little sense that Kirk and the crew won’t succeed at what they set out to do; even the obligatory scene of an engineer - Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov puts on the red shirt as most of Mr. Scott’s (Simon Pegg) scenes take place off ship - telling Kirk that something is wrong comes about as a result of sabotage. Yet at least the supporting crew members are better developed that in the older films. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a few good scenes before being pushed to the background, but a scene in which McCoy (Karl Urban) operates on a torpedo is a little too much to bear.

Action sequences aside, what are we left with? Chris Pine plays Kirk as a man discovering himself, and the biggest climax of the many to be had in Into Darkness involves the Captain learning that there are bigger things than Starfleet regulations or his desire to subvert them. Zachary Quinto as Spock gets to play with the logic/emotion duality that’s in the character’s blood but was rarely more than discussed in the older films or series. One of the best ideas of the Abrams-era Trek is the relationship between Spock and Uhura, and here the scenes between the two give us a chance to see a more well-rounded Spock than Leonard Nimoy ever got to play. Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise crew assembled for the 5-year mission that started it all. As the film continue I’ve no doubt that we’ll encounter familiar villains and planets again, but I hope we’ll also follow these characters as they grow in new directions.

Monday, May 20, 2013

...and the reviews....

Here's a promising Cannes review of the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, another step in a long journey. (HND)
What's particularly interesting about this film, and it's a theme that has coursed through the brothers' career from the start, is that Llewyn doesn't mature or change much at all though his travels, trails, and tribulation. When we meet him he's a bitter, somewhat entitled singer-songwriter, and when we leave him he's mostly the same, though perhaps more resigned to his fate than a struggling musician should probably admit. Not even impregnating his ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, in a fantastic and unexpected comedic turn) raises much of fuss inside Llewyn, who'd probably rather be miserable with a girl who despises him than go out of his way to meet anyone new. The Coens don't offer a structured narrative in any typical sense, instead following Llewyn as he makes mistakes (he spends a good portion of the film chasing after a lost cat named Ulysses, raising an obvious parallel between himself and James Joyce's quintessential vagabond), burns bridges, and alienates everyone that supports him. In other words, he's a classic Coen antihero, and he stands alongside A Serious Man's Larry Gopnick and The Man Who Wasn't There's Ed Crane as fascinating, unsettled, yearning characters searching for answers which may never arrive.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Music: Kristin Hersh & Tanya Donelly - "Ellen West"

With a technical rehearsal for Hamlet on the horizon today I don't have time to search out new music, but here's an old favorite to tide you over.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Frances Under the Stars

Under the heading of "I love New York, New York drives me crazy," read this account of a screening of Frances Ha. (The Lo-Down)
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig joined the audience for a Q&A after the screening. A young audience member was the first to ask the question, “I saw the film mainly as a character study but I was wondering if it had any sort of larger social context… besides only being about middle- to upper-class white people?”

2 for JM

Two responses to Janelle Monae and her new single and video Q.U.E.E.N; one asks whether it matters if the song is really Monae's coming out:
Every once in a while she'll give answers to her questions: like the title question, is it true that we're all insane? (I just tell them no we ain't and get down). But mostly, she leaves it for us to decide. No matter the answer, I will always love freaks--like a real deep love--so just the question pulls me into the song. And not a freak as in, "Let your freak flag fly because nobody understands me," Gaga-style; but more a freak in the sense of blending past and present, funk and protest, which many of us have long embodied.
Another blogger puts Monae in the context of iconoclastic African-American female singers:
Janelle Monae may never become a mass cultural icon. There's something about her defiance I can't see catching on. She will, however, be a pivotal figure for young, black women. We flock to her. While Beyonce and Rihanna are fantasies, Janelle is your home girl; a reflection of your fly best friend; a young woman who sets her own rules in a way few of us have seen before. That's Janelle Monae's revolution.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dept. of Life in the Theatre

I'd love to see Christopher Durang win a Tony for Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, but even if he doesn't his friend and Tony-nominated actress Kristine Nielsen will be there for the next go-round.
Ms. Nielsen’s Tony nod may owe to a first-act scene in which she appears resplendent in a beaded gown (cheekily similar to the one she wore in “Ubu”), announcing that she will attend a local costume party as “the Evil Queen from ‘Snow White,’ as played by Maggie Smith on the way to the Oscars.” To watch her deliver a speech that is at once a declaration of burgeoning confidence, a jab at her glamorous sister, and a perfect caricature of Ms. Smith’s performance in the 1978 film “California Suite,” is to know that here is a comic actress who can do anything. And in a tiara and sequins, too.

Ms. Nielsen didn’t necessarily plan an exclusively comic career. Chatting in the orchestra section of the John Golden Theater before a Saturday performance, she described a serious theatrical education, which included an undergraduate degree from Northwestern and a masters from the Yale School of Drama, where she played Sonya in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” among other classical parts. She made her Broadway debut in a 1985 revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” hardly a knee-slapper.

Sunday Music: Chris Thile - "Presto from G-Minor Sonata"

I know Thile was in this space a few weeks ago, but this one feels right for today.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Upstream Color

If you pay any attention to the discussion of current films then by now you know the story of Shane Carruth. The writer/director/star of 2004’s micro-budget Primer spent a frustrating decade trying to get another project going, but he was unable to find anyone willing to finance his vision despite the support of some major Hollywood names. If you know Primer then you can understand why a studio executive might be afraid of Carruth; the film is full of dense, authentic-sounding scientific dialogue and lacks a clear hero or villain. So what does Carruth have in store for a second film? The new Upstream Color is a significantly more abstract and challenging work than Primer, and that’s saying something. It’s a genuinely experimental work, low on dialogue, with no regard for conventional ideas of motivation or resolution; at the same time there’s a beating heart to the film thanks to the actors and the scope of the ideas Carruth engages . While Primer was a film Carruth wanted to make, with Upstream Color Carruth has a produced a film that it feels like he had to make. In short, it’s thrilling.

What plot there is in Upstream Color can be quickly summarized. A woman named Kris (the excellent Amy Seimetz) is assaulted and implanted with a worm that makes her susceptible to suggestion. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) drains Kris’s bank accounts and she loses her job; her squirm-inducing attempts to remove the worm lead her to a character known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who in a bizarre surgical procedure transplants the worm into a pig. Later Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), whose has been through a similar experience and shares Kris’s sense of something missing. The rest of the film is the story of their relationship and search for meaning. Trying to describe the plot of Upstream Color makes the film sound like some sort of bio-terror horror movie. Carruth’s meditative style, stark locations, and sparse dialogue suggest a bigger ambition though; he’s not interested in cheap shocks but rather the flexible nature of identity itself. There’s a remarkable montage (the editing is by Carruth and David Lowery) in which Kris and Jeff argue about which of them actually experienced a childhood memory. Are there ties between us that are deeper than we understand? What happens when Kris and Jeff begin to look for answers could be interpreted as Carruth commenting on religion, but the ambiguity of the ending (Kris has found at least a temporary peace) suggests to me that Carruth thinks our biggest problem as a people is what we do to each other.

Upstream Color would be as exciting as a dorm room bull session if it weren’t for Amy Seimetz, who invests Kris with a great pain and need to connect with someone (or something). Seimetz doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with (and a chunk of it is taken from Walden) but her face does a lot of work; Seimetz is magnetic in the scenes where Kris undergoes various indignities to restore her identity. Shane Carruth isn’t required to show as much range as Seimetz, but he ably conveys the emptiness at Jeff’s center. The next film Carruth wants to make is reportedly called The Modern Ocean. I have no idea when we’ll see it or who will finance it, but the existence of Upstream Color is a cause for celebration. This is what the product of an original mind looks like, and though I have no idea if I’ve parsed the film correctly I am certainly glad I had the chance to try.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


This site will continue to be a repository for writing about the music of my formative years. Here's the story of an almost-forgotten Replacements song and what it says about the band's transition from brilliant, drunken loons to (semi-) mainstream stars. (Aquarium Drunkard)
In 1988 the Replacements headed to a studio in Woodstock, New York in an effort to record their follow up to Pleased to Meet Me. They enlisted Tony Berg as the producer and set to it. And although the band allegedly laid down an album’s worth of material, it was all scrapped as Paul Westerberg felt like the album was turning into a too-typical Replacements album. While very little of this session has been bootlegged, two of the songs did eventually end up on the 1997 collection All for Nothing/Nothing for All and again on the 2008 reissue of Don’t Tell a Soul. The best of the two, or at the bare minimum the one with the most story behind it, is “Portland.”

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

"...loud crowd, cheap beer, and not a bad seat in the house."

I'm a hockey fan in part because of my friend Luna, who can talk about alternate jerseys with a level of excitement that makes me dizzy. I think she'd appreciate the scrappy playoff performance of this year's New York Islanders, six years removed from their last playoff berth and farther removed from their (pictured) 1980's glory days. I just watched the Islanders tie up their playoff series with the favored Penguins and then found this salute to the team's working-class fans, who seem undaunted by the team's 2015 move to Brooklyn. I don't know if the Islanders will overcome Pittsburgh's talent in the end, but it's good to know the heart of the team's fan base remains undaunted. (The title of this post is from the Grantland article's comment section.)
This is how Islanders fan generally feel about the move to Brooklyn: It sucks for fans but is good for the team. Plus, going to Brooklyn — rather than Kansas City or Quebec, as had been rumored — is as about as painless as a franchise relocation gets. “I learned this in elementary school,” said James. “Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk — they’re all part of Long Island. They didn’t put dynamite on the border between Queens and Nassau.” James was allowing a woman to paint an Islanders’ logo onto his recently shaved head. “Will I go to Brooklyn?” he said. “Yeah. It’s easier to travel. You don’t have to deal with the traffic on Hempstead Turnpike and Meadowbrook Parkway.”

Monday, May 06, 2013

Sarah Polley talks

You can't turn around without seeing a Sarah Polley interview these days; the Canadian actress-turned-director is talking up her much-discussed documentary Stories We Tell. Here Polley talks about the making of the film and how it connects to projects past and future.
Q: That's a sentiment echoed in the Margaret Atwood quote from her book, “Alias Grace” that opens the film, saying it's “only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.” That book carries a similar, “Rashomon”-type structure to “Stories We Tell.” Did one influence the other?

A: It's funny -- I actually hadn't gotten the rights to the book when I put that quote in the film, but I had been thinking about wanting to adapt "Alias Grace” into a film for a very long time, since I was 18. I've been trying to get the rights for about 15 years, and I was no closer when I put that quote in the film to getting them. You don't always consciously see the parallels in things you work on, and I think it's only just recently that I've realized some. Obviously ['Stories'] deals with the themes of going back over a series of events from different perspectives and trying to figure out what happened in the past, and wondering if that's even possible to ascertain.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sunday Music: PJ Harvey - "Rid of Me"

From 1993; I was unaware that Rid of Me, the album, was actually the work of a band. This new oral history details the recording process and the way that unexpected attention and life on the road soon led to Harvey working alone.

Iron Man 3

There isn't another superhero franchise where our feelings about the character overlap with our feelings about the star as much as they do in the Iron Man films. Spider-Man, Superman, and even Batman have all gone through multiple leading men, but Robert Downey Jr. is the only Iron Man and that will likely be the case for some time. Downey's Tony Stark is a good-hearted screw-up, skilled in business but inept in his personal life, and part of each Iron Man installment involves rooting for him to overcome his worst impulses. In Iron Man 3 Stark is still haunted by the events of The Avengers, and his paranoia and compulsive need to improve the Iron Man suit have begun to threaten his relationship with  Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, given more to do here than in the previous films). Robert Downey Jr.'s now-receding personal demons have been well-chronicled; since he has been the recipient of multiple second chances (What would have happened to him if he hadn't gotten the Ally McBeal job?) and now is the star of not one but two film franchises, it seems that we as a moviegoing culture have a need to make sure he's OK.

You have to like Downey quite a bit to like Iron Man 3, a film which attempts to carry forward what has become a central theme of the Marvel series. The WWII-set Captain Americadealt with the question of the difference between heroism and commodified heroism in a fresh, witty way; seeing Captain America reduced to headlining a propaganda show for the troops was a welcome dose of irony. The Avengers raised the question of whether the public was ready for superheroes - and all the attendant property damage - but the idea was crammed into the end of an already busy movie. Iron Man 3 walks a similar thematic path, but doesn't seem all that interested in following through. Stark has become a recluse while his sidekick James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) now serves as a sort of one-man Special Ops force for the government. Rhodes's War Machine suit has been renamed Iron Patriot in an effort to achieve full marketability. Pepper is now running Stark Industries, and in an early scene she rejects a scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his ideas for weaponizing DNA. All of this is taking place as a terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hijacks TV signals and wages an escalating campaign of bombings aimed at U.S. targets. If you're still keeping up, then know that the bulk of Iron Man 3 involves Tony's attempt to find The Mandarin after the terrorist makes their fight personal. There's an interlude involving a parentless Tennessee boy (Ty Simpkins) who comes to Tony's aid when he's forced to go low-tech, but there are also plenty of explosions, deaths, and Iron Man suits that fly around without anyone inside them. Director and co-writer Shane Black (taking over from Jon Favreau) attempts to leaven all the things that go boom with jokes, but since almost every line Downey says sounds like a joke it's easy to get tired of the attempts at humor. 

Movies like Iron Man 3 hit or miss for me on the motivations of their villains, and since screenwriters seem to have run out of everything but chaos and destruction it's almost refreshing that the  Mandarin is motivated by money. The question of who makes a profit on the War on Terror is a rich subject, but it is only considered here in the most superficial way - it is literally given lip service. Iron Man 3 is a delivery system for Downey's zingers, beautiful women (Rebecca Hall is underused as a scientist Tony beds then needs help from later), and the idea that our superheroes must have a dark side. Geopolitical realities feel very far away from a film like this, especially since the argument is also made that terror can strike anywhere at anytime. The filmmakers can't be faulted for this of course, but there's a bombing scene that is similar to the recent events in Boston. The "Marvel Universe" films will continue, and there's a suggestion that Stark is rebooting himself, but I hope that Iron Man's next mission won't be for a little while. I need a hero (and a movie star) that doesn't need me quite so much. 

Friday, May 03, 2013

Lost City

I have never seen Larry Clark's film Kids and I can't even remember if it made it to my local multiplex during the Miramax-friendly 1990's. (I saw plenty of now-forgotten fare; remember 54 or Sliding Doors?) This article locates the movie in the New York skateboarding culture of the period, and while Kids launched the careers of Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny it's non-actors like the late Harold Hunter (pictured) who were the heart of the film.
Those of us who watched Kids as adolescents, growing up in an era before iPhones, Facebook, and Tiger Moms, had our minds blown from wherever we were watching–whether it was the Angelika Film Center on the Lower East Side or our parents’ Midwestern basements. We were captivated by the entirely unsupervised teens smoking blunts, drinking forties, hooking up, running amok and reckless through the New York City streets. Simultaneously, the driving storyline highlighted the terror of HIV and AIDS, which was at its apex in the mid-nineties.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

It's a Double Iconoclast Thursday

The video for Q.U.E.E.N. is my favorite thing on the web today, with the exception of a possible director's cut of The Tree of Life. I bet you never thought you'd see Janelle Monae and Terrence Malick in one blog post.