Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now wants to be a new kind of teenage movie, the kind that not only doesn’t romanticize the high school years but instead puts them in relief against much more formidable challenges. Director James Ponsoldt (working from a novel by Tim Tharp) isn’t interested in the ecosystem of high school; these kids aren’t outcasts. Ponsoldt’s well-acted Spectacular Now (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote the screenplay) offers a clear-eyed message about not being afraid to look at one’s life. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a senior best known for his partying and lack of social affectation. Sutter doesn’t have much of a plan for his life and isn’t crazy about the example set by either his single, working mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or his social climbing sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Things bottom out when Sutter’s girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him, and it isn’t until he wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) that Sutter’s life begins to turn around.

Sutter and Aimee do fall in love, and Teller and Woodley have an easy, relaxed chemistry with each other that makes it easy to believe that Aimee is just what Sutter has been waiting for. This is no ugly duckling story; Woodley plays Aimee not as emerging from a shell but rather as someone whose natural confidence has finally been noticed. Miles Teller gets Sutter’s swagger right, but I also like the way his half-formed features and expressive eyes betray the anxiety underneath,. As appealing as the two young leads are, it’s the darker undertones of their relationship that give The Spectacular Now some bite. Ponsoldt’s previous film was last year’s Smashed (with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in an award-caliber performance), the story of how both alcohol abuse and the subsequent recovery can erode a marriage. The Spectacular Now is subtler; Sutter is smooth enough to pull off a hip flask without getting sloppy even though his problem is obvious to everyone. What the new film gets right is the is the sense that Sutter is being eaten away from the inside by drink before his life even starts, and the way that he didn’t know the game was rigged. The missing piece in Sutter’s life is his father, whose whereabouts have been kept from him by the rest of his family. When Sutter finally does meet his Dad he is played by Kyle Chandler in a great, image-subverting cameo and he isn’t even close to what Sutter was expecting. As good as Chandler is it’s after his scenes that the movie takes a turn, as the focus shifts from Sutter and Aimee’s relationship to what is seen as the tragic inevitability of Sutter’s future. We lose track of Aimee and her college plans, and it turns out that she was primarily around to help Sutter figure things out.

For most of its running time The Spectacular Now is saddled with what I call the Ghost World problem. In that film the disaffected teens were smart enough to realize that college would represent a way out but passed on their future to serve the movie’s purposes. Something of the same thing is at work here; quite a lot depends on Sutter not embracing the future when graduation and a possible future with Aimee are in the offing. It is the movie’s refusal to honor that choice, or to suggest that Sutter will even be very good at anything as an adult - he’s not harboring any secret writing talent - that makes it unusual. Sutter may want to live in the now, but now he’s being pushed towards a future of bar stools unless he acts. The final scene is both hard-won and admirably open-ended, and the ironically titled The Spectacular Now turns out to be a movie about the necessity and not the joy of growing up.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney

But also a recognition that nothing can be learned, that to be in the presence of a death is to be in the presence of something utterly simple and utterly mysterious. In my case, the experience restored the right to use words like soul and spirit, words I had become unduly shy of, a literary shyness, I suppose, deriving from a misplaced obedience to proscriptions of the abstract, but also a shyness derived from a complicated relationship with my own Catholic past. In many ways I love it and have never quite left it, and in other ways I suspect it for having given me such ready access to a compensatory supernatural vocabulary. But experiencing my parents' deaths restored some of the verity to that vocabulary. These words, I realized, aren't obfuscation. They have to do with the spirit of life that is within us.
The above is a quote from a 1997 interview with Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate who died today. Heaney is speaking of the death of his parents. While I won't claim to be an expert on his work, the warmth and humanism on display here and in his poems does resonate. Full obituary here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Art of Gravity

I generally try to stay away from too much buzz about films that haven't been released yet, but the level of excitement for Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is something to be reckoned with. Gravity just opened the Venice Film Festival and comes out here in October. Glenn Kenny would like you to know that Gravity was NOT secretly written by Ray Bradbury, but that Bradbury would have liked it. You can read a full review of the film here. Kenny:
Now that Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is getting rapturous reviews from the Venice Film Festival, with more no doubt to follow, I believe it’s not un-okay for me to let the cat out of the bag and report that I was able to see the movie a few months back thanks to the kind consideration of some Warner people who wanted some advance feedback from myself and a few other Internet-centric movie journalists. I would have kept the cat in the bag longer were I not a little disturbed by the mewlings of various and sundry folks who travel the digital spaceways, claiming that the movie, co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is somehow an ignoble enterprise in that it does not acknowledge the Ray Bradbury short story “Kaleidoscope” as its story source.
(Note: There is nothing in either of these links I'd describe as a "spoiler", but read at your own risk.)_

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Throwing Muses - "Sleepwalking 1"

As a Throwing Muses fan of long standing I'm happy to share the new song "Sleepwalking 1"; it's the first music from the band's new album Purgatory/Paradise. More details on the upcoming album here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Edgar Wright's Top 10 + 1

The World's End director Edgar Wright lists his top 11 Criterion discs. I think I've seen about 5 of these, though some so long ago I need a rewatch, This is the second time in a week I've seen Blow Out at the top of a list.
I have heard people call themselves Brian De Palma apologists. I am proud to say that I am a huge fan without any caveats. There’s a reason that, back in the seventies, fellow movie brats Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese would defer to De Palma as “the filmmaker.” When on form, his work is something to behold. Even the lesser works of De Palma contain flashes of genius, while the best of his movies rank as pure cinema. Blow Out is certainly one of De Palma’s finest. There’s not a wasted shot, not even a wasted corner of frame. In the telling of this audiovisual thriller, De Palma uses Steadicam work, split screens, split diopter shots, and complex optical effects to utterly exciting but never overly flashy effect. Some directors are great storytellers without their presence being felt, but De Palma, much like his cinematic hero Alfred Hitchcock, is a master manipulator of both his medium and his audience. He plays us like an instrument, maneuvers us like puppets, and frequently makes us look where we’d rather not. Blow Out begins with De Palma turning the camera on himself and criticisms against him, then ends with one of the crueller, blacker chapters in cinema.

The interview on the disc with De Palma and Noah Baumbach is a must-see too; great to hear him talk about Hitchcock, Antonioni, and Coppola and their influence on this film. Filmmakers and film students will be also fascinated to know that Brian thinks coverage is a dirty word. This is a tremendous piece of work that I am very glad Criterion has given the royal treatment.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Reading a plot description of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine could lead one to believe the director has made a film about something real happening in American life, about the years when the American economy exploded around us and left so many people struggling to figure out new lives. In truth Blue Jasmine is only slightly connected to the economic crisis. Allen’s latest is an uneven comedy of downward mobility and an indictment of what Allen believes to be the false promise of a certain kind of life. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett in a superbly controlled performance) is a widowed New Yorker who is moving to San Francisco to live with her blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). In the opening scene we catch Jasmine unfolding her life to a stranger on a plane, and we get the first intimations that something is off-kilter with this woman whom from all outward appearances is the picture of sophistication. . The backstory is laid out in a series of flashbacks: Jasmine and her late husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) lived it up or years on Park Avenue, but their lifestyle was built on money bilked from investors and shell games with the federal government. Hal is arrested and commits suicide while the now-broke Jasmine (unaware of Hal’s crimes) must restart her life with the working-class sister she feels no connection to.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is a high-wire act; each layer of Jasmine’s ongoing emotional crisis is carefully detailed and a little different from on the one that came before. The movie that Allen has constructed around Blanchett isn’t as strong as her work though. Jasmine and Ginger, only sisters by adoption, are so unconnected  that it’s hard to believe Hawkins’ earthy Ginger could ever be influenced by Jasmine. Ginger sees a future with her good-natured Everyman of a boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and the subplot where she is tempted to throw him over for a stranger (Louis CK) because of Jasmine’s disdain for Chili never feels believable. Jasmine bumbles along with a job working for a flirtatious dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and vague plans to become an interior decorator, but most of these scenes aren’t played for laughs. Blue Jasmine isn’t a soak the rich comedy.  It’s only when a chance meeting with an aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jasmine an opportunity to return to her former lifestyle that Allen reveals his true intentions. Allen is working in his serious mode here, putting capital letters in front of his Themes and his characters’ Emotions. Why is Jasmine such a mess? When we learn the answer it comes as a shock to learn that we’re meant to understand that Jasmine’s relationship with Hal isn’t an obstacle on the road to a new life but rather something that she feels guilty about her role in ending. That’s right, we’re watching a movie about Guilt, and it’s guilt that has driven Jasmine into her fragile mental state. If Allen had kept to this idea and hadn’t loaded the movie with a lot of class-collision scenes and broad performances he might have been on to something powerful, but too much of Blue Jasmine is busy and confused.

Part of the critical discussion around Blue Jasmine involves parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire, and while there are superficial similarities involving the mismatched sisters I don’t think the comparison amounts to much. Blanche DuBois, like many Williams characters, is a reflection of how Williams felt oppressed bysociety’s misunderstandings while Jasmine is brought low by her husband’s very real financial crimes,. Also, there’s sex in Blue Jasmine but no sexual tension. Woody Allen, working with his customary ambition, has wasted a strong leading performance in a muddled movie. I’d be all for Allen and Blanchett giving it another try.

Friday, August 23, 2013

DePalma's best

This ranking of Brian DePalma's films points up just how many I either haven't seen or need to watch again. The surprisingly low-ranked Casualties of War falls into the former category. (
23) "Casualties of War" (1989): Based on a true story that was chronicled in a 1969 article in The New Yorker, the film recounts the horrifying saga of a squad of American soldiers in Vietnam, led by Sean Penn, that kidnap, rape and eventually murder a young native woman and the efforts of the one member who didn't participate (Michael J. Fox) to bring the others to justice despite overwhelming odds. Although regarded by many as a surprisingly mature work from a filmmaker more often prone to providing lurid thrills, I must confess that it is one that has never quite worked for me that well. De Palma spent years trying to get it made and, like so many other long-standing pet projects from other filmmakers, it feels as if he had no more energy to give to the project when he finally got it off the ground. I also have a problem with the story's framing device that tries and largely fails to end the story on a slightly redemptive note instead of in the emotionally shattering manner in which it should conclude.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Director's corner

Destin Daniel Cretton talks the acclaimed Short Term 12. I've reposted the trailer since my previous embed was taken down.
Q: One of the things I loved about the movie is the way that you can effortlessly go between tones. Like you said “laughing one minute, silent the next, crying the next. Scared.” How do you work with that?

A: I think a lot of my process is pretty mathematical. That part of it is not mathematical to me. I think it’s naturally the way that my personality and my family’s personality… like when things start to get a bit dramatic somebody will probably crack a joke. We are also not afraid to talk about very serious things, but it’s usually not done as serious. I think it’s a natural progression from that. Also a huge part of the tone is emulating the stories in a way that… interviews I had with people who worked at places like this the way that they tell these stories. In one sitting I was on the floor laughing and then crying and then devastated and filled with hope. It all felt great together, it all felt cohesive.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard

Tributes to and memories of the late Elmore Leonard:

  The New York Times:
Amused and possibly a bit exasperated by frequent requests to expound on his writing techniques, Mr. Leonard drew up “Ten Rules of Writing,” published in The New York Times in 2001. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” and other tips spoke to Mr. Leonard’s puckish wit; but put into practice, his “rules” do indeed capture the essence of his own spare style. Mr. Leonard’s narrative voice was crisp, clean and direct. He had no time to waste on superfluous adverbs, adjectives or tricky verb forms, and he had no patience for moody interior monologues or lyrical descriptive passages.
He started out as a Mad Man–era ad copywriter, drinking too hard while writing Chevrolet ads that were, he told an interviewer, “cute, alliterative, full of similes and metaphors” — everything his subsequent fiction scrubbed away. Leonard started publishing fiction during the last gasp of the pulps; his first agent was H.N. Swanson (“Swanie”), a colorful figure who had also represented F. Scott Fitzgerald and who took credit for Leonard’s material success: “He was a pup writing Westerns ... I told him to forget the cowboy stuff and write stories with women in them. He did, and I made him a millionaire.” (The Westerns are good — try Last Stand at Saber River — but no better than others in the genre by Ernest Haycox or Cynthia Haseloff, whereas Leonard, despite his modest insistence that his work sprang from Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, ultimately stands alone in the thriller genre.)
Much of the pleasure of reading Elmore Leonard was in the dialogue, which is why so many of his books became movies and TV series. Leonard followed his rule of "avoiding detailed descriptions of characters" by having his people talk to each other. He had an ear for the way conversations flowed, whether they were conducted on the street, in the precinct, or on the range. For a White guy, he certainly knew how to sound convincingly like the Black dudes who populated many of his novels. He captured the cadences of their speech, and did so without stereotype. His Brothers sounded like the guys I heard on the street in my old neighborhood; his cops sounded like cops I knew. Leonard embraced and elevated what they said, letting them ramble on whenever necessary. This love of casual chatter is probably what drew Tarantino to adapt "Rum Punch" as "Jackie Brown." It's certainly what made him pull entire chunks of Leonard's dialogue verbatim into the "Jackie Brown" script.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Criterion #230: 3 Women

I wanted to write a great review of 3 Women. I wanted to write something full of insight that located this 1977 film (late in Robert Altman's run of 1970's classics) among not only Altman's best but among the greatest American films of the decade. 3 Women may, in fact, be worthy of that description. But one viewing isn't enough. Robert Altman's 1977 3 Women, which the director conceived in a dream, is a knotty work often lacking in internal logic which still manages to leave an indelible impression. It isn't surprising that after 3 Women Altman's career began a slide that didn't stop until the early 1990's. I don't know what the film's budget was (it was released by 20th Century Fox), but today it's impossible to imagine a studio giving a director two hundred bucks to make something as intimate and oblique as 3 Women.

 California, abutting the desert: Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is fresh from Texas and has a job at a senior citizens' spa where her only duties seem to consist of leading patrons around the pool and into the hot tubs. Pinky attaches herself to Milly (Shelley Duvall), a more experienced employee whose empty personal life is only gradually revealed. The two become roommates at an apartment complex owned by Edgar (Robert Fortier) and his pregnant wife Willie (Janice Rule, the third woman of the title), whose obsessive paintings of women at the mercy of men seem to unlock something bizarre within the world of the film. It is difficult to understand now what an unsettling presence the young Sissy Spacek must have been to 1970's audiences. Spacek totally commits to the role of Pinky but also (just as in Badlands) seems completely malleable, which serves the film well during a later section when Pinky seems to hijack another personality. As good as Spacek is though, Shelley Duvall is even better and 3 Women may be the role of her career. Duvall won a Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance, and in the current thin climate of great roles for women it is quite possible she would have been nominated for an Oscar. Millie is, within the film's dream logic, trying on a personality just as much as Pinky is though Millie is much more tone deaf as to how she is perceived. I'm not sure that 3 Women was meant to stand up to the sort of obsessive picking apart that films of today undergo, but the way that Millie talks constantly to her colleagues and neighbors and is almost completely ignored feels like a kind of clue that Altman doesn't mean all of this to be taken literally and maybe also a clue that he's admitting he doesn't understand women very much at all.

 I could continue to describe the plot of 3 Women, which also includes an aborted dinner party, a shooting range, and a hospital visit, but that wouldn't do the experience of it justice. By then end I think I choose to take Altman at his word, that Pinky, Millie, and Willie are as we find them but that one of them (or perhaps all of them) dare to imagine something different no matter how scary it seems. That may be too reductive a reading of a film that it's director may not even have understood, but it is a place to start. 3 Women contains mysteries and is very much a product of a era when personality felt like a construct and film felt like a direct line to the best of human possibility.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Malick in voice

I had never heard of The Dissolve until I watched their video essay on the use of voiceover in Terrence Malick's films.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a straightforward, deliberately paced historical drama, and that description isn’t meant entirely as a criticism. Drawn from the life of Eugene Allen (here called Cecil Gaines), who worked as a White House butler under Presidents from Truman to Reagan, The Butler contains under its conventional surface a running argument about the relationships of African-Americans to the institutions of the country they live in. It is that argument, which is largely left unresolved, that gives the movie an welcome bite. Cecil (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker in a performance of enormous subtlety) sees his father murdered in a Georgia cotton field and is taken to serve in the house by a mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) who never lets Cecil forget his place. As a young man Cecil is saved from a life of trouble by a older butler (Clarence Williams III), who sends Cecil to Washington and eventually to a job at The White House. Daniels and writer Danny Strong (adapting an article by Will Haygood) pay the utmost respect to Cecil’s professionalism; the movie is serious about how well he and his fellow butlers (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) do their jobs, and I was relieved that there was never a moment when someone opened a door just as Cecil walked by with a tray. Such a comedic choice would have cut against one of the central messages of The Butler, which is that there is always work to do.

The bulk of The Butler jumps between Cecil at work and at home with his wife Gloria (a funny, surprising Oprah Winfrey) and scenes of the political awakening of Cecil’s older son Louis (David Oyelowo). The actors who play Presidents are mostly treated as Very Special Guest Stars; Robin Williams plays Eisenhower as befuddled that Orval Faubus won’t work with him on integration but James Marsden as Kennedy gets some moments of genuine anger while watching a civil rights protest on TV. I wish the movie had found a way to skip over Nixon, our most caricatured President, but John Cusack plays the role and (in a scene near the end of Nixon’s term) looks and feels wildly out of place. Alan Rickman makes a slightly doddering Reagan, but I wanted a bit more of a Jane Fonda who plays Nancy Reagan as the power behind the throne. The marriage of Cecil and Gloria ebbs and flows over the years in a way that never feels false. Whitaker and Winfrey are excellent together, and Daniels allows as much time for Gloria’s loneliness as he does for scenes of laughter and cross-talk between Cecil, Gloria, and their friends. (It’s good to see Terrence Howard as a neighbor who wants to be more than friends with Gloria.) It’s only at home that Cecil can let certain sides of his personality out; he has trained himself since childhood to tamp down his personality in front of others and it is a tribute to Whitaker’s performance that he’s able to unlock the emotions of such a recessive character for us.

The relationship between Cecil and Louis is both the best and most challenging part of The Butler. Cecil believes that hard work and keeping his head down is the best thing both for him and his family, and it’s only gradually that he becomes angered enough about pay inequity at the White House to speak out. From the first moment we see Louis we can tell he’s embarrassed by what his father does, but Oyelowo also gets across that Louis is embarrassed by his embarrassment. Louis grows up at Fisk University while Cecil serves the President, and the juxtaposition achieves an irony perhaps even greater than Daniels intended. There are scenes in The Butler I don’t think I’ve ever seen staged before, including a lunch counter sit in and a training seminar where Louis and his fellow students are encouraged to hurl epithets at each other in preparation for the real thing. Some stock footage is used, but the choice to film a scene in which Oyelowo is menaced by a police dog feels right for a story of ordinary people who drove history’s changes. When scenes like these are intercut with the rituals of White House service, it isn’t clear how we’re supposed to feel about Cecil and that’s a good thing. The ruthless interiority of Whitaker’s performance makes up for a 1960’s scene where young Caroline Kennedy asks Cecil why people ride on the “Freedom Bus”. The choice to have Cecil reading Madeleine to Caroline before she asks the question is exactly right. Finally Cecil and Louis do have their reckoning, and while it’s an emotional moment there’s also a sense of Cecil’s political journey just beginning. The Butler is the story of a man who always did his best; Daniels doesn’t try to make too much of his hero or to make him just an accidental witness to history. Late in the movie Cecil comments in voice-over about the “two faces” that White House butlers wear, and it’s honesty about those two faces that makes The Butler a success and a credit to all involved.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Paging Dr. Yang

Sandra Oh is leaving Grey's Anatomy; let's remember her character as the forerunner of a host of recent female TV iconoclasts. I used to watch Grey's regularly and am pretty sure that it was Oh who said (in a commentary on the first season DVD) that something she wished the show had kept from the pilot was the degree of competitiveness that the surgeons felt with each other. Above is a scene from 1994's Double Happiness, which I think I saw without knowing anything about it and is where I discovered Oh.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Redbox Diaries #6: The Company You Keep

In Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs Redford played a liberal college professor who spent the movie lecturing a disengaged student on the importance of activism. Lions for Lambs wound up dying under the weight of its own self-seriousness, but the same can't be said of Redford's 2012 The Company You Keep. Redford plays Jim Grant, an Albany lawyer and single dad who's startled to read one morning of the arrest of '60s radical turned fugitive Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon). Grant's real name is Nick Sloan, and years ago he and Solarz were members of the Weather Underground and were involved in a bank robbery in which a man was killed. Sloan is soon on the run after a dogged reporter (Shia LaBeouf) reveals his identity. The rest of The Company You Keep is a nimbly executed chase augmented by a terrific supporting cast, led by Julie Christie as the woman Sloan loved once who may eve now hold the key to his future.

The politics of The Company You Keep are largely kept on a human level. As Nick travels the country and meets with former colleagues (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins) it becomes clear that the fiery radicalism of the 1960's has given way to a sort of go along to get along acceptance of life's small blessings. As a procedural the movie works well enough, though I wanted more of dry Anna Kendrick as an FBI agent, but only Christie and Brendan Gleeson (as a police chief with a connection to Sloan's case) come through with a sense of bitterness or confusion about the old days and about what they meant. The final scene between Redford and Christie's characters lets the movie down a bit, as the two old lovers reveal that their principles have very different motivations. I haven't read the Neil Gordon novel that The Company You Keep is based on, but if Redford and screenwriter Lem Dobbs had let Sloan have some fire from the old days the movie might have been a genuinely relevant work of political art. Finally, The Company You Keep is a well-acted entertainment for adults that errs by being too polite.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Superchunk - "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo"

From the new album I Hate Music, well reviewed here.
I Hate Music doesn't treat loss as vague or theoretical. The album's dedicated to a close friend of McCaughan and the band, the filmmaker and artist David Doernberg, who died after a battle with cancer in March of 2012. As McCaughan wrote in a blog post around that time: "I can't possibly enumerate the ways that Dave was intertwined into the fabric of our own family and lives. Likewise I have a feeling the hole that his passing leaves is larger than we even yet know." Once you learn where the songs are coming from, the sad lyrics are sadder, the happy lyrics more wistful.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Redbox Diaries #5: Code 46

I picked up Michael Winterbottom's 2003 sci-fi love story Code 46 while looking for something to do during a rain delay and because its description bore some resemblance to the premise of Elysium. Both films take place in a world where people are arbitrarily separated, but in Code 46 the distinctions are to do with DNA and not social class. (In both films characters conflate English and Spanish in their everyday speech.) The rise in in-vitro births and cloning (which is briefly mentioned) has let to strict regulations regarding who can and can't conceive; the film's title refers to the laws that relate two people's DNA similarities with their freedom to have children. William (Tim Robbins) is in Shanghai to investigate the printing of fraudulent travel documents, and his investigative powers are aided by an "empathy virus" that gives him low-level psychic abilities. The culprit is Maria (Samantha Morton), but the smitten William overlooks her guilt and the two enjoy a night together before William returns to his family in Seattle. For the rest of the film we stumble through this world along with the lovers; there's a pregnancy, a reunion, and an escape with only a few narrative hiccups. (William has some sort of official status but seems to have a great deal of difficulty moving around.) The soul of the film is Morton, who can play romantic longing (and specific states of arousal) as well as any of her fellow Brits in a Jane Austen adaptation, but she's a vital presence because of her modernity. We've seen Morton do good period roles (her Oscar-nominated turn in Sweet & Lowdown) but she'd be more at home in a film based on a William Gibson book.There is really only one way Code 46 can end, but Winterbottom opts for humanism over political commentary. It is heartening to see Maria, "afuera" but still alive, striding through the world.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dept. of Turns At Bat

Meet Ain't Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery, who has made his bones as a team player in the indie film world.
Yet for all of his Swiss Army knife multitasking, it’s as an editor that he’s been most prolific. In the last four years, Mr. Lowery has edited 11 features and 6 shorts, including festival darlings like Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” and Dustin Guy Defa’s “Bad Fever” — often while crashing on his collaborators’ couches, and usually for little to no money. That Mr. Lowery, 32, has so quickly established himself as independent film’s favorite fellow traveler can be attributed, at least in part, to that precocious, VCR-era training, and to his well-honed ability, as the oldest of nine children, to play well with others. “What’s interesting about David is that he meshes so well with different personalities,” Ms. Seimetz said. “He knows what he wants, and he’s very clear on that, but he doesn’t want to suddenly make your movie his. He’s helping people be clear about their voice.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013


The attempt to make an action movie about the need for universal health care has resulted in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, a sincere but undercooked new film that falls short as the political allegory it wants to be. In the year 2154 the city of Los Angeles is a dirty, chaotic blast zone where most basic services are performed by robots and citizens like Max (Matt Damon) can only hope to scrape by day-to-day. Max is an ex-con now working a menial straight job for a defense contractor, and his life’s goal is to reach an orbiting space habitat called Elysium where those who can afford to live a perfect life. The central attractions of Elysium are the computers that can cure any disease and that are available only to Elysium residents. Those who attempt to access Elysium illegally in order to receive care are either jailed or shot down on the order of Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the habitat’s neocon Defense Minister. After a workplace accident gives Max only days to live, Elysium becomes the story of his attempt to use information as leverage that will allow him to buy his way on to the habitat and into a medical bay. There’s a well-staged, close-in shootout early on that defines the movie’s visual aesthetic, which relies heavily on flying and crunching metal. Max unknowingly interferes with Delacourt’s plan to take over Elysium; enter Kruger (Sharlto Copely, entertaining as a kind of psychotic samurai), Delacourt’s personal mercenary and a man with political aspirations of his own.

We don’t learn much about life on Elysium besides the existence of the medical bays, the population appears to mostly white and the architecture is drawn heavily from back issues of Town and Country. For all her ambition Delacourt seems to be the only person who realizes how tenuous the situation is for her and the rest of Elysium’s population. (Putting all the wealth and power in one place makes about as much sense as headquartering the U.S. government in the Space Needle.) But since society can’t get any more top heavy, what’s her endgame? The same question applies for Max; it’s hard to imagine him getting off Elysium alive once he gets there. The beating heart of Elysium lies in Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who need a ticket to Elysium in order for Matilda’s leukemia to be healed. Frey and Matilda are what the world might look like if everyone were a citizen of Elysium, but for that even to become a possibility we have to watch a lot of explosions. Matt Damon is as locked into the movie’s conception of class warfare as he is to the exoskeleton suit he’s attached to in order to make it to Elysium. (Exoskeleton suits: very big in the future.) Damon’s presence is as welcome as ever, but Elysium doesn’t have enough of a center. I wish Blomkamp had been able to imagine not just a cure for Max, but a different life.

Friday, August 09, 2013

"You're just another part of the circus of life."

David Gordon Green is back with the well-received Prince Avalanche, which (it seems) is a combination of the humor of his studio comedies with the lyricism of his early work. I still love Green's debut George Washington.
"I've always been a very practical person. And I know in the independent films that I love—'Killer of Sheep' or 'Sling Blade' or 'Stranger Than Paradise'—they're accessible worlds to the filmmaker. 'George Washington' was a movie that was basically existing in my backyard, just waiting for someone to film it. Interesting kids, killer locations, just the beauty of youth and tragedy: That was just everyday life in the neighborhood in Winston-Salem where I was living," he said. "You're not shooting in mansions and highways, difficult logistical locations. You're shooting in mostly ghettos where you're welcome there if you're cool and respectful and treat everybody right. There's not location fees, there's not a lot of headaches and frustrations and ego and arrogance about where you are. You're just another part of the circus of life.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Grant Hart - "For Those Too High Aspiring"

A new song from the former Husker Du vocalist, and a strong review of his new CD The Argument.
Sprawled across 20 songs, The Argument is a concept album as ambitious as Hüsker Dü’s 1984 opus Zen Arcade. Here, though, Hart taps into one of the most threadbare sources of material, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But Hart tackles Milton’s tale of man’s tragic fall from grace with an inversely proportionate amount of triumph. Songs like “Morningstar” and “Underneath The Apple Tree” frame Satan as, alternately, a hypnotic Pied Piper of chantlike hooks and a sly, Rudy Vallée-esque crooner. Singing in character, Hart lends his eroded voice—a more cracked, more careworn, yet more versatile instrument than it once was—to the vast, theatrical scope of his narrative, never once losing an air of brittle intimacy.