Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Some art is real"

Klosterman on Reed.
Reed died yesterday — somehow both predictably and surprisingly — at the age of 71. You probably won't find an obituary that fails to mention the cantankerous complexities of his character. In the punk oral history Please Kill Me, Reed's nastiness is literally described as "famous," which is completely accurate. He was uncommonly famous for acting like a prick; it was essential to who he was as a public figure. He was the single-most famous jerk in an idiom supersaturated with jerks who hope to be famous. But that's not why his death is such a loss. That's not what's important. What's important is that this universally shared opinion about Lou Reed's persona never made anyone question the merits of his music. You were allowed to think whatever you wanted about who he was as a person (mostly because he didn't seem to care), but there was never any argument over the veracity of his genius. Few rational listeners injected their discomfort with Reed's personality into the experience of hearing his records; even fewer concluded that the way he sometimes acted in public eroded the insight of his output. You might say, "I hate Lou Reed," but you couldn't say, "I hate Lou Reed and I hate all his music." If you did, it only meant you had terrible taste in everything. This is why Reed's life was such a profound, unparalleled success: He proved that the only thing that truly mattered about an artist was the art.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Wisdom of Lou

From the '90s Miramax movie Blue in the Face.....

Sunday Music: Lou Reed - "Sweet Jane"

Lou Reed has died at age 71. I had thought of posting a lesser known song but I do like this performance of "Sweet Jane" (from Julian Schnabel's Berlin) despite the closing credits. Here's a 1989 Rolling Stone story that I read just about the time I discovered Lou and the New York album.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dept. of Advance Notice (12 Years a Slave)

Here is an excellent piece by Wesley Morris which puts 12 Years a Slave in context against decades of white-centered, "uplifiting" movies about race. Morris loses me a little bit when he tries to rope in Miley Cyrus. Whatever one thinks of the VMA routine, the African-American dancers who appeared with Cyrus were compensated and not performing against their will. Ascribing racist intent to Cyrus at this point just feels like piling on. Nevertheless, Morris has me eager to see the film and so does Glenn Kenny. Be warned, Kenny goes into a bit more specific detail on plot than Morris does but if you're worried about spoilers then 12 Years a Slave isn't a movie for you. Morris:
The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn't know whether he'll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides. When one Sunday Solomon fetches Patsey from a neighboring plantation and the woman of the house, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), explains to her guests her strategy for survival, he simply listens. Woodard invests that monologue with all her flighty, baroquely accented authority. It's an exquisite piece of writing that acknowledges the cunning and self-delusion some slaves could deploy to make the best of a terrible situation. Ridley typed it up. Woodard turns it into cursive.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In the tradition of....

Those who found fault with the most recent "twist" on Homeland don't know enough about thriller plotting. (Thompson on Hollywood)
"Undermining the believability of what we see" (a sore point with the above sorehead) is a staple tool in the thriller writer's kit, and not only of those on the far end of the noir spectrum, such as Woolrich and Bardin, whose anti-heroes are often unreliable to the point of psychosis. A more mainstream example, Robert Ludlum's novel "The Bourne Identity," though not the film version, employed major efforts of misdirection to convince Bourne himself, and the reader, that the amnesiac fugitive is actually Carlos, the Most Wanted Terrorist of the era in which the book was written. Does that make Ludlum, too, a "cheater"?

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Day with the Cup

Six-time Stanley Cup winner Ken Dryden retired before the "Day with the Cup" tradition began, but he still managed to get his turn. Being maybe the greatest goalie of all time has its perks. This story feels like it could only happen in Canada. (Grantland)
At one point in the evening, Monty Magarrell, the master of ceremonies, Jen's father-in-law, asked those who had helped out at the rink at any time during its history to stand. Astonishing those who had come back home to see the Cup, and astonishing each other as they looked around, most of the rink stood. A small town runs on volunteers. There's not enough money to hire others to do what needs to be done. There's too much to do. And now there are lots of nice new arenas. Even Winnipeg doesn't seem so far away. At times, the most fervent volunteers wonder why they do what they do. But if they stop, things break down, the challenge to live where they do grows, and their reason to stay diminishes. The Cup gave the people of Domain and area a need to get together to do what didn't seem possible. And in doing it, to remind themselves why they volunteer, why they live in Domain, why their rink matters; to feel proud and, as Jen Magarrell put it, for "bragging rights to boot!" Two years later, people still talk about "the night the Stanley Cup was in Domain."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Music: Mark Mulcahy - "Ladies From Town"

A great, recent live version of a Miracle Legion classic. This song has always been one of my favorites.

Enough Said

The career of the writer/director Nicole Holofcener is an unusual and precious thing in American movies. Since her 1996 debut Walking and Talking, Holofcener has reemerged every three or four years with another smart, well-acted, female-driven drama that's grounded in emotional reality. Holofcener is one of a very small number of major filmmakers of either gender who seems interested in how 21st century Americans relate to each other, and her new Enough Said demonstrates that her talent is only deepening. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the most substantial film role of her career) is a divorced L.A. masseuse whose days are filled with work and worry over her daughter Ellen's (Tracey Fairaway) impending departure for college. Eva is an attentive Mom with a slight need to be the cool parent; her advice to Ellen's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevenson, trying to transition into acting after becoming known for fashion blogging) about a boyfriend is something that most parents wouldn't say to a child who wasn't theirs. During an evening out with friends Eva is introduced to Albert (James Gandolfini), who will become her boyfriend, and to a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener, who has worked with Holofcener since Walking and Talking) who will become a client and confidant. Albert and Marianne used to be married. Then things get complicated.

I hope that James Gandolfini enjoyed playing Albert, because he is very good in the role and he demonstrates once again that there was so much more to him than just Tony Soprano. Gandolfini performs with great dignity, making Albert a man who's comfortable in his own habits but still has a strong need to connect. Albert's weight is an issue in the movie, and Gandolfini (like Louis-Dreyfus and Keener as well) isn't afraid to appear either physically or behaviorally unattractive on screen. Holofcener has a gift for getting vanity-free performances out of her cast, but when the (often very funny) writing is this good then actors are happy to play along. As good as Gandolfini is, Enough Said belongs to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The movie is a little coy at first about the ways in which Eva is a mess, but as her relationship deepens with Albert she's also unable to let go of the friendship with Marianne despite the fact that Marianne will run down Albert at every turn. There's a tricky speech that Holofcener writes Eva near the end in which she tries to justify her behavior, but Albert gets to call her out on her duplicity. It's a moment when Eva could look either monstrous or stupid, but Louis-Dreyfus nails the scene. Enough Said is, at its heart, a movie about the different kinds of holes people need to fill. Old wounds are exposed in a marvelous dinner scene that brings Eva together with her ex (Toby Huss) and their friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone). It's the kind of moment that happens every day in real life but that movies almost entirely miss, and it's refreshing to see Holofcener find it here. There's so much in Enough Said that Holofcener almost doesn't have time to explore it all. Albert and Eva's relationship is played with a very sweet tentativeness, but there's also the full lives of the two teenage girls and a subplot (which reminded me of Holofcener's Friends With Money) about Collette's character being unable to communicate with her maid. Enough Said doesn't end so much as it stops and that's not a bad thing here, since Nicole Holofcener is so skilled at creating rich, full on screen lives for her characters that will continue long after the credits have rolled.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mingus Yes Yes

Great piece on the irascible Charles Mingus, whose idea of his own life wasn't bounded by the limits of his art form.
Mingus wasn’t afraid of the new, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. In his liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (1959)—on the cover of which he appeared in Chinese imperial robes, with a Fu Manchu mustache—he grumbled, “ten to fifteen year cycles in jazz are camouflages for insecure musicians who hide behind the current style.” (“Camouflage” was the ultimate insult for Mingus, for whom art was nothing without self-exposure.) Just as “sham copies” had dishonored Parker’s genius, so young jazz musicians were now “hanging on to a few of the rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create.” In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself. Jazz had always been an art of quotation and allusion, a palimpsest of commentaries on other musicians’ interpretations of the same material. But with Mingus, who came into his own as jazz reached middle age, it acquired a more acute sense of historicity, even if his own work—a one-man genre he called “Mingus music,” as expansive and restless as the man himself—seemed to defy periodization.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2 on the Horizon

Kechiche takes his time too, giving his film three hours to "breathe," as he put it at the Q&A after the press screening—where he also said that he plans to add 40 minutes more to the final cut. But except when the director spells out a theme a little too literally, foreshadowing Adèle and Emma's meeting with a discussion in Adèle's class of an 18th-century novel that, as Adèle says later, really "puts us inside the skin" of its heroine, the film never feels padded or tiresome. Other scenes that feel a bit over-determined at first, like the meet-the-parents dinner with Adèle's parents that is a too-neat mirror opposite of the one they just shared with Emma's, redeem themselves by building on the symphonic emotional arc that is this movie's backbone, the actresses' nuanced reactions telling us more about the love that is keeping this couple together and the forces that are pulling them apart.

Q: Why were vampires such an interesting subject for Jarmusch?

A: “For me, it was obviously not a horror movie as most vampire films are...I think it's just the overview that it allowed, that they've been alive so long to show a love story that spans that amount of time...we're just observing these characters that happen to be very strange and interesting," he said. "So to be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time was, I think, really attractive to me, and their own love story to span that time was what drew me to it.” “Vampires start as humans, they're not zombies that return from the dead," Jarmusch continued. "So in any case they are not just metaphorically humans. They are humans that have been transformed. They’re still humans so that was interesting.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Music: David Murray - "Flowers For Albert"

I've been reading Will Hermes' Love Goes To Buildings On Fire about the 1970's New York music scene, and I picked out a 1978 performance of a minimalist jazz classic.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


This review contains mild spoilers. Read at your own risk. 

The first few minutes of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity could be an advertisement for how much fun it is to be an astronaut. With Earth in the background, a NASA veteran named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) putters around while extolling the performance of his jet pack while first-timer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works to install a new guidance system on the Hubbell Telescope. Kowalski is exactly what one would expect George Clooney to be like if he was an astronaut, full of jokes and banter with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) while the nervous Stone is focused on her work. During these initial scenes it isn't hard to notice how beautiful space is. The sumptuous visual effects and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography combine to create something new, a skyscape that's gorgeous but also textured. The American shuttle and the other spacecraft encountered in the film feel fragile and all too real; there's nothing "science fiction" about Gravity. Cuaron, whose last film was the too long ago Children of Men, is testing his limits here and the for a while the results are exhilarating since his vision of Earth orbit is both wonderfully cinematic and a place where someone could die. Gravity was made to be seen with the benefit of the new, immersive 3D technology. Yes, water and pens and other objects float toward the audience but the intent isn't to make you jump back from the screen. It's to invite you inside of the place we all share.

Things go badly wrong when a debris field (caused by the destruction of a Russian satellite) destroys the shuttle and leaves Stone and Kowalski stranded. (The other American astronauts are only voices.) It is at this point that the true purpose of Gravity begins to reveal itself and that the visual magic begins to wear off a little. Cuaron wants to remind us to embrace life no matter how bad things get, because it's a beautiful planet and the other options are few. Since the astronauts don't have much else to do in space their back story is dropped directly onto our heads. It's Kowalski's last mission and Stone lost a young daughter in an accident (Kowalski asks Stone questions like they've just met in the air lock.), so if you're going into the movie cold the question of which character needs a wake-up call is answered even before things get dicey. Gravity is Sandra Bullock's show and her performance is so full of grit and pain that I wish there was a more fully fleshed-out movie around it. It is to Bullock's credit that she transcends the somewhat schematic nature of Cuaron's vision, for her character is nothing less than a floating symbol of human resilience. The bravura action sequences, including an attempt to travel between spacecraft with the aid of a fire extinguisher, are superbly done and worth dealing with the movie's other issues for but they also reduce a complicated woman to a set of base human needs. Cuaron (who wrote the script with his son Jonas) could maybe get by with playing the vastness of space off against the primal instinct to survive, but he also has to give the movie an ending. Gravity is finally a strange hybrid of a movie about both inner strength and jet packs, and in space inner strength will only get you so far.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sunday Music: Ha Ha Tonka - "Usual Suspects"

Again, sorry about the light blogging but movie reviews should resume soon. Here's a song from a band that's new to me, and proof that every once in a while the unsolicited things in your Facebook feed are worth checking out.