Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

I was reading articles about Ain't Them Bodies Saints before the film came out, pieces on blogs and in the New York Times praising the directorial debut of David Lowery (best known as editor of Upstream Color) and the still unfolding talent of Rooney Mara. It's unfortunate when the idea of a film takes greater hold than the film itself. Ain't Them Bodies Saints passed through theaters without making an impact either at the box office or on awards conversation and landed on that never-shrinking pile of films we all mean to get around to seeing. Lowery's film is more than worth your time.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints pulses with the spirit of the best freewheeling 1970's films, and the film is indeed set in '70s Texas. Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are a pair of young bank robbers whose criminal career ends in a shootout on some abandoned property owned by Bob's late father. Ruth wounds a policeman named Patrick (Ben Foster) but Bob takes the blame and is sent to prison. A few years later Ruth is quietly raising the couple's daughter Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) in a house owned by a man named Skerritt (Keith Carradine) who seems to be the father of another man killed in the original robbery. Lowery's script is a little vague on Skerritt; there's a suggestion that he's benefiting from the robberies and he later hires some gunmen who have shown up looking for Bob at someone else's request. When word comes that Bob has escaped from prison the film becomes a waiting game as Ruth prepares for Bob's intentions to become clear. Some plot details could have been made more explicit, but the film works anyway thanks to a steely performance by Rooney Mara as Ruth. Even when Ruth and Bob are swooning over each other in the first few scenes Ruth is unromantic and clear-eyed about the challenges of life ahead. Each performance I've seen Mara give seems entirely different from the one before, and here she's excellent as a person saddled with guilt who's slowly figuring out that her life has changed irrevocably. Ben Foster has a great sober dignity as Patrick, whose feelings for Ruth are becoming hard to contain, and Casey Affleck is the ideal actor for Bob's earnest and slightly overwritten declarations of love for Ruth. The overwriting is by design I think, since Bob is the one still frozen in the great love he and Ruth shared before he went away while Ruth has moved on to the concerns of work and parenting. David Lowery gets great support from cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart. Ain't Them Bodies Saints looks gorgeous and feels entirely from another time, establishing its setting through clothes and architecture rather than played out music cues or cultural references. Those yet to discover this film are in for the pleasant surprise of a film that looks backwards and forwards in equal measure.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

American Hustle

Attitude, energy, and bravado are qualities sorely lacking in much mainstream American cinema, or when they are present they are so often used to excess. Director David O. Russell finds himself at a transitional point with the new American Hustle. Russell's The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook, both made with plenty of the above qualities, have won Oscars and put Russell in the position of being able to make the films he wants to make with the actors that he wants to hire. So here we have American Hustle, a splashy period film that serves Russell's strengths but also succumbs to the director's need to remain in the same weight class. We open in 1978 on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale with a gut and a comb over), a small-time businessman who makes ends meet by peddling fake art and other low-level cons. The thematic concerns of American Hustle are revealed in this opening shot: life is a performance and what's behind the curtain usually isn't pretty. The problem here is that David O. Russell wants to light an entire movie with that superficial shine.

Things move quickly after Irving is introduced. Russell's script (written with Eric Warren Singer) uses voice-over to advance the story and get inside the characters' heads, and the narration and period soundtrack have prompted comparisons to Goodfellas. I hope Russell is flattered by the comparisons; he should be. Using the same narrative devices to tell a story doesn't mean one has made a comparable film. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two are soon running a more ambitious con involving fake high-risk loans. When Sydney is arrested (in her persona as an Englishwoman named "Edith" with banking connections), she and Irving become pawns of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in his efforts to make high-profile bribery cases. The rest of American Hustle involves Irving and Sydney's attempts to free themselves from Richie's control while Irving ponders whether the group's attempts to nail a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) are justified. All this plot has the makings of either a crackling procedural drama or a good caper comedy, so it's surprising how little emotional weight the twists and turns of the story carry. What comes through most strongly is the performance of Amy Adams, whose character's desire to live free of cons and aliases is an anchor for both character and actress alike. This is the most showy role Adams has ever had but she resists the temptation to go over the top and gives a performance of real subtlety. Jennifer Lawrence is almost Adams' equal as Irving's wife Rosalyn, who gets most of the best laughs and is the one character in the film who knows exactly who she is. 

It is supposed to matter a great deal that Renner's populist mayor and a series of anonymous Congressmen get nailed for taking bribes, but it isn't clear why or if any of them were even doing anything wrong before the events of American Hustle unfolded. Russell is lazy about procedure; I'm certain that no one like Cooper's Agent DiMaso has ever existed on earth or if he did he certainly didn't carry a gun and badge. A major plot point involves DiMaso persuading his boss (Louis CK) to use a Plaza Hotel suite for a sting, but the movie spends no time on the consequences of DiMaso assaulting that same boss when he doesn't get what he wants at first. Also, the idea that Sydney could create a fake identity that fools the FBI for half the movie (DiMaso thinks she's Edith for far too long) seems a stretch. When Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia boss who must be dealt with for DiMaso's sting (a fake casino financed by a sheik) to work, the movie slows down for a moment as events acquire some weight. The effect is like going from a sitcom to Shakespeare; it's a turning point both in the story and in our understanding of how little what we've seen up to this point has mattered. A sense of trying too hard pervades American Hustle, and though the movie does contain pleasures it also suffers from wanting to be something great and merely being something pretty. 

Monday, December 16, 2013


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was a graffiti artist and painter and one of the darlings of the New York downtown art scene until his death from a drug overdose. A biographical film about the artist might have consisted of scene after scene of lurid behavior and name dropping (Basquiat crossed paths with a young Madonna in the early '80s) mixed with overly literal attempts to trace the roots of Basquiat's art. How fortunate then that the 1996 film Basquiat was directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow artist and friend of Basquiat and one of the few people (Schnabel's script suggests) who cared for Basquiat without wanting anything from him.

  Basquiat doesn't spend much time on the particulars of the artist's life, though it's clear that Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) was affected by the mental illness of his mother and the coldness of his father (who kicked him out when Basquiat was in high school). Schnabel prefers instead to reflect on the way people use each other, like the way writer Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) and gallery owner Annina Nosei (Elina Lowensohn) look at Basquiat and see not only an artistic prodigy but also the marketing novelty of a young black painter. (Ricard uses a different, more offensive word.) There are wonderful scenes of Basquiat firing back though, both at a potential customer (Tatum O'Neal) and at a journalist (Christopher Walken) who tries to bait him with inflammatory quotes. Basquiat wasn't above marketing himself though, and his attempt to sell art to Andy Warhol (David Bowie) in a restaurant leads to a friendship that both helped Basquiat's career and seemed to center him as much as anything did. I can't tell whether Bowie's performance is either good or bad in an objective sense, and I'm not sure it matters since Schnabel and Bowie wisely choose to let Bowie's natural eccentricity fill in what we think we know about Warhol and don't try to get under his skin. Jeffrey Wright's performance as Basquiat is one of the early markers of a great career. Wright does get under his character's skin, and his to his credit neither he nor Schnabel is afraid to show Basquiat as both a brazen self-promoter with real chops and as a man who never got a chance to come of age emotionally. The rest of the cast fills in well, especially Claire Forlani as a woman who put up with Basquiat until she couldn't, Gary Oldman as a Schnabel stand-in, and Courtney Love in a cameo as a victim of Basquiat's charms. Julian Schnabel has directed Basquiat with great affection, both for the talent of its subject and for the young man who made noise rock and sold postcards downtown to survive before anyone had ever heard of him. In an early scene before Basquiat becomes famous he is warned by a buddy (Benicio del Toro) that fame will mean having to repeat himself artistically. The film ends with the disturbing sense that Basquiat was as much a prisoner of his talent as he was a victim of  his success.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Music: The Rolling Stones w/ Joshua Redman - "Waiting On A Friend"

Watched the movie Basquiat this week for the first time in many years, and this gem from Tattoo You was on the soundtrack. Redman does a good job filling in for Sonny Rollins.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Punk Singer

Trailer for The Punk Singer, a new documentary about feminist punk rocker Katheleen Hanna. Review here.
Directed by Sini Anderson, "The Punk Singer" makes its intentions clear from the title alone; though told through the reminiscences of the circle of artists and allies who know Hanna, this isn't the story of an instant hero to third-wave feminism. Instead, it's a layered portrait of a complex, constantly evolving woman who found herself thrust forward as the public face of a movement. While the art school/stripper background makes for easy copy for the lazy chronicler of this time (and indeed, mainstream outlets often reduced Hanna and her peers as nothing more than victims with guitars), "The Punk Singer" does an excellent job of underscoring that Hanna, Bikini Kill and the other artists and voices of what would become known as Riot Grrl (a catchall for the alternative feminist action of that time) weren't necessarily exorcising personal demons, but creating a specific space—one that was safe, open and crucially focused on the issues women weren't able to address comfortably elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Drinking Buddies

I've spent more time reading about ultra low-budget auteur Joe Swanberg than I have watching his movies, so I don't know if Drinking Buddies is his best work but I'm pretty sure it's the closest he has come to a mainstream relationship film. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together at a Chicago brewery and are frequent hangout buddies over after-work beers, but both are in other relationships. Luke loves long term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) while Kate is reaching a transition point with the more restrained Chris (Ron Livingston). Fault lines are revealed when the couples take a weekend at Chris's cabin in Michigan but Swanberg never pushes the melodrama or forces our reaction. Wilde is the revelation here, playing a woman who doesn't even understand her own need for connection. The conclusion is refreshingly low-key and open ended and while I admire Swanberg's devotion to the Luke-Kate relationship I wanted more of the marriage-ready Jill, whose last scene hints at an intensity that the movie doesn't have enough time for. There's a shot of Johnson and Kendrick together on the deleted scenes that's like something out of Cassavetes. Swanberg wrote an outline but had his actors improvise their dialogue, there are a few slow moments but the tensions in each scene are nicely articulated. I don't know what Swanberg has planned for the next act of his career, but Drinking Buddies proves that his small-scale style can work on a bigger stage. 

Monday, December 09, 2013

Keep The Lights On

Keep The Lights On, directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is drawn from the director’s long-term and now concluded relationship with a man fighting a drug addiction. The stand-in for Sachs here is Erik (Thure Lindhardt) , a Danish filmmaker working in New York who in 1998 spends an evening with an publishing house attorney named Paul (Zachary Booth). Paul has a girlfriend when he first meets Erik, but she’s soon out of the picture as the men’s relationship deepens and they move in together. The movie, with a few time jumps, follows the tumultuous relationship until 2006, with the tumult being caused primarily by Paul’s drug use and his habit of disappearing for long stretches. Erik, outwardly confident but upset by Paul’s inconsistency, must finally decide if the relationship is worth the stress.

 A description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the success of Keep The Lights On, a film full of memory of nuance. Sachs has a way with details and moods, from the play of light on a New York street to the way that a drive outside the city can feel like skipping school. The film takes place in a series of apartments, art galleries, restaurants, and all the places a downtown life might unfold. There’s a wonderful lazy Sunday quality to the happiest moments, and so when things go bad it’s all the worse for Erik since the couple’s cozy life offers few options for escape. I had never heard of Thure Lindhardt before I saw his performance as Erik, but it’s a performance that will serve as a fine calling card for future work. We’re told Erik comes from money but don’t get many details; he’s determined to make his own name yet money is never an issue. Sachs’s script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) is very good about the ways that being a caretaker can grind on you. No matter what success Erik enjoys (a documentary he makes wins a film festival award), his worry that Paul is slipping into trouble overwhelms his life. Lindhardt gets this conflict and turns in a performance of great sensitivity. Zachary Booth is off screen for stretches but is equally good and never overplays Paul’s addiction. We worry about Paul the last time we seem him, just like Erik he’s a picture of confidence masking inner troubles. I don’t know anything about how Sachs works, but there is plenty of credit to go around between him, Lindhardt, and Booth for these lived-in., utterly convincing characters. 

There is another strand to Keep The Lights On worth discussing, one that connects it to its audience and its city and other filmmakers and artists here and yet to come. The documentary Erik is working on is about Avery Willard, a gay photographer and filmmaker, and Sachs uses the theme of an earlier New York gay life as a background to his characters’ struggles. Of course Erik and Paul have straight friends (including Julianne Nicholson as a woman interested in Erik fathering her child), but they often seem to exist in a sort of self-selecting world that in Sachs’s vision has existed and will continue to do so as people pass through it. Erik interviews Willard’s contemporaries for his documentary, and they bring their own memories of how their friend carried the fire of what was then an illicit subculture. Late in the film Erik enjoys a flirtation with a younger man (Miguel del Toro) who is still flitting from relationship to relationship, excited by the possibility of what’s to come. Erik and Paul are searching for their own places on this continuum, and as they end the film in transition Sachs gives us an appropriate Arthur Russell lyric to focus on: “Every step is moving me up.” I would describe Keep The Lights On as a Gay Human Drama, with equal emphasis on both of those adjectives. Ira Sachs knows where we’ve been and wants to find out where we’re going.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sunday Music: Arthur Russell - "This Is How We Walk On The Moon"

It's funny how things connect. The late cellist/vocalist Russell figured in this nonfiction book I read recently about the music scene in 1970's New York City. His music pops up in Ira Sachs' excellent Keep The Lights On, a very New York-centric film that I hope to write more about soon.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


Philomena isn’t the film we’ve been led to believe it is. The marketing suggests a warm and affirming Oscar vehicle for Judi Dench, but in fact there is something both darker and richer on display. The fact-based Philomena is on one level a story of great anger and surprising political bite, but also that rare film where words like “guilt” and “forgiveness” carry real weight. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a retired Irish nurse whom we find thinking of the son she was forced to give up almost 50 years before. Philomena’s son Anthony was the product of a chance encounter, and because of her status as a single mother the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was forced to raise him under the “care” of nuns while she worked in a laundry and only saw her son for an hour a day. The flashback of Philomena’s girlhood (and Anthony’s adoption by an American couple) is filmed by director Stephen Frears with the haziness of a bad dream that Philomena is still having half a century later. It isn’t until she crosses paths with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) that Philomena is able to take action and learn what happened to Anthony. It is because of Sixsmith (whose book on the case is the basis for the film) and Coogan (who produced and co-wrote the screenplay) that we know about Philomena, and Coogan as both writer and actor more than does his part to honor her story. When we meet Sixsmith he has just been fired from a government post after a gaffe and he regards taking on Philomena’s “human interest” story with apprehension for the way it might changed how he’ll be perceived. Coogan plays him by shedding his own comic persona, and I liked how Martin’s anger at what he uncovers about Irish society is gradually muted by his appreciation for the way Philomena simply wants to know what happened.

It takes a trip to America before Philomena and Martin learn what has become of Anthony, who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents. The most surprising and necessary choice made by the makers of Philomena was to not make their main character a woman ahead of her time. Though Philomena (who went on to marry and have another child) is unfazed by most of human behavior thanks to her years a nurse, there is a degree to which she blames herself for losing Anthony that will seem alien to most of the American audience for this film. There are only a few moments of outright comedy here, as when Philomena ponders watching Big Momma’s House or piles on the croutons at a salad bar. Judi Dench’s excellent performance gets at the darkness that Philomena carries with her. A scene where Philomena lectures Martin about how to treat hotel staff comes from a belief that any of us could be punished at any time for the choices we make now. Dench burrows deep into herself to play this part, and it’s a performance that’s a substantial distance removed from the steely Englishness we’ve come to expect from her in year-end movies. While it might have been my choice to make a film that more squarely hit the Irish Catholic Church for the systemic use of single mothers as indentured servants and income generators, I couldn’t help but be moved by Philomena’s truly Christian reaction when she confronts the nun (Barbara Jefford) who prevented her reunion with Michael. There is a running argument about God and religion throughout Philomena, but in the end one faithful woman is able to transcend the institution that changed her life. Philomena forgives the Church, and more importantly forgives herself.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Haskell on Nashville

Great piece by Molly Haskell on Nashville, with particular attention to the contributions of writer Joan Tewkesbury.
Because of Altman’s way of working, of absorbing other people’s contributions into his own artistic pageantry, we may never be able to fully appreciate what Tewkesbury brought to the table. She was especially interested in the women and their conflicted ambitions (she herself had left her husband and child behind to work with Altman, first as script girl on 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). With a background in theater and dance that began with a stage mother, she had performed with, directed, and hung out with actors for most of her life—which served her well as a writer. She understood the symbiotic relationship between stars and the backup men and women who support and manage their careers. And from her perceptive take on the musicians she’d come to spy on, she grasped the particular fragility of women country singers, trying to keep their dignity in a world run by men. One can see her sympathetic hand in the breathtaking balance between defiance and humiliation maintained in the striptease performed by Welles’s Sueleen, and in the ferocious power duel between Blakley’s Barbara Jean and her husband-manager, played by Allen Garfield. Tewkesbury would step in when things got too sticky or one-sided and, working with the women, gently nudge the dialogue, the emotion of the scene, toward a more expansive sense of the women’s point of view.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sunday Music: Kristin Hersh - "Gazebo Tree"

An acoustic performance from 2001. For Kristin's more recent activity, check out this NYT review of Throwing Muses new Purgatory/Paradise as well as this short chat with Rolling Stone.