Monday, September 30, 2013

In Birmingham...

Sorry for the drought in posting. Meanwhile, a new documentary on the unique role of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in music history is a reminder that Puritans misunderstand America. The "Swampers" included David Hood, who is the father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers.
At the moment, the puritanical tradition in American politics finds its fullest expression in a political party that has evidently lost its ability to win national elections but is willing to shut down the government and risk the entire country’s economic future rather than compromise its ideals. No doubt that seems courageous and inspiring to those who share those ideals, which, as I wrote last week, are not as crazy as they seem at first glance. (Republican strategy for holding power: bread and circuses, without the bread.) But there’s a current of nihilism, of ritual self-purification, of red-white-and-blue seppuku, that has an epidemiological grip on the American right, and it’s disturbingly strong right now.

It’s almost impossible to say anything clear-headed about the hyper-patriotic zeal of Tea Party people who put those giant screaming-eagle stickers and “Terrorist Hunting Permits” on the back windows of their F-150 pickups, about the desperate ahistorical yearning to recapture some libertarian white-people wonderland that never existed in the first place. But let’s try this: That’s an American tradition, but it’s not the American tradition. I firmly believe that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, and that flag-waving does little more than reveal the weakness of one’s argument. But it is a matter of fact, and not political opinion, that the dominant current of American culture has always been a heterodox and dynamic flow, full of surprises and unexpected combinations and cultural and racial miscegenation of all sorts. That is the lesson of Muscle Shoals, and of Camalier’s film “Muscle Shoals.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013


(I don't think I've given away anything that isn't in the ads, but read at your own risk.) 

Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, succeeds as a tense and exacting thriller that finds a way of asking it audience to do the same moral work that confronts its characters. While on the surface Villenueve has made a crackling crime story with a plot much more complicated than movie’s marketing suggests, he and writer Aaron Guzikowski also continue to switch points of view and sympathies to create a nuanced  piece of adult cinema that speaks with remarkable lack of judgement. On Thanksgiving Day, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their two children down the street to eat with their good friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch. After dinner the Dovers’ young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the Birches’ Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). The disappearance is quickly tied to an old RV seen in the area and its driver Alex (Paul Dano, in a high wire act of a performance) is arrested by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Alex is a childlike young man whose level of understanding is questionable. He is released into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence; then Keller takes matters into his own hands and the movie becomes something else entirely.

When Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex we understand his behavior even as we abhor it. The ambivalence with which Franklin and Nancy react is a mirror for our own feelings, and Villenueve doesn’t flinch from the horror of Keller’s actions. Some have suggested Prisoners is an allegory for American behavior post-9/11, but while the movie is without doubt located in the present it isn’t overtly political  and rather tries to speak to the way that violence can flow across generations. Keller has a world view (“Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”) that movies usually marginalize as nutty or dangerous, but from the first scene Guzikowski and Jackman locate it deep in Keller’s psyche. His behavior is the result of the man he has been formed into, and that’s why (though the uselessness  of torture is addressed) I largely resist a political interpretation. Keller has to do something because he can’t do nothing, and our reaction is complicated by the way that he slowly realizes he isn’t accomplishing anything. Hugh Jackman plays Keller with a focus and intensity that his more celebrated roles don’t allow for. There is no room for Jackman to be grumpy or sarcastic a la Wolverine, and so he isn’t. If Prisoners finds an audience then this is a career changing performance, and one supported by excellent work from Gyllenhaal and Dano.

The marvel of Prisoners is the way it complicates our reactions. From one scene to the next we can see how Keller views Loki (dedicated to the point of obsession) as brusque and indifferent and how Loki looks at Keller as a man folding in on himself who is capable of anything. The great Viola Davis is on screen much less than the male leads, but after only a few minutes the way that Nancy can show a kind of situational compassion feels completely consistent in the world of the movie. There is room enough in a two and a half hour running time both for a study of Keller and for a police procedural that rewards close attention.  Denis Villenueve is a young director worthy of regard. I actually didn’t care much for his celebrated Incendies, but that film shares with Prisoners a sense of the past at work in the present in a way that we can never escape. If there is a flaw here it is the irony of the ending, which can be anticipated (in a general sense) after we experience the heat of Keller’s rage. Yet it’s the ending and the full horror of Prisoners, not just the initial abduction, that elevates what could have been a superbly made crime movie into a genuine tragedy.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s fact-based The Bling Ring continues the director’s interest in stories of young women on the cusp of something, whether it’s young love, a marriage breaking up, or adulthood itself. This time the teenage girls (and one gay male) are high schoolers in a comfortable part of Los Angeles who seem to have all the advantages despite parents who are unable to see their children as people. Yet despite a spirited and energetic cast led by Emma Watson there really isn’t much to these teens besides their obsession with celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and the designer-drenched lifestyle that they live.

Our way into the story is Marc (Israel Broussard), a shy new student who is instantly adopted by Rebecca (Katie Chang) as a sort of confidant and mascot in one. Rebecca is into petty crime but soon escalates to burgling the homes of absent celebrities (after discovering online where they live) with Marc and her friends Nicki (Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien) in tow. The group seems to have no trouble gaining access to the homes of their targets; in a detail that’s too good to be made up they get into Paris Hilton’s house because she has left a key under a doormat.  (Hilton appears in one shot in the film and allowed Coppola to film in her house.) The burglaries are presented first as extravagant, consumerist celebrations. Hilton’s home appears to be a maze of rooms that are little more than gaudily decorated warehouses for clothes and shoes, and Rebecca and the others luxuriate in the goods of their victims. As The Bling Ring progresses the burglaries become more rushed and greedy, one of the girls steals a rug to use as part of a decorating project. When Rebecca and Marc rob the home of Audrina Partridge, Coppola films the crime in one long, static shot. Watching two small people recently graduated from childhood scurry around the empty house does more than anything else to engender feeling for these characters, but it also points up just how silly these crimes are.

Indeed it’s the distance that Coppola keeps that is the biggest problem of The Bling Ring. She understands the need that Rebecca and the other girls feel to record themselves with Facebook selfies (some of which include stolen property) but doesn’t seem to have an opinion about it. Watson’s Nicki takes over the film as the girls become defendants, and Watson plays Nicki’s self-involvement to the hilt but Coppola doesn’t seem to want to have fun at the expense of Nicki or anyone else. The brisk The Bling Ring is worth watching but finally isn’t more than a curiosity on Coppola’s resume and perhaps a sign that she is ready to move on to deeper and different subjects in the future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thirty Years On

The Violent Femmes experience, 2013. (New Yorker)
A cheer went up as the band took the stage. Here they were! And time was of the essence! But they didn’t dive right in—they warmed up with some later numbers, beginning with the rather boring “Hallowed Ground.” Gano wore black. “I see the fear, it’s on the rise,” he sang, placidly. With his self-tinting glasses and receding hairline, Gano looks like a world-weary high-school math teacher; Ritchie, a big, long-haired guy who now lives in Tasmania (he also plays the shakuhachi, the jaw harp, and the didgeridoo, among other instruments), looks like a man who has sought, and found, himself. He was playing a big wooden acoustic bass and wearing a wide black hat with a brim. They played two more listless later songs, “All I Want” and “Nightmares.” It was hard not to marvel at Gano as he sang these songs as the air pressure shifted, the sky darkened, and the lightning popped; he was the bandleader on the Titanic, post-iceberg, and he was saving the best music for when the boat went underwater.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Criterion #349: Kicking and Screaming

The first album I ever bought on cassette was An Innocent Man by Billy Joel. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but since the album came out in 1983 I must have been somewhere between 10 and 12. I was on vacation with my family at my grandparents' home in Florida, and because they weren't ready for "Uptown Girl" and because my parents' car didn't have a tape deck I couldn't listen to it until I got back home to South Carolina. The waiting made it better, and although I don't think I ever bought another Billy Joel album - Ok, I bought one more - there's no doubt that the time and effort involved made the experience of hearing the music more exciting.

I thought of Billy Joel because I just watched Noah Baumbach's 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming again, and my feelings about the film are caught up with the old process of delayed gratification. Kicking and Screaming wasn't the only movie I read about as a young man in Film Threat or Rolling Stone and then had to wait months for at my local video store, but it may be the only one I still come back to. I don't mean for this to be some lament for the monoculture, there are fewer gatekeepers now and that's probably a good thing, but waiting to see Kicking and Screaming was especially ironic because the film itself is about both waiting and choosing and the difficulties involved in each. Grover (Josh Hamilton) has just graduated from a college that very much resembles Baumbach's (and my mother's) alma mater Vassar. Grover's girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) surprises him by announcing she's off to Prague on a fellowship and so Grover remains in his college town along with his friends Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott), and Skippy (Jason Wiles). The film follows their lives for a few months until life can't be avoided anymore, and Baumbach intersperses their stories with flashbacks to the meeting of Grover and Jane in a writing class.

The events that occur in Kicking and Screaming are incremental: Grover talks with his depressed father (Elliott Gould) about the Knicks, Max tentatively begins a relationship with Kate (Cara Buono),and Skippy re-enrolls in school to be closer to his girlfriend (Parker Posey). What gives them weight is the sense of lives in suspension, of something waiting around the corner that Grover and the others are unable or unwilling to see. d'Abo's Jane hovers over Grover as a symbol of what's possible; her messages from Prague (which Grover can't listen to all the way through) might as well be dispatches from another planet. Baumbach's best stroke, besides the use of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's songs, is to end the film at the moment when Jane and Grover's relationship begins. To do otherwise would send the wrong message, it would celebrate Grover's stasis instead of allowing for the chance that he would go on to write great short stories or for the chance that Baumbach would go on to make great, perceptive films about depressed fathers or talented but creatively blocked men. Kicking and Screaming was and is a film worth finding, and I still love "The Longest Time" too.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Music: Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun - "Home Hat Placement"

I came upon this entirely by accident today and I love it. It's proof that something good is always out there when you're searching for content, or maybe I was just in the mood for minimalism while reading this book. Album out 9/17. Who is Arnold Dreyblatt? Who are Megafaun?

Old-school Pfeiffer

In honor of Michelle Pfeiffer's work in The Family, here's the trailer for Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob from 1988.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Family

The Family bears superficial resemblance to a movie that Robert DeNiro might have done in the wake of Analyze This, some sort of broad fish-out-of-water comedy about mobsters in Europe in which DeNiro turns up the smile and cashes a big check. All of the stock elements look to be in place; there’s a wife with her own impulse control issues, two children who can’t stay out of trouble, and a grumpy Federal agent charged with keeping DeNiro’s family safe. Yet The Family, directed and co-written by Luc Besson, has something more ambitious on its mind and at moments it actually surprises. The best reason to see The Family though is not Robert DeNiro, whose part if anything is underwritten, but for the performance of Michelle Pfeiffer as a wife by turns frustrated, protective, and violent.

Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro) is a New York Mafia figure who, for reasons unspecified, has betrayed his crime family and spent years on the run under the cover of the Witness Protection program. Giovanni and the other Manzonis have a problem though, because they can’t stop being sociopaths no matter how many new identities they get. The best choice Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo made was to not insist on the family’s essential likability. Wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) has a habit of pouring lighter fluid on situations she doesn’t like while daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John d’Leo) have each inherited different sides of their father’s personality. The Manzonis’ behavior makes them well-traveled members of the witness protection program, and as The Family opens Giovanni and his brood are settling in to a small French village under the weary protection of Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). There’s a loose plot about a jailed Don (Stan Carp) organizing a hunt for Giovanni, but most of The Family is about each of the Manzonis trying to find a home. DeNiro is saddled with a subplot about wanting to write a memoir, so Giovanni must channel his sadistic urges into a campaign to clean up the local water, but Pfeiffer gets to play some conflict about her husband’s choices and a wicked mean streak. It’s a performance that deserves a better thought out movie and one that recalls Married to the Mob and Pfeiffer’s peak years in the ’80s and ‘90s.

The past does catch up with the Manzonis of course, and it’s in the transitions between comedy and violence that The Family falters. It’s as if Besson thought the movie needed a box to fit into, but the closing shootout (in which both Belle and Warren reveal they can handle a weapon) feels perfunctory. Belle’s tennis racket beating of an unwelcome suitor is another violent and atonal element; the feminist speech that follows doesn’t jive with the rest of the movie in which Belle pursues a math teacher as a way out of her peripatetic existence. Why couldn’t things stay dark and weird? A scene where Giovanni is asked to talk to the local film society about Goodfellas could have been either hysterical or the moment where Giovanni meets himself, but Besson uses it merely as a plot device. The Family ends where it began. I enjoyed it mostly for Pfeiffer and for the vigorous way that Agron attacks her character’s contradictions, but a movie less anxious to please would have been both something new and something needed.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Guest post: Ishtar

(Elaine May's Ishtar is now available in the director's preferred cut. Here's a review by Jason Comerford, a great friend and a fellow lover of film.)

As is the case with most “legendary failures” of its like, Elaine May’s 1987 comedy Ishtar is actually nothing of the sort. Entertainment writers, long dazzled by the catnip of the film’s prerelease turmoil and low box-office returns, have often tried to reduce Ishtar to a punchline about directorial hubris, but the qualities of the film itself far outweigh its weaknesses. May’s preferred cut of the film, at long last available on Blu-Ray, is admittedly a wildly mixed bag, but it’s a splendid comic showcase for stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.

Ishtar’s opening 15 minutes are arguably its strongest, as songwriters Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Beatty) hurl themselves over and over at the writing of the world’s worst pop song, with lyrics like “because of yourself, you don't know what I am.” (A jarring flashback relates the pair’s origin story; temporal displacement of this type might be an easy sell to a 21st century audience, but a typical 1987 matinee crowd probably found it off-putting.) Paul Williams’ deliberately awful songwriting provides many of Ishtar’s most memorable moments but it also serves as an effective platform for one of May’s pet themes as a writer-director: the travails of desperate but essentially good-hearted people on society’s fringes. Chuck and Lyle are deeply committed to their own talentlessness, and Hoffman and Beatty combine, in perfect sync, to create a marvelous comic portrait of insecurity and desperation.

Once Chuck and Lyle find themselves stuck in Morocco and enmeshed in a Cold War standoff, Ishtar’s energy waxes and wanes. May’s screwball-comedy plotting, a la the Hope/Crosby Road movies of the 1940s, provides at the very least a sense of bouncy comic momentum, but the constant plot switchbacks of the film’s second half become monotonous. Clarke and Lyle’s unshakable bond is felt deeply enough (especially so in an early sequence where Chuck leaps in to save one of Lyle’s disastrous solo performances) to make the threats to it seem of less serious than they actually are. Indeed, May’s perversely anticlimactic action finale seems to be deliberately subverted to add strength to the pair’s eventual reunion, the film coming full circle as the boys, back together again, warble their tone-deaf way through another set of lounge-lizard staples.

With films like Ishtar, the joys are in the details, and there are plenty to choose from, from the enjoyably loopy dialogue asides (Lyle’s inability to pronounce “schmuck;” an Arabian sheik who asks the duo, “Perhaps you would care to entertain at my worthless palace?”) to the predictably eye-filling photography from the great Vittorio Storaro. Walking away sanguinely with the whole picture, however, is Charles Grodin, whose cheerfully oily CIA agent provides a delicious strain of unfortunately timely satire of US government involvement in Middle Eastern politics (“If two Americans die, it has to be unofficially!”). Grodin is perfectly tuned into the same loopy wavelength as May and her stars, and it’s his contrast to the hapless heroes that gives the comedy its juice. Ishtar may not have the laugh-a-second architecture of your average knee-slapper, but its rough edges give it a depth and unique richness that remain in shockingly short supply.

Favorite in the starting blocks

It's looking like a memorable year for "black film", with a number of strong films and performances in the offing. Mark Harris sounds a warning about the rush to anoint 12 Years A Slave an Oscar favorite, pointing out that hype may cause us to miss the big picture. (Grantland)
However, as the season progresses, there will also be people who think 12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that should win Best Picture. Watch out for them; they are up to no good; they will be the same people who think that 12 Years gives them permission not to think too much about Fruitvale Station or The Butler. Both of those movies are attempting to travel different, well-established roads to nominations — Fruitvale Station is trying to follow Beasts of the Southern Wild as this year's artisanal Sundance sensation, and The Butler, as fascinatingly jagged and oddball as it is, also works on enough traditional levels to walk an honorable old Oscar campaign path labeled The Movie Your Parents Like More Than You Do. The problem with settling too soon on a "year of the black movie" Oscar narrative is that it erodes distinctions within a set of films whose power lies in how unique each one is; it's a diminishment disguised as a celebration. Proceed with caution.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"...dogmas of the left..."

Kelly Reichardt discusses Night Moves and what she likes about her actors, including Dakota Fanning (above).
Q: “Night Moves” is a different genre for you, in a way. What attracted you to this story? At the premiere you said you weren’t necessarily interested in making a movie about eco-terrorism.

A: I’m super interested in direct activists. I’m interested in anybody who puts themselves at risk and stands up against the powers that be. I don’t have that in me, so I find it interesting, and part of what’s interesting is also part of what’s sad. It’s often young people, and they make certain decisions that end up affecting their whole life. You know, I’m mad about all the crap in this country. The corporations won; I get it. They own everything and they’ve got the air, the ocean, the forest—they’ve got it all. Whatever. It feels so much like a lost battle that anybody who can still get up every day and fight for an environmental cause to me is quite heroic. I’m glad they’re there.

Live from Lake Ontario

A report from the Shaw Festival, where one of this year's featured shows is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. (HND)
Playwright Tom Stoppard, with his heady mix of ideas and snappy dialogue, is well qualified to be deemed a contemporary Shavian. Eda Holme's production of his 1993 masterpiece, Arcadia, presented in the Studio Theater, a 176-seat space located in the Festival Theatre complex, moves crisply through its nearly three-hours stage time. The play flips between the early 1800s and the present in an English country home that was allegedly once visited by Lord Byron. In his usual fashion, Stoppard uses the Byron connection to weave a modern literary mystery story, poke fun at academics who take themselves too seriously, expound on the Chaos theory and the laws of thermodynamics, and also offer a quick history of English landscape gardening. But the true heart of this fascinating work—clearly articulated in this intimately staged production—is the passion that drives the protagonists: a passion for the pursuit of knowledge, to solve life's mysteries. The audience with the benefit of hindsight gets a God's-view of the proceedings; we learn that, ultimately, it's the pursuit and not the goal that matters. Kate Besworth gives an excellently judged performance as Thomasina, the 16-year-old mathematical prodigy who comes to a tragic end, a role that can easily become irritating and cutesy. In a charming coup de théâtre at the end, the backdrop of the set rises and the actors exit into a local arcadia: the green meadowland on the grounds of the festival theater complex that opens into the Niagara-on-the Lake commons.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Janelle Explained

This interview with Janelle Monae is ideal reading for those wondering what she's all about. Alyssa Rosenberg puts Monae into a larger pop context here.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you view androids as a sort of societal other, replacing other marginalized groups. How do you see your work as engaging with the concept of there always being an “other” group?

JM: I believe that the android is a new form of the other, but you can parallel the other to so many different types of people. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the other, at one point in time I’m sure you felt like that. There are some groups that for years and years have not gotten the rights that the majority of human beings have, and I think that it’s important to continue to draw these parallels so that when we think about our future we can change some of the lives of people who love differently than we do, look different than we do, who come from a different class. It’s all about bringing awareness to how important it is to be accepting of people, of others, of everyone, because we all have to live on this planet together, and there will be oppression if one group thinks they’re more important or superior.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Dissident harmony

With all due respect to my parents, my excitement level for Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens might mean I should be 10 years older and have been born in Queens. J. Hoberman weighs in: (LA Times)
Impressive as they were, previous novels "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude" had difficulty piloting their ungainly narratives to safe harbor; although formally more coherent, "Chronic City" was also a slighter tale. "Dissident Gardens" shows Lethem in full possession of his powers as a novelist, as he smoothly segues between historical periods and internal worlds. I was rapt, although, having myself grown up in Queens among wannabe folkies and the children of persecuted Stalinists, a habitué of Shea Stadium (a "Sterno can in Band-Aids of orange and blue" that "heaved into view two stops before the Willets Point exit") as well as a member of the Student Peace Union, I may not be entirely objective.

As Lethem writes of Miriam, "Dissident Gardens" is a "hilarious and companionable" novel. It's also erudite, beautifully written, wise, compassionate, heartbreaking and pretty much devoid of nostalgia.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Harry Dean's due

Here's a trailer for a new documentary by Sophie Huber. I'm surprised no one ever thought to do this before, but in any case I like the choice of interview subjects. Review here. (No mention of Stanton in Pretty In Pink?)

Saturday, September 07, 2013

"...just as sticky and filled with friction..."

Lynn Shelton is a director whose films are growing in size and ambition. Shelton's new film is Touchy Feely and I've reviewed her Humpday and Your Sister's Sister. (
"There have been so many romantic comedies done that a straightforward romantic comedy is just so not interesting to me," says the cheerful fortysomething auteur, whose latest effort, "Touchy Feely," hits theaters on Sept. 6 (it's already available on VOD). "If there's love involved somehow, that's great, but I do tend to get drawn to other relationships like siblings and friendships because those can be just as sticky and filled with friction and interesting."

Her love interests don't meet cute—they already know each other, and their lives are frustratingly intertwined, even as they struggle to make genuine and enduring connections. "You never know where the heart is going to lead, and often, it's to the most inappropriate places," says Shelton. "Falling in love with people—it's all a big mess, isn't it?" By the end of her endearingly awkward and naturalistic films, the characters are lucky if they're still speaking to one another. Suffice to say that all of their relationship statuses on Facebook would read: "It's complicated."


Your opinion of Twixt might change the more you know about its maker, Francis Ford Coppola. I use the word "maker" because this new film, like Tetro and Youth Without Youth before it, is a product of Coppola's late self-contained phase. Coppola is working without studio backing here, functioning as writer, producer, and director and attempting to find a certain kind of freedom in low budgets and low expectations. On the surface Twixt feels like a disappointment, the story of a writer (Val Kilmer) investigating a decades-old  small town mass murder with the help of the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin). There's a ghostly girl (Elle Fanning), a creepy sheriff (Bruce Dern), and a gang of goth outlaws across the lake, but if Twixt was meant to be a straight horror movie it would need a director more interested in balancing scares and humor and leading man with a better sense of irony. Kilmer's character Hall Baltimore is meant to be an alcoholic but merely looks puffy and uncomfortable, gliding above the movie in most of his scenes. There's a sequence of  a blocked Baltimore trying to write where Kilmer unleashes a series of unexpectedly funny vocal impressions that feels like something concocted on the day, and an emotional reckoning that the actor handles well enough, but the movie needs something a little more committed.

Kilmer's performance isn't fatal because Coppola's real subject here isn't horror movie tropes but rather the way that guilt and creativity have danced with each other in the director's own life. Baltimore, known for writing a series of "witch stories", is blocked and faced with financial pressures because of a family tragedy that mirrors a well-known event in Coppola's own life and watching  Twixt with that information makes the movie something else. I don't want to make this a straight autobiographical reading, but it's fascinating to think of Twixt as a an admission that Coppola doesn't know if he can or should try to escape the forces that forced him to direct a series of impersonal studio films in the '80s and '90s. Coppola's next project is reportedly a multi-generational Italian-American saga made with studio money. While it's heartening to see Coppola working on a larger stage, Twixt makes me wonder at what the size of the project might do to a great director's sense of self.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Stories We Tell

It seems too simple to refer to Sarah Polley's marvelous Stories We Tell as a documentary. The film is a record of actual events, specifically the life of Polley's late mother Diane and her experiences while doing a play in Montreal in 1978. Polley's still living father Michael is the narrator and hero of sorts; we hear Michael's own account of a family upheaval and come to love the selflessness and and dignity of this elderly actor who is all too aware of his own limitations. Yet when Sarah's story and her way of telling it becomes clear then Stories We Tell becomes something darker and more complicated. The central question of the film is whether Diane's time in Montreal resulted in a man other than Michael being Sarah's biological father. I have no idea in what order Sarah Polley conducted the interviews that make up the greater part of the running time, but it’s only after a series of conversations with Michael and her siblings that Sarah begins to ask questions of people who might not be so happy to answer. The portrait of Diane (who died of cancer when Sarah was a small child) that emerges is of a woman who embraced her life, her marriage and her children but who perhaps never got all of what she needed from her husband. The extent to which Diane felt guilty about her choices because of events in a marriage prior to the one with Michael is a fascinating one, but of course the answer is unknowable.

Stories We Tell is finally about the difference between memory and truth. Sarah Polley uses a number of “home movies” of her mother and her family in the film, and on a superficial level they resemble the gauzy home movies that we’re used to watching on holidays with the family. If you’re watching and begin to think that the Polley family home movies are too perfect, or that they tie in too neatly with Sarah’s narrative then you’re on to something. We associate home movies with good memories, but they’re a construct as much as much as anything else. Sarah eventually does meet her biological father, and while he’s a good-natured and well-meaning man he’s as close as we get to a “villain” for the simple reason that he insists Diane’s story belongs to him. The very film we’re watching is a counter-example to that claim, since Diane’s life was more than one relationship and the consequences of her actions affected many other people. Each of the people interviewed has their own piece of the truth, but Stories We Tell belongs to Michael and the way his love for Sarah never wavers. The film is so dense and fascinating I almost want a second documentary on Sarah and the way the experience of making it affected her, her relationships, and the kind of film she might make next.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Neko Case - "Ragtime"

This is the closing track from Neko Case's new album, and until I heard this story yesterday I wasn't aware of the hard time that her new songs detail.
For a year and a half now, Morning Edition has been following the singer-songwriter Neko Case as she worked on an album that would come to be titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It includes "Where Did I Leave That Fire," a song with a haunting question at its heart, and now we know that the singer who asked where she left that fire was feeling depressed. She felt like she was moving through life underwater.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

"Lena Dunham tweet painting"

Kim Gordon has a new project called "Body/Head", which she discusses here with colleague Bill Nace. Gordon not surprisingly also has a few opinions on she'd like to share, and news on what her current visual art work look like.
Slate: Have you been working on visual art lately? Do you have the time?

Gordon: There’s some paintings of people’s tweets. Spray-painted. They’re kind of like modern landscapes. Everyone’s so interior now, they’re not really looking around them. They’re on their phones. And it’s a description of something. I can show you one! [Gets out phone.] Slate: I noticed you tweeting recently about the Friday Night Lights character Tim Riggins. Gordon: Yeah… it was his birthday.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Hello I Must Be Going

A freshly divorced woman falls for a younger man and only then realizes the ways in which the relationship could screw up her life. What sounds like a rote plot is redeemed in Todd Louiso's Hello I Must Be Going by the performance of Melanie Lynskey as Amy, who after her divorce has been living with her parents for three months and wearing the same T-shirt the whole time. Amy's attendance at a business dinner hosted by her father (John Rubinstein) leads to a meeting with 19-year old Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of Girls) and an unexpected attraction that threatens to jeopardize a deal that could save her father's career. The other central asset of Hello I Must Be Going is the script by Sarah Koskoff which allows Amy an intelligence and an ability to balance her new feelings with an awareness of the potential consequences. Lynskey, who played opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, has never had a role that allowed her as much sensitivity or sexiness as she displays here. Blythe Danner has some wonderful moments as Amy's mother, whose reaction to her husband's impending retirement is central to the movie's theme of women suddenly finding themselves somewhere other than the center of a man's attention. The resolution may be all too predictable, though the scene between Amy and her ex-husband (Dan Futterman) strikes some unexpected noted of acceptance, but the journey is what matters. Hello I Must Be Going is a sharp directorial debut for Louiso, best known for playing the jazz-loving babysitter in Jerry Maguire. Louiso's interest in and awareness of smart women and their emotional gradations can only be a boon to future projects.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

To the Wonder

To the Wonder is in an objective sense Terrence Malick's worst film, but for me a discussion of Malick's worst is like talking about the worst de Kooning or the worst R.E.M. album. Malick is the only transcendentalist in mainstream American cinema, the only American director to reach a wide audience while giving pure image and sound and a vision of connectedness a remarkable degree of primacy over character and plot. All of Malick's films until now (with the exception of parts of The Tree of Life) have taken place in some part of the past and usually far from a settled, civilized life. To the Wonder takes place in present-day Middle America (mostly), and it is in considering how Malick's concerns and stylistic choices collides with the 21st century that we run into the question of whether he has created a film that really suits his artistic needs.

The central relationship in To the Wonder is a vital and tumultuous one. We begin in Europe where an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) is traveling with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). The two are obviously in love, though we never find out exactly how long they've been together or how they met. Marina narrates in hushed French, offering no concrete information but rather a running discourse on love, God, and the magic of her connection with Neil. We soon learn that Marina has a daughter (lively Tatiana Chiliene) she raises mostly on her own, and the three are soon bound for Oklahoma and a new life together. I like to imagine that this Oklahoma is a sort of cousin to the plains of Days of Heaven; there are still glimpses of the land here and there but much of it has been overrun by housing tracts and the usual suburban sprawl. Development and drilling have led to some sort of environmental crisis which Neil is either working to document, conceal, or alleviate. It isn't clear exactly what Neil is doing traipsing around in muddy water with a concerned expression, but there are numerous scenes of him talking to concerned people who describe a series of health problems ("Even the dog is acting funny.") and the fact that they can't afford to move elsewhere. These events occur on the side of the movie, while in the foreground Malick relates the story of Marina and Tatiana's unhappiness. Tatiana can't be blamed for not adjusting to a new country and a new school, but Marina's happiness is more of a clouding of the soul. She yearns for a truer connection with Neil, but since almost all of their dialogue is elided in favor of voice-over it is impossible to better understand what the problem is or who's to blame.

Olga Kurylenko's Marina is a sort of Diet Coke version of the character Jessica Chastain played in The Tree of Life. Chastain was the embodiement of the word's mysteries, but she was also a mother and a wife and someone who experienced loss. Kurylenko doesn't have such meaty stuff to work with here (though who knows what Malick cut out), but instead a great deal of wandering around an inexplicably empty house, twirling, and unhappy voice-over. (Yes, I get the idea that Malick's characters relate to each other like dancers. Something dramatic still has to motivate that movement.) With Marina gone back to Europe Neil has a brief relationship with a local woman (Rachel McAdams) before a chance to find true love again comes along, but I'm not sure that Malick hasn't exhausted what he has to say by this point. The most annoying thing about To the Wonder is the way it privileges the sadness of its characters while others are in crisis all around them. Where is the narration for those sickened by the environmental damage that Neil works in and around? They clearly have needs and stories to tell but they exist in the world of the film only as a representation of the Malick's idea that people can't stop messing up the world. In one of the strangest scenes an obviously ill woman knocks on the door of a local priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whom we see hiding inside his house. Why doesn't he come out?

Let's say a few more words about Bardem's Father Quintana, a sort of infuriating sideshow to the main action. Quintana is going through a spiritual crisis, we learn in voice-over, and is unable to connect to the power of God the way he once did. He performs his duties in a sort of funk and can barely manage to interact with the leaders of his church or those he visits in the parish. Once again we're presented with a Big Idea (the absence of God) that's dramatically underpowered and that makes the character seem a little ridiculous in the presence of so much need all around him. Quintana has nothing to do with the story of Neil and Marina until very late in the film and even then Malick won't let the movie settle down to engage with the ideas he has presented. To the Wonder becomes a frustrating, affected puzzle-box of a movie that leaves one wondering what has just happened in a way that Malick's other films don't. I'll do Malick the favor of admitting that the question of intent versus execution can't be answered. That is, it's impossible to know how the movie that emerged from a lengthy editing process (which excised performances by Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Sheen) matched the one that Malick had in his head.

I didn't hate To the Wonder. I'm both fascinated with and disappointed by it. While the questions Malick asks about love and our connection to God are important ones, I do wish he had let modern life push in a little more. Malick's upcoming films reportedly include footage shot at music festivals in Austin, Texas and after seeing To the Wonder I can't help but ask what he will make of the Arcade Fire.