Friday, February 28, 2014

"Why don't you make a film about them?"

This Charlie Rose interview with Jim Jarmusch dates from the time of the release of Dead Man in 1995, but around three minutes in Rose gives away that he may not have seen the film under discussion. This current profile of Jarmusch celebrates the director of the new Only Lovers Left Alive as a cultural omnivore.
In Only Lovers, Tom Hiddleston's character has a wall of portraits apparently representing Jarmusch's own pantheon of heroes: among them, Mark Twain, Buster Keaton, Thelonious Monk, Joe Strummer.

The director's seriousness is often underestimated, says New York critic and festival director Kent Jones: "There's been an overemphasis on the hipness factor – and a lack of emphasis on his incredible attachment to the idea of celebrating poetry and culture. You can complain about the preciousness of a lot of his movies, [but] they are unapologetically standing up for poetry. [His attitude is] 'if you want to call me an elitist, go ahead, I don't care'."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Nebraska is Alexander Payne's follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Descendants, a film that fancied itself full of Capital Letter Statements about marriage, fatherhood, and what one generation owes to the next. The Descendants was a film I strongly disliked, because for all its ambition it  both played as a celebration of midlife freak-outs and seriously misused the talents of George Clooney. Nebraska is a retrenchment, a film of simpler concerns that reveals a new tenderness in Payne while also falling back on some familiar moves. Woody (Bruce Dern) wants to travel from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect a million dollar prize he thinks he has won in a magazine sweepstakes. It's clear almost from the start that Woody hasn't actually won anything, but after he makes a few abortive attempts to make the trip on foot it falls to Woody's son David (Will Forte) to drive his father to Lincoln. The heart of Nebraska is a detour that Woody and David make to Woody's childhood hometown, where an ill-timed comment leads to family, friends, and an old rival (Stacy Keach) learning about Woody's potential winnings.

I recently saw a good production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which posits that the physical hardships and isolation of life in Middle America have a psychological effect that crosses generations. (Letts calls this "having the Plains".) Nebraska screenwriter Bob Nelson doesn't spell it out - these characters aren't as articulate as Letts' are - but he holds a similar view. There's a sadness and a sluggishness in Woody, exacerbated by his drinking, that has passed to both David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David is attempting to refuse his inheritance, he's trying to drink less and get serious about a relationship, and Nebraska is to a large degree the story of him coming to an understanding of his father. Will Forte plays David with a sweetness and an understatement that bodes well for his career, and his performance is a good counter to the broad comic turn by June Squibb as Woody's wife Kate. Squibb is this year's most unfairly derided Oscar nominee; her performance is scaled to what Dern and Forte are doing and she works well as part of the ensemble. (She's also the most purely entertaining person in the film.) Bruce Dern deserves the acclaim he's getting for this role, it's an interior performance that's detailed and very moving. A visit to Woody's abandoned house is Dern's best moment, his expression and few words say as much about life on the Plains as anything in August: Osage County 

Of course Nebraska has to have an ending, and it's here the movie loses a bit of its footing. We're not really owed an explanation for why Woody insists on going to Lincoln but we get one and it's about what you'd expect. I never thought for a moment that Keach's character (a jealous ex-business partner) would follow through on his threats, so the final shot of his character is a twist of the knife we didn't need. There is also a buffoonish pair of cousins with a claim on the million bucks who really belong in one of Payne's earlier films, but I'm quibbling. Nebraska is a film about the mystery of the past and the uncertainty of the future, and it's also the start of something new for Alexander Payne. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Wes Anderson....

...does not want to make a James Bond movie. (Guardian)

Another idiosyncratic director, Baz Luhrmann, recently admitted that he wouldn't mind having a go at Bond. What would Anderson, a childhood Star Wars fan, have said if he'd been approached to take on the recently mobilised reboot? His reply ("Well, you know…") comes layered in qualification ("… as a very abstract idea…") but there is an answer, buried.
"I could entertain what I would say in that situation. And it's not like anyone's been pursuing me to do a 'part five' of anything, by the way. But no. It's really simple for me… I'd rather do my own thing. That's what I like to do."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

3 Days to Kill

3 Days to Kill is a muddle, a movie that tries to blend genres and tones with mixed results. Kevin Costner affects a deep, raspy growl to play Ethan Renner, a CIA agent in pursuit of a terrorist named Wolfgang, aka “The Wolf” (Richard Sammel). You read that right, what we have here is the kind of movie in which nicknames are that obvious and in which the CIA is represented by a bombshell named Vivi (Amber Heard) with a taste for wigs and no need for backup. After Ethan falls ill during a job in Serbia he’s diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. When he returns home to Paris the movie switches tracks. The search for The Wolf is secondary to the story of Ethan reconnecting with his family, especially his wary teenage daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit). Ethan’s ex (Connie Nielsen) trusts him to watch Zoey while she’s away on business, but there’s a hitch: Vivi wants Ethan to kill The Wolf in exchange for cash and access to a new drug that might save his life and definitely causes hilariously ill-timed seizures.

The role of Ethan actually isn’t a bad one for an actor of Costner’s vintage who has a taste for playing loners with a vulnerable streak. Ethan is gruff but winning with Zoey and seductive with his ex, all the while modeling the latest in fight choreography for the middle-aged. Hailee Steinfeld is a good match for Costner, playing Zoey with a guarded intelligence that belies the character’s age. There’s a decent movie in this relationship, but it keeps getting interrupted for action scenes that don’t matter enough and "comic" scenes of Ethan roughing up people who can lead him to The Wolf. The scene in which Ethan interrupts an interrogation to solicit a spaghetti sauce recipe should either be hilarious or pointed, but it's somehow neither. Director McG (it’s hard not to adorn that name with quotation marks or a trademark symbol) stages a dandy car chase through the Paris streets and a couple of good close fights, but since The Wolf is barely a character these scenes just feel like filler. Even odder are all the scenes involving Vivi, played by Heard in her initial scene as a no-nonsense intelligence officer and through the rest of the movie like the cousin of Sydney Bristow from Alias. I wouldn’t expect any less from co-writer/producer Luc Besson, whose films display a love of espionage and little feel for how it actually works. Besson directed last year’s The Family, another action movie with a sentimental streak, and he favors heroes who succeed despite the system as opposed to stories of Le Carre-like tradecraft. It’s no accident people keep referring to Ethan as a “cowboy”. There are good moments here, but despite Costner’s old-school skills 3 Days to Kill is finally just a way to kill a February afternoon.

Morris on Looking

I love this Grantland piece by Wesley Morris that uses the HBO series Looking (which I like)to pose questions about "normalized" gay characters and the lack of subversive LGBT artists a la a younger Todd Haynes. These are questions with no answers (yet), but cheers to Morris for starting the discussion.

We’re on the far side of that strain of self-destruction. But one wrinkle in 2014 is that there’s no handbook, no guiding principle of behavior. Kramer, the indefatigable activist, humanitarian, and holder of gays to the highest sociopolitical standards, married his longtime partner last July. Gays are often lumped in with women and blacks as another oppressed party. But blacks have a control for measuring what’s accepted as social progress: white people. There’s no reliably visible foil for gay people, in part because, for so long, they were visible only to themselves. Political strains of gay culture radicalized quickly against hatred and legal demoralization. I’ve never come across a black questionnaire that asks whether I’m political. But it’s a frequently asked question on the gay equivalents. The achievement of marriage equality differs from battles for suffrage or integration. The fight is for a right that someone like Patrick isn’t sure he even wants.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Big Gulp of Reality Bites

Reality Bites didn't make much much of an impression on me when I saw it in college, but when I saw it again after I graduated it seemed like an essential work. I'm not sure that's true, but there is a reason the film endures. Here's a good oral history from the key players. Writer Helen Childress:

Helen Childress (screenwriter): We just started throwing stuff at the wall and figuring out what would it be. "Here's what my friends are saying. Here's what my friends are doing. Here's what my life is like." It was just Michael and me for about a year and then Stacey came on board. And Stacey was the real deal. She knew story. She knew structure. She just had a key into the character of Lelaina and she helped me. She focused everything.

["Reality Bites" remains Childress' only produced screenplay. Her female-centric work has faced an uphill climb in Hollywood ever since, though she is collaborating with Shamberg, Sher and Stiller on a "Reality Bites" TV series for NBC.]

Stacey Sher (executive producer): I think what I brought to it was I was closer in age to her than Michael and we just started structuring it and digging deeper into the relationships. I kept urging her to go to the truth of the characters and what was going on in people's lives. It was just at the beginning of the backlash to the women's movement, after Susan Faludi would write "Backlash," and I think that Helen and I both came to it as women making choices about making their way in the world after school. It also reflected a group of people who were the product of divorce, who grew up in ways that pop culture was a part of our lives.

Monday, February 17, 2014

About Last Night

The enjoyable but slight About Last Night is a remake of a 1986 movie of the same name that I haven’t seen, and both movies originate in an early David Mamet play called Sexual Peversity in Chicago. There isn’t a pressing reason to release a new About Last Night in 2014, but if the only reason this film exists is to give work to its talented African-American cast then the results prove that job was worth doing. The remake moves the action from Chicago to Los Angeles, where buddies Danny (Michael Ealy) and Bernie (Kevin Hart) are out for the evening with Bernie’s new friend-with-benefits Joan (Regina Hall). Joan brings along her friend Debbie (Joy Bryant), whose pairing off with Danny sets up the movie’s dual storylines.

If About Last Night is “about” anything it is the difficulties of finding modern love, even when it’s standing in front of you. The bawdy, highly sexual relationship of Bernie and Joan is played with terrific comic force by Hart and Hall, who each seem to get a kick out of egging the other to new levels of furor. I don’t know if Kevin Hart will ever be able to carry a movie on his own, though he’ll get the chance, but here he moves beyond the good-natured sidekick persona that has gotten him this far. Bernie and Joan serve as confidants to and matchmakers for Danny and Debbie, and it’s this second relationship that gets most of the screen time. Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant are both good, smart actors but the script by Leslye Headland skips over the fun and discovery in the relationship goes right to the heavy stuff. It’s implied that Danny isn’t quite ready to grow up and resents making less money but these things are never spoken. Director Steve Pink favors the soulful glance over the loud argument in these scenes, and Danny and Debbie could have used some of the spikiness Bernie and Joan have. About Last Night ends on an open-ended note that it comes by honestly, but it winds up telling the story of the wrong two lovers.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"McQueen is not interested in fantasy."

Why Steve McQueen should win Best Director.   (Awards Daily)

McQueen is not interested in fantasy. He’s into exposing the raw nature of human beings — that rawness he brings to scenes that sets all five senses alight. We can smell the sweat. We can taste the tears.  The spectrum of the human experience, not just the slave and master experience, vibrates throughout 12 Years a Slave, pain and heartache, jealousy and obsession, ownership and sadism. We don’t get off light here, but we are fully immersed in the reality of nothing less than the most shameful time in American history.  Worse, our country was built on it. We wouldn’t have become the empire we are today without slavery. And yet, and yet.  We want to escape this, somehow.  Even if 12 Years a Slave manages to win Best Picture as some pundits are predicting, that flies in the face of what we know about Oscar voters now.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney's The Monuments Men is a square-jawed, earnest attempt to recreate the feel of a studio system World War II movie, the kind of movie that really should be referred to as a "picture". Based on actual events (and a nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter), the script by Clooney and Grant Heslov follows a group of men led by Frank Stokes (Clooney) who are charged with recovering and returning art stolen by the Nazis in the last days of the War. Stokes assembles a team of experts, including a curator named James Granger (Matt Damon) who is sent to Paris to connect with Resistance elements. The American team also includes an architect (Bill Murray) and two others (John Goodman and Bob Balaban) with more general credentials and Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin make the group a true Allied effort. The action proceeds in fits and starts, with Stokes and the others stumbling around France while Granger builds trust with a woman (Cate Blanchett) who may know the whereabouts of art taken out of Paris.

It isn't easy to dramatize the meaning of a piece of art, and so instead we get speeches from Stokes about the importance of cultural history. We're meant to enjoy the gruff banter of the men as they wait for things to happen, with Murray and Balaban asked to carry the brunt of the comedy. Murray gets a couple of good moments, including his reaction on hearing a message from home, but I'm not sure casting him was as good an idea as it must have seemed at the time. How far could ironic detachment carry one on the battlefields of 1940's France? Bob Balaban fares much better, finding an anger that simmers under his usual reserve. The plot hinges of whether Blanchett's character will turn over what she knows about the Nazi movement of art, and surely Clooney could have found someone not so overqualified to throw herself at Matt Damon. There are so many works of art in play that it's hard to care about one in particular, and the Nazi characters we meet (and some Russians who enter the story late) are just caricatures. The Monuments Men ends with a conversation between Stokes and President Truman and a question that I'm not sure any American President would ever ask of a civilian. Stokes insists upon his answer just as The Monuments Men insists upon the importance of the mission. Clooney's intentions in making this film can't be faulted, but he hasn't found a satisfying way of telling the story. The colors are right, but the brush was a little too big.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The East

The East, directed by Zat Batmanglij and written by Batmanglij and Brit Marling, is a follow-up to their Sound of My Voice and like that film it puts an outsider into a group of committed individuals and waits for what happens next. Sound of My Voice raised more questions than it answered (on purpose, if you ask me) and The East makes the same mistake, though since the film has the structure of a thriller what is meant to be profundity winds up looking like sloppiness. Jane (Marling) works for a private security firm called Hiller Brood and is tasked to infiltrate an ecoterrorist group called The East that pulls off high profile attacks on corporate executives. Jane, known as Sarah undercover, makes contact with the group pretty easily after some hobo activity on the railroad and is soon at the headquarters working alongside group leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and the group's dark angel Izzy (Ellen Page, underused). There's a strange lack of both detail and tension in The East, the group's access to its targets comes with remarkable ease and the members come and go from their hideout like it's a social club. There's also the reporting of a news story that no company would ever let be broadcast proving The East were right about a dangerous drug. We're supposed to believe that Jane is becoming radicalized by her work with The East, but Batmanglij and Marling want to have it both ways since Jane is also developing an attraction to Benji. Ellen Page gives the best performance in The East; her confrontation with her target (Jamey Sheridan) is the one scene where it feels like anything could happen. Patricia Clarkson is efficient and opaque as Jane's boss, and the movie's not so subtle point is that by infiltrating radicals Jane and her company are serving the very corporate interests that The East is fighting against. There's a film to be made about radicalism in a post-Occupy society, but The East lacks bite and settles for a cop-out ending that plays out over the credits. The struggle continues.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Labor Day

Jason Reitman's Labor Day badly needed the tart comic touch that Diablo Cody brought to her scripts for Reitman's Juno and Young Adult. Labor Day is adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard. Reitman wrote the script himself, and the result is an earnest, gauzy mess of a movie that does little to hide the drugstore paperback nature of the plot. A middle schooler named Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) is being raised by his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in 1987 New England. Henry's father (Clark Gregg) has begun a new life with a new family and it's all Adele can do to make it to the grocery store. A scowling man named Frank (Josh Brolin) forces Adele and Henry to take him to their house one day, it turns out Frank is an escaped murderer who needs a place to hide. Reitman doesn't attempt to be subtle about the unmet needs of Henry and Adele. Frank teaches Henry baseball and basic car repair; he performs some fix-it work around Adele's crumbling house and preparing meals. By Frank's second night there he and Adele are sharing a bedroom.

 If only Labor Day had been honest enough to tell the story of Adele's reawakening instead of limiting itself to Henry's dazed point of view. Instead we get food. The scene in which Frank, Adele, and Henry make the most metaphorical peach pie in the history of film deserves to be parodied, and Frank's pronouncements about crust and temperature made me wonder if Robert James Waller came in for a rewrite. A more Adele-centered movie would have given both Winslet and Brolin something to do. Winslet looks unhappy and nervous almost the entire way, and Brolin is so ridiculously courtly right from the start that almost all the tension is sapped from the situation. Brooke Smith has a couple of good scenes as an annoying neighbor, but the moment where her wheelchair-bound son almost blows Frank's cover is something out of a TV movie. My favorite character, and the only one who speaks like a real person, is a would-be girlfriend of Henry's played by Brighid Fleming who gets a great, funny speech about Bonnie and Clyde. We're looking back on these events through the memories of the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire, mostly heard in voice-over), but Reitman never allows for the possibility that Henry is an unreliable narrator or that the flashbacks to the events that landed Frank in jail are anything less than 100% accurate. I don't know what happened to Jason Reitman's sense of humor, but Labor Day feels like the work of someone who thinks they need to grow up but who really just forgot to choke up on the bat.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Straight Life

Why do creative people use heroin? Glenn Kenny looks to Art Pepper for some answers.
Arguably, indifference does not enhance creativity; it shuts out creativity. True indifference creates the craving for more true indifference, because giving a shit about anything, you've figured out once you've properly numbed yourself, is just too fucking painful as it turns out. Who needs it? I turn to Pepper again: "All I can say is, at that moment I saw that I'd found peace of mind. Synthetically produced, but after what I'd been through and all the things I'd done, to trade that misery for total happiness—that was it, you know, that was it. I realized it. I realized that from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That's the word they still use. That is what I became at that moment. That's what I practiced; and that's what I still am. And that's what I will die as—a junkie."