Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Music: Nickel Creek - "21st of May"

This 2012 performance - officially Chris Thile and Sean Watkins guesting at a Sara Watkins show - was among the events that led to the reformation of Nickel Creek. Their new album A Dotted Line is out this week.
Sara Watkins is grinning, her fiddle tucked under an arm. “Sean and Chris and I grew up playing in a band called Nickel Creek together,” she says, indicating the guitarist Sean Watkins and the mandolinist Chris Thile, on either side of her. A small but hearty crowd — packed into the kids’ tent at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival and startled to find itself in the right place at the right time — lets out a whooping cheer.

What comes next in this genial ambush of a reunion, which can be viewed on YouTube, is telling. Mr. Thile and the Watkins siblings tuck into “The Fox,” a bluegrass standard that the band last played at its farewell show in 2007. And in no time, the fluent ease among the three musicians seems to take on a life of its own. “Thanks, everybody!” Ms. Watkins calls out afterward. “We’re Nickel Creek!” Maybe it’s partly force of habit, but over the course of a brisk five minutes, she’s made the shift from past to present tense.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hannah's Fish Tank

I haven't seen Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (a 2009 Criterion film I'll soon add to my list), but its selection by Lena Dunham as her favorite film of the last decade is the jumping off point for this unusual consideration of it against the Girls bottle episode "One Man's Trash". Or, as you may know it, "the one with Patrick Wilson".

“My favorite film of the past decade” is how Dunham describes Andrea Arnold’s 2009 sophomore feature elsewhere in her entry. Superbly photographed in controlled, roving long takes by Robbie Ryan, Fish Tankconcerns a stifled fifteen-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis) who harbors dreams of escaping her Essex housing estate by becoming a great dancer. A loner with a short fuse, Mia practices her routines along to CDs in between screaming fights with her distantly permissive mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). Her disciplined attempts to master and marshal her blossoming body bump up against the overpowering desire she feels for Joanne’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Suddenly, the same lanky limbs she’s able to swing into all kinds of intricate positions slacken along with her jaw in the presence of her devastatingly handsome new (step)father figure.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

(Late) Sunday Music: Tom Waits & Kronos Quartet - "Cold Cold Ground"

I love this version with Waits backed by the Kronos Quartet, the string ensemble that is celebrating 40 years  playing the works of living composers and influencing young musicians.

Nicholas Cords, the violist for Brooklyn Rider, said: “The influence of the Kronos Quartet has been felt by virtually any quartet operating today, even those who are not doing stuff on the fringe. They have had a huge role in generating interest in what a string quartet can do.” Kronos’s entrepreneurial model of creating repertory and “defining a quartet based around a passion,” he added, inspired the growth of his own ensemble. Mr. Harrington was inspired to found Kronos after hearing George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” a theatrical, anti-Vietnam War piece for strings and percussion that uses unconventional bowing techniques and electronic effects. During its early days, Kronos, which has undergone several personnel changes, performed Haydn and Mozart alongside new music. By the late 1970s, the group focused on contemporary music and began a series of longstanding collaborations with composers including Mr. Riley and Mr. Glass.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

The documentary Tim's Vermeer is the story of Tim Jenison, a businessman and inventor with a curious obsession. Jenison's field is 3D animation and computer graphics, and it's his skill in those areas that propelled his study of the painter Vermeer. Taking his cue from the writings of artist David Hockney, Jenison came to believe Vermeer used a camera obscura or other optical device to achieve the detail and effects of light in his work. The bulk of the film is Jenison's attempt to construct a similar device (and to replicate the conditions) that will allow him to paint a copy of Vermeer's The Music Lesson.

Tim's Vermeer is directed by Teller, the silent member of the magic duo Penn & Teller, and the film exists at least is part because of Jenison's friendship with Penn Jillette. (Jillette narrates and offers occasional onscreen commentary.) The story of Jenison's painting is a sort of slow-motion reveal of a magic trick, with the science clearly explained through animation and David Hockney himself showing up to validate Jenison's efforts. The first demonstration of Jenison's mirror technique is the film's most dramatic scene, with Jenison able to complete a photo-realistic copy of a picture of his father-in-law. After Jenison spends months building a replica of the room Vermeer painted in - the cost is never discussed - it takes four months to complete his Music Lesson. The final result is remarkable, but neither Jenison, Hockney, or the filmmakers address the question of how we're supposed to think about Vermeer in light of Jension's work. The art historian Philip Steadman (impressed with but unnerved by Jenison) asks the question "Was Vermeer a machine?", and it's that question that should animate discussion among art lovers as they leave the theatre. Does the idea that Vermeer or another artist of the time may have used a camera obscura invalidate their creativity, or their genius? What is genius, anyway? Hockney observes at the end that Jenison's work will "disturb" peeople invested the idea of Vermeer's unique ability, and hearing from one or two of those people would have helped put Jenison's achievement in perspective. The question of whether explaining the process behind great artistic work then diminishes that work is one that can't be answered, but Tim's Vermeer is only one half of the argument.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

The revitalization of The Muppets continues in Muppets Most Wanted, a sequel that (just as The Great Muppet Caper did in 1981) puts Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and friends in a caper comedy as a follow-up to an origin story. This time Kermit leads the troupe on a world tour after the success of The Muppets, but the group's new tour manager (Ricky Gervais) is actually the henchman of a master criminal named Constantine who looks almost exactly like a certain kindly green frog. Constantine assumes Kermit's identity, and we're off. There's a plot to steal the Crown Jewels and frame the Muppets, but the heart of Muppets Most Wanted involves Kermit and his friends realizing how much they need each other. James Bobin returns from The Muppets as director, as do co-writer Nicholas Stoller and songwriter Bret McKenzie, and the conception of The Muppets carries over from the last film. Kermit is the reluctant leader of Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and a sprawling family of performers who have to work a living and don't have any guarantee of success. Don't let that description confuse you, there are good jokes here. There's a funny buddy cop routine with Sam the Eagle and a French detective (Ty Burrell) on the trail of Constantine, and some of the funniest scenes involve Kermit in a gulag (run by Tina Fey) putting a group of convicts through their paces in a talent show. It's difficult not to spoil these moments, but after this movie you'll never quite think of Danny Trejo the same way again. The gulag scenes are good fun but I wish Bobin and Stoller had found a way to get Kermit a bit more time with Miss Piggy and his friends. The plot relies quite a it on the suspicions of Walter, who claimed his Muppet identity in the previous film, that the green frog who calls himself "Kermit" for most of the movie isn't who he says he is. I suppose Walter is meant to be our way into the story, but in previous Muppet movies we always had Kermit around for that. If there are more Muppet movies in our future then I think the franchise is in good hands creatively, but a few viewings of the original Muppet Movie are definitely in order.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kill Your Darlings

The fact-based Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas, falls into a trap common to films about writers. How can the act of writing be depicted on screen? The answer here and in far too many films is, of course, montage sequences. In 1943, young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) enters Columbia University and almost immediately falls in with friends that include William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston, who like Foster is underused). The pulse of the group comes from Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who isn't a writer himself but who articulates the group's self-expression heavy "New Vision". The film follows the friends' mischief and the increasing sexual tension between Ginsberg and Carr while also telling the story of attentions Carr received from the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg with the right sense of awakening (on many fronts), but there's too much going on here and Ginsberg is almost reduced to a supporting character in the story of his own life. Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn introduce Ginsberg's mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) but barely develop the character and Ginsberg's early creative efforts and jousting with a stodgy professor (John Cullum) are glossed over. Dane DeHaan plays Lucien Carr with his usual sense of being capable of anything, but Carr's climactic killing of Kammerer (no spoilers, it's revealed in the first scene) doesn't matter enough. Everything in Kill Your Darlings is designed to get Ginsberg to a personal and sexual awakening, but it's the script's focus on the wrong relationships that marks Kill Your Darlings as a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Looking for

I very much like this appraisal of HBO's Looking, a show which I think is both very much growing into itself and much more complicated than many have given it credit for. There's more than one kind of identity.
With admirably precise detail, "Looking," as its title suggests, illustrates how common it is to mistake sex for intimacy, romance for love, satisfaction for contentment -- blind spots that follow no type. Indeed, it was in the midst of this sequence that I finally stopped worrying if my love of "Looking" was simple identification, a way of seeing myself. We're all just looking for the future, and it promises to be anything but boring.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Anthony Lane is moved to near-ecstasy by Scarlett Johansson, especially her work in the new Under the Skin. When was the last time a piece on Johansson mentioned The Nanny Diaries?
By any reckoning, “Under the Skin,” which is directed by Jonathan Glazer, is Johansson’s best movie to date. She will never make a more unlikely one. It is a science-fiction film, and a horror story, but much of it resembles a documentary. She describes her role as “so revealing that it’s ugly at times.” It shows her at her boldest and her most withheld: she yields herself up, without demur, and yet keeps so much in check that the outcome will reduce many viewers to a state of confusion and rage. Nobody is more alive to the weirdness of this situation than Johansson. It reminds her, she told me, of watching “Eyes Wide Shut”—“the first Kubrick I ever saw in the cinema. The first time I hated it, the second time I loved it, by the third time I was obsessed.” Not until the première of “Under the Skin” at the Venice Film Festival, last September, did she have a chance to view it with an audience. “I didn’t breathe the entire time,” she says. “I remember looking over at Jonathan at the end of that screening, and people were simultaneously standing and applauding and booing, and Jonathan looked like a kid in a candy store.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Music: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet - "This Here"

Recorded in San Francisco, 1959:
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Now it's time to carry on some. Can we have the lights out please, for atmosphere? Now we're about to play a new composition, by our pianist, Bobby Timmons. This one is a jazz waltz, however, it has all sorts of properties. It's simultaneously a shout and a chant, depending upon whether you know anything about the roots of church music, and all that kinda stuff - meaning soul church music - I don't mean, uh, Bach chorales and so, that's different. You know what I mean? This is SOUL, you know what I mean? You know what I mean? Allright. Now we gonna play this, by Bobby Timmons. It's really called "This Here". However, for reasons of soul and description, we have corrupted it to become "Dish-ere". So that's the name: "Dish-ere"

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Non-Stop is an efficient and effective thriller that appears to be what we want from Liam Neeson these days. Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal first seen adding liquor to his coffee cup before reporting for work. If you've seen the trailer then you know what happens soon after Marks boards a transatlantic flight: a series of anonymous texts threatens the killing of passengers at 20 minute intervals unless Marks can arrange a 150 million dollar payment. The rest of the movie is an Agatha Christie story at 35,000 feet. Marks must sift through a finite number of suspects (including another marshal played by Anson Mount) while at the same time clearing his own name after he learns he's being framed. There's an above average cast on hand for all of this, including Julianne Moore as a seatmate who seems too interested in what Marks is doing and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as a flight attendant on the marshal's side. Non-Stop raises the question of how much trust we should put in those taking care of us on planes. While Marks struggles to maintain control of the flight the passengers are deluged with news reports of his drinking and unhappy past, and the passengers' own texts and videos become part of the story. There's an explicit reference to 9/11 that I'm not sure needed to happen but there's enough going on that it doesn't stand out, and the presence of passengers played by Corey Stoll (as an NYPD officer) and Omar Metwally (as a Middle Eastern doctor) results in a bonding moment that for once doesn't feel forced. The villains are unmasked and their reasoning arrives in a rush, but that's always a hazard in a movie like this. The real pleasure of Non-Stop is watching a bruised and vulnerable Liam Neeson fight his way to the truth, and his success doesn't require a full-body scan.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Seitz on Wes

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz on the films of Wes Anderson. Seitz is the author of this book.
He doesn’t hit a lot of the sweet spots that someone like Christopher Nolan hits, he’s a little more specialized than that. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that his movies are a lot of things at once, and some of the things that are going on at once are contradictory things. They are very, very heavily stylized to the point where people have accused them of being live action cartoons. There is no one extreme self consciousness to the way the stories are told and that is part of the story. I mean, often he tells stories that are framed as stories and in a lot of cases there are actual storytellers there telling you the story on screen in some way. Like The Life Aquatic is presented as almost a Steve Zissou film. Rushmore is broken up by curtains being drawn apart as if you are seeing a stage production by the hero of the film, Max Fisher. He goes even further in his later films where you get something like The Fantastic Mr. Fox which is a straight up adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel that is done in a style that suggests storybook illustrations. The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is this Russian nesting doll situation where you got a young woman reading a book which becomes an interview with an old novelist which becomes a recollection of how the novelist met this man who inspired him to write the novel which we saw the girl reading in the first place. So you know this is not ‘sit down, let me tell you a story.’

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The title character of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a folksinger, played expertly by Oscar Isaac, who is living and working in New York City in the winter of 1961. Llewyn has a number of qualities that make him at once an unlikely choice for the main character of a film and an ideal Coen Brothers hero: he’s poor, vain, unlucky with women, and in the midst of mourning his former partner. Llewyn is also a fine guitarist and performer of traditional folk songs and a part of the folk club scene. He is, in short, an American original writ small and the Coens wouldn’t have him any other way. Inside Llewyn Davis covers just a few decisive days in Llewyn’s life and brings him to the brink of his best self before cresting on an irony that’s built into the very structure of the film. This is a film as intimate and sad as the music Llewyn makes, and in its love for Llewyn the man it is also the most tender film the Coen Brothers have ever made.

Llewyn spends the days between gigs hustling for places to sleep and for royalties from his label, which seems to be run out of one room by an octogenarian. (The Coen’s taste for dry absurdist humor comes to the fore when Llewyn talks business.) One morning Llewyn lets a cat slip out the door of a place he’s crashing, and it’s while dealing with the cat that Llewyn learns that fellow folksinger and one-time fling Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. A lesser movie might have painted Jean - whom Mulligan plays with a terrific angry streak - as a soul mate in waiting, but here she and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) yearn for a settled, domestic life that Llewyn thinks he doesn’t want. In the movie’s comic high point Jim drags Llewyn into recording a space-themed novelty song (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) with another singer (Adam Driver), and Llewyn is so eager to leave and so hard up for cash that he bargains away his royalties. What Llewyn does want is a Chicago audition for folk impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), and it’s in that audition that the idea that Llewyn is making a mistake by beating his way through life alone becomes central. There is an interlude involving a car trip and an older musician (John Goodman) where the film’s forward movement stops for a bit too long, but it’s these scenes that suggest what Llewyn might become if he refuses to connect with other people. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn is terrific throughout, and the self-defeating anger that he lays into his characterization never overwhelms the sense of a man growing into himself.

The most important scene in Inside Llewyn Davis involves Llewyn getting beaten up outside a club. It’s the only scene in the movie we see twice and it flips the story around to signal the Coens’ intentions. Llewyn can accept the past and move forward, but music won’t be as kind to him as he has been to it. The Coen Brothers haven’t given up on their darkly funny view of the universe, but within that frame they’ve made a film about a man’s small victories and defeats that is their most mature work to date.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki enjoys a unique place among international filmmakers, having received two decades of international acclaim for animated films that both articulate a universal set of values and venerate Japanese culture. The Wind Rises, reportedly Miyazaki’s final feature film, works this paradox as much as any of his previous works. Miyazaki remains as interested in his country’s past as ever, and his concern with man’s relationship to the world around him rivals that of Terrence Malick. I wanted to like The Wind Rises more than I actually did. Miyazaki illuminates a fascinating part of early-20th century history but the film is too much a lamentation and doesn’t have enough conflict. Jiro Horikoshi (a historical figure voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English version) dreams of designing aircraft as a boy and converses in dreams with the Italian engineer Caproni (Stanley Tucci, also voicing a historical figure). Jiro and Caproni are both aesthetes, men who are in love with the art of design and in denial about the possibility of their work being co-opted for military purposes.

Jiro’s career advances in the years between the wars, and he falls under the tutelage of the kindly bosses Kurokawa (Martin Short) and Hattori (Mandy Patinkin). Jiro is fully aware that his company is trying to win military contracts, but The Wind Rises doesn’t address either how he feels about the fact his planes could be used as weapons or the question of whether his employers are exploiting him There’s little sense of the Japanese political culture of the time or of a rising militarism. Jiro seems to have plenty of time to ponder design innovations and  to fall in love with Nahoko (Emily Blunt) at a summer resort. Jiro first meets Nahoko when he comes to her aid during an earthquake, and Miyazaki animates this sequence like a sort of planetary rebuke to humanity. The Wind Rises is a visual feast and an ambitious film that gets oddly bogged down in the details of airplane construction. I’ll certainly allow Miyazaki his national pride but I wish it hadn’t gotten in the way of his story sense. I’ll return to Spirited Away and Miyazaki’s earlier films to celebrate this essential artist.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Music: The National - "Don't Swallow The Cap"

I haven't heard The National's latest album in its entirety yet, but a dive into YouTube is enough to make me think I'd like it. I also recently heard this (long) podcast with singer Matt Berninger, which gets into Berninger's complicated relationship with his brother Tom as well as a number of other subjects. Mistaken For Strangers, Tom Berninger's documentary about The National, is out later this month.

Much Ado About Nothing

In the director's commentary for his Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon says that he conceived the film after years of having friends over for Shakespeare readings at his house. Whedon, who also used his house as the film's set, has made a film that has the coziness and warmth of those readings and that also honors the emotional complexity of the play. In an opening scene we see Benedick (Alexis Denisof) sneaking out after a night with Beatrice (Amy Acker), and Whedon's choice to make real a past that's only alluded to in Shakespeare gives what follows a welcome gravity. In Whedon's telling Much Ado is about waiting for a love that's right there. There are the usual complications, especially the rocky path to marriage of the younger Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Nathan Fillion underplays the constable Dogberry in a way I've never seen before. It's Benedick and Beatrice you've come to see though, and Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker both make the most of Whedon's conception of them as battle-scarred love warriors. During her comic excoriation of Benedick in the masked party scene Acker is required to repeatedly brush away the hand of a drunken admirer, and Acker does it with a casualness that suggests it isn't the first time. In most versions of Much Ado I've seen Benedick wears his avoidance of commitment with pride, but Denisof make the character's avoidance of his own feelings almost reflexive and it's all the sweeter when true feelings are spoken at last.

The rest of the cast is equally game for some fun, with Clark Gregg's Leonato a fine master of revels until things turn sour. Whedon has found a way to make the behavior of the play's villains track, with Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) emerging as instigators of the unhappy Don John (Sean Maher). Claudio's refusal of Hero is as upsetting as it should be, but there is also some wonderful comedy in the scenes where Benedick and Beatrice are each tricked into thinking the other loves them. (Whedon should know how to block these scenes, it's his house after all.) I don't know if Whedon plans any more Shakespeare films or if Much Ado was just a one-off, but we can only hope the energy and intimacy of this effort will infect his future Marvel work.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Kelly Reichardt on Night Moves

Director Kelly Reichardt on ambiguity, subverting genre, and her new film Night Moves. (Keyframe)
Keyframe: Your previous film, Meek’s Cutoff, represented a different way to look at western. Night Moves does similar thing with thriller. How conscious was the idea of following or not following the rules of the genre in the filmmaking process?
Reichardt: Filmmaking is a very conscious. Usually in the writing stage I don’t think about genre, I’m mostly interested in characters and place. But in this case it started with a short love story that took place on a farm, involving someone hiding there after committing some radical environmental act. I read this story about two years ago, so I can hardly say I remember everything about it. I liked the idea of the secluded world of the farm and someone hiding there. Then we told ourselves ‘let’s do a caper,’ but like Rififi, where the movie actually stops at some point to show a process itself. I loved the detail in that film, how they showed what it takes to plan and execute a break-in. You know, the little things, like drilling and having to wrap the shirt around the drill to keep it quiet. So we just got on board with the genre idea, even during the writing, and certainly in actual filmmaking.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

About Time

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns an important secret early on in About Time, the latest piece of British whimsy from writer/director Richard Curtis. On his 21st birthday Tim is told by his father (a relaxed Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have the ability to time travel. All that's required is a dark corner and closed eyes and Tim can travel back to any point in his life. The movie is the story of Tim figuring out his life in the adorable fashion of Curtis' characters from Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually; there are strange friends, a grumpy landlord (Tom Hollander) and eventually a wife (Rachel McAdams) and children. Curtis isn't interested in exploring the moral choices that might arise from Tim's time travel but rather in his search for domestic tranquility. As Tim's future opens up certain parts of his past are closed off, and that creates what drama there is in About Time. There are no real consequences to Tim's behavior, and when his efforts to help his troubled sister (Lydia Wilson) backfire it's all too easy to reverse his actions in a montage. Rachel McAdams is stranded, the real love story is between Tim and his father. Nighy's character is so comfortable (the family's wealth is never explained) that he's content to live his life over again after learning how it ends. Curtis is trying to say something about change and acceptance, but the lack of conflict turns the movie tedious. I wasn't a fan of Curtis' Pirate Radio either, and each succeeding film indicates a greater stab at seriousness and a turn away from narrative energy. About Time has only the pleasant nature of its cast to recommend it, but it should have spent more time looking forward.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Little Respect

Kim Novak's appearance at the Oscars occasioned a round of nasty tweets, but even in her heyday Novak faced much worse than snark. (Self-Styled Siren)
“I made you, I can break you,” was Cohn’s refrain to Novak and many another actor. She was a naturally shy, insecure woman and Cohn liked it that way. He’d call Novak into his office and read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was “aping Marilyn’s every move.”
Further Reading - Kim Novak tells all.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sunday Music: Bruce Springsteen - "Royals"

If you overlook the irony of a man of Springsteen's wealth performing this song then I think this is a great cover, honoring the intention of the song while making it sound like Springsteen could have written it.