Saturday, January 23, 2010

Deep Thoughts #24

Based on how many people came to Crazy Heart today, I’m guessing that Wal-Mart’s sales in Hamilton County are off by at least forty percent.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Single Man

Now that I sit down to write about it, I realize that it’s been five days since I watched this movie and that I have not written down word one about it. But oddly enough, despite that, I remember very well that: I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped that I would; that I hated the ending; and that it was utterly beyond my ability to comprehend that Julianne Moore was getting nominations for Supporting Actress awards for her work on the film. She is a talented actress, but even her formidable talents are not enough to create the third dimension necessary for the audience to make any kind of emotional connection to the character she plays here.

Colin Firth, on the other hand, does create that third dimension; and it is entirely possible to make the kind of emotional connection with his character that is necessary for the viewer to maintain any kind of interest in the film - apart from, perhaps, how pretty the film itself looks (but more on that later). He plays college English professor George Falconer on what is apparently to be the last day of his life. Distraught by the recent death of his lover, George is determined to spend the day putting his affairs in order before going home to off himself.

This is not an elaborate operation. He has only to clean out his desk at work and empty his safe deposit box and then lay out all the important stuff on his desk at home, along with instructions as to what should be done with each thing; and there is but one wrinkle - his friend Charley (Moore), a former lover with whom George claims to have a complicated (though important) relationship. He takes these steps in an almost clinical fashion, letting emotion get the best of him only when something he sees or touches during the course of his day brings back a particularly powerful memory of his dead lover.

And so the “single man” of the title might refer either to George, who is now single again (though obviously not interested - at first - in ever getting into another relationship) and, in many ways, singularly alone; but it also might refer to his departed lover, Jim, who demonstrates, by negation, precisely how important a single man - here meaning one person only - can be in someone else’s life. This effect is amplified by the story’s being set in late 1962, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when homosexuality still played itself out in the dark corners and back alleys, far from the judgmental eyes of the self-righteous.

In flashback, George gets the news of Jim’s death - during a trip by car in the winter to see his family in Colorado - from one of Jim’s relatives, who calls in secret because the rest of the family had not wanted to inform George of what happened. George is also not invited to the service, which, he is told, is for “family only.” Firth is devastating in this scene, showing grief and shock but also remarkable restraint. He does not lash out, but rather remains civil - almost as though he understands (and possibly, in some unlikely way, accepts) the position that the relative who calls is forced to take because of his family’s beliefs. It’s an impressive piece of acting, one that should help to earn him a nomination (but not a win) at the Oscars.

All of this serves to show how very, very alone George is in the world; despite having a good job and at least one close friend, he is completely severed from life after Jim’s death. Though he claims to love Charley, he holds her at a distance; the affection between them is perfunctory. And he is efficient deailng with his co-workers to the point of being curt. He has poured all of his effort and attention into Jim - into a single man - and the loss is emotionally debilitating. George is able to get out of bed, get dressed, get to school…but these are objective actions that require no evaluation and precious little effort. They can be done on auto-pilot, and this is how George moves through this last day of his life.

The film is the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford and as one would expect from someone who makes a career out of how things look, the film looks terrific. There are some elements that make it clear that the director is inexperienced - some dissolves that feel a little bit out of place and some cuts that are too kinetic - but these are minor quibbles that are far outweighed by the spectacular art direction. Though I imagine the Oscar will go to Jim Cameron’s Lord of the Flies starring Blue Man Group, I would certainly think that there is a nomination out there for this one. What is perhaps best about Ford’s direction is how he gets the camera to see into the characters - or how he manages to get Firth and Moore to express so much with eyes only. Surrounded by such exquisite - though dated - beauty, these are two very haunted souls.

I don’t know whether or not the end of the film is true to the end of the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood; but if it is, then I’m pre-emptively disappointed in the novel (the movie tie-in edition is not available yet at the library, but I’m on the hold list). If it is a deviation by Ford (who also wrote the script), then he should be barred for life from screenwriting. The ending was so bad that I’m surprised I have actually been able to heap so much praise on the film to this point. It might just be me, or it might be something that’s lost in translation from prose to screenplay and from screenplay to sound stage. I don’t know; but I didn’t like it, and for me it’s a pretty major problem with what is otherwise a very fine film (and a very impressive debut from a non-film person).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Crazy Heart

Here’s a move that was supposedly going straight to cable TV until Robert Duvall got a copy of the script from writer-director Scott Cooper (who adapted the novel of the same name by author Thomas Cobb); and then the fellow who wrote some of the songs for the movie, Stephen Bruton, passed away before the film opened. The setup almost sounds like a country music song all by itself, doesn’t it? The word around the campfire is that Fox Searchlight eventually picked it up and then screened it for critics - who were so enamored of Jeff Bridges’ role that Searchlight decided to open the picture and flog Bridges for Best Actor consideration.

They just might be onto something there. He’s got stiff competition in a pretty strong field - including George Clooney for Up in the Air, Colin Firth for A Single Man, and Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker - but they say that Searchlight can sell anything, and they almost got Mickey Rourke an Oscar last year for The Wrestler. In a way, you could say that just as Little Miss Sunshine begat Juno, so The Wrestler begat Crazy Heart, though the latter is the only adapted screenplay in the bunch - so it may well have been turned into a movie eventually anyway; but Bridges nails aging country star Bad Blake, a role that seems almost to have been written with acting awards in mind.

Bad Blake is the kind of musician who winds up being the guy that everyone else says taught them everything they know. But at 57, he’s well past his prime and has to spend more time than he cares to talking about the new blood in the industry and whether or not that new blood is “real country.” He’s broke, divorced, and drunk, so he’s not exactly breaking any new ground in terms of characterization; but he’s still out on the road playing his music, and it’s oddly compelling (at least at this point in history) to watch the struggle of someone bucking the odds to keep his head above water.

In fact, what’s most compelling about the character is the inevitable tragedy that seems to be waiting just around the corner to take him out of this world once and for all. He’s careening toward a massive heart attack or a spectacular car crash - maybe even some combination of the two; and he doesn’t really seem to care. He’s not quite willing to lay down and die, but neither is he willing to change his destructive behavior. Just about every synopsis of the film that you will read will say something along the lines of that Blake is looking for that one last shot at redemption and that he finds it when a reporter comes trawling for an interview - an attractive young female reporter called Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Redemption isn’t the right word, but it’s the easiest one to sell. He’s not looking for redemption - at least not through the first two acts; all he's trying to do is make it to the next gig and collect his paycheck (and a free whiskey, if he can manage it). He only starts to look for redemption after he Screws Up Big Time; and it’s when he Screws Up Big Time that the films lurches sharply from a pretty nicely constructed tragedy into the Hallmark-card no-man’s-land of melodrama. The third act is not entirely bereft of nice moments, but those nice moments are only counterpoints to the trite, paint-by-numbers slapdash that is the resolution of the film.

There’s an odd subplot involving Blake’s estranged protegé, Tommy Sweet. Colin Farrell plays the younger musician, but it never looked to me like Farrell was entirely comfortable in the role. He had a bit of trouble with the accent - having to do both American and Country appears beyond his abilities at the moment - and it always looked like he was expecting someone to come up and jump him. Blake won’t talk about Tommy to Jean, but when he and Tommy are together there is no animosity - though Tommy’s assurances to Blake that he hasn’t “forgotten who gave me my start” come off as patronizing.

I’m not sure the subplot is even necessary to the story. Blake’s tragic character and the interplay with Jean might have been enough - but they would have had to do more with Blake and the uncomfortable situations into which he gets himself, and I got the feeling that someone in the writing department (either novelist Thomas Cobb in the original material or Cooper in the script) didn’t want to let Bad Blake get to be too bad. That’s unfortunate, because they took the R rating probably without batting an eye; there are enough F-bombs to make a sailor blush, and with the rating firmly in place, it would have served them well to dig deeper into the tragic thematic elements of the character, rather than having a go at the Lifetime Network ending.

From a technical standpoint, the film is excellent - apart from the shift in tone between the second and third acts. Director Scott Cooper has a clear understanding of how uncomfortable many of the situations are, and he takes care not to linger overlong on scenes once they have said what they have to say. The pacing is crisp without feeling rushed, and the film flows well - up to that moment where Blake Screw Up Big Time. Then the whole thing starts to devolve, but this is not a disaster for the film because of how well it had been working up to that point. Greatness may never have been within reach for this film - ultimately, the story just isn’t strong enough - but it lands firmly in the above average range; and as a vehicle for an acting performance designed to attract awards attention, it certainly achieves what it sets out to do.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deep Thoughts #23

More than one art movie in a single weekend. They better watch themselves - whoever they are - or we may start to get some of our cred back.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deep Thoughts #22 - Special Topical Baseball Edition

So we’re here to talk about the past whenever you feel like talking about the past is what we ought to be doing. Is that it? Fuck you, Mark.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top Ten Films of the 2000s (#2)

This was a hard list to make, because my movie-watching habits were sort of all over the place during the decade. I lost a lot of interest in movies between burnout at Eastgate and then working for Another Major Competitor in the early part of the decade - and then became very interested in movies again after going to work for Landmark and signing up - finally - for Netflix, in the latter half of the decade. This makes my list of movies seen in the 2000s, which stands at just a shade over 320, very heavy in movies from the second half of the decade. The list includes anything I’ve seen with a U.S. theatrical release in the years 2000-2009, and it is also retroactive. For example, this week I caught up on two Netflix movies I’ve had for about a week - The Headless Woman and Julia - both of which had their U.S. theatrical release in 2009, so they count as 2009 movies. The actual list of movies I watched from January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009 is 109, but only about 40 or so of those had their U.S. theatrical release in 2009.

For the methodology, I made a top ten list for each year and then took the ten #1 movies and made a top ten list out of those. Then I looked at the top ten lists for each year to see if I liked any of the non-#1 movies from one year better than any of the ten #1 movies. This was often the case - 2003 and 2006 were weaker years for me, and have no movies in my final top ten; but there are two movies each from 2000 and 2004, both of which were very strong years - and in the case of 2000, the final analysis revealed that my #1 is not in my decade top ten, but #2 and #3 are. I still have a few movies from 2009 to see, but I doubt that any of them will get higher than #4 on my 2009 top ten - so there’s no way they would make the decade top ten. And that decade top ten looks like this…

10. Garden State - Zach Braff (2004)
I’m a sucker for a solid coming-of-age story, and when you throw in an awkward family dynamic I’m pretty much all in. The last piece of the puzzle is dealing with your feelings about the place where you grew up, which always resonates with me, because I’m really conflicted about Indiana. This movie nails every one of those themes, and also has one of the best soundtracks ever. Try to get your head around the idea that we live in a world in which Zach Braff is a Grammy winner.

9. Rachel Getting Married - Jonathan Demme (2008)
Yeah, I know…I’ve talked about this movie more than enough - and I don’t even have anything new to say about it. There are not many movies I have ever seen that I wanted to watch again, immediately, after they ended the first time; but that’s how I felt after I saw this the first time. Apart from the shoddy handheld camera work, I thought there was very little about this film that wasn’t excellent.

8. Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino (2009)
Though not my favorite Quentin Tarantino picture, this is unquestionably his masterpiece - so far. There is so much that he does so well, but his greatest talent might be the way he wrings performances out of actors - in this case Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt, both playing oddly likable lunatics. The only thing that doesn’t really work is the soundtrack, which is odd considering the back to back musical home runs he hit with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

7. Sideways - Alexander Payne (2004)
Speaking of really talented directors, let’s not forget Alexander Payne, who has made quite the name for himself marshaling some terrific novels to the big screen. Plus, who the hell knew Thomas Haden Church could actually act? What is perhaps most remarkable about the whole enterprise is that this excellent story is adapted from author Rex Pickett’s debut novel.

6. You Can Count on Me - Kenneth Lonergan (2000)
I’m not actually sure that this is better than Sideways. I might just think it is because Laura Linney was so good in this film. But then again, you’ve got major family issues - and there might be a theme a-formin’ here. Both Linney and Mark Ruffalo, as estranged siblings, were excellent. Linney is a tremendously gifted actress who doesn’t always choose the best films in which to appear (The Truman Show, Jindabyne) - but when she gets her hooks into a solid script, the results are often quite remarkable. Even the bad movies are worth watching, just to watch her work.

5. Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch (2001)
Yet another trippy David Lynch mindfuck, steeped in the lore of the strangely beguiling mistress called Hollywood. It’s structured similarly to Lost Highway but is, oddly, not quite as surreal. While most great filmmakers are, at bottom, storytellers, Lynch is a magician who employs misdirection and sleight of hand in ways that are positively baffling - but that’s not a bad thing; and it’s not to say that he isn’t a storyteller. Unlike most filmmakers, though, he’s telling multiple stories with the same actors playing different characters - and just when you think you’re starting to make sense of it, the whole thing collapses on itself and begins anew.

4. Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky (2000)
Even after seeing Antichrist, I still think that this is the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. Antichrist was icky in places, but those places were, in many ways, gratuitous; Requiem for a Dream is worse because there is a longer story arc and a sense of hope in the hearts of all the primary characters - but also the inexorable pull of a doom that is beyond any of their abilities to affect. It’s a classic tragedy set in modern Brooklyn (and the nostalgic backdrop of Coney Island) and crafted so stylishly - especially the editing - that it hypnotizes you. Misanthropic to a fault - maybe - but there is that sense of hope nearly grasped that makes the film desperately compelling. And Ellen Burstyn is amazing.

3. Far From Heaven - Todd Haynes (2002)
A wonderfully acted, beautifully photographed film set in the über-50s of Anytown, USA. Terrific acting all around, by Dennises Quaid and Haysbert, but especially by the inimitable Julianne Moore, who is unhappily married to Quaid. Their extramarital dalliances go against the grain of all of those so-called “traditional values” that are supposedly what America is all about - but which were really just latched onto by conservatives so that they could hold up their own ideal of living while suppressing the rights of others. The film correctly reveals the empty promise of conservative thought - and is so well put together that it is at least as good techincally as it is thematically.

2. Brokeback Mountain - Ang Lee (2005)
This film would be important even if the only thing it did was treat the unlikely romance between two men in the conservative American high plains with grace and empathy. To be sure, it gets that part right - but it gets everything else right, too. Apart from director Ang Lee’s habitually glacial pacing (particularly in the first act), there are few missteps - if any. People like to flog Heath Ledger’s role in that vastly overrated Batman movie, but there’s something to be said for restraint, too - and the restraint he shows here is stoic to the point of heartbreaking. All of the technical aspects are nearly pitch perfect, and so is the source material - the brilliant short story by Annie Proulx.

1. No Country for Old Men - Joel and Ethan Coen (2007)
Roger Ebert said it before I did, but he’s right - and it’s so simply stated that you can’t really say it any better. This is a perfect film. And the ambiguous ending, well…have ya read Cormac McCarthy? The words bleak and ambiguous go a long way toward describing most of his oeuvre. While everything about the film is excellent, what really stands out is how the Coens draw the sinister character of Anton Chigurh - and how that character is so brilliantly portrayed by Javier Bardem. He brings a quiet dread to every scene and helps to redefine the concept of the antihero. Both thoroughly modern and oddly anachronistic, the film does a remarkable job of conveying McCarthy’s pointed take on the state of humankind in a rapidly changing world.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Top Ten Albums of the 2000s

Honorable mention:
Meet Me in Margaritaville - Jimmy Buffett (2003)
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs - Bob Dylan (2008)
Ten (Redux) - Pearl Jam (2009)

I don’t know if re-releases, re-mixes, compilations, etc., count for this kind of list or not. All of the above are excellent, but they aren’t really new material - just old material presented in a new way. So I left them out - but they are all good records. I hadn’t thought about making a list like this until I saw Josh’s list - and even then, my first thought was that I probably hadn’t even listened to ten new albums during the decade. But then I went through my iTunes library and found out that I had, in fact, listened to over forty albums from the 2000s - and that doesn’t include any that I might have listened to and not added to the library. It’s not much, of course, but there were some good records in there - and here are the ones I liked the best.

10. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Garden State (2004)
This movie makes my top ten movies of the aughts list, too. Wistful, melancholy, soul-searching songs that fit perfectly into a movie about a young man adrift in a world he’s only barely gotten to know.

9. Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (2007)
Yeah, I got tired of this after awhile, but it’s still a really good record - way better than I thought it would be when I first heard about it. Neither rock nor bluegrass, nor even a combination of the two, really - but instead a dark, mysterious sort of sound that blends and bends their genres. Maybe a little over-produced, but it’s T-Bone Burnett - what are you going to do?

8. Original Cast Recording - Movin’ Out (2002)
Amy and I went to see this when it was at the Murat, and it was really good. Michael Cavanaugh was not the Piano Man at the show we saw, but he nails the songs on the album. A great selection of Billy Joel’s best songs, and some really knockout arrangements - especially on “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

7. The Crane Wife, The Decemberists (2006)
Read an article about these guys in Paste magazine, and was intrigued enough to try out one of the records. I really like the experimental feel in the longer compositions. Colin Meloy may not have the best voice in the world, but he’s willing to play around and get wacky. If they ever started trying to sound like Primus, they’d sound just like Modest Mouse.

6. “Love and Theft,” Bob Dylan (2001)
The lighter, more upbeat counterpoint to the dark, bleak (and Grammy-winning) Time Out of Mind, this one has a glossier, more produced feel to it - but you also get the sense that Dylan is having more fun recording songs than he’s had in a really long time. May not have gotten the attention it deserved in part because of an unfortunate release date: September 11, 2001.

5. The Chair in the Doorway, Living Colour (2009)
I was real excited when I heard these guys were recording again. Their third studio record, Stain, from way back in 1993, is one of my all-time favorite records. The sound here isn’t as raw, and is more layered and produced; but Corey Glover sounds like he hasn’t aged a day, and Vernon Reid’s sick guitars still bounce nicely off a rhythm section that’s still one of the best going. They take a few songs to really hit their stride, but by the time they get to the fifth song, “Method,” they’re sailing along nicely, incorporating club, funk, and pop elements seamlessly into their own specific brand of hard, melodic metal.

4. Live at Benaroya Hall, Pearl Jam (2004)
It’s true that the remarkable acoustics of this performance space in Seattle, WA, lend something to the music; but you also have to have good music in order for the acoustics to work on it - and Pearl Jam is more than equal to the task. Largely acoustic, this two-disc set features unreleased material, lesser known gems, and even the first public performance of one of their songs - “Man of the Hour,” a song they wrote for the film Big Fish - to go along with many of the band’s well-known songs. Lots of audience participation and amusing banter from Ed between songs. Sort of like an MTV Unplugged record, but way better.

3. Taking the Long Way, Dixie Chicks (2006)
I’m half tempted to evaluate this record entirely apart from any political consideration - but that’s not really possible. It was the aftermath of the anti-George Bush comments by lead singer Natalie Maines that led directly to the creation of this album. If not for that backlash - which showed country music’s base to be about as sophisticated and articulate as the conservative Republican base - this record could never have come into being; and the world might never have known that this largely manufactured country act is, in fact, a tremendously talented band. The songs put the band firmly in the rock/pop/country crossover category that Garth Brooks created, and many of them deal with how the band survived the abandonment of their so-called “fans” and came out the other side a better, stronger unit.

2. Vapor Trails, Rush (2002)
These guys should have comeback albums more often - not that I would wish Neil’s personal tragedies on anyone, you understand. But this and their first comeback album (Presto) are easily two of their best albums. The too-loud recording (an unfortunate industry trend at the time) is pretty much the only drawback here. You almost get weepy thinking how much better already great songs like “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” might have been if they had been cut with a lighter touch. Throughout, there’s a sense of urgency, almost like they knew they were working on something special and that they might never sound this good again. That such an amazing record could pop up between the relatively lame Test for Echo and Snakes & Arrows is pretty impressive. I’d buy it all over again if they ever called in Brendan O’Brien to do a re-mix.

1. Ghostman on First, Rebuit (2005)
I was sort of a groupie for like a month back in 2005, when some of the guys I worked with at Clearwater were really into this local band. I think the band has sort of self-destructed since this record came out, but before they blew up, they cut a pretty good album. Not all of the songs are winners, but I got the feeling from some of them that these guys were close to a major breakout. They had a legitimate rock frontman, a talented bass player, a competent drummer, and a good rhythm guitar. They didn’t really have a solid lead guitar, though. The songs that work, though, are really good - especially “Central Park” and “La Merde Creek.” My putting this record this high is really more about the memories than it is about the music - but some of the music is pretty good, and they put on a hell of a good stage show.