January 29, 2013

MOVIES - Best Films of 2012

Several stories about stories among my favorite movies this year, and a very close call between the top two.

Starting with #10 and counting down to #1:
  • Seven Psychopaths -- A delicious tangle of meta-storytelling, with fine performances and the year's funniest screenplay.
  • Looper -- Works as a time-travel thriller; works as a meditation on fate and personal responsibilty.
  • ParaNorman -- Beautifully animated, with the most expressive faces I've ever seen in stop-motion; a fine cast of unexpected voices, and enough style and wit to overcome the mildly familiar story.
  • The Cabin in the Woods -- A wildly funny subversion of horror movie cliches and conventions, and an unexpectedly thoughtful exploration of why we tell scary stories.
  • Bernie -- Strange hybrid of dark comedy and documentary that uses its Greek chorus of locals to great comic effect without ever sinking into condescension or patronizing.
  • Compliance -- A chilling study of obedience, with a taut script, and such emotional rawness and intensity that it's sometimes painful to watch.
  • Footnote -- Two men, father and son, each devoted to the study of ancient texts, each incapable of communicating with the other. A deftly comic exploration of the nasty prankster side of God.
  • Argo -- An unlikely marriage of broad Hollywood satire and terrifically exciting thriller, with each half working precisely to balance the other. An awards-friendly movie that never seems to exist only to win awards.
  • Oslo, August 31st -- The tragedy of one man's inability to find the beauty that lies within every life, no matter how mundane. A movie that offers its audience the hope its hero is sadly unable to find.
And the year's best movie:
  • Amour -- Director Michael Haneke, as unsentimental as ever, but finding a compassion that's not always present in his work. A bracing antidote to Hollywood "aren't old people sweet?" pablum.
A few that might have made the list on a different day: 21 Jump Street, Brave, The Master, Premium Rush, Ruby Sparks, Searching for Sugar Man.

MOVIES: Best of 2012 - Actress

The runners-up:
  • Linda Cardellini, Return
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
  • Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
(I will note that Walliis is here among the runners-up, and not among the nominees, mostly because I'm never entirely sure whether a child this young is really capable of acting or is simply following directions very well. That said, she has a remarkable presence, and should she choose to continue acting, I look forward to seeing what develops.)

The nominees:
  • Nina Hoss, Barbara -- Here, Hoss faces one of the actor's greatest challenges -- when your character can't let anyone know what she's thinking, how do you let the audience know -- and handles it beautifully. A lovely study of what it means to live in a society where everyone is legitimately paranoid.
  • Helen Hunt, The Sessions -- Get past the nudity (though Hunt's blunt comfort with it certainly helps to sell the role and the movie), and you find a performance of great emotional simplicity and honesty.
  • Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks -- Playing a woman who is quite literally someone else's dream, Kazan's slow awakening to her own personality and desires is utterly convincing, and when the confrontation with her creator finally comes, it's a scene of wrenching tension and pain.
  • Emmanuelle Riva, Amour -- Riva captures her character's physical and mental deterioration beautifully, but even more painful are the horror and anguish of watching herself go through this nightmare.
And the winner:
  • Ann Dowd, Compliance -- Dowd is spectacular, never setting a foot wrong as she struggles between two visions of right and wrong, trying to find a way to balance her own sense of decency with the desire to please an authority figure.

MOVIES: Best of 2012 - Actor

The runners-up:
  • Shlomo Bar-Aba, Footnote
  • Richard Gere, Arbitrage
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
  • Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
  • Denzel Washington, Flight
The nominees:
  • Jack Black, Bernie -- A deft, light performance of immense charm. Given Black's usual heavy obviousness, it's a revelation, like watching an actor we've never seen before.
  • John Hawkes, The Sessions -- Entirely robbed of physicality and largely robbed of vocal range and flexibility, Hawkes still manages to make you laugh and break your heart, often in the same instant.
  • Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour -- Trintignant and Riva are doing a gloriously precise duet here, but I think it's Trintignant's scenes with Isabelle Huppert that I'll remember, as he explores the place where lack of sentiment becomes cruelty.
  • Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained -- No one delivers Tarantino's dialogue as well as Waltz, and the casual arrogance with which he treats Django -- the willingness to use slavery to his advantage, the throwing away of all that's been gained over a foolish point of honor -- is one of the movie's subtlest depictions of racism.
And the winner:
  • Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st -- There are so many emotions boiling below Lie's apparent numbness -- the pride of having gotten through rehab, the constant fear of relapsing into addiction, the desperate need to find a way to fit into the world, the suspicion that he doesn't deserve to find one  -- and he communicates all of them with remarkable stillness and subtlety.

MOVIES: Best of 2012 - Supporting Actor

This was a category with an unusually large amount of good comic work this year. Comic performances never get the recognition they deserve.

The runners-up:
  • Armie Hammer, Mirror Mirror
  • Tom Holland, The Impossible
  • Fran Kranz, The Cabin in the Woods
  • Scoot McNairy, Argo
  • Michael Shannon, Premium Rush
The nominees:
  • Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas -- Whether he's playing the comedy of the nursing home story or the vicious cruelty of the composer story, he's always riveting and always entertaining.
  • Tom Cruise, Rock of Ages -- Playing a man clinging desperately to his own celebrity, Cruise gives a limber performance of surprising grace and wit.
  • Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln -- It's very hard to play this sort of moral fortitude in our age of cynical snark, but Jones's righteous determination always feels sincere and justified.
  • Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths -- Walken as the sanest person in the movie isn't something you expect, but it works. Whether he's stubbornly refusing to indulge his grief, or wandering the desert on a peyote trip, Walken gets every conceivable laugh from his material.
And the winner:
  • Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained -- Jackson's performance would be admirable if only for his ferocious commitment to such a loathesome character. But Jackson also makes clear the vicious self-loathing that's tearing at him with every obsequious laugh, and the razor-sharp intelligence he's never been allowed to show. It's spectuacularly good work.

MOVIES: Best of 2012 -- Supporting Actress

Woefully slim pickings in this category this year, and I found myself having to dig deeper than usual to produce a full slate, choosing performances that I might normally have thought not quite large enough to qualify

The runners-up:
  • Amy Adams, The Master
  • Pauline Collins, Quartet
  • Shirley MacLaine, Bernie
  • Frances McDormand, Madagascar 3
  • Tilda Swinton, Moonrise Kingdom
The nominees:
  • Samantha Barks, Les Miserables -- What happens when you cast singers in a musical? You get actual singing, instead of sniffling and wheezing (yes, Anne Hathaway, I'm looking at you). Barks's "On My Own" is the best five minutes in the movie.
  • Emily Blunt, Looper-- The strength of a farmer; the fear of a child who isn't quite like most; the love and devotion of a single mother, strong enough to overcome that fear -- Blunt plays them all with ferocious determination.
  • Judi Dench, Skyfall -- The best performance in a dull movie, bringing an emotional depth and complexity that that the movie doesn't really require and certainly doesn't deserve.
  • Dreama Walker, Complaince -- Walker's progression from bubbly young woman to withdrawn, nearly catatonic victim is remarkable; you can see her slowly shutting down to avoid the horrors she's going through.
And the winner:
  • Kelly Reilly, Flight -- This could easily have been just another addict with a heart of gold, but Reilly digs deep enough to find the humanity and the courage. How refreshing it is when she cuts Denzel loose, refusing to be caught up in his problems and denial.

MOVIES: Best of 2012

The Great January Catch-Up is over, and while there are (as always) movies I never did get around to seeing -- Perks of Being a Wallflower and Holy Motors top that list -- I have seen all of the Oscar nominees in the major categories (writing, directing, acting). So, let the list-making commence!

January 24, 2013

MOVIES: Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Haywire tells a familiar story -- after a mission goes wrong, a mercenary seeks vengeance on those who betrayed her -- but tells it with great style and just enough surprises to keep it interesting.

Gina Carano has the lead role; she's not much of an actress, but her background in mixed martial arts does make the fight scenes more credible than usual. And Lem Dobbs' screenplay doesn't call on her for too much emoting; her character is a stoic, taciturn, mysterious kick-ass fighter without much personality beyond that. Soderbergh has surrounded her with a strong cast of men (there's no other significant female character) who carry Carano through the dramatic moments: Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton.

The movie is beautifully photographed, and the action sequences are staged cleanly, without too much frantic editing or camera movement; it's always clear where the characters are, both in relation to one another and in relation to the room they're in. A hotel room brawl between Carano and Fassbender is especially well done.

The story is, as is conventional for the genre, more convoluted than it needs to be, and withholds too much information until the final big "and now we explain everything" info dump. But it's no more confusing than the Bourne movies, for instance, and the explanation is presented convincingly enough that you won't spend too much time worrying about loose ends.

It's a pleasant B-movie, which is all it seems to be aspiring to.

January 23, 2013

MOVIES: Butter (Jim Field Smith, 2012)

Butter has a terrific cast (Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone, Olivia Wilde, Kristen Schaal, and Hugh Jackman) and a workable premise in its warped re-imagining of the Clinton/Obama primary campaign, but the writing falls flat and pounds the obvious notes just a bit too heavily.

Bob Pickler (Burrell) is the King of Butter, defending 15-time champion of the Iowa State Fair's butter sculpture competition. When the fair suggests that it's time for him to retire and let someone else have a chance, he's content to do so, but his wife Laura (Garner) is appalled. That trophy belongs in the Pickler family, she is convinced, so she sets out to win it herself.

And that's when she runs into Destiny (newcomer Yara Shahidi). Destiny is a 10-year-old African-American girl who's spent her life bouncing around the foster care system, having only recently landed in what might become a stable home (Corddry and Silverstone play the potential parents). But she has a prodigy's gift for butter, and Laura does not respond well to this young upstart threatening to take the crown that should be hers.

The performances are pretty good. Garner's never a terribly warm actress, but at her best, she knows how to make that work for her, and it serves her well here as she dives headlong into Laura's ice-queen bitchiness. Burrell's a master of befuddlement; Corddry is utterly charming as a guy who takes naturally to parenting; and Shahidi gets Destiny's tricky balance of innocence and ambition just right.

There are subplots involving adulterous liaisons for both Picklers that don't much help the movie, though Wilde and Jackman are both terrifically funny as the respective lovers. And I think the movie sticks too closely to its obvious political inspiration; we'd get the point even if Destiny weren't also a naturally gifted orator, for instance.

Maybe worth watching if you're a fan of the cast, or if you've got nothing better to do on a Saturday night. And if you go into it without getting your expectations too high, you might get some fun out of it.

January 21, 2013

MOVIES: Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

We are all going to die. Very rarely does a movie bring that point home quite so bluntly or clearly as Michael Haneke's Amour, a bracing antidote to the "aren't old people adorable?" crap that Hollywood likes to serve up.

Virtually the entire movie is spent inside the apartment of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), retired piano teachers in their eighties. They are utterly devoted to one another -- Georges still takes the time to tell Anne that she looks pretty as they return from a concert -- and have made a happy and comfortable life for themselves.

And then Anne has a stroke -- not a spoiler; this is in the first ten minutes of the movie -- and everything changes. Her health begins to deteriorate, and Georges is forced to become her nurse and caretaker. He's more than willing to accept that responsibility, but even at the beginning, it's clear that he's only just able to manage things like helping Anne in and out of her wheelchair. If she gets any sicker, or if his own health gets any worse as he ages, they won't be able to manage.

As we get ever closer to the inevitable, Georges and Anne find their relationship pushed to its limits. How far will we go -- how far can we go -- for those we love? And as we explore the depths of their love, and the ways in which it is shaped by patience and frustration, by anger and joy, by courage and cowardice, we realize that for all of its focus on death, the movie is deservedly called Amour and not Mort.

The two central performances are superb. Riva's Oscar nomination is entirely deserved, and she does an extraordinary job of capturing not only Anne's physical and mental deterioration, but the horrible anguish of watching herself go through this. Trintignant is every bit her equal, and is particularly compelling in scenes with their daughter (a lovely supporting performance from Isabelle Huppert), explaining with a lack of sentiment that borders on cruelty that there is nothing she can do to help.

Haneke occasionally gives in to his penchant for heavy-handed symbolism -- there's a pigeon that keeps flying into the apartment through an open window -- but there's less of that here than is usual for him. The claustrophobia of the single setting serves the movie well, reinforcing the themes of confinement and escape. Amour is, as always with Haneke, a clear-eyed and somewhat chilly telling of a story; what seems new (at least in my experience with Haneke) is the kindness with which he views these people.

Amour is both completely unsentimental and deeply compassionate, and it should not be missed.

January 20, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, January 20

Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Midori, violin

The program:
  • Kodály: Háry János Suite
  • Eötvös: DoReMi, Violin Concerto #2
  • Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
An all-Hungarian program today, made up of connected composers. Kodály and Bartók shared a music teacher as young men (though they did not meet until later in life), and Eötvös studied composition with Kodály.

I had never heard any of Eötvös's music before today, and his violin concerto does not leave me wanting to hear more. He uses a relatively small orchestra, though there are three percussionists, each with his own array of gongs, chimes, and cymbals; as well as harp and celeste. The music is harsh and unpleasantly dissonant (and yes, dissonance can be pleasant), and made up of tiny chunks which hop around the orchestra, seemingly at random, with no instrument or tune ever allowed to take hold for more than a few seconds.

And above it all, there's poor Midori, frantically sawing away like a woman in the throes of the angriest muscle spasms in history. The concerto is nearly devoid of melody or lyricism, and on those few occasions when the violin is given something that threatens to turn into a tune, every note of it is set against clashing pitches and timbres from the orchestra, and some outburst (most frequently from the percussion) stops it before it really gets started.

The performance was certainly passionate and committed, and I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume it was also skillful. But even if there had been wrong pitches and missed entrances all the way through, in all that frenzied chaos, who would possibly know?

The rest of the program was far more successful. The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra isn't a piece I particularly love, but this was a fine performance; the wind duos and the brass chorale in the Guioco delle copie movement were highlights, as was the horn fanfare that opens the Finale.

Best of all, though, was  Kodály's Háry János Suite, a delightful assortment of moments from the comic opera. The brass was superb throughout, displaying remarkble light agility in the "Viennese Musical Clock," comic martial bombast in "The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon," and just the right level of buffoonery in the pomp of the "Entrance of the Emperor and His Court." There was also fine solo work, notably in the "Song" movement, which began with a gorgeous passage for viola, and ended with a clarinet solo that faded so beautifully into silence that I'm still not sure whether I actually heard the last note or only imagined it.

January 18, 2013

BOOKS: The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (2012)

The Fault in Our Stars is one of the hot YA novels of the moment. It's a teen rom-com that attempts to merge the manic energy of screwball comedy with a tragic story (both principals have cancer).

The first problem with doing that hyperactive banter in print, as opposed to in film or TV, is that most of can hear a lot faster than we can read, so when reading, the words don't crackle with the speed and energy they need. Hearing instead of reading also doesn't allow us any time to stop and think about how wildly unrealistic this manner of speech is.

The second problem is that it's simply not easy. I would argue that Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, writes that type of dialogue as well as anyone, and even when Gilmore was at its best, there were moments when I wanted to tie Lorelei to a chair and tell her to just. stop. talking. And Green is not in Sherman-Palladino's class as a writer of bouncy and madcap, so there were lots of similar moments in this book.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Hazel, whose cancer is being held at bay for the moment, but which is incurable; she knows that it will kill her, and that she doesn't have many years left. She meets Augustus at Support Group one evening, and they fall madly in love.

And how could they not? Augustus has been written to be Hazel's perfect guy -- handsome, irreverent, just as quick with a zippy one-liner as she is. He's so obviously The Guy For Hazel that even the book's jacket copy describes him as "a gorgeous plot twist."

Hazel and Augustus spend a few happy weeks together before tragedy strikes, as we knew it would, but at least they have time to toss off a few more bon mots, make amusing philosophical comments about the nature of oblivion, quote poetry back and forth, and just charm the hell out of each other. Constantly. Every single minute of every single day.

(Oh, and they find time to pop off to Amsterdam to visit the reclusive author of Hazel's favorite novel. Y'know, as one does when one is slowly dying of cancer and must lug an oxygen tank everywhere one goes.)

And there's the biggest peril of writing this type of character: They don't exist in real life. No one is this charming and witty and personable and quirky and chipper all the time; even when they get sick, Hazel and Augustus are adorably sick.

(A digression: Hazel and Augustus? Seriously? Have any Indianapolis parents in the last 80 years or so actually named their children Hazel and Augustus? As if the personalities weren't big enough quirk-fests, they have to be named Hazel and Augustus. Oy.)

Some of the jokes and epic monologues are amusing enough that they kept me going to the end of the book, but oh my god, how I hated both of these characters before it was over. You know the author's doing something wrong when you find yourself rooting for the cancer.

January 16, 2013

BOOKS: The DVD Novel, Greg Metcalf (2012)

Metcalf argues that the increasingly popularity of watching television by the season, rather than by the episode, is changing the very nature of what we want from television. (And it's a circular process in which the changing nature of television encourages and rewards such binge viewing.)

Once upon a time, TV was an episodic medium, in which characters and their circumstances were not allowed to change; now, a season of a series (or a series as a whole) is viewed as a complete work which is primarily devoted not to telling a separate story each week, but a single overarching story that may last for several years. There may be contained stories in each episode to keep the casual viewer involved, but the show is meant to absorbed as a whole; it is a "DVD novel," as opposed to a series of short stories.

There are obvious elements to that change -- series that have ending dates planned in advance, and stories that come to a firm ending -- but Metcalf also sees this change in some less obvious ways -- the rise of the unsympathetic lead, the increased blending of genres, the shorter seasons that dominate cable, a visual style and vocabulary borrowed from comics and graphic literature.

These aren't all new changes, or at least not as new as we might think. Metcalf goes as far back as The Fugitive for the roots of the series-long arc in American television (will Richard Kimble ever find that one-armed man?). And he traces much of the change to the influence of British television, in which seasons have usually been shorter -- as few as 6 or 7 episodes -- and self-contained programs of only a few hours have always been part of the TV landscape. (We went through a brief craze for those in the US; we called them "miniseries.")

And at the root of all of this, Metcalf places Dennis Potter's 7-hour series The Singing Detective, which featured a distinctively unpleasant protagonist, and which mixed forms like mad -- reality with hallucination, noir with musical numbers, realism with fantasy; it was a formative influence on Steven Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law began the slow serialization of American television.

Metcalf's writing isn't overly scholarly, and for the most part, his arguments are clear and easy to follow. The biggest exception, for me, is in his chapters on comedy, where he argues that we've shifted away from situation comedy to "attitudinal comedy;" it was never quite clear to me what distinction he was trying to draw.

And there are a handful of annoying factual errors that any good fact checker should have caught. The L.A. Law character is named Michael Kuzak, not Kusack; All in the Family began in 1971, not 1968. Such mistakes always make a bit nervous about how many other errors are lurking that I'm not informed enough to catch.

Still, those details aren't at the heart of Metcalf's premise, which is fascinating, and which he presents in convincing fashion.

January 11, 2013

MOVIES: Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012)

Quartet is another one of those movies (see also The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) that boils down to "Aren't old people adorable when they keep on having relationships, and feeling emotions, and doing things, just like regular people?"

There's nothing remotely surprising about the story, so the movie is entirely dependent on the charms and talents of its cast. But when your cast consists of Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, and Maggie Smith (with Michael Gambon in the biggest supporting role), those charms and talents are not inconsiderable. For me, they were just enough to carry the lightweight material.

The setting is Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. To be precise, a home for retired classical musicians; this is a place where most of the residents are still not convinced that The Beatles were a good idea.

The residents are preparing for their annual fund-raising gala, at which they sing and play in hopes of raising enough money to keep the place open for another year. The arrival of the newest resident (Smith) gives the gala's director (Gambon) a brilliant idea -- the four principals should perform the quartet from Rigoletto, an opera in which they once famously co-starred. But Smith is reluctant to perform at all, not wanting to "betray who I once was," and she's particularly reluctant to perform with Courtenay, because They Have A Past.

It's nice to see Smith in a role that's a bit softer edged than her current default setting (though she does get off a bitchy zinger or two), and she and Courtenay are delightful together. Connelly is in perpetually horny and uncensored mode, which he can do in his sleep, but he does it with great panache. Collins is very good as the woman who's always been the ditziest and most absent-minded of the group, characteristics that are starting to shade into senility.

Nothing essential, but it's pleasant light entertainment, and it'll keep you charmed for an evening when the DVD arrives.

MOVIES: The Impossible (J. A. Bayona, 2012)

The Impossible is a highly polished, skillfully made piece of disaster porn, and beneath it lies a rather depressing commentary on what American audiences will or will not buy tickets to see (or at least what we're perceived as being willing to see).

The film follows the experiences of one family during and after the tsunami that devastated much of southeast Asia in 2004. The setting is Thailand, but of course, we can't be asked to empathize with a Thai family; a European family is required. And so the filmmakers, who are Spanish, found a Spanish family with an inspiring story of survival on whom to base their film.

But apparently, we Americans are not seen as willing even to put up with Spaniards as protagonists -- all those funny accents and swarthy skin, don'cha know. No, we must be given Englishmen. Pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Englishmen.

And so the cast is headed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, who have taken their three children to a top-notch Thai resort for Christmas vacation. The tsunami hits (impressive special effects work here), the family is separated, courage is required, etc. etc. etc.

Naomi Watts got an Oscar nomination for this movie, and there's certainly nothing wrong with her work, but it's not particularly interesting or unusual; the nomination suggests that Watts is becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation, and that we can expect to see her nominated anytime she does anything more complex than reciting "Humpty Dumpty."

There is a charming cameo from Geraldine Chaplin (Bayona must like her; she had a lovely short scene in The Orphanage, too), but the best performance in the movie is from Tom Holland, playing the family's oldest son. He's perhaps 12 or 13, and when his mother is injured, he's forced to grow up and take more responsibility than a child that age should ever have to handle. Holland does a lovely job here, teetering on the edge between the boy he still is and the man he will someday be, holding in all of the fear and uncertainty that he doesn't think he can let his mother see. But beyond Holland, there's nothing novel here, and no compelling reason to see the movie.

January 10, 2013

MOVIES: Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011/US 2012)

One day in the life of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, who is spectacularly good), a 34-year-old who's 2 weeks away from finishing a year-long rehab program. It's scheduled to be a fairly ordinary day -- meeting an old friend, job interview, lunch with his sister -- but Anders faces it with some desperation. He's proud of the fact that he's gotten through rehab, but well aware that this is only the first step, and that there are still difficult battles to be fought. And he's terrified that he doesn't have the strength to win those battles.

A lot of that is, I think, Anders' conviction that he doesn't deserve a happy ending; he feels guilty about the wasted years, and about the fact that his parents have been forced to sell their home. He can't imagine how he will ever slip back into the world.

Director Joachim Trier spends a lot of time focusing on the ordinary reality of that world. The movie opens with the sounds of many voices talking about their memories of growing up in Oslo; one of the movie's showpieces finds Anders sitting quietly in a coffee shop, listening to the ordinary conversations around him, briefly imagining the lives those people are living. We can see that as much as he wants an ordinary life, he's terrified of the fact that it will be so damned ordinary.

That sort of ambivalence and duality is one of the movie's themes. When Anders confesses his addiction during his interview, are we meant to see defiant courage or self-sabotage? Are his frequent phone messages to an old girlfriend romantic or pathetic?

We can be fairly sure when the movie begins with the protagonist's failed suicide attempt that we're not headed for a wildly happy ending, and this isn't a cheery movie; the only real question is just how bleak the ending is going to be.

Even at its bleakest, though, there is somehow a sense of hope, and it comes, I think, from what lies behind those coffee shop conversations. Anders sees only the banality, and fears falling into such a mundane life. What Trier is also showing us, though, is that there a story waiting to be told behind every one of those ordinary lives, a movie waiting to be made. The challenge confronting Anders is learning to see the beauty in the ordinary, and the question posed by this beautiful movie about a sadly ordinary day is whether he'll learn to see it before it's too late.

MOVIES: Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

The German film Barbara is very understated, and relies less on big moments or confrontational dialogue than on quiet exchanges and subtle facial expressions.

It's set in East Germany in 1980, where Barbara (Nina Hoss) is reporting for her first day of work at a hospital in "the provinces." She was once a successful doctor in Berlin, but has been banished to the country after spending some time in prison; we're never explicitly told why, but the implication is that she'd tried to escape to the West.

Her colleague Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) tries to be friendly, but Barbara is withdrawn by nature, and her recent experiences have made her even more paranoid than most East Germans; she suspects that Andre is reporting on her to the Stasi agents who follow her and pop by occasionally for surprise strip searches.

The movie is mostly a low-key character study, and a look at what life was like in a society where paranoia was the norm. It's hard to fit into a new community or to trust your new neighbors when anyone could be a government agent, especially if you really do have secrets to keep.

Hoss is faced with one of the toughest challenges an actor can face. She's obliged to keep everything hidden from those around her, showing no emotion, no hint of what she's really thinking, while letting us in the audience have some insight into her character. And she does so beautifully; it's a striking performance, filled with the constant tension of a woman who knows she's being watched and fears that she'll never find a road to happiness.

This one probably isn't going to play anywhere but the largest cities, but it's certainly worth watching for when it arrives on DVD.

MOVIES: Promised Land (Gus Van Sant, 2012)

Rather a mess, this one is.

Our central character is Steve (Matt Damon), who works for a natural gas company (they're called "Global," so you know they're Evil). Steve and Sue (Frances McDormand) go around to small towns where shale gas deposits have been found, and buy leases on all the farms in preparation for fracking.

Everything seems to be going just fine in this week's Midwestern village, until the local high school teacher (Hal Holbrook) turns out to be a retired PhD with a lot of questions about the potential danger, and the town is suddenly visited by an environmental activist (John Krasinski) with scare stories about the damage Global's fracking has done elsewhere.

The movie has no faith in its audience's ability to deal with the complexities of the fracking debate. It is simply assumed that because Damon is the corporate guy, he is wrong, and that environmentalist Krasinski must be on the side of the angels. (His character is named Dustin Noble, for god's sake, just in case we hadn't figured out where to put the black and white hats.)

The only argument Damon is ever seen presenting is that of money: Your town and these farms are dying anyway, whether there's fracking or not, so why not cash in on your land before that happens? And we are assumed to be so stupid that the anti-fracking argument is literally reduced to the level of a 9-year-old, as we watch Krasinski talk to an elementary school class.

And since we aren't allowed or encouraged to actually deal with the ideas of the debate, the conflict is reduced to Damon and Krasinski battling for the hearts and minds of the farmers on the strength of their own charm and charisma -- their own movie star power, essentially. And even with the story slanted as badly as it is -- Damon, the evil corporate shill, vs. Krasinski, the lovable doofus environmentalist -- in the battle of charisma, Krasinski is sadly outgunned.

Krasinski's B-team status most seriously cripples the movie in its climactic plot twist, when the true depths of Global's conniving are revealed; it leads to a confrontation that is less charged than it should be because Krasinski doesn't have the chops to go against Damon.

There is some nice work in supporting roles. McDormand is entertaining, particularly in her scenes with Titus Welliver, who plays a local shopkeeper ("Rob's Gas, Guns, Groceries, and Guitars") who flirts with her. Rosemarie DeWitt, always a welcome presence, is handed an underwritten character whose sole purpose is to plunk herself between Damon and Krasinski for the obligatory romantic rivalry, but she gives the character great warmth and more depth than is on the page.

But the movie's refusal to genuinely engage with its own subject matter, and the good-vs-evil simplicity of its characters (which is not sufficiently atoned for by the Big Plot Twists at the end), keep Promised Land from ever becoming more than the ecological equivalent of a Lifetime movie of the week.

January 09, 2013

It feels strange to have Oscar nominations so early in the year. But regardless of what the Academy may do, I will follow my usual tradition and give myself the theatrically slow month of January to catch up on holiday releases I haven't gotten to yet, along with a few older titles on DVD and Netflix, before I announce my own best of 2012 lists. I know how many are waiting with breathless anticipation.

MOVIES: Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

First things first: Victor Hugo's novel is 150 years old, and the Boublil-Schonberg musical is 30 years old, so let's not pretend that we need to avoid giving away plot points on this one. I'm not going to go out of my way to gratuitously mention things, but I think a century is well past the statute of limitations on spoilers.

Hugo's story, even in its purest form as a novel, carries so much emotion, sentiment, and melodrama that it's starting to stagger under the weight. Pile on a sentimental and melodramatic score, and the musical version walks right up to the edge of camp.

So the last thing Tom Hooper needed to do was direct the movie in a style that adds on even more emotion. The movie, despite a few marvelous moments, is washed away in a sea of tears, so intent on pummelling us with its characters' every twinge of grief and misery that there's no room for us to feel anything.

The use of sustained extreme closeup doesn't help, especially given Hooper's choice to encourage his actors to flamboyantly overdo the tears and the sniffling. We don't normally look at people at such a close distance, and when they're crying, our instinct is to pull back and allow them some personal space. So when Anne Hathaway blubbers her way through "I Dreamed a Dream," or when Eddie Redmayne weeps out "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," we want to get away; we're invading on moments that are too personal for our presence. And since we can't get away, we start resenting the movie for forcing us into these moments of emotional violation. (And that doesn't even address the fact that the blubbering and tears make the singing less effective, and the lyrics harder to understand.)

The movie's most successful moments, therefore, don't necessarily come from its best singers, but from its most understated. Russell Crowe doesn't have the best voice in the cast (though I think he's perfectly fine in the role), but his restraint and lack of sobbing make the moments leading up to Javert's suicide the most moving in the movie. (I could, however, have done without the resounding CRACK that Hooper throws in as the body lands; the point would have been made without the cartoonish sound effect.)

Get past the "please cry for the camera" direction, and most of the cast is quite good, with voices well suited to the roles. Amanda Seyfried squeaks a bit on her highest notes, and "Bring Him Home" has always been pitched far too high compared to the rest of Valjean's music, so Hugh Jackman is at his worst there, but those are minor flaws.

The biggest casting problem comes with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers; the one thing that comic relief characters must be is funny, and these two aren't. Baron Cohen can at least carry a tune, but "Master of the House" is staged in so sluggish a manner that the comedy never comes through.

And for all the bad directing choices, the movie has its moments; there is a stretch of about ten or fifteen minutes late in the movie that is thrilling. Samantha Barks as Eponine sings a lovely "On My Own;" the "One Day More" ensemble, which has always been the most effective number in the score, works beautifully; and even though we can't understand most of the choral lyrics, "Do You Hear the People Sing" is staged with great power.

Had the rest of the movie reached that level, it would have been a glorious success. As it is, it's a movie that so badly indulges -- hell, not merely indulges, but wallows in -- the biggest weaknesses of its source material that it becomes an unrelenting, intolerable scream of "FEEL MY PAIN!"

MOVIES: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Here we have, of all things, a superhero's origin story. The character begins as a downtrodden slave with (understandably) no self-confidence; a powerful mentor guides him to develop his own strengths and abilities; there's even the obligatory awful first attempt at choosing a costume. By the end of the movie, he's walking away from a hailstorm of bullets (even shaking them out of his coat), ready to fight evil wherever he may find it.

Jamie Foxx as Django will not get the attention of his co-stars in flashier roles, but he's very good here; he provides the solid moral center around which Tarantino's manic energy revolves, and communicates a lot through subtle facial expressions, since Django is not always in a position to say what he's thinking.

The men filling those flashier roles deserve the attention they're getting, though. As he was in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz is spectacularly good; he may be the best interpreter of Tarantino's dialogue ever. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are having great fun as the principal villains, and it's particularly nice to see Jackson doing some real acting after spending too long coasting through too many dumb action flicks.

The ending goes on a bit longer than necessary -- the movie's almost three hours long -- and the final shootout is absurdly over the top and bloody, even by Tarantino's standards. And I could have done without a broad comic scene in which a group of Klansmen bicker about not being able to see through the poorly cut eyeholes in their hoods.

There has been a lot of controversy about the movie's frequent use of the n-word, and there is a lot of it. Tarantino argues that it would be dishonest not to use the word in a movie set in 1850s Mississippi. To be sure, his previous fondness for the word in his other movies set in different places and times can make that argument sound conveniently self-serving, but I think it's a valid one. I don't know how you tell this story, set in this place and time, without the word; you can't have plantation owners talking about "African-Americans," certainly, and trying to avoid the word entirely would require such linguistic contortions that it would itself become distracting.

Given the time and setting, I didn't find the use of the word excessive; others will argue that any use is too much, which is a legitimate moral position, and I wouldn't try to dissuade them.

But for those with a less absolute position, the movie is absolutely worth seeing. The dialogue is glorious to listen to; the movie is filled with striking images; and Tarantino somehow never gets the credit he deserves as a director of actors. (Django's candidate for career rejuvenation is Don Johnson, who is quite good in a small role.) Not a perfect movie, but a terrifically entertaining one.

January 06, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, January 6

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Martin Grubinger, percussion

The program:
  • Tan Dun: The Tears of Nature
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4
Something of an off day from the Philharmonic, I thought, particularly in the Tchaikovsky, which felt rather slack and disjointed, and was marred by a few flubbed notes in the brass (and there are a lot of big, dramatic brass entrances in this one). The pizzicato strings in the third movement were lovely, and the wind soloists throughout were in top form.

The first half of the program was the US premiere of Tan Dun's percussion concerto The Tears of Nature. Martin Grubinger gave a delightfully energetic and passionate performance, but I don't think the concerto is a particularly interesting piece.

The focus tends to be on one instrument at a time. Grubinger spends most of the first movement on the timpani at the back of the orchestra, though there is a lovely passage for stones at the very beginning. The second movement is principally for marimba. It's only in the third movement that Tan Dun seems to remember that he's got a whole array of instruments at the front of the stage, and lets Grubinger go to town; there's a delightful passage of perhaps 90 seconds which requires Grubinger to hold a rainstick in one hand (turning it every three or four seconds to keep the sound going) and two mallets in the other, bouncing from side to side of his rectangular array of instruments to keep the melody going on marimba, vibes, glockenspiel, tom-toms, and gongs.

This is very much a showpiece for the soloist, with the orchestra very much in the background. There's an occasional interesting orchestral moment -- a pretty melody that the alto flute shares with the marimba, some glissandoing tone clusters in the oboes and clarinets that sounds like a braying donkey -- but it's Grubinger's show, and he's great fun to watch. He plays with great fluidity, to the extent that you sometimes wonder if the bones have been removed from his arms.

After the concerto, Grubinger spoke briefly about his fondness for American marching bands (he's Austrian), and gave us an encore on the snare drum, wringing every imaginable sound, and a few I never would have imagined, out of the instrument.

Happy to have seen Grubinger, but otherwise not one of the Phil's best outings.

January 01, 2013

MOVIES: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

What surprises me most about this movie is how little I have to say about it beyond the fact that it bored me throughout.

The storytelling is murky, especially in the first 30-45 minutes, when Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her fellow CIA agents are gathering information from various prisoners. The Middle Eastern men who are being questioned are all styled and made up to look vaguely alike, and the movie doesn't make much effort to identify them or distinguish them from one another, so it's never quite clear which information came from who, or how any particular piece of information was obtained.

That murkiness makes it difficult for me to address the controversy surrounding the movie about whether it says torture was effective; if I can't tell which information was obtained that way, or which information was useful in the long run, then I've got no way of knowing what the movie's trying to say on the subject.

Chastain's performance consists of lots of furrowed brows and "listen to me, dammit" confrontations with higher-ups who think she's following red herrings.The final sequence depicting the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound is effective, but it's essentially just another glossy Hollywood action scene in which the good guys have perfect aim and the bad guys can't shoot straight.

I'm left baffled by the critical enthusiasm for the movie, which I found lifeless and inert.