Sunday, March 29, 2009

Same Old Song

"(I Got the) Biopic Blues"
Music & Lyrics by Craig
(c) Porlock Records 2009

Why just last Fall I was a-lookin' for sleepers
When a title fell on my pair o' peepers
Wasn't 'til I watched the DVD that I said, Jeepers,
Cadillac Records certainly ain't for keepers.

The movie's disappointin', the movie's pretty lame
It's got a great cast that it puts to shame
Jeffrey Wright and the others all got game
Yet the only standout is Beyonce's Etta James.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got the biopic blues
You'd better start a-spreadin' the news
'Cause we ain't got a-nothin' to lose
'Cept all those cliches the movies like to use.

The true story of Chess Records is an interestin' one
So why did the writer-director leave out all the fun?
There's sex and there's drugs and there's a-shootin' a gun
In biopics that's all that's ever under the sun.

Oh, oh, oh, I got the biopic blues
Those tortured musical artists had so much to lose
'Tween marital strife and the drugs they abused
We never see any complexity or nuance or hues.

The most interestin' topic in the film is race
Embodied by Beyonce with fire and grace
So fully that nobody else can keep pace
It's a subject too deep for A. Brody's smug face.

Say, say, say, I got the biopic blues
Walk the Line and Ray already turned these screws
There's a-nothin' left to say that hasn't been news
The makers of Cadillac Records were in need of a muse.

Yeah, yeah, yeah
The biopic blues
Oh, oh, oh,
The biopic blues
Say, say, say,
The biopic blues
The biopic, biopic
Hey, the biopic blues

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

You've Got Male

Whenever Stephanie Zacharek gushes, I get concerned. Or at least I should get concerned enough that I avoid seeing the movie she's just lavished praise upon, knowing more than likely that it's something as terrible as I Love You, Man, the latest Judd Apatow wannabe bromedy. But Stephanie's siren song is hard to resist, so I went in skeptical but hoping there would be some good steady laughs and that Paul Rudd's charm would transcend all flaws. Rudd is likable, as he usually is, playing a man engaged to be married who realizes he has no male friends and therefore no Best Man for his wedding. But the movie has been directed by John Hamburg (whose credits include the even more hideous Along Came Polly) in a manner that makes you long for the subtlety of the Zucker brothers. As Pauline Kael might have written, everybody practically walks around with "Wacko" signs across their chests; or in Jason Segel's case, as the slacker-investor who befriends Rudd and insinuates himself into Rudd's relationship, work and life, the words "Borderline Creepy" come to mind.

Reading the inexplicably positive reviews for this thing (Zacharek's not the only perpetrator) I get the sense that some critics are more taken with the concept than the execution. To be sure, I Love You, Man has a great idea for a comedy: that the way men strike up friendships with each other isn't all that different from how they meet women. Unfortunately, Hamburg is far too fixated with jokes involving bodily functions to bother developing ideas around them -- which Apatow, for all the comparisons and criticisms he himself gets, most certainly achieves. Additionally Apatow, always generous with his supporting players, would never waste J.K. Simmons like Hamburg does here (though he is equally capable of wasting his actresses).

Like most raunchy comedies, I Love You, Man also aspires to be heartfelt. Yet nothing in the picture warmed my cockles more than the real-life resolution of the Glenn Kenny/David Edelstein film critic fracas in which the former, in typically passive-aggressive fashion, went from calling Edelstein a "slightly twisted dude" and a "dingus" to becoming BFFs with David E. in little more than 24 hours. (Both are fans of this film.) It's enough of a heart-tugger to inspire a sequel: I Love You, Men. Or maybe just....Meh.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Power Plays

The grand finale of Battlestar Galactica (the end of a three-hour two-parter that we'll just call "Daybreak") was a fine encapsulation of the series' five-year run: superbly acted; exciting in patches; muddled in spots; relatively thought-provoking; a little full of itself. I've been watching near-regularly for the past few years and caught most of the episodes, mainly to see possibly the best ensemble ever assembled -- led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell -- for a sci-fi show. Their performances were among the high-points of "Daybreak," though the most transcendent moment was Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) finally fulfilling her destiny -- as well as the ingenious use of "All Along the Watchtower," a musical motif implemented a couple of seasons ago that reached a climax with its opening few notes becoming the coordinates for the planets in our solar system. I've never been able to take my eyes off Sackhoff, a fascinating actress who always seems to be channeling seven or eight different emotions at once, who always risks looking ridiculous but here concluded her character's arc with some lovely grace notes.

I've been less invested in Battlestar's mythology, especially its more thuddingly literal parallels to our times. Ron Moore, the series creator, has many gifts -- namely knowing how to build a narrative to a satisfying pay-off, as when the Galactica ship rammed into the Cylon stronghold, leading to the Cylons' ultimate defeat. But he doesn't have a figurative knack for interpretation, a sense of poetry. (Unlike Olmos, who also directed a couple of episodes that made evocative use of Catholic imagery, or composer Bear McCreary, whose music was sublime to the end.) Represented no better than by his humans, cylons, and human-cylons, Moore has a way of blending disparate elements that somehow end up exactly the same as their original conception. He's better at building on an already established idea -- such as the cheesy original 70s Galactica -- rather than being a visionary himself.

The crew's discovery of a "new Earth" led to an occasionally rambling denouement that I forgave much the same way as I did the long close of The Return of the King (which another critic has already compared it to). After so much darkness and pain, both characters and viewers earned a lush respite. "Daybreak" offered satisfying closure and a cautious sense of hope -- at least until the finger-wagging preachiness of its final few minutes. I'm given to understand that didacticism goes with the genre, but a show that always made a lot of noise about upending convention would have done better to end simply with the beautiful view from Adama's mount and spare us the subsequent sermon.

There's an episode of The Wire where Stringer Bell, a Baltimore drug kingpin, starts taking college courses and has a thoughtful after-class discussion with an economics professor about how to re-brand a product. That character has now amusingly morphed into Charles Minor, efficiency expert and Michael Scott's new supervisor on The Office. Part of the fun of "New Boss" (the latest episode) was watching the same actor, Idris Elba, embody his current persona in exactly the same way as his former -- imposing, no-nonsense, overcalculating, indignant and ruthless but never angry. It's a toss-up whether Minor's most unsettling moment was when he snapped open the blinds in his office to glare at Jim (who spent the day wearing a tux, for reasons the latter belabored hilariously to explain) or his speech about the company not being immune to the economy, which was so chillingly boilerplate I had already heard it recited almost verbatim by our institution's proverbial CEO a few months ago.

Elba is an inspired casting choice for many reasons, not least of which because Michael (Steve Carell), who oft-quotes The Wire, has always fancied himself a black man trapped in a white man's body. Whereas Darrell (Craig Robinson), the African-American warehouse manager, is content to subtly mock Michael and take advantage of his desperate overtures of friendship, Charles's total rebuff -- taking away Michael's 15th anniversary party, and with that, his dignity -- creates the most intriguing dramatic development on the show in its five seasons. I've always believed that Michael as a character is much more tolerable, sympathetic and interesting when he has something to push against, and he's never had a tougher obstacle than Charles Minor.

The Office is, ultimately, a naturalistic depiction of surrealism, and "New Boss" offered the sensation of watching Stringer Bell spring out of Michael's subconscious. Some have complained about the regular cast behaving out of character for this episode (Jim's verbal floundering, Angela unleashing her passions), but I can excuse uncharacteristic behavior if it's in response to a new element, a form of narrative re-branding. Moreover, Michael's decision to quit (a scene played with touching clarity by Carell that has nonetheless resulted in one of the dumbest debates in IMDb message-board history, no small feat) was completely in sync with what we know about him. He's a child at heart, driving Dunder-Mifflin head-honcho David Wallace (Andy Buckley, whose whimpering just keeps getting funnier) to exasperation. This won't prompt an invitation for The Office's wonderful cast to the United Nations any time soon. Yet none of the socio-political-spiritual profundities on Battlestar Galactica have ever led me to ponder the mysteries of the universe -- or laugh harder -- more than the effortless brilliance of Michael's observation: "I thrive under a lack of accountability."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Thinker

Not a day for penetrating analysis, so I'll limit my comments on last night's Lost to highlighting two moments of catharsis. One was verbal: Sawyer's sublimely written and delivered speech to Jack that begins with a nod to Winston Churchill and the value of book-reading, then ends with a pointed illustration of the difference between thinking and reacting. (Alan Sepinwall has quoted part of it here.) The other was purely physical: Sun whacking Ben over the head with an oar. Oh, yeah, that'll hold me....

Sunday, March 15, 2009


In Richard Bach's Final Cut, a book about the fall of United Artists following the disastrous release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the author relays a tangential anecdote about screening an early cut for the same studio's Raging Bull. The head of UA was one of the handful in attendance, as was the film's director, Martin Scorsese; and when the picture ended, the mogul went up to the filmmaker, shook his hand and said with deep sincerity, "Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist."

I've thought of this -- the fine line between genius and folly -- the two or three times I've tried to endure Joss Whedon's new series Dollhouse. That I've been unable to sit through an episode in its entirety is because the show tilts unequivocally toward the latter. It's a mess. Part of the blame has rightly been attributed to the casting of Eliza Dushku, a fan-favorite as Faith from Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Truth be told I often found Dushku's heavy-handed shitkicking tedious even as a supporting player or special guest star. (She's similar to Michelle Rodriguez -- formerly on Lost -- in this regard.) Here, in the lead part of Echo -- an enigmatic "Active" who works and lives at a shadowy high-tech organization that hires her out (and other girls) to wealthy clients for a variety of tasks, only to erase her memory when the mission is over -- she is jarringly miscast, a one-trick pony trying to be a chameleon.

Yet more than equal blame goes to Whedon, and not just for casting problems. Thematically, Dollhouse continues the exploration of his obsessions, namely the struggle of female identity in a male-dominated culture. Yet while Buffy Summers began as merely an unformed teenager, Echo is a blank slate perpetually wiped. That's a difficult foundation on which to build, and not even "the dishiest lineup of brunettes" currently on TV (Amy Acker, Olivia Williams, et al.) can disguise the painful fact that Whedon's usual strengths -- plot-development, nuanced characterizations, visual motifs -- are getting smothered before they catch fire. Another quote comes to mind, to paraphrase Pauline Kael: It's the kind of screw-up only a talented filmmaker could make.

Not to fret, however; Whedon will bounce back in fine form, if last year's groundbreaking webseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is any indication. Watching it on i-Tunes, I thought Dr. Horrible was an enjoyable trifle. On the "big screen" (i.e., DVD, which I encourage you to see), it evolves into a mini-masterpiece, as well as a showcase for its stellar trio of performers (Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day). Whedon's instincts as an pop-entertainer really come together here, as does his unappreciated knack for emotional shorthand. At first I thought his expected climactic detour into pathos was a mistake, but now I see it as indicative of a recurring obsession that ranks with those of the great visionary film directors, one likely to play out in infinite variations for the remainder of his career. Mr. Whedon, you are an artist.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Alotta good linkage goin' on:

First, the indefatigable Mystery Man on Film scores a major coup with the transcript on the original Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference. If, like me, you've always been bewildered by Marion Ravenwood hollering about being taken advantage of as "a child" by Indy, this convo between Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan clears that up: she was 15, and Indy 25, when they first met. If you think that's icky, Master George originally suggests that she be 11. (I know they're just bouncing ideas, but Jesus.)

Second, there's no better example for James Wolcott's amusingly pissy mood lately than his evisceration of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. An opinion completely antithetical to mine, and one I respect -- though your criticisms of the longwinded narrator, Jim, would be more persuasive without your oft-spoken admiration for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Third, Ed Howard has been on a major roll lately, and to single out just one example, I'd have to go with his contrarian critique of The Wild Bunch. I tend to lean toward the opinion that it's a masterpiece, that the stylized violence and absence of subtlety are redeemed by how Peckinpah clearly (in my mind) struggles with his viewpoint on the characters and the bloodshed. Robert Ryan occupies such a crucial center to the movie, he's the conduit for all of the director's ambivalence and sorrow that undercuts the machismo. Plus it's such a tremendously well-made movie, so blazingly alive: I still can't get those horses falling in slow-motion into the river out of my mind. Nevertheless, I'm not completely without well played, Howard. Well played, indeed.

Lastly, I was going to offer a link to the fabulous opening credits sequence for Watchmen, in case like me you frequently peruse the internet to placate one's curiosity about elements in movies you otherwise don't want to waste time or money to see. ("Who's the killer in that awful new Diane Lane thriller?....[checks IMDb feedback page]....Oh, good, thanks.") But the studio hounds took it down. You could always read Ed's review for that too.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Animals, Animals, Animals

The House Next Door has published a post I've written for their always fun "5 for the Day" series, this one on animal-themed movies. Hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to leave comments.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Confidence Man

I haven't written anything yet about Lost this season -- what gives? Mainly I've been unsure of my responses. I haven't loved it, I haven't hated it; and with time-travel it's usually either one or the other. Lost has had boffo episodes on the subject in the past, always involving Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick). But as Season Five's theme, with the large ensemble coming and going along with its magical, mystical, high-maintenance island through years, decades, and possibly centuries, the show, while still involving, has felt a tad uncentered. Adding to this dislocation have been the hijinks on the mainland, with last year's Oceanic Six struggling to return to the island because....well, because Ben says they have to. Why does anyone still trust Ben at this point? I know he's a fan favorite and the fine actor who portrays him (Michael Emerson) a critics' darling, but I grew tired of the character's machinations two years ago. Yet last night's episode, "LaFleur," felt beautifully centered; and it was an unlikely character -- the show's original con man -- who made it happen.

As Sawyer, Josh Holloway has always been fun. Well, not always: he was on the whiny side in the first episode or two of Season One, a young, inexperienced actor who had inherited a role originally conceived for an older man. It didn't take long for the show's writers to realize he was at his best doing nothing. While Jack, Locke and most of the other characters pushed forward with their various agendas, Sawyer kicked back and relaxed, hording the plane's stash and giving everyone an endlessly creative array of nicknames that were even funnier coming out of his easy drawl. Over time we came to learn he was a man on the run, and also a killer, yet beneath all of it lay a wounded nobility which in moments of extreme duress could rise to the surface.

The fun of "LaFleur" (Sawyer's latest nom-de-plume) was that after three years with the Dharma Initiative -- the island's equivalent to suburbia -- Sawyer finally experienced true happiness. Finding love with Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell). Usurping the role of leader from Jack and Locke as effortlessly as those two have strained. While still bitingly funny (his description of swarthy Nester Carbonell's Richard as "the guy with the eyeliner" was a laugh-out-loud moment), Holloway also got to convey a sense of peace with himself that was pure pleasure to behold.

Of course, the concluding scene heralding the return of our castaways means all good things must come to an end. I'm hoping for at least an upcoming scene where Sawyer describes Jack as "the guy with the facelift."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Catalina

Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers a fascinating case study of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force -- or, more precisely, what happens when a narcissist gets a little sunshine and finally starts living outside of his own head. Woody Allen has been inching toward doing this over the last few years, after decades of inertia in what Alvy Singer in Annie Hall only half-jokingly called "New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings....stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself." Several increasingly inconsequential movies later, Allen has finally learned that only he can stop himself. It was time to leave. First he tried England, with Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, a refreshing locale but also with rain and gloom a little too suited to his temperament. Now Allen has retreated to Spain, at least partly for financial reasons, but it appears the change has invigorated the 73-year-old filmmaker without diluting his melancholic worldview. Although he doesn't appear in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen lords over the movie with unforced ease, like Prospero with a tan.

The Vicky of the title (Rebecca Hall) is a dark-haired twentysomething graduate student, engaged to a rich young American back in the States (Chris Messina) and traveling abroad in order to work on a thesis about "the Catalan identity." Her best friend of a similar age, the blonde Cristina (Scarlet Johansson), is a struggling actress, adrift and unattached. One night in Barcelona both are approached by a soft-spoken, emotionally direct Spanish artist fittingly named Juan (Javier Bardem) and within minutes are invited to his home in Oviedo for a Epicurean weekend. Vicky shoots him down but Cristina accepts, dragging the former along. These early passages reminded me of the first act of Thelma & Louise, in which the screenwriter Callie Khouri established one female character as weak and the other strong, then persuasively flipped their personalities over the course of the story. Vicky succumbs to a one-night stand with Juan and her hard-shell exterior cracks, whereas Cristina invests in a more long-term relationship, which comes to involve Juan's homicidal-suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), yet emerges more grounded, focused and artistically expressive than before.

In his more lackluster efforts, Allen collected terrific ensembles of actors only to leave them stranded. Here he comes through for them, with elegantly framed compositions (the DP is Javier Aguirresrobe, whose notable credits include Talk to Her and The Others) and dialogue that for once sounds natural coming out of other people's mouths. (Quentin Tarantino once said that he couldn't believe any of the pseudo-intellectual gibberish voiced by Jimmy Fallon in Allen's Anything Else.) Allen and Aguirresrobe help Hall in her trickiest scene, where she makes the transition from hostility to passion for Juan, staged as a series of fades on Hall and Bardem's faces; and she returns the favor with a performance that starts with what seem like idiosyncratic choices but add up to an intriguing portrayal of a person like Juliette Binoche's character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, shaken by her own volatile emotions. As for Johannson, whom I've never thought much of, I'm ready to revise my opinion. This young actress, who seemed unsure of herself in Lost in Translation, has blossomed as Allen's latest muse. She makes Cristina's openness, seemingly so reckless at first, integral to her inner reserves of strength. Although her foray into professional photography also conjures images of Binoche's Tereza in Unbearable Lightness, Cristina ultimately becomes a kindred spirit to Lena Olin's Sabina from the same film. She's self-centered, yet also kind and forgiving, a survivor.

Maria Elena, on the other hand, offers no middle-ground between them. She's Juan's creative inspiration and emasculating angel, both life-force and destructor, played by Cruz in a comically flamboyant turn that does a giddy number on Bardem. (She also joins Nicole Kidman on the list of Tom Cruise's ex-flames who have recovered to win Oscars, suggesting there's still hope for Katie Holmes.) It's great fun watching his slick operator unravel from her mind games and bursts of violence. Cruz and Bardem come from a completely different cinematic tradition -- the colorful landscapes and emotional expressiveness of Almodovar and Amenabar -- and they provide a healthy push against Allen's natural pessimism and reserve.

In a way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's version of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can -- superficially dissimilar to a legendary filmmaker's body of work, yet thematically his fingerprints are all over the picture. Whereas Spielberg found a new spin on his daddy issues in Catch Me...., Allen covers fertile new ground on his familiar obsessions with the torment of love and impossibility of fidelity. The happiest union in Vicky Cristina Barcelona comes when Cristina gets sexually involved with both Juan and Maria Elena (played with a welcome lack of fuss by Johansson), becoming, in the latter's words, the "missing piece" to a relationship that is forever doomed yet unable to be dissolved. Yet even this idyll cannot last, as Cristina learns that she needs something more after all.

Some critics, like the easily riled Slant gang, have trotted out the usual charges of misogyny, which also remind me of the accusations of male-bashing aimed at Thelma & Louise (despite that the latter film was directed by the leathery Ridley Scott). I've never been much of a fan of Allen's films -- having really seen only a fraction of them -- much less his public persona. But his female characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which also include Patricia Clarkson's in a small yet crucial role as an unhappily married older friend of Vicky's who tries to steer her from the same destiny) function similarly to Khouri's men in T&L -- as nuanced variations of the same gender. This doesn't mean he's been ennobled or enlightened by his self-imposed exile. It just means I know compassion when I see it, even when distanced; and the final meeting between Vicky and Cristina -- one sealed by her fate, the other still free to choose -- rides on a wave of empathy to spare.