Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Simple Plan (1993)

I came to this for a few reasons, starting with being so impressed when I took another look at the Sam Raimi movie based on it (whose screenplay Scott Smith wrote). It also won some accolades from Stephen King, and then, going through Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, I realized how similar their premises were. It's not such an unusual premise in this day and age, I suppose. Even so, when I got to a scene where the principal here, Hank Mitchell, was flipping a coin in order to make one of his many heinous decisions the parallels cut pretty close to comfort. McCarthy's the better writer, of course, with more gravitas, and he's also better able to expand the story to bigger themes. Smith's novel gets pretty loopy pretty fast—I'm of the school (if such a school exists) that he did a better job of the second pass, with the screenplay. Still, as the King imprimatur would indicate, it operates successfully as some species of very nearly straight-up horror. Mitchell, as the first-person narrator, makes for an intriguing monster—rationalizing, self-pitying, with his feet on the ground. Jim Thompson territory, maybe even, particularly when he gets to the actual killing. In the end I had Mitchell pegged as all but remorseless serial killer, but Smith doesn't go there in his coda, which is just as well. That would be unbelievable, and there's a good case to be made anyway that Mitchell is just plunged into an extreme version of the psychological state of insensibility known in poker as "pot-committed." The baby Amanda was a nice touch—the baby who soaked up all the bad vibes, and becomes an unpleasant element in her own right, with a pathetic fate to match. Hank's brother Jacob, played by Billy Bob Thornton in the movie, works better in the book's version as an obese and forever-consuming sad sack (although Thornton creates a different, equally memorable character with one of his best performances). Smith also works the money aspect well. Four million dollars is a lot of money, and in the end I had nearly as hard a time as any character here letting go of it. Couldn't you try this? Couldn't you try that? I also happened to be convinced when they first found it that they should turn it in and walk away from it, and not just because I'd seen the movie twice. But once the rationalizing and especially the bad deeds were underway, I was pretty much right in there with them every step of the way. Interesting how effective it is that way.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Repercussion (1982)

So back when we used to sit around asking questions like this, we asked each other which of the first two dB's album was better. A certain number of stalwarts, and almost everybody new to the band, stumped for the debut, but a lot of people including me eventually came to favor Repercussion most. It's all still a bit cold, but more experienced and hence more thoughtful and interesting. Most of the songs still feel ultimately worked out inside someone's head, but they were starting to take chances, some of them coming off very nicely: the horns on "Living a Lie," for example, a traditional enough soul-style outfit courtesy Graham Parker's Rumour, but with virtually all hint of the blues removed (or ultra-refined at best), which somehow gives it a vaguely unnerving feel of stepping gingerly through worrisome places. It's all at once familiar and strange, with a formal tension that effectively endures even as one comes to know it. Another example: all the various levels and depths of the production in "Ask for Jill," which includes the usual sparkling harmonies, various phase-shiftings and echoes, and a brief one-sided phone conversation. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey are caught here finding their voices in parallel, and it's exciting to hear their moments captured with such clarity. There's Holsapple spinning gold out of self-pity on "We Were Happy There"—an early influence on Matthew Sweet among its many virtues, and more of that to come. An early version of his greatest hit, "Amplifier," is here too (more trouble with women: "An amplifier's just wood and wire / And wire and wood don't do any good / When your heart is blazing like a wildfire / And all you got to show for it's an amplifier"). By the same token "Happenstance" is one of Stamey's finest, with terrific singalong moments, even as it goes quickly and restlessly through its motions, from a lonesome turn with crickets to brisk drum fills and all its on-the-button harmonies. And there's evidence the collaboration was going to be fruitful too, as on "Storm Warning" or "Neverland," two Holsapple songs all decked out in Stamey finery. They are also two of the best songs here, cohesive and potent, jettisoning a too-usual bent toward the tentative. If it was a harbinger of what was to come, and it wasn't, it looked like there was going to be a lot to look forward to in coming years.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

USA, 88 minutes
Directors: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise
Writers: Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles, Jack Moss, Joseph Cotten
Photography: Stanley Cortez, Jack MacKenzie, Orson Welles
Music: Bernard Herrmann, Roy Webb
Editors: Robert Wise, Jack Moss, Mark Robson
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorhead, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Ray Collins, Richard Bennett, Erskine Sanford, Donald Dillaway, Orson Welles

I found myself surprisingly put in mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby the last time I looked at The Magnificent Ambersons. It's not just the similar title constructions—in the case of Ambersons the adjective appears mostly offered with at least irony, if not sarcasm, unlike the intermeshed and more complex layers of meaning intended for Gatsby. The Magnificent Ambersons is based on Booth Tarkington, of course, so as with not just Gatsby but also Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and many others it also consorts in a certain ideal of the turn-of-the-20th-century Midwestern American idyll, rendered more caustically by H.L. Mencken as the "booboisie." I also thought the lovely overboiled language of Welles's voiceover narration occasionally strayed into Fitzgeraldian realms. And of course there's a number of incidental touch-points in their parallel stories of lifelong love for a woman cruelly denied.

But the paradox is that whereas The Great Gatsby may arguably be a very nearly perfect work of art, The Magnificent Ambersons is famously only the smoking hulk of whatever it might have been. It's known at least as much for being the movie "they took away" from Welles and wrecked as anything else. Here's what Wikipedia has on what happened and specifically what was lost. Look at the movie, read it, and weep. That's how things work around here apparently. RKO execs slashed away some 40 minutes of footage from Welles's early cut and reshot the ending. They monkeyed with everything—the story, the music, the photography. They say a copy of that early cut was shipped to Welles in Brazil, where he was already at work on his next project, but it has since never turned up. The cut footage moldered for a time in a vault but eventually was destroyed to make room for more important things to store there, perhaps Oscars®.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Suburbs, "Chemistry Set" (1978)


I think the Suburbs are now not so known outside of the Twin Cities of Minnesota. They flared up in the early '80s as a lively DOR act (dance-oriented rock, we were calling it), earned the distinction of a couple of Christgau reviews (an A- and a B-), and tried to find a way to wallow into the mainstream the weird pastiche that animated them of a supper-club Bryan Ferry (in the person of dapper pianist and tux-wearer Chan Poling) welded at the hip to a streaming-sweat Iggy Pop (in the person of Blaine John "Beej" Chaney, who often appeared in need of diapering). Eventually they were lost in the mid-'80s hoopla of Prince, the Replacements, and all that. Interestingly (or not) the Suburbs hailed from the suburbs where I grew up, in and around Hopkins and Minnetonka, west of Minneapolis. I went to high school with guitarist Bruce Allen (who died in 2009) and bassist Michael Halliday. Chan and Beej and I think drummer Hugo Klaers went to high school in another school district an easy bike ride from where I grew up. The nine-song 7-inch EP that climaxes with "Chemistry Set," The Suburbs, was the first-ever release by the indie label Twin/Tone in 1978. It was the band's showstopper for a long time, primitive, bone-headed, roaring simplicity, in all of 1:11. "I'm into chemistry and that's about it" is the lyric. Repeat as directed. Lazy blogger takes the easy way out of making and posting a YouTube of the song, found now on an excellent 2003 compilation, Chemistry Set, along with more of their greats, surprisingly many of which actually still are great (and some of which we will be getting to by and by). Instead, this time, I found a video from their performance at the Minneapolis M-80 festival in September 1979. Two points: 1) the lyric as noted above (it's not always intelligible in this version), and 2) ... I was there.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

#38: Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

In my entire list, this may be the one title of which I am least confident, simply because it's the most recent. It's filmed self-consciously much like a documentary, heavy on the handheld camera and the strange jerks and sweeps of a restless pan-and-zoom—although the framing is often deliberate and surprising and perfect. It also has the feel of an Altman picture, with characters and overlapping dialogue cascading and swirling in and out of a lurching procession of scenes, until sometimes it seems the only way to cope is simply to give in to the sensory overload and let the threads pull you as they will.

Rachel Getting Married goes directly to the source of most modern dysfunctional family movies, 1980's Ordinary People, and liberally borrows basic elements: the upper-middle-class family, the Cold Mother (here done to a tee by Debra Winger), the death of a child/sibling in the past, and the general ineptitude of all in communicating openly with one another. Anne Hathaway's performance, which is functionally the center and point of the picture, occasionally feels studied but is indeed impressive. For the most part she simply disappears into the cringe-inducing Kym, the troubled self-centered sister who seems bent on spending her life in a revolving door between drugs, jail, and rehab. It's probably a little overwritten, but I think overall it's one of the most believable renditions of 12-step experience I've seen yet.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No Country for Old Men (2005)

For better or worse, I saw the movie first, so it's hard to get some things out of my head, such as Javier Bordem's haircut. Book and movie are two different things, but both are basically worthy, I think (on first impressions), and with a good deal of overlap. At first it read to me much like a kind of Elmore Leonard novel transposed to West Texas/Texas desert, and certainly that's how the movie plays. But McCarthy has a good deal more going on, particularly with the greater focus on Sheriff Bell. His interior monologues are the centerpiece of the book and I'm not sure how much they made it into the movie at all. Still, Anton Chigurh is so monumentally evil that he vies for attention with (and/or distracts from) that. As McCarthy Satan analogues go, I think I still prefer Judge Holden. They are both self-consciously superhuman, and while I like the spooky effect (such as Chigurh's preferred mode of homicide) I'm not sure how much I buy it. More convincing to me on the case that evil is abroad on the land, and it's winning, are those ruminations by Sheriff Bell, for example on the well-known survey of school problems then and now (keeping in mind that "now" in this novel is quite deliberately 1980), e.g., chewing gum vs. rape, which closes on this passage, reporting a discussion with a woman he and his wife meet at a conference: "She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I dont like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don't think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation." On some level, I know—snap!—that's just too easy. But on some level I know I don't have much response to it either, even as one who favors abortion and euthanasia as lesser evils. Similarly, the Chigurh character seems too easy as a monster. At the same time McCarthy, via Sheriff Bell, understands the more profound complexity here as well, namely why drugs are such a powerful draw (and taboo), which is the root of all this evil drug trafficking in the first place. The money is there simply because the appeal of the drugs is there first. The money and the violence and all of it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stands for Decibels (1981)

There never was much about the dB's in the way of commercial appeal, but somehow they bore the mantle of a good deal of cachet at one point—does anyone else remember "Hoboken pop" and its various figures, such as the Bongos or the Individuals?—enough so that this became, for a vanishingly short period, an album to be prized and envied, another shiny object spun out of New York New Wave. Indeed there is something surprisingly self-contained and almost calculated about the project, the formal manner in which the band appeared to have chosen to work with the three-minute pop song, which they pushed and pulled on in any number of interesting and suggestive directions. The collaboration was among a quartet of Winston-Salem natives/New York transplants. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey ultimately owned most of the responsibilities for the songwriting, together and individually. I have to say it feels a bit of an odd matchup now, with Holsapple likely supplying most of the hooks and melodies and Stamey most of the kinds of things that made the music unusual and, sometimes, most interesting. Closer to Bowie and Eno than Lennon and McCartney, but maybe closest of all to figures lurking in Stamey's background, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, maybe even Lou Reed and John Cale—formal collaborations within which one can't help noticing a great divide and no little tension between the principals, even if it's unconscious. A lot of the essays at The Pop Song served up here in the dB's debut communicate a sense of having been approached so cerebrally as to carry with them a vaguely unpleasant whiff of suffocation even as the songs go merrily unspooling by. I think the hope was that the most interesting and promising aspects of it would develop. A year or two later a Beatles impersonator from Detroit, Marshall Crenshaw, would sail effortlessly beyond anything in the way of pop music we ever got from Holsapple and Stamey—it became clear they were trying too hard. There were still numerous reasons to be encouraged. They had an obvious, instinctive respect for the capabilities of a studio—the sound is bracingly clean, a glittering surface across which skid all manner of audio: adenoidal adolescent yelping, fine chording, keyboard accents, patches of atmospheric space defined within a space that generously encloses all of it with room to spare. It sounds full of promise. If there was no reason to expect them to be great, there was also no reason to think they wouldn't be.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

USA, 81 minutes
Director/writer: Noah Baumbach
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham, Pink Floyd
Editor: Tim Streeto
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Halley Feiffer, William Baldwin

I'm not entirely sure where to start with Noah Baumbach's breakthrough picture—it's fair to call it his breakthrough picture, isn't it? Anyway, the coming-of-age story won a load of attention at film festivals and in various indie circles at the time, even getting an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. It's self-consciously small and personal, laced with autobiographical elements, recounting the breakdown of a mid-'80s family living in Brooklyn. They are self-styled intellectuals, with various talents for and pretensions to the New York literary life of the time.

The period detail is one of the best points, lightly but expertly touching on various academic preoccupations (and/or pretensions) I had forgotten, which surprised me even as I recognized them. Billed as a comedy, it's of course more relentlessly observational comedy of manners than barrel-of-monkeys laff fest, charting the heartbreaking attempts of its characters to connect; even just a little dignity would do. It can be heartlessly depressing, and often hard to watch.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

R.E.M., "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" (1984)


From the chronicles-of-taste files: Back when I was instinctively resistant to R.E.M.—around the time of Murmur, though I did like both the original "Radio Free Europe" single and the EP that followed, "Chronic Town"—a concerned friend wanted badly to swoon as much for Reckoning as he had for Murmur, and he wanted me agreeing with him too. So he sat me down for a listening session. This "I'm Sorry" song did the trick, leaping right off the album, one of the earliest and still best examples of Stipe letting loose with that semi-professional lunge thing he does, hitting and holding and soaring on a quavery big note, purely for its emotional high, with the band churning on well beneath him on the surface of the planet. I wouldn't be surprised if real fans considered this a little suspect, lurking in realms of the dread sellout, or at least unseemly emotional openness. For a bunch of mumbling introverts so determinedly guarded and even gnomic about their intentions, as only befits alt-indie heroics naturally, when they get after a song such as this it's pretty clear what a bunch of wallowing sentimentalists with dollar signs on their eyeballs they could be. I count that as a good thing myself. This song is about one thing and one thing only: the impossibly beautiful hook swelling out of the chorus on the plaintive "I'm sorry," which necessitated the parenthetical in the title (later dropped, evidently) as this was also the first single from the album, and even managed, way back in 1984, to crack the Billboard 100, peaking at #85. I don't believe I ever heard it on the radio even once. But I heard it a lot on my copy of the album, which I picked up soon after the scene detailed above. I've come around on Murmur finally too—consider it definitely superior to Reckoning now. But it's been a crooked road. I'm sorry.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grace of My Heart (1996)

#39: Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders, 1996)

Of all the many musicals that populate my list, this is probably the most conventional in terms of the classic Hollywood approach perfected in Singin' in the Rain (which Steven covered so well yesterday): viz., just a bunch of crazy kids trying to make it in showbiz. It takes that premise and mixes it up with what is for me a nigh irresistible wantonness trafficking in rock mythology. Grace of My Heart focuses on one of my favorite places and times in rock history, the New York Brill Building pop factories of the early '60s, telling the story of one Edna Buxton (later rechristened Denise Waverly by her manager), an heir to a Pittsburgh fortune who's dying to become a singer while everyone around her is more interested in her talents as a songwriter.

The songs here are uniformly pitch-perfect mimicry of the girl groups and bubblegum and soul acts and folk-rockers of the eras it touches on, and rooted deeply in the movements of the movie's narrative. All by themselves they are worth it. It's never showy about its inventiveness in this regard, but every last bit of music is carefully and lovingly done, and all of it sounds and feels authentic. The cast that director/screenwriter Anders assembles to deliver it is notably terrific as well: the underrated Illeana Douglas in perhaps her best role, Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz, John Turturro, Bridget Fonda (as Shelley Fabares with a twist), and more.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (2005)

I became aware of this thanks to almost insistent Amazon recommendations, based I suspect on my appreciation for Joan Didion, expressed outright and in some of my shopping and buying habits. Didion has championed it via both blurbs and extensive reference to it in a piece she did on Lakewood, California, one of the early American suburbs. As author D.J.Waldie argues, Lakewood is not a typical suburb, nor particularly middle-class, as those concepts have come to be understood. It is laid out on a giant grid, rather than the tangled circles and cul-de-sacs we associate with suburbs now—"garden" suburbs, Waldie calls them. And upper-middle-class has become the ideal of middle-class now, whereas Lakewood almost by definition is working-class, intended for the most part to house workers at corporations with large defense contracts. Lakewood is made of 17,500 houses, based on a handful of variations of design, each with 1,100 square feet of floor space sitting on 100' x 50' lots. A giant shopping mall sits at the center of it, with groceries and dry-cleaning and similar businesses calculatedly distributed to be within walking distance of all. Waldie was born and raised there and still lived there at the time he wrote this book—probably still lives there now. A poet, an academic, and a city councilman, he is almost mannered in his devotion to the place: "my city" or "my suburb," he says, rarely if ever calling it by name. It's a memoir to the extent that we learn some of the facts of his life, his parents' lives and deaths most notably, and some of his own interests and preoccupations. But there's not much of that, and the general tone seems to be rather self-consciously impersonal, focusing mostly on factoids about the place, which can indeed be rather startling: the business deals that went into making it happen, information about how 17,500 houses are built and sold and occupied within a matter of a few years, issues such as access to water. It's compulsively readable, composed of 316 numbered passages—chapters, I suppose, though many are only a single sentence and none are much longer than a page. I think it probably means more to people familiar with living in Lakewood, or places like it. I grew up in a (garden) suburb myself, and didn't much connect with it, although the strange scope of it does ultimately tend toward a kind of irresistible interest.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Peace Love Death Metal (2004)

I was drawn to the Eagles of Death Metal by the name, of course, which sets out to locate its sound at the intersection of "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and Celtic Frost. Who doesn't like that? But the deal was really sealed for me by the participation of Josh Homme, which brought me on board in the first place. Homme's other project, the Queens of the Stone Age, had won me over big-time with a great show in 2000 that made me a fan for life. Jesse Hughes, the other principal in EDM, has the presence to match up against the formidable QOTSA strains Homme brings and turn them in another direction entirely. You may not even be aware how well you already know this album yourself, as it managed to make itself something of a licensing paradise in the middle of last decade, used in television commercials for, Budweiser, Comcast, Nissan, Payless ShoeSource, Pontiac, and Wendy's, as well as in movies (Grindhouse, Thank You for Smoking) and video games and more (thank you, Wikipedia). Through the welter of nicknames printed in the accompanying materials and spoken in the tracks—"the Devil," "J. Devil Huge," "Mr. Boogie Man," "Carlo von Sexron," "Baby Duck"—it's a lot of whipping-hard throbbing three-minute grooves crisscrossed with strange aching moments of balladry, 14 songs altogether in 42 minutes. In retrospect, not much "death metal" here after all, but lots of little surprises: Hughes's Al Wilson wannabe falsetto, the open spaces and textures of the rhythm section, which pound but paradoxically do so with a light touch. In many ways it's all there in the New Wave style inclination toward the one defining cover, in this case Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle," which they redub "Stuck in the Metal." Hughes also brings a lot of elfin energy to the enterprise, in his coy asides ("I am so lucky to be playing with this drummer right now!") and the furrowed-brow seriousness that seems to attend him. Formally it's just the two of them, but when they perform they make a point of rounding it up to the usual 2 guitars bass drums. For his part, Homme appears happy playing the supporting role for Hughes, whose personality rattles all through everything here. Homme's guitar is the glorious instrument he has always made of it, a beast poised for one's throat. Maybe better get those feet moving, pardner.

Friday, April 13, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

USA, 130 minutes
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Philip Van Doren Stern, Michael Wilson
Photography: Joseph F. Biroc, Joseph Walker, Victor Milner
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: William Hornbeck
Cast: James Stewart, Henry Travers, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Sheldon Leonard

Since coming to terms with how much I like and admire and value the cornball object known as It's a Wonderful Life, I have maintained that it's because the picture is essentially fearless, and not just "for its times," about going right at human depravity. For every saccharine declaration that, "Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings," there's someone mean and surly like Sheldon Leonard standing there saying, "Hey, look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere." It's almost like the call and response in gospel music, these extremes between whitest whites and blackest blacks, and it's one of the best things I know, short of The Wizard of Oz and Blue Velvet, at sharpening such contrasts and making you feel them viscerally.

I came to it late, finally catching a TV broadcast from beginning to end at some point in the late '80s. I was surprised by how dark it is, even the photography, which verges on pure noir in some sequences, and Universal-style horror in others. It's not just that it's a story about a man who has decided suicide is his best option (nor that it's unafraid to use the word "suicide" plain). The fact is it's just good all through, with a screenplay that expertly juggles its many extremities, and top-notch performances. It boldly rears back and lets loose a story in excruciating detail of lifelong frustration and disappointment, the story of George Bailey (played brilliantly by James Stewart in one of his greatest performances), who keeps seeing his dream denied of escaping the small upstate New York town in which he was born and has lived all his life, that dream so systematically denied that his interior life shrivels to the point where, in a moment of uncalculated despair, he can cry out to his wife, "You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mott the Hoople, "I Wish I Was Your Mother" (1973)


Sometimes I get the feeling this song might have fit just as neatly on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde—Ian Hunter clearly was a student, and this is pretty well imbued with various familiar Dylan tricks and stylings, such as the phrasing, and the way he pushes the vocal from just below his throat, giving it a strained and exhausted feeling, not to mention of course the whole upside-down, inside-out, and vaguely surreal thrust of the lyrics, which effectively free-associate off a theme that would seem to trace back most directly to classic Freudian preoccupations (I'm not sure how often Dylan actually went Freudian quite this explicitly, but set that aside for the moment). Most of all, as I realized the other day walking around with the tune stuck in my head but not sure for a few minutes what it was, it sneaks up on you in the form of a gentle lullaby, inflected by gorgeous mandolin textures. That's at least disconcerting in the context of the album it comes from, Mott, an extended, determinedly narcissistic meditation on the foibles of glam-rock and maybe, by extension, a wider rock 'n' roll lifestyle then extant. Hotel rooms, airports, 'ludes, your instrument, and the notebook you write in. It's a perfect ending to a very good album, reaching deep and offering parallels in the most unexpected places. Today it occurred to me that, in a way, it throws a spotlight on Lillian Gish in Intolerance (and, later, in The Night of the Hunter), rocking the cradles of history and longing and human foolishness on the porch of time, suffering the pains and secret joys only parents know truly. The rest of us, like Hunter, can only gape in yearning, and maybe someday write a song as complex, profound, and beautiful as this.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Run Lola Run (1998)

#40: Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)

Run Lola Run tends to get dismissed in some quarters as being little more than a music video. It's true that it's saturated with garish New Wave primary colors and a pulsing techno soundtrack. But director/soundtrack man Tom Tykwer deploys his frenetics well, and if it's a music video (which I doubt, because I don't like music videos), it's also one that offers an audaciously profound meditation on time, death, love, and morality. The sheer kinetics of it sometimes seem capable of carrying off positively anything as we find ourselves running alongside the Lola of the title (played with neat economy in a great performance by Franka Potente), whose moped has been stolen and whose boyfriend needs saving.

Everything here comes in twos and threes, as a kind of three-part mini-Groundhog Day suite unfolds across parallel time streams. It reads like a comic book narrative in many ways (and I mean that as a good thing), proceeding panel by panel. Practically every person and every event seen once will be seen again—incidental characters and their ultimate fates appear very differently as their individualized contexts are constructed and unpacked and played out repeatedly, glancing off like figurative rays of light even as the central 20-minute arc moves through its paces.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Faceless Killers (1991)

If the Stieg Larsson trilogy counts as a police procedural, and it might as well, that would make this the second such Swedish exercise I have sampled recently charting the plodding and tedious processes of police investigation contrasted with the lurid and horrific crimes under investigation. It's basic genre work, with a formula and variations that work any number of places, from "Dragnet" to Ed McBain to "Law and Order." You like that kind of thing or you don't, and if you do, you will probably like this. Both Larsson and Henning Mankell also put me in mind of the old Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, which I enjoyed quite a bit in the '80s. Faceless Killers is the first of Mankell's series featuring the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and if there aren't too many surprises, mostly just the usual by-the-numbers police routines, it's still a nice night's read. The case: An old couple who live in an isolated rural location is brutally murdered—overkilled. Investigator Wallander working the case is amiably competent, for the most part, though his life is a big interesting mess. Hard to know how well he will wear over several novels but he's an interesting preliminary character study here, part pig and part Sherlock Holmes. He and his peers chase down the clues and leads and try to figure it all out. There's a wee bit of danger here and there along the way. The most interesting part, aside from the central mystery, is its treatment of the "immigrant problem" in Sweden at the time, the early '90s (a "problem" that could well be even worse now for all I know). Certainly all the most familiar strains of the issue are there—20 years later, in the United States, it feels a little prescient, most notably in the ugly, harsh, and violent response by nativists to the arrival of immigrants, with all their contradictory promises of cheap labor and perceived threat to "water down" the dominant culture. The tale doesn't have much to say beyond any of that, just notes the outlines and basic dynamics of the conflict as part of the context of the mystery. But it's a nice theme to find interwoven in. I am curious to see how these and some of the other themes here may or may not be developed across the larger series.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Argybargy (1980)

Are you a Squeeze fan? I was infatuated with them in the early '80s. Argybargy was the first of their albums I knew and seems to be the place I turn when I'm in the mood, though it's arguable at least that East Side Story might be their best. The typical label applied is New Wave, and that's fair enough—it's basically primary colors, three-minute pop songs, and loose-jointed shuffle-dancing. This is the British flavor of New Wave, so there's a certain amount of bluesy pub-rock affinities lurking about as well (most concentrated in the person of keyboardist Jools Holland, whose only song here is "Wrong Side of the Moon"). Principal songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook reportedly worked out an eccentric strategy for concocting their tunes: Difford wrote the lyrics on his own—in the middle of the night, if I recall, later slipping them under Tilbrook's door (this started when they were roommates, evidently). Tilbrook then made the music. That probably accounts for the strange moods and travels of these songs, which do hit verse-chorus-verse marks but come across perhaps most forcefully as strange and gnomic, almost suffocating in a way. Consider "I Think I’m Go Go," which makes a hash of its arch ambience and musical gestures, finally turning into something that plays like a solo barbershop quartet part written for a zombie. Maybe that's not the best example—it's practically the novelty here, calling attention to itself by its dense and cheeky manner. I think I like it but I can see how someone might shrink from it. So consider the more obvious first single, which kicks off the first side, "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)." It's tuneful, fun to yelp with as you pick up the words; even as it moves about restlessly from one musical idea to the next some infectiousness keeps you faithfully in its tow. But pay a visit to its Wikipedia page and what do you find? Nineteen footnotes citing a dozen or more critics talking about an "observation of the British working class," clarifying that it's Difford's memories from a British holiday camp, pointing out that "pulling mussels" "is British slang for sexual intercourse." That seems to be an awful lot of exegesis for a #44 on the UK charts, but maybe that's just me. As pop music it dwells in a cerebral place. And I still can't figure out how much I like it or not—maybe that's exhaustion. It was in very high rotation at one point.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Friends With Money (2006)

USA, 88 minutes
Director/writer: Nicole Holofcener
Photography: Terry Stacey
Music: Rickie Lee Jones, Craig Richey
Editor: Robert Frazen
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Greg Germann, Catherine Keener, Jason Isaacs, Frances McDormand, Simon McBurney, Scott Caan, Bob Stephenson

It's possible that Friends With Money is the best movie Nicole Holofcener has made but I wouldn't bet my last dime on it. In the first place, they're all pretty good, each one feeling like the best even as you watch it (and in the second place, she's not done yet). They tend toward gentle ensemble pieces with familiar players and something of a TV-sitcom feel, sharply observed human foible centered around, goofing off of, revealing, departing from, working variations on its characters, who look and act like real people behind the deceptively easygoing streams of jokes, gags, and uneventful scenes. The always impressive Catherine Keener assumes her usual role as Holofcener's alter ego. It could well be my appreciation for Woody Allen (and/or the collected stories of Chekhov) that is at the heart of what I like so much about Holofcener's scenes and characters, oblique and pungent at once.

The TV-sitcom feel doesn't come from nowhere. A lot of television credentials are in play here. It's the kind of "small" relationship movie that plays well on a TV. Holofcener has directed episodes of "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under," and "Parks and Recreation." Jennifer Aniston's background is well known, and I hasten to add (or admit) that she could be the single element for me that vaults Friends With Money over the rest of Holofcener's pictures (all of which, I say again, eminently worth seeing): Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, and Please Give.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Terry Lee Hale, "The Boys Are Waiting" (1988)


Terry Lee Hale is a singer/songwriter I recall scratching around the various edges of Seattle music in the late '80s—a track of his appeared on the 1988 Sub Pop 200 compilation, "Dead Is Dead," which is as fine an introduction to him as any. I happened to see a lot of him one way or another in the summer of 1989, at pick-me-up festivals and opening for bands around town. "The Boys Are Waiting" is the song I remember best. Probably the version I really want to hear is one of those performances, never recorded. I also knew it from a 1988 cassette-only release—Fools Like Me, I believe it was called. I don't seem to have that tape any longer and for all I know this 1993 version, which appeared on his first album for the Germany-based Normal label, is the same track, though I think it's at least been sweetened some, with the cello. It sounds pretty good anyway; it will do. Hale cultivated his own personal mythology, imparted in anecdotes from the stage: brave hard-working single parent chasing his music dream, putting one foot in front of the other, but not immune to the opportunities as they came for intoxicants and philandering. Thus, the dour anguish in this song is very real, and comes from places of personal experience. He knows he is complicit in his own anxiety. His attempts to set the context are what made it so memorable for me—a little of the tenor of that can be heard here when he gulps as an aside in momentary panic about the phone calls his 12-year-old daughter is starting to receive, "... and how deep their voices are." With the Walkabouts, Hale managed to transfer his entire base of operations from Seattle to Europe starting in the mid-'90s, so it has been a long time since I've seen him perform or indeed even followed him closely. But I still love this song a lot.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Before Sunset (2004)

#41: Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

This is probably a fantasy of the way relationships work (I'm hardly one to say), but it's as fine and heartrending a romance as I know, not least perhaps because the sputtering front end of it, Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise, is so fatally slight. But in this inspired sequel, the three principals—director Linklater and stars Julie Delpy (Celine) and Ethan Hawke (Jesse), who all collaborated on the screenplay—are nine years older, with that much more experience under their belts and showing in the lines on their faces and the circumstances of their (fictional) lives.

The premise of both pictures is practically identical: Celine and Jesse, who barely know one another yet experience a mutual and profound connection, are irresistibly drawn together. In Sunrise, they get off a train and spend a night prowling Vienna, talking and talking and talking. That movie ends with solemn promises to meet again six months later. In Sunset, it's nine years later, and they are meeting again for the first time since that night. It starts at a reading for Jesse's novel (the book based on their night together), and it's as unplanned in its way as their first meeting—he has no idea she will be there, she has no idea how it will go. Almost immediately they fall in again, and spend the afternoon prowling Paris, talking and talking and talking. The warp and woof of their conversation is continually intruded on by their mutual bewilderment, even resentment, at the feelings they share toward one another.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Best American Crime Writing 2002

In the past few weeks commenter jcdevildog has tracked down Otto Penzler (see comments), apparently via a Facebook page, who confirmed that the Best American Crime Writing/Reporting series is indeed finished for the time being, after nine volumes. Thanks to jcdevildog for doing the legwork on this one (I never heard anything from the publisher, either via email or in response to a letter I sent). I think many of us were hoping for some kind of delay or temporary postponement, but the series does appear to be done. This is a shame, of course, for anyone like me who followed it regularly over the years—but the nine books produced remain very good, suffer surprisingly little from age, and are well worth looking into. It's also somewhat heartening to remember that the series simply collects what's already out there. That means it's still probably out there, if you're willing to sift and look to individual magazines for it, and incidentally the series also uncovered some of the best magazine sources for true-crime journalism, which aren't always obvious: "The Atlantic Monthly," "Esquire," "GQ," "The New Yorker," and "Vanity Fair" were among the most reliable contributors to this series.

As for the individual volumes, they are all good, but this first one remains among the very best. Penzler, Thomas H. Cook, and crew may or may not have yet ironed out all the processes involved in making these books, but certainly they are putting their collective best foot forward with this inaugural edition, and it shows. It's one of the biggest in the series, at over 400 pages, with such stars and journeymen of the form on board as Charles Bowden, Skip Hollandsworth, David McClintick, and Alex Prud'homme. The guest editor is Nicholas Pileggi, whose film credits as writer or producer or both include GoodFellas, Casino, and American Gangster. Offenses documented within these pages range among cockfighting, liquor store robberies, drug smuggling, bad cops, murder, fraud, and, of course, 9/11, which occurred when this collection was nearing completion, obviously forcing a rethink of the choices. Penzler and Cook, in their foreword, argue for the Biblical story of Abel and Cain as the first example of true-crime journalism—it's easy, but, well, all right. In Pat Jordan's "The Outcast," from "The New Yorker," one of the figures most critical to the rise of popularity in true-crime journalism, none other than O.J. Simpson himself, may be observed attempting to live with the heavy sentences handed down to him by the court of popular opinion. He is at once loathsome and sympathetic (he has also, by the way, been in prison on armed robbery charges since 2008). Physician essayist Atul Gawande, a frequent contributor to the Best American Essays series, takes on the issue of the veracity of eyewitness reports in "Under Suspicion," also from "The New Yorker"; eyewitness testimony has long been considered nearly sacrosanct by law enforcement and prosecutors but remains highly questionable when looked at carefully and systematically. And David McClintick, in "Fatal Bondage," from "Vanity Fair," looks at the lurid and shocking story of the crimes of businessman J.R. Robinson, a con man, sadist, and serial killer who operated out of Kansas in the '80s and '90s, eventually expanding his base of operations to the Internet. If you watch true-crime TV you have probably seen the story of the case: sadomasochism, missing lonely-hearts women, and foul-smelling barrels found in storage spaces are the points on which it turns, with the added spice of outrage in that he was caught and imprisoned once, only to be released and start up again. I'll call it my favorite piece here, if only because it's so deliciously over the top. As with all the best true-crime journalism the operant term remains, "You can't make this stuff up." That's one of the things this series was so good at. It will be missed.

In case it's not at the library.