Monday, October 31, 2011

Man on Film: Take Shelter

Having previously worked together on the 2007 film Shotgun Stories, writer/director Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon jump back into the fray with the timely drama Take Shelter. Set against the backdrop of small town Ohio, Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar but middle class family man. Curtis begins having apocalyptic nightmares that cause him to grow concerned that he is experiencing the early stages of schizophrenia at roughly the same age that his mother had when he was a child.
Tapping into the socio-political zeitgeist by pinning the intrafamilial conflict against a tapestry of health insurance woes, middle-class economic strife, and ultimately job-loss, Nichols spins a yarn with today's Everyman as the protagonist. The problems of the LaForche family are the same problems afflicting the disappearing middle class that the mainstream media likes to talk about on slow news days but doesn't actually seem to care about helping in a meaningful way. They are Middle America.

It is from this starting point that Nichols is able to strike a chord with the audience. As Curtis's apocalyptic visions shake him to his core, he questions his well-being. His mother's history of schizophrenia is looking like it could be his future. With his dreams taking a hold of him, he begins to fixate on the storm shelter in the backyard, seeing its improvement as the best way for him to protect his family against the specter of what his dreams portend.

Where this film excels is in its ability to stand right at the precipice. It teeters between terra firma and chaos with pressure building toward climax. This pressure brews under the surface of the narrative with the heavens looming dangerously over every scene.

But it is really in the nightmare sequences that Nichols & Co. blow the goddamn doors off the joint. The violence. The pounding oily rain. The opaque windows. The helplessness. Together these elements conjure up a an unforgettably unsettling feeling, both for the audience and Curtis. There is an almost biblical aspect to the downpours; those oily downpours leave any view of the outside world obscured, amping up the fear and isolation.

There may not be another actor who can pull off this role, but Michael Shannon does so with ease. As if anyone who has seen his work on Boardwalk Empire needed any proof, Michael Shannon is the real fucking deal. The Best Actor buzz for this turn is absolutely justified. His complement, Samantha, is also played pitch-perfect by Jessica Chastain. While the role is fairly similar to her role in The Tree of Life, she is still well-suited for the role. There is a down-home humanity that she radiates seemingly effortlessly. She grounds Shannon's performance, sets the even keel to contrast with his descent into what is potentially madness.

Take Shelter positions itself at the very edge of reason, staring off into the abyss while never letting you know what is down there. It does so with quiet confidence, opting for artful understatement instead of overt brushstrokes. In other words, Take Shelter is fucking great.

Prick Tunes: "All My Days" by Alexi Murdoch

Last Monday, I was unable to convince TSLF to go to Alexi Murdoch's show at Antone's. Throwing him up in this space doesn't make up for not getting to see him, but I do love this song.

As a lead-up to that show, Murdoch was in studio on KUT (Austin's NPR affiliate). The audio for the appearance can be found here, and there is a downloadable MP3 of the segment at the site. Don't worry, it was in the afternoon, so there's no need to concern yourself over having to listen to John Aeilli talk at a musician you like. Jay Trachtenberg handles the interview and allows Murdoch to talk of his past, knock Los Angeles, and wax philosophical about the songwriter's experience. I can't recommend listening to this enough.

As a primer, here's "All My Days," which was heavily featured in Away We Go.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Prick Tunes: Terence Trent D'Arby "Wishing Well"

Well, why the hell not?

Inarguably the weirdest thing about Terence Trent D'Arby is that he looks like the lovechild of Brendan Fraser and Roland Gift if that lovechild had dreads. I was eight when this song hit the top of the charts. One could assume that nostalgia colors an affinity for this song, but one would be an asshole for doing so. It's a damn fine pop song. GFY.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Man on Film: Super 8

I wasn't lying when I said I had some catch-up to do here. I feel like this movie came out about thirteen years ago.

Usually the first thing I would complain about with a movie like this would be the child actors. For Super 8 such a complaint need not be made. These kids can act. Elle Fanning is particularly good, but the rest of the tweens pull it off. Really, on-screen performances across the board are on point, with Ron Eldard and the always rock-solid Kyle Chandler knocking their shots out of the park.

For the most part, really, this film works. Super 8 is essentially if Steven Spielberg directed The Goonies but added some dumb fucking aliens. This isn't preachy, heavy-handed Schindler's List/Minority Report Spielberg who quite frankly sucks. We're talking fun Spielberg, for the most part. But there are the dumb fucking aliens, which gets to the heart of my issues with J.J. Abrams. He's a guy who has a lot of great ideas but has issues executing them. Exhibit A: Alias. Exhibit B: Felicity. All right, sort of joking with Felicity, but it was his. Regardless, with the exception of Star Trek, his resume isn't exactly sterling. 

Unfortunately, where Abrams missteps is in the execution of showing the aliens. Much like M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, the film is cruising along, suspense is being aptly built, and then the aliens actually make an appearance and it's all shot. Some might see this complaint as being overly picky, but he simply fails to realize the potential that he had. With as poorly as the reveal of the aliens comes across, he may well have been better off leaving them off-screen entirely.

By and large, Super 8 was an entertaining summer event flick, but it wasn't without its flaws.

Prick Tunes: Bruce Springsteen "I'm on Fire"

This here's one of my favorite Springsteen songs. That should say enough.

John Sayles directed this video, which I found a bit odd.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reading Rainbow: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

I wanted him to keep talking, even though the conversation was one-sided and pedantic. I know that must sound masochistic, but there's no influence like the force of personality: It overwhelms everything, even when it defies common sense. [pg. 138]
While hesitant to ascribe the label of pedant to Klosterman, there may not be a passage that better encapsulates his authorial pull than the one above. He does have a force of personality that draws the interest of the like-minded. I suppose there is an element of this in most people that we find ourselves drawn to in our daily lives. With Klosterman, though, this draw is undeniable.

In The Visible Man, Klosterman has constructed a platform to explore one of his central areas of concern: voyeurism. Set in an alternate universe Austin that had fallen under the tentacled grip of the Minneapolitan Caribou Coffee chain*, the story primarily deals with a therapist and a patient who have an extraordinary relationship with one another. The patient is a scientist who developed a suit that allows him to cloak himself, which he employs to study the true nature of the self, using unwitting people as his test subjects. Steamrolling the therapist, through whose eyes the narrative is told, Y___ attempts to reconcile his feelings of guilt with the belief that the greater thrust of his project is much too important to be dragged down by such ethical dilemmas as invasion of privacy.

*I am sort of joking here. Yes, the Caribou chain has never made its way to Austin. The setting is sort of immaterial, and the rest of the Austin settings are pretty on point with the possible exception of embellishing a patchouli smell at Waterloo Records, which is at least excusable. These things will not matter to most readers. Hell, many Austinites may not even know that Caribou is a chain and could have assumed that Klosterman invented a coffee shop out of thin air. Again, not an issue.

What unfolds between Victoria and Y___ is undoubtedly compelling and does raise interesting questions in regards to the true self, voyeurism, and the value of the experiment versus the costs involved. Klosterman's prose is, as always, engrossing. While dealing with occasionally philosophically complex subject matter, it never veers into the realm of being inaccessible. Really, it is quite shocking that a book with two main characters who are each at least in part unlikeable that is also dealing with loaded philosophical ideas can still come down in a moral gray area while still being incredibly entertaining. Klosterman definitely has an innate ability to tackle these notions while maintaining an irresistible style and verve.

Prick Tunes: Gerry Rafferty "Right Down the Line"

It's entirely possible that I've put this video up before.

This matters little to me.

I get weird about Gerry Rafferty. A few years back, I bought City to City on a lark, having found a copy for about $4.00 at Half-Price Books on North Lamar. It's the sort of record that can be found at just about every store that has a bunch of old records for less than $5.00.

I bought it because "Baker Street" was on it, and I sort of thought that it'd be funny to have that in the arsenal.

Instead, I found myself the proud owner of a fucking great album with this song striking an even deeper chord with me than the outstanding "Baker Street." One listen will explain it all. "Right Down the Line" is mind-blowingly good and is one of my favorite songs ever recorded. In the history of music.

Unfortunately for the world, Gerry Rafferty died last year. The world lost an angel. An angel who wrote this sweet-ass song.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prick Tunes: Tom Waits "Bad As Me"

It should not surprise readers that Tom Waits would make an appearance here. His first new studio album since 2004's Real Gone drops today, so it is only fitting to see the titular track from Bad As Me in this space. Sadly there is no official video for this song *yet*, so this video is what you shall receive.

While I am generally reticent to reflect on albums as a whole here*, I can say that I've liked what I've heard so far. Perhaps you'll be so unlucky as to be [dis]graced with a quasi-review (or whatever the fuck it is I do here) in the near future.

*Largely because I do not feel the same way about an album on the first listen as I do on the fiftieth. After all, the listener's musical experience is tricky. For starters, it is subject to an evolutionary element as different facets of the song begin to function in varying ways that are not formed entirely independently of the listener. Music is also an art form that works on many different levels, but many of these levels come across on an aural plane. One could try to ascertain why certain instrumental orchestrations work, but I'm not that person unfortunately. Furthermore, any such efforts can later be rendered moot by the mere passage of time and the effect it has on one's feelings about an album. I guess this is an odd diatribe about my uncomfortability in committing my thoughts about the album as an art form. Of course, this likely means that I'll write something about Bad As Me while preemptively chalking up my inadequacy in describing my feelings about the album to this unease rather than ascribing these shortcomings to myself, but that's for another day.

Regardless, "Bad As Me" is a damn fine addition to the Tom Waits catalog, featuring the familiar (and I mean this in the best possible way) riffs of the spectacular Marc Ribot and New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Clint Maedgen on baritone sax sending the listener on a drunken voyage into the junkyard of Waits's construction.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prick Tunes: College featuring Electric Youth "A Real Hero"

Look, I waited four whole entries in this series to put this up. I can tell you that this required a lot of restraint. Featured in the fantastic film Drive, John Belushi's shirt and a Debbie Gibson tribute band came together to pump out this sweet-ass tune.
So apparently the Debbie Gibson tribute band Electric Youth are from Toronto. I cannot wait to hear their cover of "Lost in Your Eyes." If they chose to take a stab at "No More Rhyme," I'd be fucking ecstatic. College--in addition to being a t-shirt on a dead comedian--is apparently a French producer, so I would imagine 'college' is pronounced oddly. Do not pronounce in public it with any shred of confidence.

Come get some.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Prick Tunes: Nick Cave and the Bad Seed with Kylie Minogue "Where the Wild Roses Grow"

Finishing off our Males with Female Relationship Issues Week, we come to the culmination of man's inability to have a healthy relationship with a woman in the form of the macabre duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow." Oft accused of being a misogynist (as a fan, these claims may not be baseless, having just finished The Death of Bunny Munro), Nick Cave teams with Kylie Minogue, singing from the point-of-view of the murdered Eliza Day from beyond the grave, in this song from the fantastic album Murder Ballads from 1996.

Picking up on the roses motif in "Holland, 1945" and running with the weekly theme, this is even darker than the Damien Jurado turn on the pseudo-jukebox, as this song details a devious courtship followed by cold-blooded (and overt) murder.

Happy Friday!

Or maybe not.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prick Tunes: Neutral Milk Hotel "Holland, 1945"

There are, I shit you not, two separate pics of Paris Hilton
holding this CD on the first Google Image page that comes
up when searching for Neutral Milk Hotel. Different outfits.
WTFuck? Must be a weird interweb meme.
Continuing on in the theme of men with unhealthy relationships with women theme of the week, what follows is a video by YouTube user TEBarrettJr. As is likely going to be the case with a lot of the songs on here, it can be difficult to find a usable video for some of these songs.

As alluded to yesterday*, the song is "Holland, 1945" off of what is likely my (and April Ludgate's) favorite album ever, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea. The album is largely inspired by Jeff Mangum's obsession with The Diary of Anne Frank, and this is the most overt of the elegies/temporally-displaced love songs to Anne Frank. While there seems to be a legitimate innocence to much of the pain and longing, there is a pathos to the feelings therein that would preclude one from being able to categorize these sentiments as healthy.

*Let's be honest here. How many of you thought I was going to go with "Lily, My One and Only" by the Smashing Pumpkins today?

Reading Rainbow: The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones

Having been given this book as a gift years ago, The Pugilist at Rest, a National Book Award finalist for fiction in 1993, puzzlingly sat on my shelf unread for at least five years. There is no real reason for this. It simply happened. Books were bought, placed on a shelf that had no room for them, covered by other books bought afterward, and buried behind front-stacked books.

Without prejudice I was unable to manage to get around to this book.

This was a mistake.

With a couple of minor exceptions, each short story in this collection is magnificent. There is a verve to his prose that is instantaneously engaging and nearly arresting. The characters jump off the pages, occupying a territory within a very real world without seeming too familiar. With many of the events and character traits clearly derived from personal experience, the stories (especially the Vietnam ones) ring true.

If there is a shortcoming, it is that Jones has issues inhabiting a female voice in the story "Unchain My Heart." Unlike the other story in the collection from a female point-of-view, "I Want to Live!" there is a knowledge of the character that seems at least somewhat deficient. Where "I Want to Live!" could conceivably have been told from the POV of a woman, the story of a female journalist smitten with a deep-sea diver simply comes across a man writing what he thinks a woman might think, which given the quality of work in the remainder of the vignettes is a bit of a disappointment.

What works is virtually everything else. The Vietnam material is the most gripping, but the stories "As of July 6..." "Wipeout," and "Unchain My Heart" are all damn fine pieces of short fiction. "Silhouettes" is also quite memorable and covers atypical territory in the form of a Special Ed student/janitor whose special lady friend is stepping out on him.

While cursed with the expectations that go hand-in-hand with being a National Book Award Finalist, The Pugilist at Rest does not fail to engage and enthrall. Upon finishing the book, one isn't possessed by an urge to question the selection committee, and that, in and of itself, speaks volumes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Prick Tunes: The Who "Pictures of Lily"

While entirely unintentional, it would seem as though the two songs from this week have forced me into a theme of men having unhealthy dealings with the fairer sex. As Prick Tunes is a new feature, I feel like I should assure you that I am not a misogynist even though this week will do nothing to contradict that argument. Hopefully next week I can do something to dispel any such notions, although now that I have said that I will surely do something horribly sexist.

Today's selection is an ode to the objectification of women (and hours of self-gratification go hand in hand) as passed down from father to adolescent son penned by a man once alleged to be in possession of child pornography. And then there's Roger Daltrey's hair in the video, which really could justifiably be reclassified as a sex crime. Men are great...

Released as a single in 1967 and then slapped on the end of Magic Bus, a slipshod collection of previously released material from A Quick One and The Who Sell Out along with some B-sides, "Pictures of Lily" was apparently inspired by a picture of an old Vaudevillian star (likely Lillie Langtry) who died in 1929 as mentioned at the end of the song, making this very much akin to tomorrow's selection.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Prick Tunes: Damien Jurado "Amateur Night"

While searching for a usable video of his fantastic "Ohio" off of what is still my favorite Damien Jurado album, 1999's Rehearsals for Departure, I elected to go with what may be his darkest song, "Amateur Night" from 2003's Where Shall You Take Me? his first release on Secretly Canadian.
To qualify this song as dark is an understatement of severe proportions. The quiet chaos that looms underneath comes to bear at the close of "Amateur Night." Dark fucking lyrics. Urban folk at its most disturbing.

Man on Film: The Swell Season

Following the success Once and the ensuing buzz surrounding the featured pair, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are at a crossroads. While not a documentary by any means, Once essentially served as a starting point for the pair's relationship. The Swell Season picks up with the pair--with the members of The Frames (Hansard's band since 1990) in tow--kindling the flames of a burgeoning romance while touring between their Swell Season album and going into the studio to record Strict Joy.

Very much in love as the film opens, the pair seem great for each other. The disparity in age doesn't seem to impede their romance. Theirs is a cute and genuine love story. 
As fame takes them hurtling into the stratosphere, the pressure to meet external expectations, the disparate notions as to what they both want from their musical careers, and the different stages they are at in their lives begin to tear apart the fabric of their relationship.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of all of this is that for all intents and purposes, the course that Irglova and Hansard's relationship takes has largely been caught on film. While Once was not technically a document of real life, it does sort of serve as a metaphor for the first five or six years that they knew each other, an innocently collaborative period peppered with a little sexual tension but a tension upon which neither of them act. 

The Swell Season is a document of their actual relationship. It is deeply personal, with much of the film really making the viewer feel like he or she is a fly on the wall. Souls are bared. Warts are shown. Their love for one another is evident. Their frustration with one another is palpable. 

Where Once excelled with a previously unparalleled ease was in how organically the crafting of the song was committed to celluloid. The Swell Season picks right up where Once left off but also lets the audience in on the couple's honeymoon period and the ensuing struggle to make things work as fame, touring, recording, and life do what they can to pull the pair apart. More importantly, it is both compelling and endearing throughout. 

There aren't many music documentaries wherein this level of candor and access is present. Hansard and Irglova are already a fascinating pair, but the film shows the pair at one of their most vulnerable and tracks the course of their relationship with frank affection. The end product is astounding.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Prick Tunes: Lionel Richie "Hello"

If ever there was a piece of art that set back anti-stalking laws a century, it was this video, which implies that if you creep on a blind chick for long enough, she'll magically sculpt a striking bust with your likeness despite the fact that she cannot know what your face looks like.
Having said that, if anyone was wondering what they should get me for Christmas, track down that bust.

Man on Film: Killer Elite

While not high art by any means, Killer Elite is an entirely enjoyable (if not altogether memorable) exercise in action film-making. Set in 1981 and presumably based very loosely on events detailed in Ranulph Fiennes's 1991 book The Feathermen, Killer Elite is Gary McKendry's first feature-length film with his only other directorial credit being the Academy Award nominated short Everything in This Country Must. With oil contracts and unrest in the Middle East being integral to the story, it seems like the events in the film could just as likely happen today.

Killer Elite pits Jason Statham's Danny Bryce, a mercenary, against an ex-SAS shadow group employing Clive Owen's Spike Logan as the chief operative. Using the captured mentor Hunter (Robert DeNiro) as leverage, an Omani Sheikh coerces Bryce to avenge the deaths of his three sons by taking out the SAS agents who killed them during the Dhofar Rebellion.

The justification for what follows is present, and for the most part earned. To qualify this motivation as original or interesting would be going a step too far, but the most important aspect of the film works: the action sequences. Whether chase sequences, elaborate hits, or hand-to-hand combat scenes, these elements of the action flick are convincing and well-choreographed. They aren't game-changers, but it's enough to feel like your time is warranted.

Is this a great action film? Probably not. Fortunately, it has the aptly cast Statham in his typical role with a suitable foe in the form of Clive Owen, whose role is underdeveloped but has the gravitas to hold his own against the prototypical Statham hero. With these two in tow, it's hard not to at least enjoy the ride.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Prick Tunes: Bill Fay "Scream in the Ears"

It has been nagging at me for a while, but I've wanted to try to figure out a way to work a little more music into the blog. This seemed like the most logical way to go. Not every post will be this long. Sometimes it may just be a video with a sentence or two, but I will try to get these up every day, Monday through Friday at noon. 

From his first single in 1967, the "Some Good Advice" B-side "Scream in the Ears" is a shining example of the potential the once-obscure British singer-songwriter Bill Fay had. While poppier than much of the material that comprised his first two LPs, Bill Fay and Time of the Last Persecution, it's a damn fine song and indicative of his lyrical dexterity.

Unfortunately, those albums sold poorly, and his label, Deram Records, dropped him as a result. 

For 39 years nothing was heard from Bill Fay, while fans were left to wonder what happened to this wild-looking man. Despite understandable assumptions that he was dead based on the fact that this album cover was the most prevalent photo of the mysterious man, he resurfaced in 2010 with a new album, Still Some Light on Coptic Cat. If memory serves me correctly, he had been working a normal job completely unaware of his standing among a rather influential group of musicians including Jim O'Rourke, Six Organs of Admittance, and Jeff Tweedy, who has stated that Time of the Last Persecution was influential to the path Wilco has taken in the past decade. 

This is a cursory look at Bill Fay. For much better insight into the man and the music, there is a great two-part interview over at WFMU and a fine review of Time of the Last Persecution at Pop Matters.

In the meantime, here's that B-side for you to feast on. If you get the chance and haven't heard it yet, I cannot recommend Time of the Last Persecution highly enough.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Man on Film: The Tree of Life

The beauty of The Tree of Life, as is the case with all Terrence Malick films, is that one is left to draw their own conclusions from the film. More so than any working filmmaker, Malick uses his keen eye for captivating imagery to mold a film that relies on evocation rather than straight-forward storytelling. It is with these bold, evocative, Impressionistic brushstrokes that Malick crafted The Tree of Life, and the resultant project is one of the most ambitious and unique films that has ever been made.

Maybe this isn't a film for everyone, though it should be. After all, we live in a world in which a Michigander is suing FilmDistrict because Drive wasn't enough like Fast Five. Some saw this film because it had Brad Pitt in it and left scratching their heads not knowing what to think.

The Tree of Life isn't a film that is wrapped up with a bow. Much of the dialogue is presented via voice-over (a common trait for a Malick film to have), and that dialogue has a largely lyrical nature to it. There are two extended sections of the film that are, well, obtuse. By obtuse, I mean that in a film largely about a family in Texas in the 1950s (at least superficially speaking) there is an extended sequence detailing the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth and another that is a foray into a dreamlike afterlife.

Despite the perception of difficulty, this is not a film from which you can easily walk away. In the months since having seen The Tree of Life theatrically, it has crept back into my head repeatedly. During the days immediately following, it consumed me. This simply does not happen with other directors' works.

In the coming weeks, I intend to do some more in-depth and focused analysis on individual aspects of the film, but in short, The Tree of Life may well be the best film of this young century as it is likely the best film since The Thin Red Line. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD this week. If I could get this goddamn Amazon widget to work, I'd throw the link in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Reading Rainbow: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell hits the ground running in Faceless Killers, the first in the internationally acclaimed Kurt Wallander series made popular in part by both the (multiple) Swedish and BBC series that aired in the US under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner on PBS, the latter starring Kenneth Branagh as the titular Swedish Police Inspector.

The thing that sets Mankell's work apart from the standard detective fare is that he uses the genre as a vehicle by which he can shine a light on the ills plaguing Swedish society. Faceless Killers sees a gruesome double homicide at an isolated farmhouse set off a powder keg of racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment in Skåne, the southernmost County in Sweden. Spawned by a dying woman's last word, "Foreign," the historically homogeneous Scanians have their fears of heterogeneity take hold and run wild. As anonymous white supremacists begin threaten the refugee populations of the area, fear of violence runs roughshod over the populace.

Having set the stage and piqued the tension, Mankell has created an environment ideal for a case in which the stakes are high. The minefield that Kurt Wallander has to traverse is compelling, and his path is not always the most obvious route. Faceless Killers is surprising, as it chooses the genre of the crime novel as its platform for shining a light on the prejudiced underbelly of Swedish society.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Man on Film: Our Idiot Brother

When speaking about its plot, Our Idiot Brother is your typical indie comedy wherein the fuck-up in the family isn't nearly as fucked up as the 'normal' family members. Predictably, the insertion of this person back into the fold blows up their lives while eventually changing them for the better. With this sort of flick, the plot is largely immaterial*.

*The fact that this is the case isn't necessarily a good thing, but one would be wasting his breath explicating on a this indie comedy trope.

What we are left to discuss then is what does and doesn't work. In films like this, the important elements are largely related to cast/characters and the comedy itself. Sure, direction matters, but directorial impact is much less evident in films like Our Idiot Brother. Jesse Peretz's work here is perfectly palatable, and his influence was surely felt in a much more palpable sense than will be given credit here.

By and large, this film works. The lion's share of the burden comes down on the titular character, Paul Rudd's Ned. Luckily, Our Idiot Brother frees Paul Rudd from the shackles of playing the straight man, which he has been stuck playing all too often. Here he is cast in the role of a man who chooses to see the best in everybody and innocently assumes that everybody else does the same, something that routinely gets him into trouble with hilarious results. The supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Kathryn Hahn, and T.J. Miller. The only potential issue in the supporting cast is Zooey Deschanel, who has either fallen into type-casting hell or really is a one-note actor (in the larger, non-gender defined sense of the word). She isn't called upon to carry too much of the film, as it is a large ensemble cast, and while cuckolding Rashida Jones is indefensible, nothing about her performance here is too grating. With this cast there are great comedy chops at work.

The script, while predictable, shows a love for its characters and is legitimately funny. With this cast and the strong dialogue-/character-driven comedy, Our Idiot Brother may not be a game-changing movie, but it's certainly enjoyable and frees up Paul Rudd to be something other than the straight man.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Man on Film: The Ides of March

George Clooney's fourth time out as a director sees him stepping back into a more serious realm after his middling football romp Leatherheads. While not reaching the heights that he soared to in Good Night and Good Luck--the best film of 2005--it is hard to fault him for not making a masterpiece this time around.

What The Ides of March is about at its core is Junior Campaign Manager Stephen Myers's loss of innocence. The brains behind the campaign, Stephen (played by the ever-impressive Ryan Gosling) embodies the idealistic crusader that so many wide-eyed and hopeful young people getting into politics are. In Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), Stephen believes that he has found his man, the one that can make a difference. Morris is the filmic equivalent of Jed Bartlett or Matt Santos, a paragon of liberal virtues and ideals in the form of an attractive and charismatic man. In other words, Morris is a dream candidate.

Unfortunately, Morris is a human being and is therefore imperfect. As Morris's imperfection becomes an issue, Myers begins to chip away at his own innocence. With both Senior Campaign Managers--of Morris's campaign, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and that of his Democratic Primary rival, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti)*--serving as cautionary examples of what cynicism-riddled existences a life on the campaign trail can produce, the future that awaits Stephen is prominently featured throughout the film. His path is sealed by the course of action he takes at each crossroads. As he gets deeper and deeper, he loses more and more of himself.

*The Ides of March is unique in that is likely the only movie that will ever be made requiring the acting talents of both Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It must have been odd for the two of them to not be competing for the same role, as there are actually two homely, unscrupulous, manipulative pricks who want to win at all costs in this film.  

Stephen's devolution is representative of the inevitable death of idealism in politics as winning takes precedence over maintaining the moral high ground. Governor Morris, too, is required to sacrifice his principles for the prospect of winning. To say that this film holds little hope for the ability of idealists to traverse the treacherous and rocky terrain without losing touch with what they believed in prior to entering into the fray is an understatement.

On these points, the film works. If you were looking for any sort of political intrigue or an unpredictable plot, this isn't your movie. While the central concern of the film is what happens to Stephen Myers, the course that the campaign takes through the Ohio Primary is obvious from the moment Evan Rachel Wood walks across the screen. The campaign is secondary to Stephen's descent, but it still fails to surprise from a narrative standpoint. While one could hardly qualify the campaign as dead screen time, it definitely seems to do little but serve a purpose to forward a single character's story arc.

The film does look great, set against the bleak landscape of the Rust Belt in March, and is carried by great performances from Gosling and Clooney with Hoffman, Giamatti, and Wood holding their own. Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay, clearly has an aptitude for crafting a film imbued with strong liberal ideals, as all of Morris's speeches on the campaign trail would have been right at home in the Sorkin-helmed seasons of The West Wing. For the most part, he's got another great film on his hands, although its not flawless like Good Night and Good Luck was.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reading Rainbow: Palo Alto by James Franco

Somewhat predictably, I read this book. After all, I did record a large chunk of the General Hospital run he made. Weird to say the least.

It's been months since I finished this book, but that's just how things have been flowing out here lately.

For those unfamiliar, Palo Alto is a collection of short stories penned by the modern-day Renaissance man set in his hometown of Palo Alto in the early-to-mid-1990s. Set amongst high schoolers whose lives occasionally intertwine in these stories, Franco makes the rounds through different teens' lives, always stepping into their shoes in the first-person. If one subscribes to the notion that teens aren't particularly complex, then Franco is able to convey the alienation and insecurity implicit in being a teen.

His vision/recollection of teen angst is a bit bleak, with his characters routinely exposed to senseless crime and emotionally disconnected sex, but is this really that far off?

Where he does come up a bit short is in the fleshing out of the characters. While the voices do at times seem to come from unique people, their narration does not ring in any meaningful way as stylistically dissimilar from one another. Furthermore, when attempting to take on the voice of a female, Franco has the same issue that many male authors have when trying to embody a female voice in prose: it rings inauthentic. While it is difficult to fault a male scribe for being able to accurately pen the dialogue or first-person narration from a female's perspective, the fact remains that the attempt was made and said attempt was by and large unsuccessful.

While not quite hitting it out of the park, Franco's first foray into the realm of fiction is at least an admirable attempt. Those who are inclined to read this probably will. Those who want to hate this because an actor wrote this probably will as well. Objectively, this is a perfectly readable collection of short stories with at least some merit, if not pulled together completely. There is enough here to at least be curious as to where his literary path will take him.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Man on Film: Contagion

Contagion is a cautionary tale.

Succinctly, this movie is about what happens when Gwyneth Paltrow commits adultery. She cheats on Matt Damon, and the fucking world goes to hell in a hand basket.

Who would cheat on Matt Damon?

I know I wouldn't.

Thanks, Paltrow.

Thanks a bunch.

Oh, and wash your goddamn hands when you're handling meat, kitchen peeps. Even if you're shaking hands with a harlot. Your pork hands could kill the whole world.

And let me tell you, it was weird seeing my old hood torn apart by the new plague, and Kate Winslet was held in the old Armory at my alma mater.

She didn't need to die, Gwyneth.

You just had to get your rocks off, didn't you?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Man on Film: 50/50

To anyone paying any attention over the past seven years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been attempting to establish himself as one of the rangiest young actors working. Starting at Manic and working your way through Mysterious Skin, Brick, Havoc, The Lookout, and Uncertainty, he has enough indie cred to keep most actors sated for a career and has covered a wide breadth of character types. 50/50 is a nice addition to his resume, one that he took on less than two weeks notice when James McAvoy had to pull out. His lack of time for preparation does not show at all.

Coming from a screenplay by Will Reiser (Paul's cousin) based on his own experience with cancer, Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old public radio writer who finds out that he has neurofibroma sarcoma schwannoma, a rare cancer that attacks the nervous system (in this case, his spinal column) of people who have genetically inherited susceptibility to the disease. Despite living a safe and clean lifestyle, he finds his world falling apart.

While this premise could certainly go the way of the painfully melodramatic, the film manages to pull off the dicey proposition of being a successful cancer comedy. Throughout the film, the comedy seems to come naturally; hell, the whole film seems to unfurl organically. Humor, joy, pain, anger: all of these things are character-based. They never come across as even remotely forced, and there is a tone struck early that director Jonathan Levine sticks to throughout.

As usual, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic. Somewhat shockingly, Seth Rogen pulls off the somewhat dramatically demanding best friend role with aplomb. Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston are well cast for their supporting roles, and the impossibly cute Anna Kendrick shines as the green therapist feeling her way through treating her third patient.

What 50/50 is is a smart, character-driven comedy dealing with a serious issue that touches just about everybody's lives. And it has a Gerry Rafferty song on the soundtrack, which speaks volumes.
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