Monthly archives of “March 2010

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Up in the Air, Jason Reitman (2009)

I adored Reitman’s Juno and was ready to feel the same about this, but no dice. Suffice to say that the grownups in this film are far less complex and as a result far more predictable than the kids in Juno, so there’s just not as much here to hold your attention. I didn’t hate it at all, and I enjoyed looking at it, but finally its too formulaic to think about for very long.

You know what would have helped? Casting someone damaged for the lead, instead of George “Rico Suave” Clooney. The whole thing has to turn on this character gaining consciousness that his life is empty, but it’s clear from frame one that his life is awesome, because he’s George Clooney.

A young Jack Lemmon. That would have helped.

Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino (2009)

I’ve never gotten Tarantino, and I don’t get this. I note all the tropes from earlier WWII movies acknowledged and remixed. I note some references to specific movies (which of course also causes me to realize that there must be additional references I’m missing). I note the retro fonts of the credits. I note the metaphors, especially the enormous “college sophomores everywhere: please write a paper about me” one where movie bullets turn into real bullets and then back into movie bullets. I note the skillful orchestration of the elaborate set pieces. I note the repeating rhythms of long slow burns concluded with — big surprise — explosive violence. I note the hokey-jokey “hey, you’re watching a movie!” devices. I note the usual Tarantino grotesqueries, catchphrases, and histrionics. I note the urgent, almost childish need on the director’s part to seem to be a maker of serious films; his deep fear that he is not; and his resulting compensatory self-abasing gestures. I note and I note and I note, but I don’t enjoy, I don’t excite, I don’t see.

This often happens to me with poems: I note their characteristics, but can’t find a way to care about them. I always figured that was a busman’s holiday problem, but obviously that’s not the case here. Ach, what do I know. The kids seem to like it, and it seems harmless enough.

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Zhang Haiying, Antivice Campaign Series (2008)

I admire these paintings by Zhang Haiying of photographs of prostitutes caught up in anti-corruption sweeps in Chinese cities. I think they quite movingly capture the plight of these women, who are victimized both by criminals and by the law. They remind me of Degas’ ballerinas, noble and strong but also objectified, commodified, used. A large group of them can be seen here. (Note: slow load from China.) I first saw these paintings at Jeff Hamada’s booooooom, which is pretty much my favorite site for discovering new painting, design, and photography.

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Massive Attack, Heligoland (2010)

I doubt the trajectory of my personal Massive Attack has been unique: I loved Blue Lines hopelessly, enjoyed Protection but felt nervous about how uneven it was, then actively disliked the noisy ponderousness of Mezzanine and, worse, was made to feel bad about not liking it by all the fans and critics saying that Mezzanine was their best work ever. I felt like it felt to have your best friend dump you for the cool kids and thereafter shun you on the playground. When 100th Window came out I didn’t even buy it.

It’s on order now, though, because if it’s as awesome as Heligoland then I can’t wait to hear it. Heligoland is something like a return to form, in that it’s accessible and features ethereal guest vocalists, but it’s also a new direction, and a really beguiling one at that. I’m not sure how to describe it. Maybe: “What if Radiohead had soul?” Or maybe: “Trip hop raises its gaze from its navel and stares you in the eye.” Or: “What if Cyberdyne Systems had commissioned Schubert’s Lieder?”

Ach, better you just listen. As Hope Sandoval’s future boyfriend (CALL ME!), I’m required to say that “Paradise Circus” is my favorite track, but “Girl I Love You” may be the best place to start if you want to hear how the group manages to integrate the vestiges of their earliest efforts with their newfound orchestral complexity. Every single track on the disc is rich and strange and wonderful. You can see the official videos here. I think the one for “Paradise Circus” is unfortunately and unnecessarily distracting. I think videos in general kind of suck as an art form, but that’s just me.

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All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen (1949)

It must be a lot of fun to do the programming at Turner Classic Movies. Someone, clearly, thought that the week of the apotheosis of the Obama health care reform journey called for a showing of this powerful accounting of the costs incurred by the practice of retail politics. Had you forgotten, as I had, that the central plank of Willie Stark’s platform is universal health care? And do you recall how he meets his end? I won’t spoil it for you; let’s just say the medical profession doesn’t exactly rush to his aid in his moment of need.

It’s a politics story, but it’s also a Southern story, in ways which I probably wouldn’t have understood ten years ago, before moving to Alabama. Issues of dilapidated family pride and post-Reconstruction sullenness, which of course also animated Faulkner, Walker Percy, Welty, and Tennessee Williams are central here, too.

It’s a big book, and even a movie more than two hours long can’t begin to get its arms around all the novel’s moving parts, so some passages here feel stunted and lacking context. Still, it’s a lively piece and worth watching. After you call your representative and tell him or her to vote yes on the Senate bill this week.

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Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville (1956)

Not an American gangster movie, and not a Godard-like parody of American gangster movies, and not exactly an homage to American gangster movies, either. I guess I’d have to call it a kind of translation of American gangster movies into French, since Bob and his compatriots are so utterly French in the way they conduct their affairs, and make and carry out their plans. Can you imagine an American movie gangster sitting around chatting over coffee this much? No way. Here guns are afterthoughts rather than the stars, your style matters more than your actions, and the talking! These guys love talking so much, it’s a miracle they ever remember they’re supposed to be out doing crime.

Tons of fun, great to look at. Isabelle Corey is a fox.

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Analog Africa

These people have released five CDs, of which I own the most recent four, each of which is absolutely exquisite. You have never heard such sublimely funky grooves in your life. The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou makes James Brown sound like Lawrence Welk.

The first CD is labeled “#3,” because Analog Africa’s first two releases came in the form of mp3 mixes. Both are available for free download on their blog, and also through the Paris DJs podcast.

Paris DJs is where I discovered Analog Africa, and it is itself an incredible resource. Their weekly free podcast features all sorts of never-made-it-off-vinyl-onto-disc deliciousness from all over the world. There are nearly 200 mixes to download, and they’re all free!

Here’s a direct link to the second Analog Africa mix: http://analogafrica.cybsys.net/mp3/AnalogAfricaSelectionVol.2.mp3

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Maria Bamford

I watched John Oliver’s New York Standup Show — I’m not a big fan of standup comedy, it just happened to be on — and I thought Maria Bamford was alarmingly funny, or maybe funnily alarming. At one point she did an impersonation of a female comedian doing a set of cliche jokes for a comedy club audience (my boyfriend this, shopping that, etc.), and it was really trippy, because everyone in the audience was laughing, but you couldn’t tell if they were laughing at the jokes, or laughing at the fact that people laugh at jokes like that, or some combination. Nice.

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Che, Steven Soderbergh (2008)

It’s weird how this enormous two-part, four-hour, years-in-the-making film came and went without much fanfare, and then shows up in the Criterion Collection, like, boom, immediately.

Before my brief take on this movie, can we have a moment where we think about what a psycho Steven Soderbergh is? He directs anything and everything from broad comedy to heist pictures to period dramas, produces, does TV, messes around with low-budget quickies like The Girlfriend Experience, and — did you know this? — his cinematographer, Peter Andrews, is him. That’s right. He does his own cinematography, under a nom de film.

As for Che. One thing that always frustrates about biopics is their inevitable, maybe inescapable, impulse to superimpose a Freytag structure on the subject’s life, when of course very few lives — except those of certain musicians — really follow that formula. The first part of Che hews to this line; it’s the story of the Cuban revolution, from exposition to rising action to climax to denouement. It’s a brisk and stylish two hours, but it is quite dramatically predictable, with all the usual biopic tropes in evidence, e.g. “scene where significant reversal of fortune leads to strengthening of resolve,” etc.

It’s part two of Che that’s finally the more interesting — because it’s boring. In this part, Che leaves Cuba to try to start a revolution in Bolivia. At first, as in part one, the movie proceeds like a politicized Ocean’s Eleven, with all the different protagonists gathering, making plans, and looking incredibly cool in their slouchy fatigues. If you know your history, though, you know that Che’s efforts in Bolivia were disastrous, and Soderbergh does a wonderful job of letting the tension gradually drain away as Che’s situation becomes less and less viable. Scenes get longer and quieter. Dialogue meanders. Che makes bold decisions of the kind which would have, in part one, caused decisive narrative progress, but which here lead only to confusion and stagnation. I found myself both blessing and cursing Soderbergh as the tragedy dwindled toward its final bang/whimper. He lets the film get stuck in a ditch just as deep as the one the guerrillas find themselves trapped in. It’s an instance of the imitative fallacy which I think works quite brilliantly.

A stray final thought: I notice the light in Soderbergh’s movies in a way I rarely do in other contemporary directors. The glowing trunk scene in Out of Sight, all that amazing Vegas gibigiana in the Oceans, the contrasty slashes of shadow in The Good German, and here the blue forest twilight Che dies in. It’s really extremely manipulative, the way Soderbergh uses light — it’s so damned slick, nearly car-commercial slick sometimes. Yet I can’t help it, I think it’s quite beautiful. It will be really interesting to see what these films look like twenty years from now, whether they’ll seem antiquated. I guess the larger thought here is about visual style and how it persists or doesn’t.