Monday, February 20, 2017

The Player

SPOILERS

Robert Altman's Tinseltown satire THE PLAYER from 1992 is one of his most realized, disciplined efforts.  It has a linear plot! It's a film that often plays as a genuine thriller, to boot.  Yet all in that somewhat recognizable style, so Altmanesque. Akin to a provacateur wandering through gardens and offices and restaurants, picking up snatches of conversation and perhaps focusing more on those in the peripheries than the ones in the foreground.  In Hollywood, a town of endless meetings and parties, the opportunities are plentiful.

Altman never was a "player".  Maybe in the wake of MASH's success in the early 70s he enjoyed some attention but his decision to remain true to his idiosyncratic vision thereafter made it unlikely that studio types were kicking in his door.  Unless it was to wrestle away final edit on his latest eccentric opus.  Being an outsider but inside enough made the director the perfect overseer for Michael Tolkin's dark (could it be any other way?) tale of a studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins).  Mill is plagued not only by competition from a new story exec named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), but also a string of death threats from an anonymous screenwriter.

Mill rejects lots of story pitches and script submissions.  But the postcards he receives from his mystery would-be assailant grow more ominous. Eventually he suspects writer David Kahane (Vincent D'onofrio), and after an unsuccessful attempt to entice him with a deal over drinks, Kahane ends up dead.  The exec arranges the scene to appear as if a robbery had gone wrong.

Do Hollywood types like Mill have a conscience? Only to save their own skin. Mill becomes suspect number one in the eyes of a pair of sardonic detectives played by Whoopi Goldberg and Altman reg Lyle Lovett.  And then the death threats continue...the real stalker also is now aware that Mill has assailed the wrong person.

THE PLAYER continues the storyline with a fair amount of detail straight to its wildly clever and (naturally) cynical finale.  Tolkin's script (adapted from his novel) reads like the work of someone who's submitted one too many entries to a studio "slush pile" or waited in vain by the phone for that call from someone who "loved (their) work."  It seems pretty astute into the vagaries of the Hollywood game, with its hotshot producers and creepy relatives of hotshots who think they can just ring up Winona Ryder or someone equally famous for a date because of their lineage.  The chain smoking writers who get less respect than the guy holding the boom mic.

Altman's caustic outlook never goes over the top (even during Goldberg's tampon twirling scene), as some Hollywood satires have been known to.  His laissez faire direction allows many long takes of several well known actors just going about their business, like Burt Reynolds rambling at a lunch or John Cusack looking suitably embarrassed when Mill says hello to him.  Or Jeff Goldblum appearing as if in traction at a party.

But THE PLAYER also disturbingly has us rooting for the bad guy.  A protagonist who has murdered an innocent and carried on with his girlfriend (Great Scacchi) while ignoring his own (Cynthia Stephenson).  I recall that this very notion was too much for a friend of a friend who joined us for a matinee.  He walked out at one point and waited for us in the lobby.  I bet Altman would've been pleased to know that.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part IV (CONCLUSION)

2004 brought The Spine, an agreeable but somewhat bland entry in the They Might Be Giants catalogue.  The creative highs heard on No! and Mink Car were not repeated here.  The album, two of its tracks heard on a preceding EP called Indestructible Object, seemed to be phoned in.  The Johns firing on merely a few cylinders.  So tired.  "Au Contraire" name drops Jodie Foster and Mahatma Gandhi to little fanfare.  "Stalk of Wheat" sounds like drunken merry go round music.  Yes, the lyrics were still witty, particularly on "Prevenge" and " I Can't Hide From My Mind", but everything has some sort of malaise.  The production is competent but without surprises.  Many songs have traditional rock arrangements.  That is, however, used to amusing effect in the middle of "It's Kickin' In".  The most interesting song for me is "The World Before Later On" which describes a sort of limbo in which the imagined, anticipated future has sorta happened, but without flying cars and space faces.

I think my main problem with The Spine is the association I've made with its release.  It came out right as grad school was becoming grueling and unpleasant.  Hearing it brings back a certain nausea.  It's not the guys' fault.  At that time, I was also really getting into another wiseacre duos' output - 10cc, and TMBGs were beginning to suffer in comparison.

There were three more children's albums in the oughts: Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s, and Here Comes Science.  I have not absorbed them as thoroughly as No!, but they are as inspired as ever.  You needn't have kids to appreciate them.

In between was another so-so album, The Else (2007) which does sport a funny cover.  "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" grabbed me on first listen, but I plateaued early with the rest.  I actually found more enjoyment from the bonus disc, Cast Your Pod to the Wind, which is filled with the kind of short and sweet novelties that TMBGs do best.  The Else, I bet, deserves re-assessment.  Maybe I'll report later.

In 2011, They Might Be Giants returned with an obvious bid for the glory days with Join Us.  So many poppy hooks and good old fashioned weirdness.  For me, it was an immediate winner.  From the strangely poignant "Old Pine Box" to the oddly relaxing "Let Your Hair Hang Down", and a lot of distorted voices and whack time signatures in between, this is just flat out fun stuff.  I guarantee that "Dog Walker" will stay in your auditory cortex for some time.

Nanobots followed a year later and many were comparing its abundance of short (some very short) tracks to the "Fingertips" suite from 1992's Apollo 18.   Some are only a few seconds.  Do they tie together? Not like they do on the earlier album.  But the hit and run aspect of them creates a weird, almost hypertensive feeling if you listen to this album straight through.  The rest of the batch are catchy and as erudite in that great Linnell/Flansburgh tradition.  "Icky" should have dominated the charts with its infectious phrasing and arrangement.  "Black Ops" could've easily fit on 1989's Lincoln, so the retro longing continued.

There are more albums, including 2015's Glean and Why?, and 2016's Phone Power, all consisting of material from an update of the Dial-A-Song project.  I haven't heard a note of any of them, but plan a delve soon.

They Might Be Giants will always occupy that happy space in my brain for smart and silly music making.  The boys switch genres with ease, and their ambitions have taken them to both good and fair places.  Never awful.  I prefer their stripped down music.  As much as I appreciate the full band, especially live, I yearn for the low budget sound of two guys from Massachusetts, who would make Brooklyn their home.

And there you have it, invisible audience, "The Wiseacre Duos" series comes to a belated close.  What was intended to last a few months has stretched into what, nine years?! Albeit with some long gaps.  If you hung on, God bless you. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Room with a View

Lucy Honeychurch stands at a window and finds that she in fact does not have a room with a view.   She and her chaperone/cousin Charlotte are aghast that their guest house in Italy could not offer them such.  Mr. Emerson and his son George, who do possess the coveted view offer to switch with the ladies.  Charlotte will have none of it, finding the offer an offensive gesture.  Her Victorian sensibility would not allow this chance for indebtedness to the friendly but socially crude elder Emerson.  Lucy is intrigued, and will continue to so be with the younger.

Back home in Surrey, Lucy becomes engaged to a wealthy, polished boor called Cecil Vyse.  Face always in a book, he's the sort who immerses himself in the arts but never finds a real connection with it.  Or with people, for that matter. A man who asks permission for a kiss, but those blasted spectacles do get in the way.  But it is he who alerts the Emersons of a cottage for rent in town.  I forgot to mention that Miss Honeychurch had shared a passionate kiss with George in a barley field back in Florence.  George and the lady will reunite.  Does she love him? Is she in denial? Does Cecil really love Lucy, or just the idea of her by his side? 

1985's A ROOM WITH A VIEW is a James Ivory/Ismail Merchant/Ruth Prawer Jhabvala production.  The directing/producing/ and writing collaboration that would later bring us HOWARD'S END and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.  Their productions sparkle with class and wit, never reeking of pretension or smugness (even if some of the characters do).  The fourth individual of this team is English writer E.M. Forster, whose novels (including the later Maurice along with Howard's End) provided the others with a meticulous framework from which to work   Themes of class structure, free thinking, mores, and even passionate love flow throughout these works and the Ivory adaptations.

Through the leisurely paced but never dull A ROOM WITH A VIEW (which even allows some innocent nude frolicking in the countryside) we explore the heart and the mind, how amazingly they can coexist.  By the end, anyway.  Lucy agonizes over her feelings, while George is entirely comfortable with his. They represent a changing tide in British society as the twentieth century charges along.  The Emersons may be ignorant of social graces, but have embraced a curiosity about life, other cultures.  But lest you think Ivory and company get too carried away with bohemian lust, George is seen falling to the ground, downed by the snapped twig he clutches as he screams his love for nature.  A nice moment of gentle deflation.

The cast is wonderful.  Helena Bonham Carter gets her first real showcase as Lucy, a study of confliction and reconciliation with her true spirit.  I love how her character may be defined by her furious playing of Beethoven on the piano, giving way to more self awareness as she discovers her feelings for this alleged ruffian, or rake, if you will.  Daniel Day Lewis is funny, almost Chaplinesque in his clueless dance. Denholm Elliott is fine as the always seemingly inebriated, unwashed, but honest Mr. Emerson. Need I mention Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, effortless in their embodiment of Edwardian era England polarity?  A place where break ups are engineered with such politeness and everyone seems most concerned about having tea.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Red Army

Slava Petislov seems quite put out in his interviews with RED ARMY director Gabe Polsky.  He's not the most agreeable subject.  He stops to look at his cell phone, answers questions obliquely.   He even gives Polsky (and the viewer?) that dreaded finger gesture.  He behaves like a spoiled celebrity at times, a tired old man at others.  Some would say that the world famous ice hockey defenseman, who played for the Kontinental Hockey League (Red Army League) in Moscow during the Cold War years and later with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, has earned the right to act as such.  As a player and later as a coach, he won three Stanley Cups.

The road there was paved with punishingly difficult practices under a martinet of a coach named Viktor Tikhanov.  Neither Slava or any of his teammates have anything nice to say about him.  When the Red Army Team was handed a dramatic loss by the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, well, things only got worse.  His players were sequestered away from pretty much everyone and everything for eleven months of the year.   Like being shipped to Siberia!  Tikhanov is portrayed as a heartless machine, a real asset to the iron fist Communist regime he served.  In some old clips, he argues that his methods produced the best team in the world, backed up by multiple championships and Olympic gold medals.  His team operated as a unit; the five men worked as a single-minded collective.  They were not singled out the way someone like Bobby Orr would've been in the States.  The team reflected their homeland's socialist mantra.

When Slava attempted to leave the U.S.S.R. to play for the NHL, his coach conspired with government officials to block him.  When he finally quit the Red Army team out of great frustration, he was ostracized from all corners and even threatened with imprisonment.  His experiences, recounted by himself and his wife, sound like something out of a Soviet thriller paperback. 

But unlike some others, Slava never defected to the West.  He felt it a betrayal to his country.  His loyalty was strong.  He did his years in the U.S., eventually being reunited with the other four players (known as The Green Unit during their years in Russia) who had a very stylish method of play.  Like the Bolshoi Ballet.  This was a strategy at odds with the other players and Western fans.  But eventually their old magic came back, winning over coaches and spectators and scaring the hell out of their opponents.  One amusing piece shows Wayne Gretzky lamenting that the Russians were impossible to beat.

But Slava would return to his country, even assuming a position of Minister of Sport, to which he was appointed by Vladimir Putin. Later he would hold post in the Federal Assembly.

Slava Petislov recounts all this in what comes off as a slightly irritated demeanor, though you can see some wistfulness as he recalls the death of his brother and his long estrangement from fellow defenseman Alexai Kasatanov.  There are some brief interviews with the other team members, who also are amusingly gruff.  Tiknahov refused to participate with this 2015 film.

RED ARMY is a fascinating, compact documentary that deftly assembles game footage, interviews, and graphics to give a sort of Reader's Digest version of a particular time in history, pre- and post-Glasnost (described by Slava as meaningless term, as "openess" with the West was not truly beholden behind the Iron Curtain).   The film works both as a sports and political doc.

My favorite bit, though, is a newspaper clipping that reads "Slava signs pact with N.J. Devils!"  God bless sportswriters.  And Polsky too, who gets to fire a dig back at his interviewee when he dismisses him as a California boy.

"I'm from Chicago."


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Christine

SPOILERS

If it bleeds, it leads.

Even in 1974, this mantra was uttered by local network affiliate managers across the U.S.A. who found that sensational crime stories - the grislier the better - got the Arbitron numbers.  When did integrity in T.V. news journalism die? When someone discovered that most viewers harbored bloodlust? Had zero attention spans? When the advertisers followed suit?  Where does this environment leave a serious field reporter like Christine Chubbuck?

Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a Sarasota, FL station doing human interest stories about strawberry farmers and chicken coop wranglers.  She desires promotion, to do real investigative reporting and perhaps sit behind the anchor desk. Advance to a major market.  She's ballsy and ambitious, frequently locking horns with her boss Michael (Tracy Letts) over the content and style of her work.  He's blatant in his desire for more violent, crime laden leads.  After getting a tip from a police scanner she obtains, Christine interviews the victim of a fire, but keeps the camera fixed on his face.  Michael wonders why she didn't get some shots of the wreckage and flames.

Last year's CHRISTINE, a biography of the real life Miss Chubbuck's existence in and out of work, has much to say about the state of television news, though nothing you haven't seen already in NETWORK and BROADCAST NEWS.  But this is more than just another bitter corporate satire; this is a study of the last days of a severely troubled young woman.  A woman wracked by an unspeakable depression that lead her to take her own life.  Right on the air, during her big opportunity, finally reading the top of the broadcast lead stories on WXLT.  A gun behind her right ear.  A supremely grim bit of irony, of her ability to finally give viewers the blood and guts they crave.  You can look it up.

Paddy Chayefsky, author of NETWORK, apparently did, reportedly inspired by the story for his screenplay.  You can see a bit of Howard Beale's mania in Chubbuck.  A crazily frustrated fist shake at the media in which she slaves, a recognizance of increasingly banal standards for television news. All of this would be hypertensive enough, but Christine suffers a private hell stoked by her inability to relate to others in a healthy fashion.  She dismisses compliments, lashes out at those trying to be her friend or confidant, including her mother, with whom she shares a small apartment.

Christine's room in the apartment, filled with pictures of rainbows and juvenile artifacts, is evidence of her psyche, resembling a gangly, grossly insecure teenager who, emotionally at least, never found her way to adulthood.  She is humiliated by her virginity, then devastated when she learns she will lose an ovary, practically ensuring she will never have children.  Is her volunteer work as a puppeteer at home for handicapped children a form of therapy in this regard? An outlet for her yearning for motherhood, love?  Her unrequited crush on anchor George (Michael C. Hall) quietly erodes her confidence, but one night he invites her to dinner....

But we know how this story will end.  Is CHRISTINE merely a grim death march?  Two hours of time marking before the big moment? Sylvia Plath in the newsroom? Director Antonio Campos brings the drab surroundings of 1970s Florida to life without ostentatiousness, allowing snippets of the impending impeachment of Nixon as background to another tragedy.  Craig Shilowich's screenplay changes some details of Chubbuck's story (leaving out, curiously, an interview with a policeman about how one would commit suicide), but what's there is always integral to this character study. It's unavoidable that every event in this movie is colored by our knowing the outcome (with some effective small moments of foreshadowing), but that just makes the whole thing more powerful.

And Rebecca Hall is simply great. I kept wondering if she made Christine more interesting than she really was, or was just amazingly skilled at fleshing out a shell of a woman. That's at least how she might've appeared to others.  There in fact was a deep well within.

And dammit, Hall should have been Oscar nominated.   I haven't been as knocked out by a performance in some time.  She really disappears into the role, embodying the look, posture, and voice of a driven but stunted unfortunate who is filled with self-loathing but is perhaps confused by it and powerless to reign it in.  Prone to rage but then just as capable of falling into a ball and allowing a hug to comfort her.  My descriptions sound like pop psychology but Hall's performance does not reek of it.  She's quite incredible.  I don't often cry during movies but this one got to me, and it's all because of the performance, which allows us, before and after she's gone, to deeply ponder a short and tormented life.

To put a fine point on it, there's that quiet, unbearably sad last scene with Jean (Maria Dizzia), Christine's co-worker, a camera operator at the station.  A woman who unsuccessfully tried to reach out to her and was even perceived as a threat.  Jean has just edited a montage of news clips for Chubbuck's funeral and returned home.  She flips on the television.  She sings along to the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Maybe ironic in its use.  Christine Chubbuck didn't make it after all.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Duran Duran: Unstaged

I never imagined I would see a Duran Duran concert video intercut with images of frankfurters roasting on a barbeque, much less a spatula repeatedly banging on that grill in time to "Come Undone".  That's exactly what is on view in the 2011 film DURAN DURAN: UNSTAGED.  During other tunes, Barbie dolls with tape over their breasts dance like Rockettes.  Weird shrunken heads appear elsewhere, for reasons perhaps only David Lynch - director of this entry in a series of concerts sponsored by American Express  - can explain.

Overall, I would say that Lynch's involvement with this project is mostly inspired, but some of the time it feels, gratuitous.  The 2011 performance, captured at the Mayan in Los Angeles, is shot in striking monochrome.  Lynch drops clips of people, places, and things that sometimes match the lyrics, often not (at least in any immediately obvious way). Nails are hammered.  Cars drive through tunnels.  Minute hands on clocks speed through time.  Smoke (overlaid digitally) bellows between songs.  Crowd shots are through fish eye lenses.   I found it especially puzzling that this most abstract thinking of auteurs chose to use a picture of a wolf during "Hungry Like the Wolf" and a rotating blue earth for, "Planet Earth".  Did Lynch's third eye fail him for those crowd pleasing hits?

The set itself is solid.  Several tracks from the 2010 album All You Need is Now are included, and fit nicely with the older material.  The retro feel of the Mark Ronson (who also appears in this video, playing guitar on a few numbers) produced album makes me curious for further exploration. Other guests include My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way and Beth Ditto of The Gossip, who duets with Simon Le Bon on "Notorious".   Album cuts like "Careless Memories" and "Friends of Mine" were a nice surprise to old fans like myself.  There's a cool medley of James Bond themes during the encore, which coalesces nicely in the band's title track for 1985's A VIEW TO A KILL.

At the end, Le Bon asks several collaborators to join him on stage, including Lynch.  The director is a no show, prompting Simon to conjecture that maybe he had already left, escaping into another dimension.  Entirely possible.  David Lynch's graffiti over an already well produced concert film at times does reek of Black Lodge eccentricity.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hell or High Water

2016's HELL OR HIGH WATER might read on the page as a standard cops and robbers drama, albeit with a conscience.  And well, it plays like one, too.  All of the elements are there.  Someone even yells "No one was supposed to get killed!" late in the movie.  That one is right out of the Great Cliche Handbook.  But director David Mackenzie's film does the old chestnut proud, with no nonsense, taut direction and a faithfulness to Taylor Sheridan's script that elucidates its poignancy.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers who don ski masks and hit several branches of Texas Midland Bank in the type of backwater towns in which very little happens.  Most of the banks don't even have security cameras. This is unfathomable to about to be retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) - "Doesn't Wal Mart carry electronics?"  Along with his American Indian partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), with whom he forever engages in good natured bickering,  Marcus finally gets out of his chair and does some detective work, tracing the boys across the state at a confident, steady clip, usually correct in his assumptions.

Marcus learns that the brothers' mother recently passed, leaving behind a ranch (on which there is oil) that is about to be confiscated by Texas Midland.  Toby has two estranged sons from a broken marriage.  Cash from the robberies is converted to chips during periodic visits to a casino on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma.  The chips are then converted again, into a check made out to the bank.  Toby wants to provide for and make good with his sons, telling one of them "not to end up like us".  Tanner is a loose cannon who served jail time and killed their abusive father.  His participation is out of sheer love for his brother, and likely for the thrill of the chase.

HELL OR HIGH WATER, recently announced as a nominee for Best Picture, is edited perfectly by Jake Roberts to tell its oft told tale.  The pace is just right.  There are rough action scenes alternating with low key dialogue scenes, and not a word is wasted.   This is not a slang choked time waster.  The four men all are given ample time to talk about themselves, and their behavior tells even more.  The performances are uniformly fine, with of course special mention to Bridges, who perfectly interprets an old cuss who's seen it all, maybe not quite ready to hang up his rifle, and smart as a whip.  His lines are often quite funny, matching others - like an ancient waitress who asks what the lawmen "don't want to order" (a great scene).    The evocation of West Texas life feels genuine.  With this setting and plotline, you might call the movie a contemporary Western.

Sheridan's screenplay also very nicely weaves in contemporary topics like reverse mortgages and right-to-carry (firearms) laws, the latter most memorably when gun toting townsfolk are more than happy to chase the bank robbers after a heist that turns nasty.  My favorite bit - another waitress refuses to give back her very generous tip (provided by Toby) to Marcus, who cites it as evidence.

"That's half my mortgage!"