Entries from November 2012 ↓
November 27th, 2012 — jazz reviews
So I’m finally catching up with Homeland after months of people yelling in my face about how my not being able to pay for Showtime was keeping me from a television series whose significance to our time-and-place rivals those of The Wire or The Sopranos. Even with all this hype and glory leading the way, nothing I’d read or heard before I dove into the DVDs alerted me to the relatively-minor-but-to-me-significant fact that Carrie Mathison, the ruthless, bipolar CIA counterterrorism operative played by Claire Danes, is a serious jazz buff.
At first, I’m thinking: How great for jazz to have even this much ancillary presence in a prestigious pop-culture phenomenon. And then I think, well, yeah, but…she’s, like, clinical, man! And not always in a good way. Do the producers imply that jazz is part of her problem, or a plausible way out of her personal wilderness? Hard to tell so far, except maybe for a crucial clue she derives early in the first season from watching a bass player’s fingers work through a chord progression. These days, serious jazz buffs, with or without their maladies showing, will take whatever they can get in validation from the zeitgeist.
Somehow, jazz goes on, with or without pop validation – even, as one keeps hearing, without compact discs, though one also hears of something called “vinyl” making inroads in the marketplace. One is still haunted by the passage of time – and of those who helped write the history of jazz’s first century. One of my picks is led by a man who died in 2011, and most of the albums listed here pay homage to another, bassist Paul Motian, paragon and patron saint of progressive music, who mentored or inspired many of the musicians cited below Nevertheless, those who follow Motian’s example aren’t standing still, but moving ahead, heedless of what the aforementioned marketplace is thinking about – when, that is, it bothers to think at all.
1.) Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja/yellowbird) – This intricately-wired gadget had me at hello with “Bruise” – which, at least to these ears, compresses the wavering emotional trajectory of one’s average 24-hour existence into nine-and-a-half action-packed minutes. And, as with any album worth its ranking, it just gets better from there. You wouldn’t think you’d get a big, thick sound out of a trio comprising a trumpet (Miles), a guitar (Bill Frisell) and a trap set (Brian Blade). But this isn’t your average chamber-jazz aggregation. It’s a pocket-sized orchestra with Frisell in top form, whether laying down chords broad enough to encircle a botanic garden or spinning contrapuntal phrases that make antsy-little-bird patterns in the sky. Blade’s already established himself as the most audacious of his generation of drummers and he proves here that his ears are as big as his moxie. Miles, one of the versatile and underappreciated horn players of the present day, leads the way with a nerviness too assured to put on airs, but not afraid to think while singing – or vice-versa. Everything this trio touches works like a fine old timepiece, whether it’s Cotton-Club Ellingtonia (“Doin’ the Voom Voom”), gut-bucket blues (“There Aint No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of my Tears” – and who needs a lyric sheet after a title like that?), old-school balladry (a back-door approach to “Days of Wine and Roses”) and even some rockabilly-with-quirk-sauce (“Just Married”). After you’re through listening to it, wind it up again just to see how the tunes land in your head a second or third time. And that won’t be enough.
2.) Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note) – After more than a decade in which Ravi Coltrane’s been out-front as a leader and composer, newcomers still insist on bringing his parents into the discussion; how he and John play the same axes, how much they’re alike (or not), how Alice’s incantatory style has influenced him and on and on…No use complaining, since just about everything’s that been said on these matters so far has been true. But as of this, his most accomplished album yet, Coltrane has more than earned the right to have his artwork taken on its own distinctive terms. Enabled by co-producer Joe Lovano (about whom, more later), Coltrane triumphantly puts forth a personal vision that inquires as lithely as it asserts, that probes as decisively as it propels. He and his album benefit from having two ensembles at their disposal; a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland that gives added running room for Coltrane’s massive chops (especially on such freewheeling runs as “Spring & Hudson” and the more meditative showcase for his soprano sax, “Marilyn & Tammy”) and a quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist James Genus, pianist Geri Allen and drummer Eric Harland that engages his conversational agility. And with individualists as those in the latter crew, one can’t help but listen as deeply as one speaks. Alessi’s compositions, “Klepto,” “Who Wants Ice Cream” and “Yellow Cat,” extract deep tone colors and slippery phrasing from Coltrane as the imperturbable Allen strings together gem-like chords with escalating force. Lovano joins in on worthwhile examinations of Ornette Coleman (“Check Out Time”) and the aforementioned late, lamented Motian (“Fantasm”).
3.) Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT) – There’s no respite in pianist Iyer’s assault on the traditional jazz repertoire. If anything, his trio shakes things up with even more urgency on its latest production. Yet there’s also greater authority in its overall execution given how better attuned its members are to each other’s instincts. With something as well-worn as “Human Nature” (and no, once and for all, Michael Jackson did NOT write it, but my Hartford housing-project homeboy Steve Porcaro did with John Bettis), Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore re-jigger familiar elements into something like a grand incantation while still making it sound like something you could dance to (though it might be a slightly different dance from the one you’re prepared for). The trio also unearths unexpected theme-extending possibilities in other pop-funk guests on the playlist: “Mmmhmm” by bassist “Thundercat” Bruner and Flying Lotus and “The Star of the Story”, written by Rod Temperton for the seventies disco band Heatwave. The jazz “standards” are, of course, so left-field that Henry Threadgill’s wildly-eccentric “Little Pocket-Sized Demons” is given as straightforward a reading as can be imagined while a conventionally-swinging foundation is generously applied to Herbie Nichols’ typically-unconventional “Wildflower.” And why doesn’t it surprise that when Duke Ellington is invited to the party, his house gift is the lesser-known-than-it-should-be “Village of the Virgins,” from the maestro’s collaboration with choreographer Alvin Ailey? Iyer’s own pieces, including the explosive title track, move forward with a kind of mutant turbulence reminiscent of both Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus, while achieving a definitive shape they’ve earned on their own. It’s hard to tell at times whether harmonies are being re-imagined here as rhythms, or the other way around. Either way, you’re ready for whatever the Iyer Gang stirs up next time.
4.) Henry Threadgill, Tomorrow Sunny/the Revelry, Spp (Pi) – Yup, that’s the title — even those last three letters, which look like the tail end of a URL address from an undiscovered continent, but likely stand for “species”, given the biological roots of the ensemble’s name, Zooid (pronounced “zoh-oyd” and defined as “an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism.”) Once again, it would appear Henry Threadgill’s not going to make things easy for us. Yet if you keep in mind what that Z-word means, you can begin to understand how his group’s instrumental voices merge to form their own arresting unity from ostensible chaos. To the regular quintet — the omnipresent Threadgill on reeds, the irrepressible Liberty Elfman on guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on percussion – cellist Christopher Hoffman is added, which broadens the range of melodic-harmonic conversation while providing additional underpinning for the rhythmic attack The frisky result is the most cohesive and accessible of Threadgill’s previous four Zooid albums. It’s almost as if the guys finally got around to what they wanted to say all along and are better able to bring all of us into the flow. Then again, maybe we’re the ones who are adjusting to the seemingly fragmented nature of this music given how increasingly static our digitized day-to-day living has become. There’s a third possibility: That the lilting dynamics of this particular disc shields more disconcerting perceptions (e.g. If “tomorrow” is “sunny,” then what’s that make “today”? And how long before “tomorrow” gets here?) But why make things harder for us than they need to be? Just revel, Humans from Earth.
5.) Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside) – Her voice is such a gorgeous instrument that it tempts producers to frame it in all manner of contexts, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry set to music or Chet Baker’s songbook steeped in indigo. But the formula that’s thus far worked best for Souza puts her in a studio with the finest guitarists of her native Brazil and lets them run free in duet mode with the classic repertoire of their homeland. To say this third installment is as great as its 2001 and 2005 predecessors only solidifies the stature of this career-defining trilogy. It’s hard to single out any of her accompanists, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira, since each manage to bring out her inner poet, chemist or dancer, whichever the occasion requires. Her interplay with Pereira on the latter’s “Dona Lu” is as ingenious as it is enchanting while Lubambo, mainstay of the invaluable Trio La Paz, collaborates with her on a transcendent, enrapturing version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” which, as with many of the other tunes here, sounds both warmly familiar and startlingly fresh.
6.) Dave Douglas, Be Still (Green Leaf) – Not since 1998’s Charms of the Night Sky has a Dave Douglas album beguiled as consistently as this. The soft, wistful essences of Be Still have more elegiac tinctures given that it is a series of tunes, many of them in the folk and spiritual idiom, dedicated to the memory of the trumpeter’s late mother Emily. Hence, the first verse of “This is My Father’s World” substitutes “mother” for “father.” Moreover, the quintet of Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston make the century-old hymn swing ever so gently behind the spring-water vocals of bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donovan, who shows here that she can hold her own with the jazz kids. She brings such limpid, ethereal grace to such songs as “Be Still My Soul” (whose music comes from Jean Sibelius), “Barbara Allen” and Douglas’ “Living Streams” that you almost wish she was on all the tracks. But Douglas’ own instrument is plaintive and poignant enough, even with it kicks up some dust on the more festive “Going Somewhere with You.” By its last cut, “Whither Must I Wander”, Douglas’ tribute seems suspended in a nether region between grief and acceptance, solemnity and release. It’s where most of us end up after we lose someone close to us – and where we sometimes tend to stay longer than we should. It’s that very ambivalence that makes Douglas’ musical wake seem a generous, more authentic gift to the living.
7.) Fred Hersch Trio, Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – It’s not the first album Hersch has recorded at the fabled Village Vanguard – and, now that we’re sure he’s in fine fettle, one expects it won’t be the last. But that word in the title, “Alive,” carries added weight precisely because of the pianist’s astounding recovery from an AIDS-related coma in 2008. He seems to have come back from the abyss with greater fortitude and rawer energy than he’d had before. Even the romantic lyricism, one of many attributes that prompted immediate comparisons with Bill Evans upon his earlier emergence, packs earthier, more serrated textures on such intriguing medleys as “The Wind/Moon and Sand” and “From This Moment On/The Song Is You.” He literally tosses the Evans comparisons in the spin cycle by melding “Nardis” with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” With his simpatico band mates, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, opening doors and windows for his imaginative faculties, Hersch leaps, saunters and, sometimes, stomps through those passages with a unassailable bravado that tells anybody who’s listening: Yes, I’m alive, thanks. Are you?
8.) John Abercrombie Quartet, Within A Song (ECM) – Yes, guitarist Abercrombie is the name on the door, and he is also leader of the pack and owner of the context (jazz music from the late 1950s and early 1960s that inspired him). But from the moment Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone starts his journey into deeper, broader variations on “Where Are You” that are worthy of the mighty Coleman Hawkins and his epoch-making 1939 recording of “Body and Soul,” he’s the one you’re most anxious to hear again throughout, whether soaring on balladry or pirouetting through Something Completely Different (e.g. Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”) Abercrombie’s downy, single-note lyricism seems to yield so much of the floor to the greatest saxophonist of his generation that you almost overlook the unflappable expertise he shows in letting his guitar wrap itself around all manner of rhythms. Both bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron glide and pivot their way through whatever each tune requires, whether it’s the title track (Abercrombie’s crafty inversion of “Without A Song,” reminiscent of the 1961 colloquy on that standard between Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins on the latter’s “The Bridge”) or pieces by John Coltrane (“Wise One”) and Bill Evans (“Interplay”, “Sometime Ago”). It’s a delicate bit of retrospective-izing that never fawns over the past, but finds elegant ways to re-invigorate it.
9.) Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Barry Atschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi) – Do the math. Rivers died a year ago this month at age 88. He recorded this in May, 2007. That would make him 84 at the time; actually, 83, since his birthday was in September. Whatever the case, you will simply not believe that a man in his eighties is capable of the kind of sustained energetic invention on saxophone and flute that Rivers displays on this epic series of live performances with old friends Holland and Atschul at Columbia University, their first performance together in a quarter-century. Those who recall how naturally lucid and enrapturing their free-form interplay was in the 1970s may not find any true astonishments in this interchange. Even so, there is always anticipation whenever Holland tosses a bass line or two into the void. Will Rivers grab at a bop-like riff and weave a few quick licks into a bird call? Will Atschul (and where has he been all this time?) pounce on his hi-hat to propel their thoughts or pry open a new path with the proverbial different drum? Maybe Rivers will move to a piano; something he rarely, if ever did back in the day. This is free jazz at its most accessible, which makes it no less challenging and much more fun. The only thing that would have made it more galvanic an event would have been an appearance by Anthony Braxton to round out the crew that was aboard for the Holland-led 1973 ECM disc, Conference of the Birds. As it is, this Reunion was more than enough to remind devotees-of-a-certain-age of the sublime, long-lost joys of listening to musicians in loft apartments make artful noise purely for inspiration’s sake.
10.) Bobby Hutcherson, Somewhere in the Night (Kind of Blue) –. Aficionados of the jazz organ know Joey De Francesco’s cooking facilities are at even- or above-par with such masters of the pedal-walking bass line as Jimmies Smith and McGriff. But on this 2009 live date with vibraphonist Hutcherson at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola club at New York’s Jazz @Lincoln Center, Joey Dee shows off his commanding maturity and range of expression. He seems especially charged by this eclectic play list to flash some lyrical agility in his solos. Who knew that Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” would make for such a four-alarm barnburner with De Francesco tearing into riffs only to blow them apart and use their shards as fuel for thin-air improv? He’d walk off with the whole program in his back pocket if it weren’t for sure-handed drummer Byron Landham driving the crew in the focused, but open-hearted way your parents would take your Little League team to and from a long-distance away game and guitarist Peter Bernstein un-spooling his own versatility (especially on the title track, best remembered by those of us raised on black-and-white TV as “The Theme from ‘Naked City’”) from a pronounced center-of -gravity. But this date, basically and properly, belongs to the leader, who turns 72 next month and, despite his seemingly inexhaustible drive, still doesn’t get the props he deserves as both instrumentalist and composer.
1.) Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic)
2.) Matthew Shipp, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Ted Nash, The Creep (Plastic Sax)
4.) Chick Corea & Gary Burton, Hot House (Concord)
5.) Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
BEST NEW ARTIST: Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works by Gil Evans (ArtistsShare) Honorable Mention: Reggie Quinerly, Music Inspired by Freedmantown (Redefinition)
BEST LATIN JAZZ: Guillermo Klein Y Los Gauchos, Carrera (Sunnyside) Honorable Mention: David Virelles, Continuum (Pi)
BEST VOCAL: Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside)
Honorable Mention: Tessa Souter, Beyond the Blue (Motema); Cassandra Wilson, Another Country (Entertainment One); Susie Arioli, All The Way (Jazzheads)
BEST REISSUE: Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65 (Mosaic)
November 14th, 2012 — movie reviews
Lincoln – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: And what if last week’s election had gone the other way? Would that 13th Amendment have been repealed? Oops. Spoiler…Sorry about that, those-of-you-who-slept-through-high-school-history….)
Race prowls, growls and snaps along the edges of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as it never could throughout the recent political campaign. And to briefly digress, the evasions have only gotten worse since last Tuesday. So far, no one in what Sarah Palin and I love to label the “lame-stream media” wishes to acknowledge the specter of racism in these calls for secession by spoilsports in Texas and elsewhere. I’d like to believe, as Lincoln widens its presence in the Great American Multiplex, that the neo-Victorian lummoxes now wasting their energies on the Petraeus-Broadhurst Misadventures will be compelled by the movie to see this neo-Confederate furor as the maypole-dance-for-bigotry that it is. But as a good friend of mine sadly reflected today, it would have been nice to think that last week’s election results meant we’d finally put away all our childish things.
As vital as I think Lincoln is to generating a more perfect discourse on race and union, I think the movie’s gradual release better facilitates such maturity. A more big-footed nationwide bust-out of any Spielberg movie conditions audiences to expect pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, if not dinosaurs and aliens. This is a deliberately-paced, serious-but-not-altogether-solemn epic that needs all of its 150 minutes to convey the urgency, languor and ultimate viability of the democratic process. If Steven Spielberg’s showmanship can’t make compelling cinema from material as multi-layered as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, nothing can. It can, and does.
(And, for the record, boys and girls, there are plenty of dinosaurs and exotic beings in this one as well, if only metaphorical ones. You’ll see what I mean.)
As with Amazing Grace, Michael Apted’s handsome, relatively neglected 2006 movie about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t about African American rights so much as it is about politics itself, and how time, personality, and the velvet-fisted power of persuasion can converge to bring about epochal, seemingly miraculous transformation. Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (little noted and not as long remembered as the Emancipation Proclamation) provides a surprisingly wide lens for viewing the contradictions and complexities of both the Republic and its haggard-but-dauntless leader in the final months of its greatest crisis. Among the many small miracles wrought by Tony Kushner’s script (and the movie is as much Kushner’s as it is Spielberg’s, maybe more) is its seamless compression of the personal travails of its protagonist with the brilliant calculation of his maneuvering. You’d have to know going into the theater that, however much the movie is packaged as civic education, you’re not going to visit a stone edifice. You’d also have to know that Daniel Day-Lewis, whose preparation is so diligent and fertile that it can sometimes spill onto the scene, nails down everything there can possibly be about Lincoln’s voice and physical movement, even the way he nestles against his sleeping youngest boy, to leave little or no doubt that this is how “our one true genius in politics” (vide Robert Lowell) really behaved in sorrow, anger and, most tellingly, in jest. (Would it really ruin things for you if I disclosed that Lincoln tells a dirty joke in the movie? Or would it make you more curious? Either way, I’m not sorry. At least I didn’t tell the joke.)
As good as Day-Lewis is, it’s not as dominant a performance as you might expect — or dread. Tommy Lee Jones, that proud son of the once-and-future Republic of Texas, dines robustly on scenery as the Pennsylvania abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, treated so shabbily by D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation and here given some of the better lines not assigned to Lincoln himself. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, though nowhere near as edgy as Mary Tyler Moore’s version in the 1988 TV mini-series version of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, is as persuasively grounded as she is borderline hysterical. Everyone else, from Bruce McGill and David Straithairn as cabinet stalwarts Edwin Stanton and William Seward, respectively, to a near-unrecognizable James Spader as ringleader of Lincoln’s back-ally lobbyists, makes vivid use of on-screen time, even Lee Pace as the flamboyant Copperwood Democrat Fernando Wood who wanted New York to secede and Justified’s peerless Walton Goggins, his wormy magnetism on that show checked here in the role of a tremulous fence-sitting Democrat fiercely tugged by both sides in the amendment debate.
And what about the African Americans? Well, as seems customary in the aforementioned lame-stream, they talk less here than they are talked-about. Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and “confidant” to the First Lady, is permitted here to ask Lincoln the question most black people are more likely to ask of him now: How, Mr. President, do you really feel about us? Mr. President finesses the answer in the movie with precisely the same ambiguity with which he dealt with the race question all his life. (He was never as ambiguous on slavery itself. The distinction isn’t as clear here as it perhaps should be, but it’s there.) David Oyewelo, as one of the black Union soldiers speaking directly with Lincoln at the movie’s beginning, is far less credulous, peering at the president’s amiable façade with visible skepticism over its owner’s commitment to that “new Birth of Freedom” cited at Gettysburg months before the movie’s story begins.
But if black people aren’t as conspicuous as whites in Lincoln, race, as noted earlier, rages insistently throughout, stalking the historical figures like a rough, fearsomely mythological beast whose presence drives everyone’s actions, even – especially – the hesitation or outright refusal to act at all. And the movie is not the least bit shy implying that it is hysteria towards the very idea of “race-mixing” rather than the dark race of the despised minority itself that is most complicit in the Civil War’s bloodshed. Nowhere is this made more visually striking than after the unsuccessful attempt by Confederacy vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and his “commissioners” to retain slavery as a prerequisite for a negotiated settlement between North and South. The impasse fades to the image of a city in flames illuminating the night, followed by a gloomy ride by Lincoln and assorted military officers through a sooty, corpse-riddled battleground in Virginia. At such a point, those familiar with Lincoln’s life and words might be inclined to think of his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”
I bet Tony Kushner knew that speech. I’m also betting that Kushner, who’s on-record defending Barack Obama’s circumspection and cool resolve against the dismissive criticism from Kushner’s left-wing allies, worked on this screenplay over the past few years with the intuitive sense that the 44th president’s struggles to finesse necessary transformation against ferocious and, at times, irrational opposition mirror those of the 16th president. Such perception gives his script a breadth, passion and level of commitment rivaling those of his stage work, notably, inevitably, Angels in America.
Lincoln, as the film takes pains to point out, is not perfect – and neither is Lincoln. Its ending comes across as Spielberg’s surrender to the temptation of making things obvious to the audience. It needed to end a few minutes earlier. (No, not this time. See for yourself.) Still, though we’re all in dire need of remedial history and (God knows) civics, Lincoln arrives not as a $50 million classroom lecture, but as a deeply enthralling diorama of tragedy and triumph bridged by the worst (avarice, bigotry, meanness of spirit) and best (equanimity, perspective, the enduring power of the open mind) from our many selves. And in case I didn’t make it clear at the outset, I’m as surprised by all this as you are – or will be.
November 6th, 2012 — movie reviews
Cloud Atlas – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Too much cheese can be bad for your health…unless you have nothing else to eat.)
On the printed page, Cloud Atlas implied, ruminated and teased along the edges of profundity. On the big screen, it blares, shouts and gushes how significant it’s trying to be. As you’ve heard by now, the movie is several thrilling romances in one enveloping 165-minute epic. So it’s not surprising to find yourself subdividing your overall reaction. I guess, then, as with some of my peers, I was alternately engrossed, impatient, enthralled, bemused, touched and incredulous – and never bored, though I’m damned if I can figure out how that happened. I didn’t always admire the film. But to mimic those who have only now finished campaigning for public office, I approved its message. And its message, in spite of what you may have read in reviews or heard from “advance buzz”, has less to do with reincarnation or karma as it does with freedom – or, more to the point, how we behave when freedom is absent.
To some critics, this recurring motif seems too obvious or banal to merit any “serious” consideration. But this presumes that every other commercial feature deals in such themes with as much grandeur and insistence as this six-ring circus of time displacement. The Wachowski siblings, who shared directorial duties with Tom “Run Lola Run” Twyker, made themselves golden when, with The Matrix, they suggested that your life may not belong to you while at the same time offering metaphorical routes towards release. You find this riff echoing through the parts of the movie belonging to them – the 1849 storyline about a Caucasian attorney and a Maori slave taking turns at saving each other’s lives; the 22nd-century dystopian saga of a Korean clone who finds her humanity by revolting against her masters; the post-apocalyptic tale of a tribesman disoriented by encountering relics of a lost civilization. The Twyker-directed segments – the 1936 thread about a dissolute young composer’s ill-fated encounter with his own greatness; the 1975 thriller about an investigative reporter’s set-to with ruthless energy-industry thugs; the present-day comedy about a publisher’s efforts to escape unjustified confinement in a dour nursing home – blend with the others better than you’d expect. But not quite seamlessly enough to notice some wobble and strain in the total package.
All the actors in the film in various roles – from Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and James D’Arcy to Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Donna Bae and Jim Sturgess are forced to wear varying layers of make-up to keep your heads in the game of trans-temporal souls. You get the feeling they’re not just engaged in role-playing, but in a genuine cause. They don’t get too many chances to tell stories about slavery and freedom either.
I suppose I should make a bigger deal of Cloud Atlas’ lapses in restraint and judgment in order to maintain my auxiliary membership in the Justice League of Curmudgeons. But while I can’t wholly recommend it, I can’t get out from under it either. And it’s mostly because while I don’t buy its pitch, I buy what it’s selling. I’m assuming I’ll hear a lot of talk about slavery and freedom in Spielberg’s Lincoln. But whatever its own merits, I doubt I’ll feel the direct sting of such issues as directly as I do here.
Arbitrage – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So, like, am I supposed to care what happens to this putz? And, if so, why?)
Hollywood’s golden age submitted for immortality a strikingly diverse male iconography: Cagney, Tracy, Gable, Cooper, Bogart, Wayne, Stewart, Mitchum and Grant. In their place, we have a handful of lizard kings: Cruise, Travolta, Cage, Willis and Jeff Bridges, especially his recent run playing grizzled-guys-of-blearily-compromised-dignity in both Crazy Heart and True Grit. Even Denzel Washington, who’s apparently proven yet again that he’s a standard-bearer for that aforementioned golden-age, won his only lead-actor Oscar so far by playing a distressingly bent police detective in 2001’s Training Day.
As good as Washington was in that movie, not even he can go into lizard mode with as much panache as Richard Gere. Mistaken at the starting gate (as was Alec Baldwin) for a dashing heroic lead, Gere is at his best playing characters who occupy that narrow range between morally conflicted and balefully duplicitous. It took a long time for audiences and critics to get that message given what I now suppose were the unreasonably large expectations Gere aroused back when ABBA ruled the hemisphere. Critics regard Gere’s own bent-cop turn in 1990’s Internal Affairs as the beginning of his revisionist period. But the evidence of lizard élan could be found as far back as 1979’s American Gigolo; its Julian Kaye lacking only the self-knowledge and articulation of Gere’s latter variations of the well-groomed, two-faced sharpie, whether as the blithe trick in 1990’s Pretty Woman or the ardent trickster in 2007’s The Hoax, which I was certain would nail down an Oscar nomination for Gere.
I have the same expectations for Gere’s splendid work in Arbitrage, though I suspect the results will be the same because the movie, as with Hoax, hasn’t gotten audience buzz strong enough to match the mostly-positive critical reaction. And what do I know anyway? I expected Margin Call to hit big with audiences and Academy voters a year ago. But I should know better by now. People may be mad as hell at Wall Street and the avaricious, short-sighted bastards who manipulated the economy to the edge of a cliff. But as far as today’s audiences are concerned, there’s no point in dragging these greed-heads out for further exposure unless Batman, Spider-Man and The Hulk step in to beat the shit out of them. And I’m not sure they’re wrong to expect it.
Robert Miller, the besieged Master-of-the-Universe Gere nimbly portrays in Arbitrage, is a silver lynx in pinstripes, gliding into well-apportioned rooms as Julian Kaye did, only with barely-contained apprehension replacing Julian’s self-conscious swagger. Miller’s a bounder, an adulterer and, as with all true Americans, a serial improviser. He’s keeping law-enforcement wolves at bay on two fronts: By browbeating (charmingly, of course) his way into a merger that will paper over his hedge fund’s illegal oopsie and by buying off his former chauffeur’s son for helping him evade the scene of a fatal accident.
I’m only guessing the extent to which writer-director Nicholas Jarecki disapproves of such slippery-eel behavior because the game Arbitrage plays is one of compare-and-contrast ethics. Are the police, spearheaded by Tim Roth’s Colombo-esque bulldog, any more admirable for trying to get at Robert by terrorizing the African-American youth who’s merely keeping his word? After all, Robert’s rewarding his silence with money and what matters more than money? Justice? Robert would say you can buy that, too, though that’s the one thing he doesn’t bid on here, unless you count the merger. (Can’t say any more without spoiling the movie, which is still floating through the multiplexes before its December DVD release.) Despite Gere’s shrewdly-rendered performance, Arbitrage lets him down because, no matter how calculated its ambiguity, it doesn’t have the weight to do more than tweak its audience’s moral imagination. And if I’m going to spend an hour-and-change staring at yet another Master-of-the-Universe ensnared by his own machinations, tweaking isn’t enough inducement. Not after this election anyway.
Savages – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Not as bad as you’ve heard. In fact, the last time I had this much unadulterated fun at an Oliver Stone movie was…was….wait, it will come to me…)
People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s trying too hard to make a point. People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s not trying to make a point at all. Seems as though the only thing people don’t give Oliver Stone is a break – though it’s also true that, as with other maestros of the inflammatory/declamatory feature (see also “Lee, Spike” or “Moore, Michael”), he can be his own worst enemy. To deploy what seem to me appropriately martial metaphors, I tend to prefer the epee and the switchblade to the double-barreled shotgun for aesthetic approaches. But Stone’s blast-the-walls attack can yield arcane charms if you’re in the mood. And for any number of reasons, I’m more in the mood for Savages than I ever was for JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and even Platoon.
You could say – and I will – that Savages is Stone’s vision of the movie business as sifted through a SoCal crime thriller of dealing drugs and death. Its ménage-a-trois of Aaron Johnson’s Ben, Taylor Kitsch’s Chon and Blake Lively’s O-for-Ophelia is a too-neat analogy for the way Hollywood does business – or imagines itself doing business. Ben and Chon make their huge coin growing, packaging and marketing the sweetest, tastiest marijuana north of Baja. Nice guy Ben uses his take to help poorer countries become more self-sufficient in food production while hard guy Chon lays down the thunder to those who try to shortchange them out of profits. O, the triangle’s gauzy hypotenuse, loves them both for being twin poles of what she sees as The Perfect Man.
Inevitably, this beautiful dream is assaulted by a Mexican drug cartel, headed by a ferocious, helmet-haired Salma Hayak, that won’t accept “no” to their bid for a hostile takeover of Ben and Chon’s enterprise. Toss in Benicio Del Toro as Hayak’s sociopath enforcer and John Travolta as a morally flexible DEA agent and you have the kind of freewheeling comic misanthropy that once made you giddy to go to the movies in the mid-1970s. And if you still think Stone’s trying too hard, consider the two-for-one climax as a promising sign that maybe he’s starting to take everything less solemnly than before.