This is what I have instead of a Top-Ten (or Not Top-Ten): A handful of oddities that I’d wanted to bring up sooner rather than now. Chances are that, except for number two on this list, none of them will be in play during awards season. (And I’m already getting fed up with awards season even though it’s barely started.) So before this year ends (and it turned out to be a better overall year for movies than I thought it would be at midpoint, though still not as great as fifty years ago), here’s some surplus babble about stuff you’ve already forgotten about.
Moonrise Kingdom– Full disclosure: I was, as is the hero of this movie, 12-going-on-13-years old in the summer of 1965. I was so hopeless at making and keeping friends that I was bullied by boys even geekier than I. This may partly explain why I was drawn to this Wes Anderson movie more intimately than any of his others. I didn’t have an off-shore island at the edges of northern New England to escape to, except for whatever zone of solitude I was able to create for myself in the middle of southern New England. And I didn’t know then that what I really needed to deliver me from my pre-adolescent miseries was a gangly, brooding girl my own age with a violent temper, a yen for Benjamin Britten and a protective instinct towards fellow outcasts. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve felt nostalgic for a past I never had. It is however the first time I’ve been genuinely touched by a Wes Anderson movie with real people (as opposed to the animated Fabulous Mr. Fox, which I also liked a lot despite the perpetually grandstanding, self-aggrandizing hero-figure all too typical of the Anderson c.v.) The guess here is that Anderson’s experience with making Mr. Fox helped tighten his narrative flow and keep his own gangly-ness under control. There’s a generosity-of-spirit towards his characters here that one associates more with Renoir or even Preston Sturges than with Wes Anderson; even the mean kids don’t seem so bad once you know them a little better. It doesn’t exactly make me want to go back to Rushmore or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for a visit. But I might give The Royal Tenenbaums or Darjeeling Limited another try after the New Year.
Beasts of the Southern Wild– This one still gives me trouble and I’ll try to keep the reason why as simple as I can: As much as I wanted – and waited – to be transported by this movie, I wasn’t. I keep wondering if this was my fault since Beasts has landed on the Top-Ten lists of critics I respect (and a few more of those I don’t). Yes I am as captivated as the rest of civilization by Quvenzhane Wallis and I believe Dwight Henry’s performance as her tormented, but ferociously loving father was itself a masterwork of empathy – and not bad at all for a man whose day job is baking. I also am all in with anybody’s efforts to coax magical realism from beneath the topsoil of American folklore using recent trauma (e.g. Katrina) and potential catastrophe (e,g. global warming) as psychic sources. But all the while I watching it, I felt as though I were willing the movie to become what it was trying to be instead of being drawn into its dreamy phantasmagoria. And just so you know, I hold no brief with those who find the movie in any way condescending towards its characters, especially when they’re as doughty as Wallis’ Hushpuppy or as complicated as Henry’s Wink. I suppose that even in a dreamland such as this, you can’t afford to find yourself drifting along for as many stretches as you do here. By the time the Aurochs finally got to the Bathtub, or vice-versa (go ask somebody else), I felt more detached from the dream than I should have been. The father and daughter were the only reasons I still cared. And that might have been enough in other movies. But not for one as ambitious as this.
Looper– Some of my friends, even those who claim to like science-fiction, contend there wasn’t much more to Rian Johnson’s thriller beyond a premise fitting more comfortably in an hour-long episode of The Outer Limits. I’d have watched such an episode several times over and I still wouldn’t have found the cunning verisimilitude Johnson sustains throughout this spirited chase through time. Ideas are what set off a science-fiction story. Plot is how you roll with it. But atmosphere, especially in an SF movie, is what keeps you staring at it. The way telepaths stuck at the bottom of the world off-handedly show off their kinetic skills, either from boredom or for drinks, makes you recognize a future you’re not sure will ever exist – or, on the other hand, doesn’t exist in some form right now. When an SF movie is really bad, there’s nothing worse. (Ask my old pals, Servo and Crow.) But when it’s as supple and smart as this, few things are better.
The Avengers–I have fonder memories of this comic-book movie than those of The Amazing Spider-Man (which had its own arcane charms) and The Dark Knight Rises (which had Marion Cotillard). Mostly, I just thought, pound for metallic pound, this had more antic energy being pumped into our collective foreheads. I also think it’s unfortunate that Mark Ruffalo’s shrewd, incisive performance as Bruce Banner, The Hulk’s alter-ego (or, to be more clinically accurate, super-ego), is destined to be overlooked for awards because of all the popcorn butter sticking to its surroundings. His quietly magnetic evocation of a lost intellectual struggling to contain his bone-deep fury stole the movie from all the buff physiques surrounding him. Somehow with all the other super-heroes and double-dealing villains looking either too anachronistic or too sleek, Ruffalo’s tweedy-but-wary reticence seems more above and beyond its immediate environment. He’s almost too good for the movie he’s in – and yet the movie would be even more disposable without him.
Robot and Frank– If Looper’s science-fictional premise seemed to skeptics custom-made for hour-long television, then Robot and Frank’s could fit into an installment of a half-hour series comprising unsold sitcom pilots. (I mean this as a compliment, because I grew up as a fan of those old summer anthologies — or of what Robert Klein once swept beneath the rubric, “Failure Theater.”) It’s a small, decorous movie that maybe needed to sublet some of Looper’s or, for that matter, The Avengers’ insurgent energy so it could leave deeper resonances. Frank Langella plugs up the more fallow aspects of this story with a beautifully enacted portrayal of a retired second-story man with creeping dementia who bonds with a talking appliance. You come away remembering him – and carrying at least one cutting irony: That an old man with an active grudge against a billionaire seeking to replace the printed page with all-digital texts uses artificial intelligence to carry out his vengeance. Those of us who roughly share a certain age might leave this movie wondering how much time we have left to pull off our own capers against a future we didn’t ask for – which constitutes as much heft as this lighter-than-air movie can take.
Flight (IMMEDIATE REACTION: By the way, who was that kid playing the cigarette-smoking cancer patient on the stairwell? Let’s see…James Badge Dell. He’s really, really good in this. Wonder if he’s as good with hair as without?)
Gene Siskel told anyone who brought up the matter that he believed Roger Ebert, his longtime TV tag-team partner, to have been a better writer than he was. That he was right only underscores how he may, by only a few millimeters, have been the better critic. I wish there were a published collection of his reviews that buttresses that contention. All I have instead are memories of his off-the-cuff insight on the old At the Movies programs. For instance, I remember when Siskel tossed into the broadcast his suggestion that if any contemporary movie actor was best suited to play James Bond, it was Denzel Washington. This seemed at the time (late eighties, I’m guessing) such a daring leap of imagination that one wasn’t sure it was allowed to ooze through a TV set. But not that daring since, by the first Bush administration, Denzel Washington had proven that he was cool enough to carry a movie, even if it wasn’t necessarily his movie to carry. (See Glory or, for that matter, Philadelphia, which he pilfered, fair and square, from Tom Hanks.) And much as I love defending Pierce Brosnan from undue criticism because it makes some white people I know very angry, the Bond franchise couldn’t have done any better or worse in the intervening years by taking Gene up on his modest proposal.
If anything, playing Bond would have held Washington back. He never needed anybody’s franchise to establish his own lucrative brand because he can not only carry a movie, he can open one – which was, as recently as the nineties, historically unheard-of for an actor-of-color who wasn’t named Bruce Lee or Sidney Poitier. Early in Washington’s career, I remember a colleague claiming that if anything held him back from being a major star, it was his innate sweetness; a quality she believed drew audiences in while making them incredulous that he could ever be totally malicious or crazed. I knew what she meant. Washington could keep you off-balance, but he never entirely scared you, not even in his Oscar-winning role as a deeply bent cop in Training Day. But keeping you off-balance is good enough to keep you interested without putting you off – a perfect formula for drawing total strangers to the nearest multiplex for repeat visits. What people expected from a Denzel Washington movie was a really competent guy (with an edgy, somewhat remote exterior) capable of handling highly combustible circumstances, saving a bunch of people — and, often in the process, teaching hard lessons to younger (usually white) people.
The pre-release trailers for Flight led audiences to believe they were getting the same thing; Denzel at the controls of a mortally-wounded airliner, barking out orders, seeming to have it all together, waking up apparently surviving, saving lives and…and…well, what’s all this about finding excessive alcohol in his bloodstream? Hey, it’s not a Denzel Washington movie without rough edges, right? Those trailers made it seem as though Washington’s character was being unjustly accused of something and hinted that somehow he would find a way to clear his name.
You don’t see those trailers anymore. Flight’s cover has been fully blown. Washington’s Whip Whitaker may be as supremely proficient as many of his archetypical roles. But that alcohol in his blood is not exactly a red herring and he most assuredly does not have it all together. Put plainly, Whip’s a sick bastard, a functioning alcoholic with razor-sharp instincts for both handling heavy machinery and denying his disease. The same cues of cool audacity audiences expect from a Washington performance are positioned here to make his character smaller, even wormier, than usual.
Which sounds like a gi-normous risk for a movie star of Washington’s stature to take. But Washington isn’t just a big star, but a great actor. He punches up Whip’s fighter-jock arrogance with a knowing swagger that leaves the scenery bereft of bite marks. But he also lets you see, in still moments, the puffy, baffled ruins of a proud man’s self-esteem. Watch Whip’s eyes as he faces two of the surviving crew members, imploring them to help him stay out of jail. “I really need this,” he tells chief flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) and he looks as needy and vulnerable as any lost junkie grubbing dollars for a boost. (He’s scarcely less feral at such moments than Kelly Reilly’s waif-ish addict Nicole.) Oddly, that innate sweetness mentioned earlier as a detriment to his star power remains within the audience’s reach as a safety valve for its sympathy. Deep down (all right, really deep down), there’s a happy little boy that used to love his life and his calling before his drinking hit the nightmare stage.
You wish the rest of Flight were as conscientious and adventuresome as Washington. The reviewers are correct in proclaiming it the best film Robert Zemeckis has directed since Cast Away back in 2000. But the movies in between, 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowolf , were motion-capture experiments that never get past the point of being, at best, merely interesting And yes, that crash-landing makes for a damned harrowing set piece. But it’s not as though Zemeckis hasn’t made a plane crash before – even though in retrospect Cast Away’s disaster-at-sea emits the keep-hands-in-the-car-at-all-times aura of a sensory thrill ride. Flight’s central catastrophe, though its details are more scarily accessible to our nervous systems, has its own issues of razzle-dazzle to overcome – and, just maybe, some plausibility problems as well.
What bothers me most about the movie can be summed up with the depictions of the characters played by John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood. The latter’s portrayal of Whip’s old Navy buddy and union rep is fashioned with a quiet dignity and persuasive empathy while Goodman brings to Whip’s boyhood chum and dealer the leathery brio and seedy flamboyance of a Sons of Anarchy supporting player. They’re both fine at what they do, but just suppose the two characters had switched roles, but not temperaments? If Greenwood had been a quieter, more reasonable-seeming enabler of Whip’s self-destructive habits and Goodman a more antic, less circumspect defender of Whip’s civil liberties, the movie might have seemed less conspicuously a pure product of Hollywood and more like something that challenged expectations as decisively as Washington’s performance. (The minute Goodman, with dark-glasses and ponytail, sashays into view with “Sympathy for the Devil” pumping into his ear buds, you can barely keep yourself from yelling back, “We get it, OK? He’s fracking Satan! You don’t have to flash the semaphores and sirens!”)
This isn’t meant to denigrate anybody’s performances, least of all those of Goodwin and Greenwood, both of whom I’m always delighted to see on the big screen. Everybody in the movie, in major and minor roles alike, is first-rate. It’s just that the movie’s overall vision can’t or won’t match Washington’s capacity to transfigure both his heroic aura and the addict-in-crisis subgenre Flight ultimately represents. Washington not only carries this movie. He is the movie. He’s the only reason you stumble out of the theater, blinking, groping and checking your own judgment for leakiness. It’s the crowning glory of everything he’s done thus far – and it’s too bad he wont get a third Academy Award for it, even though there was maybe a week after the movie’s release during which he was considered, more or less, a shoo-in. He’ll still get nominated (and after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?) But as much as I love Lincoln and its titular , titanic peformance, Denzel Washington would have had my vote if I still had one to give at the New York Film Critics Circle. Gene Siskel, I like to think, would have understood why.
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)
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.
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 even 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.
Red Hot Patriot, which ends its Arena Stage run Sunday, met most of my expectations, even the rueful ones. Mostly, it reminded me how much I regret never having met Molly Ivins in person despite our having at least a dozen mutual acquaintances. Its particulars also evoked what is already regarded as the last heyday of the glorious/terrible American newspaper trade when it was still able to attract, nurture, shelter and, most of all, break the hearts, if not the spirits of romantics such as Molly Ivins.
Lest you think I’m being in any way dismissive, allow me an urgent shout-out to everyone I ever shared a newsroom with: Whatever good things you heard about Kathleen Turner’s performance can be verified in this shabby corner of the web, and if Red Hot Patriot happens to show up in your immediate neighborhood, you shouldn’t wait a second after it lands to check it out. You’ll come away with the same bittersweet regrets I did. But mostly you’ll feel as though you got to spend a bit of hang time with the real Molly after all, if by proxy.
It’s been weeks since I saw the show. Yet I’m only now writing about it because, as thoroughly as I enjoyed Patriot, there was something discomfiting that chewed at me throughout. And it was crystallized today by some random acts of idiocy occurring within the previous 24-hour news cycle that need not be re-hashed, except here. Or here. Or even here.
The point being that while Ivins was as capable as any reasonably sane human being of being infuriated by these yotzes (Oh, do stop! “Yotz” is SO a word! See?), she somehow managed to channel her anger into robustly sardonic humor – Think
Mister Dooley, with more barbecue sauce and cumin – that never indulged her targets, but somehow contained her progressive readers’ collective outrage. “Sure,” each Ivins column seemed to say, “these guys (and they were always guys) are assholes. And worse. But they’re the price we pay for all the other perks we get for our democracy. So slap ‘em around, but remember: There’s always another two or three comin’ from behind.”
I am trying harder than ever to maintain even that much equanimity as this year’s campaign-from-hell staggers and wobbles along the back-nine. Somehow, laughter, however sardonic or withering, seems too good for the Mourdocks, Akins, Palins, and Trumps. It certainly is too good for the crowd that agreed not long ago that African Americans were better off under slavery. Which is just about the time I stopped finding these zealots funny. Laughing at their monstrous idiocy may not be the same as sanctioning it. But it’s a distraction from acknowledging just how dangerous these zealots are.
My loss of equanimity is neither a joy nor a relief. I cherish the example of Murray Kempton, as fierce and funny a practitioner of the 800-word screed as Ivins though a much different breed of stylist who habitually probed beneath the darkest and meanest of souls to find a glimmer of good. But I like to think even he had his limits with yotzes. Ivins certainly did.
“SEYMOUR MOVIES” was the title of my long-lost weekly TV review block for WPIX-TV. (Hey, guys. How’s it going up there? Miss you much.) It’s re-invented here as a new blog feature that won’t run as regularly. Another installment will follow this one soon. Promise.
The Master — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: I don’t care how great a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is; I am never going to his house to watch sports with his friends if they’re all like his main characters.)
If I ran a repertory movie house, I’d set up a double feature with Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line leading off and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as its companion piece. I’ll bet you they’d flow so seamlessly into each other that audiences willing to sit through the whole program would swear they were the same strange movie. And I would bill the double-feature, for either Veterans Day or Memorial Day, under the general rubric: “The Greatest Generation: Approach With Caution.” Here’s another one: “War is Hell and So Are Other People.”
You’re never allowed to know the specific kind of trouble Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has seen during World War II. But you’re free to guess the worst from watching Freddie distilling moonshine from toxic industrial wastes and humping sand-sculptured women. Never mind if he was unhinged before the war; only a rare strain of shellshock (an expression I will always prefer over PTSD) could have caused such a severe case of nervous decompression. .
The protagonists in Anderson’s movies are either highly combustible (Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood; Barry Egan in Punch-Drink Love) or highly malleable (Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; almost everybody in Magnolia). Freddie carries both these extremes into the only place where someone like him could find comfort and release: a pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical cult whose leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) fills in the dark, empty spaces in Freddie’s soul. Not even this outfit can meet his amorphous needs – and the movie’s bleak theme may be that nothing can.
It’s a forbidding takeaway and the movie’s frosty, near-clinical diagnosis of such angst won’t win your heart. Phoenix, improbably, almost does in the way that an injured wolf, however much he snarls and tears at you, can subdue your resistance with its whimpering. As unnerving as Freddy is, you come away worrying about his future. I’m also kind of worried about Anderson’s. The Master can only enhance his long-term prospects for moviemaking immortality. But it leaves you wondering how hard he’ll press his ongoing inquiry into the nature of need. Addiction itself can only be his next logical subject and it’s more than a little scary to wonder how he’ll frame that discussion.
Argo – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Is Bryan Cranston the greatest American actor?)
The tight spaces of Argo’s narrative and settings don’t give Ben Affleck the kind of room he had in both 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town to show his facility as a director with gritty atmosphere and smoldering passion. If anything, Argo’s account of how six American foreign service workers were extracted from post-revolutionary Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew seems more like a calling card for Affleck’s potential television work in case the feature-film thing doesn’t work out.
This movie’s success with critics and audiences so far seems to assure Affleck of more chances at the helm, even if his performance as CIA operative Tony Mendez, the escape plan’s mastermind, seems contained to a fault. But then, containment seems to be the movie’s prevailing motif. The decision to shoot every character, even Kyle Chandler’s perfectly puffy rendition of Carter chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan, as if each was in a box too small to hold them works to the movie’s advantage by boxing in or, maybe more accurately, bottling up your dread and anticipation throughout. There would be no purpose in making a movie like Argo unless you can make your audiences worry how the story’s going to turn out – even when they can easily research the outcome before they buy tickets.
So far, the only actor here who seems to be getting anything resembling Oscar buzz (Really? Now?) is Alan Arkin as the brash-but-soft-hearted movie mogul who cooperates with the Agency by selling the idea of a fake Star Wars rip-off. Arkin’s fine and John Goodman, as the droll makeup artist who serves as middleman between the spooks and the suits, is even better. But you’ve seen them do their respective shtick before, however effectively mounted here. The performance that most conspicuously breaks through the tightly-wound story line belongs to the increasingly legendary Bryan Cranston, who is yet again playing a character with warring intentions, though there’s no reason to place his harried Agency middle-manager Jack O’Donnell in the same clinic with Walter White, the self-justifying sociopath Cranston’s made immortal on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It would be easy for most actors to play O’Donnell at a single high pitch as he’s pushed around by those above and below his GS level. Somehow, Cranston makes O’Donnell’s passage from skeptical boss to harried controller to steely improviser seem recognizable to anyone who’s either supervised or been supervised towards an impossible deadline. He seems too well-adjusted to be involved in such abnormal shenanigans, which is precisely what makes him authentic in this welter of quick-change deceit. I doubt such intelligent work will be rewarded with an Academy nomination. Cranston will just have to settle for covert acclaim – at least for the time being.
The Paperboy — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So oily and greasy, I could fry a whole chicken in it.)
Books are books and movies are movies and I’ve been acutely aware of the difference since sixth grade when I tried to pawn off a book report of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea based solely on the Walt Disney movie version – and, yes, I am still ashamed of myself, thanks for asking. But I’m hearing so many people, even a few I trust, saying Paperboy the movie is the fault of Paperboy the book that I am compelled to pick up my magnifying glass and serrated tweezers to split a few hairs I might have otherwise left alone.
I’m going to fix upon what may be the smallest of these hairs: Yardley Acheman. In Pete Dexter’s book (which, since I have the floor, I will declare one of the two best novels written by my former Philadelphia Daily News confrere while withholding for now the other one’s title), Acheman’s a white journalist who sees himself as a stylistic dandy when compared with his bloodhound colleague Ward James. Despite his own propensity for turning newspaper work into something perilously close to poetry, Pete carries an abiding bias towards hard-working, nose-to-the-ground reporters like Ward over “New Journalism” peacocks such as Yardley and I badly missed that subtext in Lee Daniels’ movie, where subtext along with subtlety has been tossed over the side like so much tainted cargo.
In said movie, Yardley is a black Englishman (David Oyelowo) who’s supposed to be the “word man” on an unnamed Miami newspaper to the “leg man” here re-dubbed Ward Jansen (depicted by Matthew McConaughay with more peacock swagger than one might have expected.) I don’t know why the name change had to happen, but I’m guessing that the novel’s 1965 setting was moved four years ahead in order to make more plausible the idea of a newspaper-reporter-of-color coming to a small Florida town to help prove that a white swamp rat named (as in the book) Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of murdering a bigoted local lawman.
It’s still not plausible. African-American reporters were barely integrating northern newspapers in 1969, making it more improbable that black tabloid transients were being imported from overseas to juice up New South broadsheets. And they sure as hell weren’t getting jobs as “New Journalists” in New York as Yardley’s supposed to have achieved in the movie. I was looking very hard for black New Journalists in those days because I badly wanted to become one. That’s how I know this is bullshit.
Defenders of both the movie and Daniels shrug at such anachronisms. It’s a vision of the past, O.K.? No one expects Imitation of Life or The Long Hot Summer to be documentaries of their time and place. Word. But whatever you may think of those 1950s melodramas to whose levels of warm moisture and socio-cultural itchiness Daniels’ Paperboy seems to aspire, there’s a spike of emotional truth that cuts through their respective levels of gauziness and muck. This movie’s glib re-jiggering of Yardley’s identity and purpose into a racial-sexual red herring signifies a preference for gaudy effects over the kind of honesty that’s ONLY possible in great melodrama. Someday, assuming Daniels gets more chances to deploy his over-the-top blend of raciness and grotesquerie, there may well be retrospectives devoted to his body-of-work, his – if you will – vision. I may even be around to bear witness if I choose to. I will find something else to do.
Oh, yeah. Don’t know if you’ve heard but Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron’s jellyfish bites. Have I ruined it for you? Guess what? That’s not even the grossest thing you’ll see.
Neil Armstrong is dead, and so for the time being is any substantial effort by America to put people in space. People forget to be dismissive or incredulous about manned-space-travel when they realize the shuttle’s never flying again – or when someone like Armstrong joins the ancestors. His impulse to spurn the glare of celebrity-hood was duly noted and even praised by a culture that not too many years before (in part because of this semi-reclusive nature posthumously hailed as a virtue) would have easily mistaken him for any of the other men who flew during what we nostalgically term, “The Space Age.” If you asked the average American to name an astronaut from the 1960s, they would likely have mentioned Armstrong for being The First Earthling on the Moon, but more likely would have named that archetypical all-American hero John Glenn and even James Lovell, who was some guy Tom Hanks played in a movie.
Fifty years ago tomorrow morning, just as I was heading off to school, the man who would become my favorite among all the astronauts took his turn to ride a Mercury spacecraft into orbit. Wally Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit flight about Sigma 7 wasn’t noteworthy for setting any world records. (The Russians had by then quadrupled our relatively meager number of manned orbits. It somehow seemed more fun in the days when we had some catching up to do.) Nor was it distinguished by any hair-raising crisis or daredevil flourishes. Indeed, the near-elegant perfection of Schirra’s Mercury flight from lift-off to his precisely-timed splashdown was far more appreciated by engineers than by the general public.
Even I didn’t take much note of Schirra’s flight until I paid closer attention to a recording of his transmissions. (You could actually buy this stuff on 45 RPM back then.) I was struck by how utterly unfazed he seemed with everything. He was not only joking with communicators on the ground, he was even…laughing! I don’t remember hearing any of his fellow Project Mercury astronauts laughing up there. Not Glenn, not Scott Carpenter, not Alan Shepard; certainly not Gus Grissom. And Schirra’s laughing wasn’t the nervous tittering you put on to make yourself forget how high and far you are from everything you know. He was messing with the solemnity expected of this occasion in the same manner he’d habitually mess with the ground crews or his peers. More than any of the others, he behaved up there the way I imagined my own father would: poking holes in other people’s uptight modes for perspective’s sake. As Tom Wolfe noted in The Right Stuff: “Schirra cut the jolly, fun-loving figure so well that people sometimes failed to notice how formidable he could be. But his emphasis, after all, was on maintaining an even strain, His pranksterish, rib-shaking, wild-driving gotcha intervals gave him plenty of slack when the time came to wind things up and get tight.”
Never was Schirra’s Ultimate Cool more conspicuous than on the morning of December 12, 1965 when he and Thomas Stafford were supposed to have lifted off the pad in Gemini 6 for a history-making rendezvous mission with Gemini 7. When the countdown reached zero, their Titan II booster abruptly shut down. For several long-ish seconds, no one was quite sure if this was going to be a replay of one of those awful 1950s-newsreel moments when the whole missile was going to explode. And why, an anxious America wondered, hadn’t the two pilots pulled their ejector rings? Apparently, Schirra, as command pilot, was exercising his prerogative to slow everybody’s roll rather than kill the mission – or, quite possibly, him and his co-pilot – over what turned out to be some kind of mundane plug glitch. “OK, we’re just sitting here breathing,” he calmly assured Mission Control. For this, he got another medal in addition to the one he received for carrying out the rendezvous three days later. Getting a medal for stillness rather than action – How very Zen!
I wish I could find among the hours of broadcast footage from that day the black-and-white video of Schirra and Stafford as they entered the so-called “ready room” where they climbed into their Gemini cockpit hours before the aborted launch. Broadcasters always told you how conscientiously clean that room had to be with all those white-smocked launch-team personnel making sure no dust or dirt entered the spacecraft with the astronauts. The first thing Schirra did when he got off the elevator was walk over to a far corner to rub his gloved finger over a rail. He turned in mock outrage to show an imaginary speck of dust to the crew chief. OK, maybe you had to be there. But this bit preceded one of history’s more frightening moments and here was Mr. Annapolis-grad-veteran-test-pilot performing low comedy as if it were beer call instead of T-minus-whatever.
Schirra achieved an above-average measure of fame for Gemini 6, and for commanding the first manned flight in the Apollo program in October, 1968 – when he caught the head-cold heard – or groused about – round the world. His name still didn’t glow in the dark as brightly as Glenn’s did, or Armstrong’s would. Still he got more famous after he quit the program to become an on-air analyst for CBS News; playing, if you will, John Madden to Walter Cronkite’s Pat Summerall throughout the lunar-landing phase.
He died in 2007 at 84. He would have been fun to hang out with, even though his politics were so deeply right-wing Republican that he said Glenn was the only Democrat he’d ever vote for (and I’m not altogether sure of that.) Still, laughing came so naturally to Schirra, as Norman Mailer once observed, that you were sure he could overlook any differences you had with him and chuckle over old times, his and yours.
And while I still haven’t found clips of that dust-mote gag, I did find among the CBS archival footage a pre-Gemini 6 interview with Schirra in which he’s asked the de rigueur question about duty and family:
BILL STOUT (CBS): Even though you’ve been there before, how do members of the Schirra family feel about the coming flight? SCHIRRA: I’m sure there’s always a degree of apprehension. I hope there’s not fear. I hope to dispel fear by dispelling ignorance. And if I can explain the details of what were doing in our mission satisfactorily to you and to your audience, then possibly you know that’s what I’m trying to do for my family. To make them aware of what I am doing.
If I’m old enough to fondly remember Wally Schirra, then I’m also old enough to remember when dispelling fear by dispelling ignorance was a primary directive for everyone in American life regardless of where you stood on the political spectrum. It could be again, someday. In the meantime, follow Captain Wally’s example and laugh at the scary stuff. It’s good for you.
Fifty-five years ago this month, at about half-past-nine on a Saturday night over the CBS Television Network, a man pulled a pistol out of a fancy holster and pointed it at the audience:
PALADIN: I’d like you to take a look at this gun. The balance is excellent. This trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. This gun was hand-crafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I intend to use it.
That, of course, was the voice of Richard Boone (1917-1981) and the show was Have Gun Will Travel. It would last five seasons and its formula of a black suited cowboy-knight-errant was so durable and popular that no one ever wondered how a man wearing dark clothes while riding in a hot desert sun stays so imperturbably cool.
This made us wonder: How would one of America’s foremost playwrights handle this prelude? What would he bring to this classic introduction?
With our deepest apologies to Mr. Mamet (and our urgent warnings to the reader that the following filigree carries an “mature” label), we think…it would go…Something…Like…This:
PALADIN: You see this gun? You see this fucking gun I’m pointin’ at you? Nice, isn’t it? I mean, “nice”…Just a word, right? Doesn’t even do the work, that word. Like it’s too fucking lazy to try harder, right? “Nice!” Forget I even said the fuckwad word… Your sister’s “nice”! Your grandmother’s probably “nice”, too, right?…Shaddap! You don’t talk. I talk… You have any idea what it’s like holding this gun? Are you even capable of imagining what I’m feeling when I hold this fucking gun? It’s like holding… My! DICK!…That’s exactly it!…Imagine how your joint would feel if you could let it roll around in your fucking hands as you hold it out like that! Like it’s not attached, but it still does whatever you fucking want, even if it’s ripped off your body. Ex-ACT-ly Like That! Now…do you know how I came to own this gun? You know how such a perfectly balanced piece of machinery found its way into my right hand, pointed at both your fucking chins? Can your mouse-shit brain grasp what I had to go through to get this balanced to the point where if I whisper diRECtly at the FUCKING hammer, it FUCKING goes off? Do you know? Can you imagine? Don’t bother answering because I already know the answer, you prairie scumbag! This gun is worth your whole fucking ranch and all your rat-sucking livestock five times over. Don’t even ask me what it costs! You know what it cost? EAT SHIT AND DIE! That’s how much it cost. You don’t deserve to know what it costs. You don’t deserve to imagine how it feels to hold your fucking dolphin detached from your fat, worthless pelvis with six chambers locked and loaded…
And do you know why you don’t deserve to know these things? Let me spell it out for you. BECAUSE…YOU ARE A PIECE…OF SHIT! THAT’S WHY! A PIECE…OF SHIT…The bullets in these chambers cost more than your stupid cattle could fetch in the stockyards, you self-deluded prick! This gun…This…fucking gun can drive your goddam herd to Kansas Fucking City and New Fucking Jersey and back! By itself!! This fucking gun can read your whole goddam library of fake fucking books and give you a fucking test tomorrow…This…Where are you going? Where the FUCK do you think you’re going? I’m not through belittling you, you fat fuck! You wait till I’m done talking, you cheap bastard! You moronic douche-bag! You simple shit…
And that’s just the prelude. If Mamet gets his hands on this franchise, his episodes could go on for a while longer than the original’s half-hour run. If this works out, we could be around for a while, too.
Today is Chuck Jones’ 100th birthday and they’re having a party for him out in Glendale, California tonight to mark the occasion. That’s great, but I thought an even-broader fuss would be made over one of the greatest American filmmakers. (And don’t you dare say he “only” made cartoons, which is somewhat like saying Chopin “only” wrote piano pieces.) If that clause requires justification, consider that three of Jones’ Warner Bros. shorts were among the films chosen by an army of critics and filmmakers in the recently-unveiled 2012 Sight-and-Sound poll of Greatest Films Ever Made.
If I’d had a ballot, I’d have made sure I put a Chuck Jones film on it. But I’d have a helluva time picking one. The three I’d found on the S&S list – “Duck Amuck” (1953), “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957) and (a mild surprise) “The Ducksters” (1950) – surely qualify. But that leaves out so much: “The Draft Horse” (1942), “Tom Turk and Daffy” (1944) (“The yams did it!! The yams did it!!!…), “The Eager Beaver” (1946), “Mouse-Wreckers” (1949), “Long-Haired Hare” (1949) (“What do they do on a rainy night in Riiiio?….”)“The Scarlet Pumpernickel” (1950), “The Rabbit of Seville” (1950), “Two’s a Crowd” (1950) (The first appearance of the floppy-eared puppy whose yapping sends Claude Cat to the ceiling), “Chow Hound” (1951) (a personal favorite precisely because it freaks so many people out), “Bully for Bugs” (1953), “Duck Dodgers in the 241/2 Century” (1953)….
Sheesh! And even this leaves out so much: All of Pepe Le Pew, Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote (and his Arcadian counterpart Ralph Wolf), that kitten-loving lummox Marc Anthony, the unwanted mongrel Charlie Dog, Sam the Sheepdog, the Road-Runner, Sniffles, Hubie, Bert and assorted other mice.
And why stop with the Warners Bros, stuff? There’s this Oscar winner from his MGM period that holds up as well as any full-length feature of comparable ambition. (I’ll think of one, eventually):
For me, it always comes down to two. This, for its sheer, unabashed entertainment value (and its solicitude for grammar):
And, most especially, this (which I think actually made the National Registry, though it should have won an Oscar):
I’m not sure there’s more to be said for these and other great, small works of Jones — except maybe to speculate that the reason why these keep killing us from one century to the next can be found in their simplicity of intent. Mack Sennett, the silent comedy impressario who likely helped Chuck Jones the small boy become Chuck Jones he artist, once deflated solemn critical analyses of his productions by writing, “We merely went to work and tried to be funny.” Jones often said similar things in his own interviews, but as “Dot and the Line” indicates, he was also intent on sliding low comedy to higher ground. Sometimes, as with Chaplin, he was obvious about it; other times, as with Keaton, he was sneaky with it. (I preferred the sneaky stuff, which is to say, most of the Warner stuff from the 1940s and 1950s. )
Either way, he made it look easy. So easy, in fact, that no one today seems to be able to do it as well. Which is not his fault.