A few movies

What I’ve seen:

The Savages: The writer-director of Slums of Beverly Hills can’t resist a too-cute opening montage of seniors pirouetting a la Busby Berkley against a Barry Goldwater-approved Arizona backdrop; or giving Laura Linney a breakup scene with her boyfriend instigated by a question about her fern (it’s one of those details designed to develop character of which Cameron Crowe is so fond, like the bit of business in Singles involving Bridget Fonda Kyra Sedgwick and a garage door opener). These are the middlebrow equivalents to the highbrow flourishes in Jean Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles, this movie’s obvious influence. I don’t buy Philip Seymour Hoffman’s book on Brecht; it’s a sop, like Woody Allen characters yammering about Rilke like Woody himself hasn’t read him (you can discuss art and politics in American movies without looking smug). But Tamara Janowitz avoids “closure,” and she’s blessed with two of the least sentimental actors around.

Juno: “Jason Bateman’s character is one of the members of Vampire Weekend ten years later,” I wrote somewhere today. Thank You For Smoking‘s Jason Reitman deepens his talent for exacting portraits of trends and mores skewed at least a half-dozen times in the thirty years since The Graduate. He’s a selfless talent too; he honors the intentions of the material being adapted. The first hour is such a meticulous rendering of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s hipster gotcha-every-few-seconds approach that I wanted to run into Love in the Time of Cholera, playing next door. It’s “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Lily Allen. Then Reitman-Cody take their feet off the gas pedal, and allow the natural empathy of actors like Alison Janney and Jennifer Garner (in a lovely, disarming performance that’s one of the year’s best and least acclaimed) to absorb Ellen Page’s tuba blast of a performance. And knobby-kneed Michael Cera (who’s got no scenes with “Arrested Development” costar Bateman) has gotten more mileage out of shades of befuddlement than any actor since Buster Keaton.

This is England: White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, I wanna riot of my own.

The only hint of discord on what’s so far been a lovely vacation is learning that Tim Finney just had a benign tumor extracted. All news is very good, apparently, so we can all breathe a little easier.

I know Tim slightly from ILM, numerous private emails, and the R&B blog assembled by Andy Kellman (which, sadly, seems on sabbatical). His musings on pop and dance music combine the best common sense with un-self-conscious erudition; you sensed his brain humming as he listened. His affective formalism is at its best when he parses the evolution of a singer’s emotional state over the course of a song, as he does here in this post about Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke mix of the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” that’s much the best thing ever written about it. I wooed him many times to write for Stylus — his sensibilities and the magazine’s would have been a perfect marriage — but he gave me nothing but polite demurrals. Our discussion earlier this year on Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage was an awful tease: I wish we’d done this sort of thing more often.

Maybe his best contributions this year were to this gargantuan thread which, beside fine postings from Al Shipley, Chuck Eddy, and Jess Harvell, is dominated intellectually by Tim in the last third.

Good luck, Tim. Happy holidays.

An addendum to my last post regarding ageing: bitching about “compressed” schedules, i.e. not enough time to listen to every album you want before year-end lists are due. I’ll post the music lists before the end of the year, but, thanks to South Florida’s erratic release schedule, will wait on movies, especially since I’m catching up on a few late arrivals (Juno, The Savages) over the holiday.

Like a bad trip that won’t go away, Ethan Hawke’s teeth in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead haunt my sleep. Forcing his voice through those yellowed, sharp babies produces the best imitation of Tim Roth’s shot-in-the-belly spams in Reservoir Dogs I’ve ever seen. It’s indicative of the movie’s anachronism that it reveres Hawke’s hysterics as realism — realism filtered through the Method. Kelly Masterson’s script too. Hollywood’s always been a sucker for comebacks, so it’s some kind of achievement that an octogenarian like Sidney Lumet can spearhead a project as overwrought as The Hill, Prince of the City, and the worst parts of Network, among many, many others (Hollywood also respects a certain kind of aesthetic consistency, which is why Peter Weir still gets the occasional big assignment).

I’m relieved that, as the various critics groups circle the waters, this bit of awards chum has been comparatively overlooked. All I took away was Lumet’s unexpected detachment from the scenes in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s skeeze visited a heroin dealer’s expensive downtown loft; for a few minutes we’re thrown into a Tsai Ming Liang film. Hoffman has never employed his bulk to a better effect as he navigates the familiar geography, taking off his watch, tie, and shirt for what we think is a gay tryst. The dealer, by the way, is played by Blaise Hunter, whose boredom serves as counterpoint to the rest of the cast’s grandstanding (his response to Hoffman’s confession that wife Marisa Tomei left him: “Bummer.”). It’s a sign of progress that Lumet shoots him in long shot, without calling attention to his Man Who Fell To Earth wedge haircut and kimono. Or maybe he was repulsed. It’s hard to know when Lumet clearly prefers Albert Finney’s rutting-bison nostril flaring in closeup.

Grow old with me

During a free moment yesterday afternoon in Raleigh this weekend I had a chance to read Slate’s rockcrit year-end round table, comprised of Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and Robert Christgau. Their opinions (boy, do they love Kala, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and Lil Wayne, but so does most everyone else; glad to see Bob’s suspicious of Iron & Wine; would love to meet Ann’s 83-year-old mom) are immaterial. What remains beyond the self-plagiarizing and a couple of frankly weird self-congratulatory remarks about adding girl-pop to a year-end list (Rosen’s homebases of Slate and EW are not Lost at Sea) are a handful of chewy ideas, expressed too windily for my taste, but, hey, this is supposed to simulate three old pros sitting around a table, right? Particularly:

It’s fine for [Ann Powers] to like music I don’t care for—she helps me understand its meaning for those it touches. The music opens them up, she opens me up. The reason all of us have such problems with indie orthodoxy—really orthodoxies, since, to cite just the two examples at hand, the Ryan Adams-Wilco-Josh Ritter Americanans are nowhere near hip enough for the half-assed revisionists and band-of-the-month snobs of Pitchfork and its many inferiors—is that we don’t sense much emotional generosity there. The formal conservatism of the former and one-upping sectarianism of the latter—not to mention the rarity of engaging prose in either camp—seem stifling…

Before we start thinking of new variations on the word “grouch,” I should point out that the subtext of most of this round table’s discussion is an acknowledgment of how age slows us down at the same time at which young people and technology speed past us. No, not an acknowledgment: an embrace, even. One of the odd things about my own maturation is how my ironic sense deepens at the same pace as my “emotional generosity”; it’s too soon to know whether the former provokes the latter, but why not? At any rate, the usual strawmen that Christgau dismisses in the excerpt above are less onerous than other acts supported by my colleagues, like, say, Burial, whose constricted aesthetics and monochromatic appeal seem more representative. Ryan Adams and Wilco are at worst failed craftsmen; whether you prefer Battles depends on how much you accept craftsmenship as an end in itself, or think Battles are an act whose development bears close scrutiny.

Regardless, the fact that a lot of indie — nomenclature growing increasingly meaningless with Rilo Kiley, the Shins, and Arcade Fire scoring high in Billboard’s Top 40 — horrifies me provokes no smug titters. Discussing music with good friend and colleague Josh Love this weekend, I admitted that as my self-assurance as a writer grows so does my fear of complacency. To be exiled to a tropical rain forest with neither guide nor map is no fun, and likely dangerous, but a thrill too. If it takes no great imaginative leap for me to accept heteronormative literature and music (it’s a matter of course, actually), then wrestling with an Iron & Wine or Battles should be no different, and no less thrilling, results be damned. It’s our responsibility as critics to assess art about which we know little and empathize less. I had the experience reviewing the new Mary J. Blige album; now there’s an artist whose many rewards and unabashed pleasures (I’ve loved and feared her since 1994) still make me sick to the stomach when I’m compelled to listen to fifty-minutes-plus of her thumpety narcissism. If I risk a tone of bemused ambivalence, fuck it.

Well-rested after a weekend-plus trip to Charleston and Raleigh (thanks, Hatzel and Josh). Only one assignment to turn in before another vacation begins. Returning to blue skies and cooler subtropical temperatures does wonders for one’s carefully repressed indolence.

Final essays to grade, reviews and proposals to write, and a weekend with friends in Charleston and Raleigh have made this a breathless week few days.

Having listened to roughly a third of my favorite albums of the year on the plane this morning (Jay-Z sounds great with Kingsley Amis!), I’ve realized that 2007 is 1987.

A moment of truth: reciting the lyrics to the songs on the back half of Robert Wyatt’s Comicopera would likely get me tackled by TSA officials.

After two massive singles still getting lots of airplay on WHYI Miami, Timbaland featuring OneRepublic’s “Apologize” has really hit the spot. No surprise: the track is a dead ringer for an Enrique Iglesias ballad circa 2002. And I love it…because it’s a dead ringer for an Enrique song, albeit with a stronger rhythmic foundation. The guy knows how to keen too; when he glides over vowels in the chorus, I swear I could be his hero, baby. All my friends know how I resent the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but…

I guess I’m a very bad homosexual for thinking that, with a few exceptional performances– obvious ones at that — I don’t understand Edith Piaf. But I know why filmmakers do: she’s the kind of subject of which award-worthy biopics are made, the more overwrought the better. Baffling and rhythmless, Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose rests snugly in the Walk The Line-Ray-The Doors tradition, except for the distributor’s curious decision to release the film so early in the year ahead of the rest of the award bait; maybe they knew something we didn’t, which is that, as usual, the Academy of Farts and Biases will assemble another disgraceful list of female Best Actress candidates as a reminder that they only consider sagging jugs after Labor Day.

This is not to detract from Marie Cotillard’s commitment. Gifted with a cutting delivery and an eloquent smear of a mouth that switches from defiant to opaque depending on the company (and the liquor; the mouth is swollen with pique after champagne), Cotillard embraces Dahan’s conception of Piaf as the sum total of her awful childhood experiences: insultingly reductive, true, but at least Cotillard is honest. She reminds me of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest: oblivious to the pillars crumbling around and on top of her, she sawed away like Caligula. The forgotten Susan Hayward also comes to mind. If this was still the fifties, Hayward (whose career peaked while playing these Kabuki-masochistic roles) would have played Piaf, with that showbiz lady distance between herself and the role that the Method, curiously, emphasized all the more. Dahan is so devoted to his tawdry vision of Piaf as Our Lady of Sorrows that no inductive leap escapes him. To wit: we’re treated to the heroine going blind, recovering her sight, and losing her childhood guardian in the span of fifteen minutes. Thelma Ritter in All About Eve: “Gee, what a story. Everything but the bloodhounds yappin‘ at her rear end.”

Plus, as an old woman she looks like Quentin Crisp.