Rumpled and worn: The Kids Are All Right

Paul Mazursky’s woolly, tumultuous comedies from the seventies (think Blume in Love and Harry & Tonto) have never been duplicated. The Kids Are All Right comes close. Although the movie shows no real visual flair — HBO could have aired this kind of medium shot pan-and-scan  — I don’t see its warmth and generosity in most products of the Sundance lab.

As a lesbian couple who’ve outlasted most marriages, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have a rumpled, lived-in casualness, from the jokes at each other’s expense to the way they address their kids. When the college-bound daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) does her fifteen-year-old brother (Justin Hutchinson) a favor by contacting Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the ne’er-do-well who donated sperm eighteen years ago, she feels a kinship with him, and why not? Playing one of his patented scamps — a variant on his character in 2000’s You Can Count On Me — Ruffalo finally lets me see what others find so sexy. He’s playing a slightly ridiculous character, the owner of an organic food restaurant whose garden is as unkempt as his hair and flannel shirts (out of which thick bristly chest hair pops through, like Alan Bates’ in An Unmarried Woman), an affable guy who’s actually rather remote and has never had anyone, man or woman, call out his shit. He’s a terrific older brother instead of a dad, projecting concern when rebuked but never taking it seriously. His performance consists of taking lines and turning them into asides and double takes, which has the added benefit of letting the audience fall into his hands like a ripe apple. For years Ruffalo has hung on the peripheries, somewhere between wider recognition and mere upholder of indie film quality; at the risk of sounding like a press agent, his work here should make him a star. What do stars do? They embody F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage from The Rich Boy: begin with a character and you get a type.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s first movie High Art (1998) is one of my favorites: a lesbian couple, played by Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson, whose heroin-induced stupor is interrupted by an ambitious neighbor (Radha Mitchell) wooing Sheedy back into photography and into bed. Airtight and very serious, High Art isn’t for everyone (the title’s a clue). Built like a crowdpleaser, The Kids Are All Right takes sitcom banality and deepens it. Lowering her voice a couple of octaves, holding a glass of wine as it were a TV remote, slurring acerbic one-liners, Annette Bening has never given a more entertaining, lived-in performance. It helps that she looks fantastic. The gurgling pixie of the early nineties has matured into a rumpled yet self-assured beauty that’ll tell you to go stick a dick up your ass if you say otherwise. For readers who pine for more performances like Judy Davis’ in Husbands and Wives, here’s your answer. As for Julianne Moore, her wan, freckled ditziness adduce a complex, fucked-up woman who, like Ruffalo, has coasted without anybody calling her out. Cholodenko has the most fun skewering her Californian self-absorption (Moore embodies several generations of Joan Didion characters):  Moore peppers her conversation with psychobabble like “consciousness” and “vibes” and the occasional SAT word (“fecund”), and wears baggy black Elvis Costello T-shirts as if he were a hippie icon like David Crosby. In a rather courageous move, she also allows herself to look ragged and unshaven in one key scene.

Most of the film’s good scenes involve the kids in some capacity.  Conversations dribble on longer than we expect, allowing for the double takes I mentioned above. A running joke involving daughter Joni and her crush on an Indian student gets a satisfyingly unsatisfying resolution. An unpromising joke about Moore and Bening’s gay male porn stash, discovered unwittingly by Hutchinson, is thrown away like a paper ball tossed into a garbage can (the gay male porn videos, by the way, gibe with my experience; the lesbians I know get more excited by two guys fucking than gay guys do). Wasikowska is too clenched for my taste, but Hutchinson lets you into his character scene by scene; he gives one of the more convincing renditions of burgeoning manhood I’ve seen in recent year. He not only shades his teenage sullenness with a pro’s skill, but ably survives the burden of a character named “Laser.”

When It’s Complicated tried to both delineate and satirize its upper middle class milieu, the results were condescending and depressing. The Kids Are All Right has a sandblasted look, like jeans left in the sun too long; the grainy images seem to sweat along with the characters. And when they seem to embarrass themselves, as Ruffalo and Bening almost do when they launch into an improvised duet on Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” the scene goes from embarrassing to brave to triumphant to embarrassment, in perfect accordance with the way in which Cholodenko’s camera captures each character’s dazed responses. It’s a marvelous movie.

Shabazz Palaces: A new refutation of time and space

I’m not the only one who wondered what happened to Digable Planets. Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Blowout Comb are still highly regarded, but as the jazz-inflected hip-hop scene out of which they arose ossified into nostalgia – I’m also not the only one whose first hip-hop crush was on The Low End Theory – there were no queries beyond Trivial Pursuit questions.

Quietly, almost sneaked out, two EP’s, helmed by Digable Planets scion Butterfly, were released earlier this year under the moniker Shabazz Palaces. A triumph of timbre and flow, they’re also inscrutable and hermetic, reminding me tonally of Blowout Comb, but where the latter boasted expansive grooves that compensated for the mumbled asides, Ishamel Butler, the former Butler, foregrounds his slightly nasal but forceful vocals, pushing and prodding the spare beats and samples. It reminds me of what Tribe attempted on the enervated Beats, Rhymes and Life, with vocal flourish.  These EP’s boast some of the best hip-hop tracks of the year. Jeff Weiss’ review (he calls it the best hip-hop album of the year to date) provides additional context.

C-90 Go!

Dumpster diving through my cassette collection yesterday afternoon, I found a ton of mixed tapes, recorded between 1987 and 1999. I always kept a blank C-90 by the stereo to record stuff from the college, Top 40, adult contemporary, and dance stations. Some of the recorded stuff — often in fragments or with DJ commentary — is staggeringly sequenced.

The following sequence is from one of the last ones I made, dated March 1999. A few notes: I have fond memories of the Method Man song, especially as a palate cleaner after Cars bassist/singer Ben Orr’s one solo hit, the synth-heavy “Stay The Night.” I have no idea how “Cleaning Windows” snuck in there.

How would you rank the following songs? Or your thoughts?

Benjamin Orr – Stay The Night

Method Man – Judgment Day

Pere Ubu – Happy

ABC – Be Near Me

Cher – Believe

Madonna – Nothing Really Matters

The Roots – You Got Me

Belinda Carlisle – Circle in the Sand

Lauryn Hill – Lost Ones

Van Morrison – Cleaning Windows

Hole – Malibu

Blondie – Maria

New York Dolls – Lookin’ For a Kiss

Singles 7/22

The bottom three are so bad you really need to hear them once. As for The Arcade Fire, the leaked album has got me upset enough to tempt me into knocking “We Used to Wait” down a few pegs.

Singles ranked from one to ten. Click on song title for review.

The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang (7)

The Arcade Fire – We Used to Wait (6)

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Bright Lit Blue Skies (6)

LeAnn Rimes – Swingin’ (5)

The Black Keys – Tighten Up (5)

Billy Currington – Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer (5)

Eliza Doolittle – Pack Up (5)

Maroon 5 – Misery (4)

Professor Green ft. Lily Allen – Just Be Good to Green (3)

The Hoosiers – Choices (2)

A boy’s best friend: Mother

A few years ago Korean director Bong Joon-Ho released The Host, about a sea creature who takes out his aggression, as the phrase goes, on a little girl and her family. Mother, his latest, is about the most frightening creature of all: a boy’s mother. When this mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) finds out that her son has been arrested for the murder of a teenage girl, she’s willing to cut all kinds of corners, especially after her lawyer turns out to be a shyster with execrable taste in karaoke but a somewhat sharper eye for the ladies.

Most of the reviews have cited mother-love as a motivator. It wasn’t much in evidence to my eyes, even with the unexpected twist that Bong inserts in the last third. Hye-ja’s performance is sentimental and steely; her son may share her bed but she feels his absence as a disruption in routine, not as the cutting of an umbilical cord. While I’ve seen little evidence of an interesting compositional sense, Bong’s rhythms compensate: he understand when to linger (the scenes between mother and son in jail) and assemble for impact (a protracted sequence in which a repelled, fascinated Hye-ja watches a hired gun and his girlfriend make love). The dance sequences with which Bong bookends the picture are misfires, all too easily summoning David Lynch. The rest is expert pulp.

The politics of dancing: M.I.A.’s M^Y^

I’m going to act as if The New York Times Magazine story and Ann Powers‘ and Christgau’s reviews didn’t exist. Impossible to review M.I.A.’s MAYA in a vacuum, though. For one, vacuums trap light and emit no sound, and MAYA does no such thing. Her loudest, splashiest album, M.I.A. absents herself from agitprop a while to concentrate on felicity. Take “XXXO,” a mangled, stuttering cousin to a Debbie Deb or Lisa Lisa freestyle hit, no more or less “meaningful’ than Kala‘s “Jimmy,” yet its density suggests otherwise. The lyrical semaphore here adduces a surrender to the noise-making possibilities of collaborators Blaqstarr, Rusko, and Derek E. Miller, a move which in turn liberates her from expectations she couldn’t possibly meet. MAYA plays like an album full of “Bird Flu”s and “Bamboo Banga”s strung giddily together. The heart of the album is the middle stretch between “Lovealot” and “It Iz What It Iz” — fuzzy, loping variants on Arular‘s “Pull Up the People” in which the bustle of the arrangements mitigates the fuzzy, loping banality of one of her guiding principles (“All I ever wanted was my story to be told” ) but reinforces the strength of another (“I fight the ones that fight me”). Her voice is indistinguishable from scratches, distorted guitar peals, vocoders, effects pedals, and other synthesized doohickeys, the culmination of which is “Teqkilla,” M.I.A.’s “The Great Curve,” the thick, surging Talking Heads song climaxing with David Byrne’s strangled admission, “The world moves on a woman’s hips!” M.I.A. offers “He got 99 bananas but he ain’t my boo.” The closet she comes to a manifesto is the Suicide-sampling “Born Free.” She’ll throw this shit in our faces cuz she’s got something to say. You know the old joke: that’s what SHE SAID. And the subtext was S-E-X.

“An empire within a republic”

Writing about Jay Gould and James Fisk’s fixing of the gold market in the late 1860’s — a level of corruption heretofore unknown in the young Republic — Henry Adams wrote:

This property was, in effect, like all the great railway corporations, an empire within a republic. Over all this wealth and influence, greater than that directly swayed by any private citizen, greater than is absolutely and personally controlled by most kings, and far too great for the public safety either in a democracy or i any other form of society, the vicissitudes of a troubled time placed two men in irresponsible authority…Even the most dramatic of modern authors, even Balzac himself, who so loved and to deal with similar violent alternations of fortune, or Alexandre Dumas, with all his extravagance of imagination, never have reached a conception bolder or more melodramatic than this, nor have they ever ventured to conceive a plot so enormous, or catastrophe so original as was now to be developed.

The Washington Post has published the first salvo in Dana Priest’s weeklong series on the shadow government — which Priest and co-writer William Arkin argue exploded in response to 9-11 but really got its start, as readers of American history will recognize, after President Harry Truman authorized the National Security Act of 1947 — and it’s riveting. An octopus with a reach so vast, no matter its ostensibly benign purpose, is a menace. It consumes itself. Statesman of both parties feed it.