“Dooly appointed”

Shutter Island is the kind of movie whose principals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo), nervously contemplating the eponymous prison from the boat, get their dialogue squelched before the narrative’s started by a portentous, immersive score (music editor Robbie Robertson requires shock treatment), but not before the boat captain informs them/us that (a) the dock they’re approaching is the only way on or off the island (b) a storm’s comin’. A few minutes later, the sinister warden watches smugly as Ruffalo, ordered to surrender his firearm, fumbles with the holster (director Martin Scorsese helpfully includes close-ups of the fumble and the warden’s expression). Ruffalo, see, is the rookie, and suspense thrillers aren’t kind to rookies. But one hundred twenty-four minutes remain, at least a third of which consist of flashbacks with colored snowflakes, pools of perfectly art-directed blood coagulating by dead Nazis, and Michelle Williams acting as if she’s never seen a smile before.

Wine, and cheese, whatever

An excerpt from my favorite bit of pornography of the last twenty-five years:

I remember a Thanksgiving evening in our house eight or ten years ago; he was carving the late-night turkey after a drive from the country, and four of us were seated around the kitchen table with wine, and cheese, whatever… He was on a roll. One story after another, some of them of an intricacy absolutely baroque—the kind of story which, if you wished to repeat it for the communicable joy of it, would require you to take time off to study it, as you would need to take time to memorize a Bach fugue or a canto of Pound. He was quite literally performing, the pleasuring of his audience being a professional pursuit in which he had over the years proved especially successful because in doing so he pleasures himself. Inevitably, carried on, he would recall the one about, oh, Lyndon Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the Oval Office, and she would say, “Oh, Ron, no, no …,” but he would smile and give way to the theatrical imperative, and she would laugh along with the rest of us, because the jokes were funny, and she always retains perspective.

William F. Buckley, Jr. penned this love letter for Vanity Fair shortly after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. I have a pretty strong stomach for Pound cantos, especially the ones in which he praises Martin Van Buren as our most underrated president — or did Buckley memorize the ones in Provencal?


A few months ago I wrote this about John Mayer’s “Half of My Heart”:

The half of the heart that’s worrisome here is Mayer’s, who sings like he suffers from angina. When he lets his guitar do the mewling, the song very faintly evokes the early eighties brand of boomer bathos epitomized by “Leather and Lace,” but there’s still the problem of billing, since Swift gets a credit despite wandering in like she came back from slipping into something more comfortable for John’s sake.

My retraction proves the continued vitality of Clear Channel radio, which, unlike most of my peers, I still listen to, and the constant playing of this number unfolded how Mayer’s vocal matches the casual mastery of his guitar licks. In short, I really like this now, and officially regret what I wrote in June. Don’t credit Taylor Swift, who’s a nullity here even when I hate Mayer for relegating her to a cameo in the song’s last third. I guess every critic is allowed a beloved John Mayer song, or at least one whose charms sneak up on him; let this be mine.

What converted me? The middle eight. The part that goes, “Your faith is strong but I can only fall so short for so long.” Mayer’s voice tests the line, then rushes towards the end, unwilling to accept the consequences of what he’s singing about. It’s his most disarming vocal moment, and I’ll be damned if comparable scenester asshole Don Henley came up with something similar.

I’ve never heard silence quite this loud: Taylor Swift’s Speak Now

The kicker in “Dear John” comes after almost two minutes of singing that verges on the clenched: “Didn’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” She places too much emphasis on the key adjective in the line “your sick need to give love and take it away” — a sign that her writing infatuates her more than her larynx, but this will change as she realizes the singer in “singer-songwriter” matters most.

Please notice my own emphasis. Besides its formal triumphs, which are considerable, Speak Now dispenses with my cavils about Swift’s voice, or rather, her vocal melodies. Taylor Swift’s generosity as a singer encompasses the suspicion that her intensity is exactly why John abandoned her. How can a swollen-lipped smoothie like Mayer date a girl who specializes in elegant reversals like “I used to know my place was a spot next to you/Now I’m searching the room for an empty seat”?  On “Better Than Revenge,” she chugs like a second set of power chords; in “Back to December,” she’s chastened but realistic, like Lili Taylor after she lets River Phoenix deflower her in Dogfight.

Speak Now also dispenses with my cavils about Swift as record maker. Writing every song herself but one and co-producing, she’s figured out the large stuff as well as the small. The album sounds like the right kind of luxurious: someone with money spending it and her good will on an aesthetic refinement. Befitting her superstar status, she can’t resist the outsize gesture: the otherwise fetching “Enchanted” builds on detail after detail (credit her voice again), cresting on the admission,”All I can say is I’m enchanted to meet you,” after which a DOA chorus lifted from Natasha Bedingfield effaces the modesty with which Swift had invested that line — like a college freshman testing a Jane Austen sentence on a prospective lover. The album’s back end is not as strong as the sequence that peaks with the eternal “Mean” but asks the listener to regard the bubble-pop groove “The Story of Us,” stolen from The Corrs’ “Breathless,”  as a worthy sequel, maybe worthier.

Since Swift is so young, complacency is the sin her imagination must guard against. If the rock press’ fascination with Swfit’s boyfriends has any merit, it’s showing how even an intelligence as discerning as hers succumbs to infatuations whose literary half-life barely exceeds their emotional ones (the less talented but charming Justin Timberlake may present an example of a child star whose wry self-presentation sees the joke in every paparazzi shot; in his mind, cheating on Jessica Alba is part of the joke, and the press lets him get away with it because he’s a guy). It’s true: every indication suggests she’s going to be one of those talents about whom The Industry is self-congratulatory, a Grammy stand-by like Stevie Wonder. So I’m perfectly fine with Speak Now as her testament. She’s hungry enough to know relationships, like coal, exist as fuel for healthy engines but whose fumes are toxic if inhaled.

Moloch, with your NPR values and Jon Hamm eyes: Howl

As Allen Ginsberg, James Franco, through a lisp and singsong intonations, explains, as if addressing an NPR donation drive, how he wrote the famous line about Moloch. Jon Hamm and Bob Balaban praise nice liberal values such as “artistic” freedom of expression in speeches that would have gotten them Academy Award nominations in 1956. Timid about showing the consequences of “Howl”‘s best lines, writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman literalize them with animation that wouldn’t have passed muster on a local PBS station. When end credit titles inform us as to the fates of Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky I blinked — we were barely introduced. In a sincere attempt to separate themselves from biopic conventions, Epstein and Friedman have gone in the other direction: they’ve created a stone-cold bore, as dead as your hippie English teacher explaining the awesomeness of On The Road. As for Franco, he might have given a charming performance had he played off someone else — and with someone else. That shot of him and Aaron Tveit (as Orlovsky), and a shot of coitus interruptus with Cassady (Jon Prescott)  is as much nookie as he gets.

Singles 10/22

Some of my favorite rappers release thoroughly average singles. The same goes for Kylie Minogue, but her average this week is much better than Gucci and Kanye’s.


Kylie Minogue – Get Outta My Way (7)

Chrisette Michele – I’m a Star (6)

Kanye West ft. Rick Ross, Bon Iver, Nickie Minaj, and Jay Z – Monster (6)

Gucci Mane ft. Swizz Beats  – Gucci Time (5)

T-Pain ft. Rick Ross – Rap Song (5)

Duck Sauce – Barbra Streisand (5)

“I would follow you into the mists of Avalon if that’s what you mean”

Friends swear by Step Brothers, the 2008 comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as two grown child-men forced together by marriage (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins play their parents). One went so far as to say it was the best comedy of the decade.

This was okay! Talladega Nights boasted much better one-liners despite being 657 minutes long. Most of the cracks here were a beat away from being funny (the dick eating in international waters needed one more take); the rhythms were slack. So I settled for eye candy: Will Ferrell in a worn Pablo Cruise T-shirt, Steenburgen’s perfectly timed moues of exasperation (whatever happened to her anyway?). Good bits: “It’s like masturbating in a time machine”; I laughed at the second nutsack-on-the-drums sequence (“Motherfucker!”), not the first; every one of Adam Scott’s scenes. My favorite performer was actually Richard Jenkins, doing maybe his best work ever (“FAILLLLUUURREEES!).

Lifetime piling up: Please Give

Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) own a furniture store specializing in accessories bought from the dead. Their daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), a teenager who’s got serious problems with acne, often feels dead. After they buy the apartment next door, they wait for its occupant, a horrible octogenarian killjoy (Ann Guilbert), to die so that they can repossess it. Meanwhile her granddaughters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (the lovely Amanda Peet, who’s like a seventies Coppertone ad) argue over who gets to take care of the old biddy. Complicating things is a brief affair between Mary and Alex, consummated after bonding at the former’s skin care salon.

I rarely write synopses, but did this time because writer-director Nicole Holofcener is exemplary at shaping scenes, whether on the page or in the editing room, so that both the comic possibilities are shown yet the mystery lingers. As Stephanie Zacharek put it in her own review: “There’s the picture right in front of you, the one you actually watch, which can often feel like a clutch of orphan vignettes wandering around in search of some organizing principle. And then there’s the way that shambling mosaic reforms itself in your mind minutes, hours or days afterward.”  She respects her mixed-up characters too much to explain them; they’re loquacious and extroverted yet withhold an essential part of themselves. It’s no surprise that she’s admitted to shaping Catherine Keener’s characters around the actress, or that she wrote Alex with Oliver Platt in mind. At her least focused, movies like Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing collapse into a compendium of sharply acted but flaccid sketches with two or three of her favorite actors in the world. Until the rosy conclusion, Please Give is her best movie to date, animated by an awareness of pettiness, greed, and self-absorption. Holofcener doesn’t soften Guilbert’s grandmother. When the crone confesses, on a car ride with Rebecca, Rebecca’s potential boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s own grandmother, that “everyone” used to confuse her for a school teacher from the way she spoke, Holofcener catches the fleeting moment in which the actors realize she reminds them of their worst teachers: pedantic, humorless, a scold, and determined to be right for its own sake. “Can someone put a pillow over her head?” Kate admits with a nervous laugh after meeting her. Peet’s lovely, un-self conscious performance shows the degree to which her “directness” is, like her grandmother’s, a ruse. “Honesty,” like generosity, can be a form of narcissism; it waits for a response, then congratulates itself for inspiring one.

I have a lot of affection for Holofcener’s films, as ramshackle as they are. I watched Walking and Talking with two girlfriends in the summer of ’96 because some other movie was sold out. We left with big smiles; we’d seen something special. It was the kind of movie whose virtues I was tempted to overrate because it succeeded in hitting every modest point, especially when recollected in tranquility (watching the then-unknown Keener, Anne Heche, and Liev Schreiber go on to other things added to its allure). Lovely & Amazing, her most daring movie, attempted several things at once in its brief running time: showing a legitimate relationship between an adopted black girl and her mother (the never better Brenda Blethyn), being honest about the self-doubts women have about their bodies, and giving Jake Gyllenhaal one of his few supporting parts, in which he’s so on the nose that it’s a shame he thinks he’s star enough to refuse them. Friends With Money teetered on sitcom tinniness — too few scenes of her tall actresses walking and talking, such as one in Please Give between Hall and her boyfriend Adam (Josh Pais). Asked about his job, Adam, a computer person, says, “I’ll tell you someday when you want to go into a coma.” His halting delivery and size — Hall is at least half a foot taller — makes the scene funnier than it should be. Holofcener’s so modest that if you’re not paying attention you miss these things.