Saturday, April 4, 2015

Brother's Keeper: Netflix's Bloodline

Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler in Bloodline.

A number of years back, I had people consistently recommending that I watch Damages (2007-2012), a television procedural thriller about a ruthless high-powered attorney (Glenn Close) and her young protégée (Rose Byrne) that she was both tutoring and perhaps trying to murder. After all that praise, I couldn't wait to catch up with it. When I finally did, though, I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was. With barely a shred of dramatic believability, Damages kept the audience in total suspense by withholding plot points, using flashforwards and flashbacks while offering up one outrageous red herring after another. Damages wasn't neo-noir. It was inadvertent high camp. Watching Glenn Close grandstanding in the manner of Joan Crawford in her gargoyle roles, and glaring into the camera in an endless series of frozen close-ups, became a hilarious parody of malevolent evil. Created by brothers Glenn and Todd A. Kessler, Damages streamlined a dramatic formula that had already been successful for a number of other hit shows that liked to define themselves as 'dark' by employing what a friend of mine cleverly calls "cozy cynicism."

Friday, April 3, 2015

Comeback: Al Pacino in The Humbling

Philip Roth’s 2009 novel The Humbling, one of his last before he gave up writing for good, didn’t get the attention it deserved, and Barry Levinson’s marvelous movie version effectively didn’t even get released. It played New York and Los Angeles briefly at the end of the year for awards consideration, then went straight to iTunes. The story concerns Simon Axler (Al Pacino, giving his finest film performance since the nineties), a sixty-seven-year-old actor who suddenly discovers he can no longer summon up his acting gift at will, and under the stress of that recognition collapses on stage of a heart attack. Eventually he tries to kill himself with a shotgun – inspired by Hemingway – but he bungles it and winds up in a psychiatric hospital. When he gets out, he retires to his house in upstate New York, more or less fazing himself out of life (and certainly out of his career). But then he becomes romantically involved with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, (Greta Gerwig), a college theatre professor in her thirties who has been living with a woman (the dean of the college, played by Kyra Sedgwick) and hasn’t slept with a man, she tells Simon, in sixteen years. She also happens to be the daughter of two of his best friends (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya) – actors, too, which explains why she was named for the heroine of John Millington Synge’s great Irish comedy The Playboy of the Western World.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

No Fate: David Michôd’s The Rover

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in The Rover.

“You do a thing like I did, it should really mean something. But it just doesn’t matter anymore.” 
The hostility of the Australian outback lends itself nicely to tales of the apocalypse, and its barren wastes look wonderfully alien and foreboding on film. There’s a sense that the wilderness is encroaching on civilization, slowly and inexorably reclaiming what we fragile beings have taken. It's no wonder that everyone’s gone insane in the world of Mad Max (1979). If all that’s left to live for is water and fuel – or, excuse me, petrol – then society’s laws aren’t worth a damn. So has it always been for these stories, and so it is for The Rover, a film with less than half the fun – but more than twice the heat – of its pulpier kin.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Trouble With Paradise: Randy Newman's "Something to Sing About" and "I Love L.A."

Before singer/songwriter Randy Newman began work on his 1983 album, Trouble in Paradise, he was spending more time sitting around watching television and lounging by the pool than he was writing songs. "The gardener had contempt for me," he told Arthur Lubow of People Magazine. "He had to water around me." His inactivity was also having a strange effect on his family. "What made me really bad in those days is the kids would go off to school in the morning and I'd say, 'So long kids, you know, work hard and stuff,' and I just didn't do anything. [My son] Eric didn't know what I did. He thought I got paid for my tan." To solve his own trouble in paradise, Newman rented a room in Los Angeles with a piano and no telephone to disturb him.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It Follows: Never Go Anywhere With Only One Exit

Maika Monroe in David Robert Mitchell's It Follows.

It Follows is based on a very simple premise: make an unlucky choice of whom to sleep with, and it will begin to follow you. It might look like someone you know or love, or it might be a stranger. It comes directly at you, at a walking pace. Only you can see it. Wherever you are, it’s somewhere out there, walking straight towards you, and it never, ever stops. With gorgeous cinematography, a brilliantly intense score, and masterful direction from David Robert Mitchell, It Follows is a profane homage to ‘80s horror fare – a grotesquely vulgar love letter written in beautiful calligraphy.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Secrets and Lies: Ghosts, A View from the Bridge, and Cymbeline

Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville in Ghosts, at Trafalgar Studios. (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, starring Lesley Manville, which opened at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2013 and then moved to Trafalgar Studios, is booked into the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a month beginning Easter weekend. Aside from Manville, I’m not sure which members of the original cast will be appearing in Brooklyn; it is to be hoped that all of them will. I’ve seen a digital transcription of the production as it appeared at Trafalgar Studios, and it’s gripping. Eyre, who also adapted the text, orchestrates the play at a breathless pace, bringing it in at just over an hour and a half without intermissions. (There are three acts, and other versions of it I’ve seen have tended to run about an hour longer.) The urgency of the show dominates the experience, as well as the intimacy of the house, which you can feel even when you see it in HD; I’m not sure how well the second will translate in the BAM space, but certainly it’s well worth seeing in any environment.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Where Dreams Don't Go to Die: John Lennon's "God" and The Beatles' Love

Eight months after The Beatles broke up in 1970, John Lennon released Plastic Ono Band, named after his new group. But rather than being a utopian vision from a collection of musicians shaping the future of a Seventies counter-culture, it was instead a solo autobiographical record which began as a stark recollection of Lennon's traumatic childhood. One listen to the album’s intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," or the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed with The Beatles on "There’s a Place," he was now refuting. Lennon stripped the songs of their quixotic power for the purpose of discovering the naked truth about himself. "Mother" opened the album with the peeling of funeral bells, as Lennon ranted angrily at the father who abandoned him as a boy and at the mother who was killed soon after. "I Found Out" expressed his angry contempt for religion and the pop culture The Beatles helped inspire. "Working Class Hero," a mournful old-fashioned folk ballad, despaired of an authoritarian society that stripped its citizens of their souls. Critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, compared the theme of Plastic Ono Band to The Who’s rock opera Tommy. "For what is the famous rock opera about?" Goldman asks. "A boy traumatized by his mother’s cheating loses all his senses but the most primitive, the sense of touch. He employs this mute yet passionate faculty to become a pinball hero—a symbol of rock ’n’ roll. Acclaimed by the world’s youth as a pop star, he continues to evolve, becoming first a guru and ultimately a saint. There is the legend of John Lennon to a T." On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to reveal himself as a new man who was reborn.