Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Light Fantastic – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug & The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The middle part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is terrifically enjoyable, and its two hours and forty minutes move with alacrity. It’s the ideal Christmas entertainment, though it’s now fashionable to deride Jackson, who was – justifiably – everybody’s hero between 2001 and 2003, when he turned out the three Lord of the Rings pictures. The general feeling seems to be that he returned to Tolkien with his tail between his legs because his two intervening movies, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were disasters and it was the only thing he could do – as if nearly-three-hour fantasy adventures with enormous casts were so easy to pull off that they no longer merited any respect. And then it turns out that The Hobbit movies are piddling achievements because they’re not in the same class as The Lord of the Rings.

Well, backlashes don’t make sense except as expressions of envy, but I feel duty bound to correct the record. The Lovely Bones was indeed a disaster: Jackson didn’t have the sensibility or the style for Alice Sebold’s delicate novel, which is the damnedest coming-of-age story I’ve ever read (the heroine, who narrates it, has been murdered by a predatory neighbor). Jackson compensated by overproducing it in a kind of storybook lushness probably meant to mimic Maxfield Parrish or maybe the 1940s output of the English filmmaking team Powell and Pressburger. And it was all wrong – the way Spielberg’s The Color Purple was all wrong. Talented directors sometimes fall flat on their faces. But King Kong was another story. Yes, it went on for hours, but there were splendid things in it right alongside the scenes that fumbled, and if you stuck around for the last section, in New York, which focused on the love story between the ape and Naomi Watts, your patience was rewarded. A former student of mine theorized cannily that it was way too long because Jackson loved the material so much he couldn’t bear to let it go – a charge that might be made about his Lord of the Rings movies, too, if it weren’t for the fact that there was nothing in them you’d want to cut (and that includes the roughly half an hour of additional footage he restored to each for the director’s-cut DVDs). You can call King Kong a folly, but it’s hardly fair to call it a waste.

Friday, January 10, 2014

When Magic Isn't Magical: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Lev Grossman's The Magicians was described to me as “a grown-up Harry Potter,” and while that makes for glib description in retrospect, that’s pretty much what it is: a team of teenagers attend a magical college called Brakebills, with plenty of colourful characters and adolescent debauchery to populate it. It’s an easy sell. Here's what was missing from the Harry Potter universe: copious sex and drinking.

The Magicians is in reality an odd duck, a novel which confused me not through plot intricacy, difficult language, or even authorial incompetence, but through a mismatch between my expectations and reality – namely, the expectation that had been bred in me that The Magicians was going to stand up to scrutiny against Harry Potter. Oddly fitting, too, considering that the protagonist, a young Brooklyn wizard named Quentin Coldwater, struggles with this very dichotomy in what becomes the novel’s major theme. Quentin is unwittingly enrolled in a secret school of magic, which fulfills his every escapist fantasy. He comes to learn, however, that fantasies aren’t necessarily much better than reality. In its handling of these so-called “mature themes” – what it calls “the horror of really getting what you think you want” – The Magicians is canny, providing more than a few moments of hungover cynicism that struck rather too close to home. But though I’m inclined to say that its angsty insight trumps Harry Potter’s storybook naiveté, The Magicians’ fundamental storytelling is where the comparison falls flat.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Gutter Balls: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Martin Scorsese’s three-hour, head-crushing The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who loses his job with a big Wall Street firm after the 1987 crash and re-invents himself as a dealer in penny stocks, making a fortune (and soon setting up his own firm) by pitching shares of virtually worthless businesses to strangers on the phone. There is a real Jordan Belfort; the screenplay, by Terence Winter, takes it title and many of its characters and events from Belfort’s autobiography, which describes his rapid rise in the 1990s, his party-hearty lifestyle, and his eventual arrest for stock fraud. At the end of the movie, he has remade himself, yet again, as a motivational speaker. It’s easy to imagine a worse outcome for a guy like this, but when DiCaprio is standing in front of a roomful of shmucks, half-heartedly inviting them to show them what they’ve got and handing around a pen to use as a prop, he has the same dead-eyed, cast-out-of-Eden look as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill at the end of GoodFelllas.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Malfunction: Spike Jonze’s Her

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (on table) in Her

He’s only directed four features in all since his 1999 debut with the startling and brilliant Being John Malkovich. But nothing in Spike Jonze’s oeuvre, which also includes the clever and witty Adaptation (2002) and the moving Where the Wild Things Are (2009), prepared me for his latest film, Her (2013), a failure on pretty much every level but also a science fiction movie singularly lacking in originality, thought or vision. Considering it’s Jonze's solo debut as a screenwriter, he may want to consider letting others write his movies for him. He certainly displays no facility for crafting screenplays on his own that entice and reward the viewer.

Set in the near future, Her revolves around one Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix), an introverted man still reeling from the breakup of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He spends his days in a job that involves writing love letters for people who lack the facility or time to do so but he is lonely himself, resorting to Internet porn to get through his nights. But one day, he’s told about a new invention, a particularly intelligent Operating System (OS) that is all the rage. He buys one and soon the OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon), who has chosen her own name, Samantha, becomes a permanent fixture in his life, first as a friend and then as something much more, a girlfriend with whom he falls deeply in love. It’s not the worst idea for a movie but it’s also not the revelatory concept Jonze and many critics – the film has (inexplicably) received its share of awards, including being picked best movie of 2013 by the National Board of Review – seem to think it is.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Past as Prologue: Patty Griffin's Silver Bell and American Kid

Patty Griffin on NPR

Last year Patty Griffin released two albums that could be considered long, lost companions reunited. Even though the releases span 13 years, they offer insight into Griffin’s maturity as a singer and songwriter.

In the brief liner notes to Silver Bell, Griffin writes about this previously unreleased record as "the last of many things". But to my ear it’s as much a “beginning” as an "ending" because Silver Bell is a fine album of transition, from Griffin’s edgy rock sound to her current recording, American Kid [New West] that is refined and inspired from her past. To me, Silver Bell is the gateway to American Kid.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Hopeless Mess: The Commons of Pensacola

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker in The Commons of Pensacola (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The actress Amanda Peet has an earthbound vivacity and an unpredictable way of attacking a line; I loved watching her on Aaron Sorkin’s TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and as Mark Ruffalo’s wife in a terrific little movie called What Doesn’t Kill You that went straight to DVD (when the company that produced it went bankrupt on the verge of its intended release). But her playwriting debut, The Commons of Pensacola, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is producing off-Broadway at MTC Stage I at City Center, is a hopeless mess. It’s set in a retirement condo in Pensacola, Florida, where Judith (Blythe Danner), the wife of a Bernie Madoff-like Jewish financier who victimized Holocaust survivors, now lives on the restricted income allowed her. It’s Thanksgiving, and she’s visited by her daughter Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker), an actress on her uppers who arrives with a younger boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David), self-described as a guerilla journalist. On their heels come sixteen-year-old Lizzy (Zoe Levin), Judith’s granddaughter, and finally Lizzy’s mother, Ali (Ali Marsh), who hasn’t spoken to Judith for a year but flies down when a fall lands her, unconscious, in the hospital.

It’s a good assumption that the subject of a play with this plot premise is the fallout from a front-page scam for the family of the sociopath who engineered it, but Becca’s financial desperation – when her agent calls, it isn’t to offer her work but to find out if she’s available New Year’s Eve to babysit her daughter – is unrelated to what her father did, and so is her boyfriend Gabe’s having sex with Lizzy while Becca is at the hospital with her mother. The narrative feels as though Peet thought it up, episode by episode, on a caffeine jag. There are individual scenes that don’t make sense on their face. Left alone with Judith hours after meeting her for the first time, Gabe pitches the idea of a documentary series he and Becca have conceived that would allow her to talk about her husband’s crime and show some sympathy for the people he bankrupted. When she finds the idea repugnant, he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe she could possibly have been ignorant of what her husband was up to. It’s a fact about notoriety, like any other kind of celebrity, that complete strangers feel emboldened to proclaim their point of view, but is it likely that a man meeting his girlfriend’s mother for the first time, a guest in her home, would insult her?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What I Did Last Year!: 2013 Concerts in Review

Stephen Fearing performed at The Pearl Company in Hamilton on April 19, 2013.

Do you remember the assignment you had back in school? Write an essay called ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’? I’m sure you wrote several such essays. Well, at the end of a year I like to look back over the past 12 months and just see what happened. Where did I go, what did I see, how many CDs and books did I buy? A complete list would take up more space than I have today, but I thought it might be interesting to look back at the concerts I attended.