Saturday, September 17, 2016

Different Perspective: Pamela Adlon's Better Things

Pamela Adlon in Better Things on FX.

Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s new comedy on FX, does an excellent job of summing itself up in its opening scene. Adlon’s character Sam is sitting on a bench, looking at her phone while her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward) stands sobbing next to her. After a little while, Sam looks up and catches the disapproving stare of the elderly woman on the other end of the bench and confronts her, explaining that Duke is crying because Sam won’t buy her a cheap trinket and inviting the older woman to go ahead and buy it for her if she’s so concerned about the little girl. It’s hard not to read that opening scene in terms of star Adlon’s role on Louie, another sort-of comedy on FX in which she frequently appeared as comedian Louis C.K.’s on-again-off-again romantic interest (Louis C.K.’s also heavily involved as a producer on this show, so it seems fair to compare the two programs). In that show, we saw her primarily through the fictionalized Louie’s eyes (both shows feature comedians playing somewhat autobiographical versions of themselves) and at times her character threatened to become a twenty-first century version of the maddening temptress, the woman whom the main character desired but could never really possess. Louie was ultimately much smarter than that, but it’s still refreshing to see Adlon introduce a slightly different version of her character and show us life from her perspective. As the woman on the bench learns, there’s a lot more to Sam than the sardonic, seemingly uncaring front that she presents to the world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

States of Mind: Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs

Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs.

Joachim Trier's previous movie, Oslo, August 31st, offered the devastating depiction of one day in the life of a heroin addict, Anders, as he journeyed from rehab to relapse over the course of twenty-four hours. Along the way, the Norwegian director folded the audience into Anders' conscious experience – his mental states and feelings – in uncanny fashion. Moods of depression and alienation drenched the picture as Anders encountered various persons from his past in disconnected moments. The director displayed a mesmeric ability to create conscious experience through visual, aural, and linguistic means. In one scene, Anders sits alone in a cafe filled with patrons. As Trier slowly zooms in on the man, he begins listening in on the conversations of his neighbors, their chatter coming in and out of our hearing like station frequencies on a radio. He looks through the window at young professionals passing by in all their seeming success, and we sense his resigned envy. His own troubled consciousness imprisons him even as it affords him imaginative empathy with others. But Trier follows each of these people, and we see flashes of the rest of their day and the sadness and alienation that assails them, too. No one is happy. At the end, as Anders lies in oblivion, a montage of the places he visited that day appear, empty now. A similar montage shows up at the end of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but there the image of each place held the memory of romantic magic. Here, only that of emptiness, futility, human vapor.

Louder Than Bombs, which opened last spring in the U.S., finds Trier exploring the realms of phenomenology, depression, and alienation even more deeply. And it reveals a greater mastery of surrealism, point of view, and narrative construction on his part. The film, penned by Trier and his recurring co-writer, Eskil Vogt, concerns the Reed family: Gene (Gabriel Byrne), the father, and his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a professor of sociology, married, and a new father. Conrad still lives at home, finishing high school. Their wife and mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photojournalist, died in a car wreck three years earlier. Now, we find the men at their family home outside New York, still groping their way through the emotional aftermath. That process grows weightier when they learn that Isabelle's colleague, Richard (David Strathairn, ever welcome), plans to publish a lengthy retrospective on her in The New York Times. And, more consequentially, that he intends to reveal that, rather than accidentally driving into an oncoming semi, Isabelle actually killed herself. Other than Richard, only Gene and Jonah know the truth of the matter – they've kept Conrad in the dark. And when Gene learns what's coming, he wrestles with how to tell his younger son, even as Jonah insists on keeping the teenager innocent of it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

If You Must Blink, Do It Now: Kubo and the Two Strings

The publicity for Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t hook me because my eyes deceived me; I saw the trailer and thought the strangely-stylized CGI visuals looked janky and oddly angular, and said no thanks. It wasn’t until the film came out and I heard that it had been made by LAIKA, purveyors of stop-motion magic like Coraline and Paranorman, that I suddenly became interested. That wasn’t odd-looking CG I had seen, it was beautiful stop-motion animation! I was amazed at how starkly different my reaction was to the film’s look once I was processing it through the correct lens – to say nothing of how amazed I was by the craft and power of the final product.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Distilled Life: Art of the Recent Future by Malcolm Rains

Lyttos by Malcolm Rains. (Oil on linen, 2016)

“Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary /
some in the right direction / practice resurrection.”
– Wendell Berry 
It’s not only that Malcolm Rains is a master of many styles and that each one looks the way a spoken dialect in language sounds: he is in fact a master stylist, period. Each of his motifs belongs to a broad and deep painting territory which he traverses and revisits the same way we can return to Rome or Athens to follow our own footsteps and yet still feel it’s a first time encounter. There’s something hauntingly familiar, gently reassuring and yet utterly otherworldly in the way this artist can explore major subjects over a long term career trajectory.

One such subject is a domain he has confidently commanded for over a decade, the kind of crisp representation I can only call objective portraiture. Whether it’s the way fruit occupies space on a table, or the way light is refracted from a glowing metallic surface of pure colour, or the way creased paper can assume the awesome stature of a mountain, one recursive element remains shared by them all: optical splendour and its transmission.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Processed Food: Animated Comedy Sausage Party

Sausage Party features the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill.

When the trailer for Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s computer animated comedy Sausage Party was accidentally played before a screening of Disney/Pixar’s family-friendly fish film, Finding Dory, the gaff reportedly “made star [Seth Rogen’s] day.” Truthfully, it made mine too. It’s easy to see how Sausage Party’s cartoony hot dogs, grinning veggies, and bright-eyed baked goods could be mistaken for the heroes of a children’s film if one wasn’t paying attention but, to be clear: this ballsy comedy written by a seven-man team that includes Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill is only fun for kids 18 and up.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Great Screen Matches: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray

Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in True Confession (1937).

Perhaps the most underappreciated of the great screen couples of the thirties, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray made four movies together at Paramount between 1935 and 1937. (They might have made more, but Lombard died in a plane crash in 1942.) Though her most famous performance is as an heiress in My Man Godfrey opposite that class act William Powell, in her pictures with MacMurray Lombard always plays working-class women, but she has a flickering moonbeam quality, while he’s generally a Yankee everyman. It’s easy to fall in love with her; everything about her is endearing, including her nuttiness. He has the gift of getting an audience solidly on his side, of making us identify with him. (That’s why MacMurray is so effective later on as the dupe in Double Indemnity.) They have a winning casualness when they’re together on screen.

I’d suggest several reasons for the fact that their partnership has been overlooked. MacMurray’s career flattened out when he took the role of the blandly wise, pipe-chomping pop in the TV sitcom My Three Sons in 1960 and stayed with it for a dozen years; by the time the show finally went off the air, his career was pretty much over, and with a couple of exceptions – Double Indemnity and The Apartment, both under Billy Wilder’s direction – no one recalled the movies he’d done before. And the four pictures he did with Lombard have never been ranked among the classics of their era. Moreover, they’re just different enough from each other – and the characters MacMurray and Lombard play in them are just varied enough – that their collaboration isn’t archetypal or easy to categorize.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Force and Gravity and Fire: Dale Chihuly In Conversation

A visitor enjoys Dale Chihuly's Persian Ceiling installation, at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo by

Allow contemporary American glass artist Dale Chihuly to shatter a few myths. The first is that glass, the medium which has made him world famous, collected by many of the world's top museums and coveted by an adoring public which can't get enough of his whimsical designs, is a dainty thing lacking in substance, shallow as a bowl. The second is that it's not art but a craft, useful more than innovative. But one at a time.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who turns 75 this month, Chihuly is used to intense scrutiny of work defying easy categorization. Ever since blowing his first glass bubble in 1965, he has built a career on elevating the centuries-old practice of studio glass blowing to the level of fine art. Produced in his Seattle studio by teams of artisans who execute his designs from drawings on paper – a 1976 car accident left him blind in one eye so what he lacks in depth perception he gains in ideas – Chihuly's grandiose glass installations are exhibited in galleries and enjoyed in public gardens where the sturdiest of his pieces easily withstand the elements. More than vessels, they are undulating sculptures whose wafer-thin transparency catch light and cast shadows, heightening the visual drama. You don't drink from them: you devour them, the eyes feasting on their rich and rarefied beauty. But their magnificence doesn't always win people over. Mention the name Chihuly and opinions are often divided.

A case in point is the Chihuly exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto that runs until January 2. Consisting of 11 massive and immersive installations, the eye-popping show is the brainchild of Diane Charbonneau, the curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art who organized Canada's first Chihuly exhibition in 2013. There, attendance was as strong as the reviews, the Montreal critics generally welcoming Chihuly's oversized glass extravaganzas with open arms. Toronto has so far proven to be a different story.