Category Archives: Moon Pitchers

The Devil Plays Mingus: “Whiplash”

by Categorized: Moon Pitchers, Music, Uncategorized Date:

Music movies are almost inevitably fun. Even bad music movies are often enjoyable. Even bad music movies featuring Richard Dreyfuss. (I liked “The Competition” and dutifully sniffled through the end of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” ) “Pitch Perfect” is at best an average comedy, but the music kicks it up onto a higher plane.  (There is, improbably, a “Pitch Perfect 2″ on the way, with a cameo by some of the Packers.) “Whiplash,” a new movie about the uphill climb of a jazz drummer might just be the most purely exciting music movie I’ve ever seen.

Apprenticeship movies are also a beloved American tradition. Everybody knows who Mr. Miyagi is. At least once a month for the rest of your life, somebody will mention Yoda. The apprenticeship in “Whiplash” does not resemble those relationships. The closest I can come to a template is the dynamic between Zack Mayo and Sgt. Emil Foley in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” It’s that notion of: if I don’t destroy you, if you survive me, you will be fit for service. There is also the peculiar linkage between two mentors who think the best way to get to a guy is to call him a queer or a faggot. This plays a lot less comfortably in 2014 than it did in 1982. We ultimately buy into Sgt. Foley’s aim. He is the father figure Zack needs, and his methods, hard as they are to watch, are all about keeping people alive.

What makes “Whiplash” so fascinating is the hazy ambiguity of its “mentor,” — if you can even call him that — Terence Fletcher, a conservatory band leader played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher is far more malevolent than Foley. He’s a monster. But does he have some Promethean gift to bestow upon the young man who survives his trial by fire? Would the gift be worth the ordeal that preceded it? And, most intriguingly, would “victory” amount to joining Darth Fletcher on a soulless dark side of virtuosity?

Absolutely, go see this movie. Now. You’ll have a blast. I’m going to give you a bunch of reasons to like it. But I also — God forgive me — want to tell you a few things that strike me as deeply wrong with it.

OK, good stuff: The performances of Miles Teller as the young drummer and of Simmons (who, I agree, should be entitled to some happy moments during awards season).This is a two-character movie. Any movie in which Paul Reiser is the third most important character is by definition a two-character movie. Truly, director Damien Chazelle cares only about the two guys and can barely be bothered to paint anyone else into the background. But it works. Also, Chazelle has a gift for filming the music scenes. They look like the very best training and ring scenes from “Rocky.” They’re that exciting. And then there’s the music. I mean, you really can’t lose, having terrific ensembles playing fabulous jazz. “Whiplash” is one big sweet crispy shiny jazz apple.

Now let me tell you about the worms

1. The role of Fletcher is overwritten and overwrought. It’s not just that he calls everybody a faggot, Patton-slaps Andrew, and tells one young musician, “I hope you can play faster than when you’re giving your boyfriend a hand job.” It’s not just that he conducts a Stasi style interrogation about which of his musicians has not properly tuned his instrument, eventually reduces one chubby trombonist to tears, ridicules the guy for being fat, throws him out of the ensemble and then, after he leave, dryly announces that another trombonist was the one out of tune but the fat guy “didn’t know that, which is just as bad.” I could buy all that (although in 2014, you really can’t keep your conservatory job very long if you’re that kind of homophobe). But to believe in Fletcher, you have to believe that, in the first 24 hours of knowing his young drummer Andrew, he teases some deeply personal family information out of him and immediately uses it to taunt him in front of 15 of his peers.  Does any bandleader really say, “I guess mommy walked out on daddy when she realized he wasn’t the next Herman Melville” on the first day of practice? Still, it works. I was riveted, even as a tiny little voice said inside me, “no, probably not.” Simmons saves Fletcher from caricature status. He could have been written as diabolical in a more subtle way.

2. The movie seems a little muddled about jazz itself. We are told repeatedly that Charlie Parker was tipped into greatness when Jo Jones nearly decapitated him with a hurled cymbal. Not only is this apparently false, but it also misses the point of Charlie Parker. The point of Bird is not that he subsumed himself to some tyrannical and metronomic understanding of music, but that he didn’t. He did the opposite. The critical scene in the movie is a Walpurgisnacht that really boils down to whether or not Andrew the drummer can push himself to play fast enough.  Not well enough. Fast enough. Whether, like Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire,” he can squeeze one tenth of a second out of himself. I also wonder whether this film is generally true to the spirit of jazz. I’m not a big jazz expert, but I’ve worked with some jazz musicians and known some others pretty well. No question: they operate under a very simple dichotomy. Either you can play or you can’t. If you can’t, nobody’s going to make excuses for you. But once you get beyond that hurdle, they seem overwhelmingly like easygoing, friendly and (frequently) almost naive people. There are exceptions. There’s Buddy Rich, a constant apostrophic presence in this movie. But Rich was reportedly all bark and no bite. He might have yelled at a fat trombonist, but he wouldn’t have fired him — certainly not for being out of tune at one practice. And then there’s Miles. But Miles was sui generis, right? You can’t use Miles to explain any other earthly phenomenon.  I guess Mingus was kind of a beast. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’ll be interested to see whether jazz people recognize their world in the darkness of this movie.

3.. Shooting the musical scenes, Chazelle moves like a seal through the water. Shooting non-musical human interactions, he’s more like a seal on dry land. There is, in particular, a dinner party scene that plays all wrong, rhythmically and in very other way. And what’s Chris Mulkey doing there?

But this movie took real guts and vision. One of its central questions is whether either of its protagonists deserves our sympathy. I000036.2771.Whiplash_still1_JKSimmons_.JPGt maintains that unsparing ambiguity all the way through. Andrew isn’t much more likable than Fletcher. But he is, in some other way, deserving. “Whiplash” paints virtuosity in an unforgiving light. What does it take to make a Mingus and what gets lost in the wash?

 

 

Who Was Afraid of Mike Nichols?

by Categorized: Colin's Theories of Culture, Moon Pitchers Date:

I had a theory about Mike Nichols which I have tried, with middling success, to expand to other auteurs. Nichols was such a brilliant guy that he didn’t do much work that was really bad. But Nichols always struck me as brain first, heart second. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. And it meant, to me, that he was better off directing work that had pre-loaded emotion. “Carnal Knowledge” is great because the emotions are already there in every character but Nicholson’s Jonathan. It’s about what happens to emotional people when they fall into the clutches of transactional people. “Primary Colors” is not so good because it’s cerebral layered on cerebral. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Angels in America” were suited to Nichols because each one was a cluster of volcanoes. In the case of “Angels,” it’s tough to think of anybody better suited to pull all those sprawling sensations into a framework. Nichols could do chilliness like nobody else. Not just Bancroft in “The Graduate,” or Weaver in “Working Girl.” But I think also of a small role in “Carnal Knowledge,” played by Cynthia O’Neal, wife of Patrick. She wasn’t really an actress, but she popped in up in Nichols movies and became a very early AIDS activist. In “Carnal Knowledge,” she plays a player. She makes a pass at Nicholson’s Jonathan and suggests she has more to offer sexually than the woman played by Ann-Margret, whom she calls a fat cow. And you realize that Jonathan is looking at himself writ female and drained of even the small amount of warm blood he still retains. It’s a scary, sexy moment.

It’s a fun game to play with Nichols. Is he too damn chilly for “Closer?” Does “Heartburn” work because it plays against his type? I’m not sure how well it works for other auteurs, but maybe it’s an argument for getting them out of their comfort zones now and then, Maybe Wes Anderson should direct something like “The Departed.” Maybe Christopher Nolan should direct something like “Something’s Gotta Give.” Tarantino should do an “Oklahoma” type musical with no violence or hipness. Play it with your favorite auteurs.  Doesn’t work with the Coens because they already would do almost anything.

Martha Swope photo of Nichols acting at the Long Wharf in 1980 via NY Public Library

Martha Swope photo of Nichols acting at the Long Wharf in 1980 via NY Public Library

Bird Thou Never Wert?

by Categorized: Moon Pitchers, Uncategorized Date:

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I don’t care who you are or how much of a legend you happen to be. Beyonce? Are you Beyonce? Fine. You are Beyonce. There will come a point when the world will treat you like a cold it’s trying to flush out of its system. That seems impossible right now: imagining a day when Beyonce will seem irrelevant, past her prime, eager to recapture the attention that once flowed over her and tragically incapable of making that happen.

Almost nobody gets off the hook. Elvis. Sinatra. Nobody wanted to be those guys by the end. Get out while you’re still iconic, like Bacall and Loren, and don’t try any comebacks. So merciless is this tide of human affairs that two different actors from “Friends” — Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc — are currently appearing in separate series about celebrities riding the heartbreaking downhill funicular of fame.

Watching Albert Maysles’ film about Sir Paul McCartney’s post-9/11 benefit concert, I realized that even Sir Paul is not immune. The film catches him repeatedly hawking — to other stars — a not-particularly-memorable song he’s written as a finale. For someone like me, for whom “Beatle” and “godhead” are nearly interchangeable terms, McCartney’s wheedling, self-protective tone are almost unbearable to watch —  and oddly predictive of the tone and theme of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman.”

OMG. That is painful. So much for unpremeditated art.

So “Birdman” is about that. And about the question of whether one is allowed to reinvent oneself. (Real answer: yes but only with a rich sense of irony. I give you William Shatner.) And about whether one can ever escape that life sentence of steady degradation. It’s also about trying to keep it real  and —  specifically — about what happens when you get very self-conscious about trying to keep it real. Does thinking about keeping it real effectively subvert the concept? It certainly does if you’re trying to make keeping-it-real a substitute for your lost paradise of completely unreal celebrity. A paradise against which you, like Lucifer, rebelled.

“Birdman” wears its wingedness on its sleeve. If your attention wanders, someone will be along to slap you into remembrance that its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is indeed a fallen angel (Better to reign on Broadway than to serve in Hollywood?) and an Icarus figure.

One of my favorite moments — and let’s stipulate that even if you ultimately don’t buy the movie, you have lots of favorite moments — occurs during one Riggan’s innumerable, surreal strolls through the Theater District, where he is attempting to stage his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In the near distance, as Riggan walks, we hear a man roaring the Act V Macbeth soliloquy. It’s a crazy, wonderful roaring, and it turns out to come from a very crazy-looking man whose arm is inexplicably hitched up on some scaffolding, like maybe it’s manacled there. And you’re thinking, “Well this guy, at least, is keeping keeping it real, by his lights.” And then he says something to undermine that. Even the maniacs are overthinking it. (The guy is Bill Camp, an actor who really did do Macbeth in New York and wound up marrying his Lady M. in real life. This movie is full of in-jokes. Naomi Watts randomly making out with a female co-star? How is that not a “Mulholland Drive” joke?)

“Birdman” is one of those movies that begs you to go all-in. And I decided : why not? I quieted the voice that asks whether this material really hangs together. I gratefully lapped up jokes that did not insult my intelligence, ranging from the absurd effortfulness of the Carver project itself to the invocation of Barthes (in a joke about baby pig semen injections!). I grooved on the illusion of the movie as one unbroken take and enjoyed — amid the magical realism — the powerful sense that this is as close to really being backstage on Broadway as most of us will ever get.

America’s Greatest Living Film Critic did not go all-in. He would not be seduced by a tour de force. I respect that. And he’s certainly right that there are no new ideas in this film. But the movie feels very new, very fresh, very unlike anything else I can think of. And Iñárritu anticipates AGLFC and all critics by asking a question about keymasters and gatekeepers.  Riggan confronts a viperish theater critic asking who the hell he thinks he is, For the last eight years, I have been fascinated by this (essentially Old World) question and its New World answer: Who do I need to be? Just somebody who thinks he can do a better job, right?

Also…do baby pigs …even …have semen?

I’m not even sure what point I’m making now. And in that sense, I resemble “Birdman.” What sets us free, according to this film? Not being present in the moment, I’m pretty sure. Being absent in the moment? Surrender? Not caring? It can’t be that. We can’t have traversed all those semi-dark mossy hallways just for “not caring.”  But maybe the ride is the thing. And come on, this is a great ride.

She Came, She Went, She Conquered

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Every misanthrope starts out hopeful.  Think of the two American misanthropes who book-ended the 20th century, Twain and Vonnegut. The fuel cell for their anger at humankind is disappointment. We could have been so much better.

I’m not sure David Fincher, the most interesting contemporary misanthrope I can think of, really shares that hope. He doesn’t like us very much, and one rarely glimpses any sign of regret about it. His great and creepy film “Zodiac” — the one that bears the closest resemblance to “Gone Girl” –contains a wonderful joke. If you rake off the upper layer of concealment on almost any human life, you find the plausible ingredients of a serial killer. The problem the cops have in “Zodiac” isn’t that they can’t find the guy. It’s that they keep finding so many guys. The rest of the Fincher oeuvre includes “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Social Network.” These are not admiring portraits of our species.

Now, “Gone Girl.” (Can you tell I’m trying to catch up on cinema this week?) Before I go further, I promise to try not to spoil the film, but that’s going to be difficult. It’s not your typical thriller. The big reveal comes about halfway through. The problem was stated differently in a piece I greatly admired (without necessarily agreeing with all of it): “Disclaimer: If you don’t know what happens in Gone Girl by now, please send me an email explaining how that is even possible.”

The literary material of “Gone Girl” is perfect for Fincher’s mood, because he’s under no obligation to sustain the excitement beyond the first 75 minutes or so. Then he gets to look at what really interests him: the degree to which the most basic notions of human happiness are essentially social fictions: stories we construct and — having cast ourselves in protagonist roles — play out to the best of our abilities. Maybe you heard: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

There’s a moment in the film when the husband Nick (Ben Affleck) shambles numbly into his perfect kitchen only to behold his perfect yellow cat and his perfect-looking wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) making something perfectly delicious-looking with lots of little bowls of sweet, fresh ingredients arrayed around her. “Crepes?” she asks. And you realize the movie has now veered irretrievably into social satire and that’s OK. Horror and social anxiety are close cousins anyway. In “Rosemary’s Baby,” the principal source of anxiety is social — sooner or later Mia Farrow is going to have to confront all these smiling people with what she suspects about them….and that’s going to be so awkward I just can’t stand it.

I could keep that parallel going. “Gone Girl” is about marrying into a family of demons. Amy’s parents are monsters who twist her like a Rubik’s cube to fit their excruciatingly sunny children’s books. Amy, in this movie, is what Facebook is in “The Social Network.” She’s a great idea, but the most enduring question about that idea has to do with distributing the money it made. As my friend Peter Shapiro used to say: It’s always about the money. And when they say it’s not about the money that’s when it’s really about the money.

But we’re all monsters  according to Fincher. Especially the press. This movie is Fincher getting his Paddy Chayevsky on. There’s only one channel and only one show on that channel. It’s Nancy Grace, 24/7. (Except when it’s Sela Ward in a wonderful turn as the person who’s just as bad as Nancy Grace but on a counter-narrative basis. Oh Sela Ward. I am grateful to have lived on the earth at the same time as you.) But that’s one of the clues that this is not an entirely serious movie, The press is camped outside the house of the story du moment five weeks after it stopped being that.

Have I made clear that I like this movie?  I do. It is comic misanthropy well played. Well played, Mr. Fincher.

And now I will tell you something you did not know. The male cop, the one who is sort of partners with Matt Saracen’s mom? He was the kid in “Almost Famous.”GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th You’re welcome.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Wonder When This Movie Will Be Over

by Categorized: Moon Pitchers, Uncategorized Date:

INTERSTELLARWhen you get near a black hole, time slows down. “Interstellar” gives you the chance to sample the truth of that statement on multiple levels.

Maybe I am not Christopher Nolan‘s target audience. I found “The Dark Knight Rises” oppressively grim and hopeless.

And I found “Interstellar” …pretty much the same. I’m assuming you know at least a little something about Nolan’s new $165-million haute mumblecore movie about space travel and relativity. Believe me, I don’t want to spoil any of it for you, because if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll really be looking for something to cling to and cherish, including the plot twist at the end.

Watching a movie made by talented people and disliking it is like being in a bad relationship. You keep wondering, “Is it you or is it me?” I say it’s them. I’m up for a brainy movie about general relativity, which turns 100 next year. I’m already thinking about doing a radio episode on it  in January. And I like art and culture that’s about ideas. If you told me there was a production of  Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” playing 20 miles away, and I would get in my car and go see it, even though I saw one three weeks ago. And “Arcadia” has tons of math!

You know what else “Arcadia” has? The greatest living writer of dialogue in the English language. In fact, the fix for a lot of pop culture is to have Stoppard rewrite it, which he has done quietly more than once. The dialogue in “Interstellar” is often quite leaden, especially when it veers away from science and toward emotion. Think about that. The scientific stuff crackles a little. The humanistic parts of the movie sink like a stone (in a place where there’s regular gravity …you have to say that with this film.)

Allow me to point to one especially pressing example. The emotional arc of the movie hinges on the notion that the protagonist (Coop, played by Matthew McConaughey) is wrongly perceived by his heartbroken daughter (Murph, played by Jessica Chastain) as having abandoned her for inadequate reasons. Setting aside the question how one family can contain two people with similarly abridged last names, consider what actually happens: The widowed Coop accepts a mission to save the human race, which is going to die out unless something is done. When Coop leaves on the mission, Murph is but a child, too young to be handed the knowledge that everybody, including her, is going to die an unpleasant, lingering death unless he, Coop, succeeds. At least, that’s what Coop thinks: that his daughter would rather believe that her only surviving parent ditched her to indulge his jones for exploration than know that the whole human race faces extinction. Well, maybe. But here’s the note that won’t play: Murph grows up and goes to work for the very scientist (Brand, played by Michael Caine) who persuaded her dad to fly through a wormhole. So now she is among the 25 or so humans uniquely positioned to know why her father left, what kind of risk he undertook and how noble and self-sacrificing his motives were.  And she’s still terminally pissed off. Later in the film, she imputes to him yet another imagined betrayal, which I suppose is Nolan’s way of doubling down on that first bad bet, but it’s too late for that.

The movie is also ramshackle affair that samples gracelessly from its predecessors, including but not limited to “2001,” “2010,” “Amageddon,” and “Tree of Life.” Phil Plait caught them ripping off “A Wrinkle in Time” and — right down to using McConaughey the same way twice — “Contact.” But the most hilarious and annoying revelation (for me) is the way Nolan is trying to get inside the pants of “Good Will Hunting.” “Interstellar” features Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. (Ben Affleck is the next Batman. I assume Minnie Driver sits by the phone every day.) But “Interstellar” essentially takes that blackboard full of some big-ass unworkable equation from its original Cambridge locale and moves it to an underground undisclosed location. And then it trades on that hoary cliche, spoken by someone holding a piece of chalk or a dry erase marker: “But what if N[1333x] is actually (3)H<66U{pi}?” That would change everything! We could get from the higher math blackboard stage to the manufacture stage in 6 weeks! We can have time travel machines in freakin’ Best Buy in time for holiday shopping!” Math is fascinating, but it doesn’t turn into applied engineering that fast.

I could ramble some more. The possibilities for hating on this movie are boundless. Like space.

“Nebraska”

by Categorized: Moon Pitchers, Uncategorized Date:

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Forte and Angela McEwan

Forte and Angela McEwan

I’m starting to believe the people who say 2013 is one of the great years for movies. Having recently piled “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Nebraska” on top of the long list of other last year releases viewed, I’m starting to see this as a crop that just keeps yielding.

I dragged my feet about “Nebraska,” although I’m hard pressed to say why. (I have a philistine’s resistance to black and white movies. So often, they represent some auteur’s attempt to make a new artistic statement I don’t care about or to imitate some other beloved auteur. Hence, “8 1/2″ begat “Stardust Memories,” which is probably a better movie than I think it is. At the time, it annoyed me.)

For the first 20 minutes or more, I thought I had probably been right about “Nebraska.” I’m an Alexander Payne fan, but I considered “The Descendants” a failure. And I’m 59, getting ready to board that boat into old age. Watching Bruce Dern (as Woody Grant)  stagger around and humiliate himself for a couple of hours …well, couldn’t I just download Peggy Lee singing “Is That All there Is?” and play it over and over? And Payne’s vision of the Great Plains and its little towns full of debilitated working class people is ….bleak.

But then, hand on the petcock, Payne starts to bleed a muted warmth into these scenes. The performance of Will Forte as Woody’s son David is a key to this, and the dynamic between old father and fortyish son gets stripped right down to its very truthful skeleton. The last movie I can remember that tackled this subject was “Nothing In Common” with Hanks and Gleason in 1986. This is like an x-ray of that movie. And just when you think the Grant men (and the movie itself) are incapable of joy, Payne opens the valve a little more, so that the home stretch is a celebration. An odd, stinting, anti-inveigling one, yes. But a celebration.

“Nebraska” is a fabulous argument for the “restore the Oscar for casting directors” crowd. (I am in intimate communication with a face in that crowd.)  Every little bitty role is immaculately filled, and the larger choices of Forte and, as his brother, Bob Odenkirk — both of whom made their bones in sketch comedy — for these layered roles were inspired. And Stacy Keach! Good Lord.

And while we’re talking of awards that don’t exist, somebody should give a prize for Best Performance in a Bit Part. Seven minutes or less of screen time. I nominate an actor named Angela McEwan, who is Peggy, the woman who carried a torch for Woody in the sweet days of youth. McEwan, one short scene, sips from a cup of honey and hemlock and lets it roll around on her tongue in a way that adds a whole extra dimension to the narrative. And then — in keeping with one of Payne’s themes: that everybody is a hit man, socially and/or emotionally — this lovely and deferential older woman whips a Luger out from under her cardigan and blows a hole in the paper target of David’s dragon-breathed mom Kate. Really, not since “Three Days of the Condor” have so many innocuous-looking people turned out to be snipers.

Let me close with the scene that sticks closest to me. Woody and his family trek back to the ramshackle farmhouse of his boyhood. He walks into his parents’ old bedroom and recalls that he’d get whipped for walking in there, back in those days.  And then — with Dern doing one of his many deft toggles from addressing the people around him to talking to himself — he says, “I guess nobody’s going to whip me now.”  So much is said in the moment; but for me it captured the way people start clearing out. Your recording angels and the masters of your universe. One day, they’re all gone, and you miss them all, even the ones who meted out tough justice. And now, you wonder if anybody cares enough about your case to hear it — which is both liberating and disorienting.