Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vacation

No new updates till Sunday or Monday; off to massachusetts for a
family wedding and some R&R. And remember, if you go see "Transformers
2" this weekend, the terrorists win.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On DVD: "John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert"

Recorded in Liverpool on July 19, 2003, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert captures Mayall,“the father of British blues” (as he’s introduced), in spry and spirited shape, running through a set of recent and classic numbers with the help of some famous friends. He’s backed by the current version of his Bluesbreakers band, but this is a group that changes personnel more often than a fast-food restaurant; former members went on to form such iconic bands as Fleetwood Mac and Cream. During the course of the two hour-plus show, Mayall is joined by two of his most famous alumni: former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and the great Eric Clapton, who came to the Bluesbreakers after leaving the Yardbirds in the mid 1960s.

Eagle Vision’s film of the concert gets off to a bit of a rocky start. The first three songs are performed by just Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and, frankly, they’re a bit boring. “Southside Story” is not the kind of barn-burner one might open this kind of a show with; it’s a little on the bland side, and Mayall looks, at first, rather uncomfortable. He stands awkwardly, sways a little, and doesn’t seem quite sure how to get the crowd going. It’s a tentative opening, and the two tracks that follow—“Kids Got the Blues” and “Dirty Water”—continue the same vibe; you keep waiting for the set to get exciting.

Things perk up considerably when Taylor makes his entrance. His first song with the band, “Somebody’s Acting Like A Child,” has nice, dirty funk feel to it; his solos on “Blues for the Lost Days” and “Walking on Sunset” are electrifying. His expert playing gives the show a lift; this 2003 incarnation of the Bluesbreakers has plenty of competent players, but none of them are terribly exciting, and as energetic as Mayall is (particularly considering his age), over the years, he has consistently proven to be only as good as his back-up.

Eric Clapton comes in at the halfway mark, and it’s clearly the moment everyone’s been waiting for—the crowd is immediately on their feet, thrilled by the notion of watching the two icons playing together for the first time in nearly four decades. They ease into Slowhand’s section; the first song, “No Big Hurry,” is a lovely, easy number with just Mayall on the organ and Clapton on the guitar. Chris Barber joins them for “Please Mr. Lofton,” which also has an laid-back feel, but then the Bluesbreakers return for “Hideway,” and that’s when things get cooking.

The section of songs that follow is undoubtedly the highlight—Clapton, Mayall, and the Bluesbreakers performing the kind of classic rock/blues that made them famous. Clapton’s guitar work is wicked on “All Your Love,” even if Mayall’s vocals are a little weak. Mayall’s “Have You Heard” is a classic wailer, and Clapton’s smooth solo brings the house down. Clapton takes the vocals on one of the all-time great blues songs, Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and it is the concert’s best single number. Clapton also sings lead on the great Sonny Thompson tune “I’m Tore Down” (which Clapton did on his terrific 1994 album From the Cradle); the horns swing, Clapton’s voice growls, and it’s pure fun.

Clapton leaves briefly as Mayall performs one more number with just the Bluesbreakers, “It Ain’t Right” (it’s the best of their performances, so the placement is wise); all of the guest stars join the band for the closing song, a ten-minute rave-up of J.B. Lenoir’s “Talk Your Daughter,” which gives everyone a chance to shine and brings the uneven but enjoyable show to a rousing conclusion.

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert has got some great music in it, but this concert video would have benefited greatly from being shorter and tighter; plain and simple, the weakest material is right up front, so the show takes quite a bit of time (and help from its roster of guest stars) to get going. Once guitar legends Taylor and Clapton join in, however, it’s a mighty good time.

"John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Kael of the Week: Old and young

“When you’re young the odds are very good that you’ll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn’t much to start with. Unless you’re feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. We don’t go on reading the same kinds of manufactured novels—pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say—all our lives, and we don’t want to go on and on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again. Probably a large part of the older audience gives up on movies for this reason—simply that they’ve seen it before. And probably this is why so many of the best movie critics quit. They’re wrong when they blame it on the movies going bad; it’s the odds becoming so bad, and they can no longer bear the many tedious movies for the few good moments and the tiny shocks of recognition."

-"Trash, Art, and the Movies," Harper's
February 1969


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 6/30/09

Do The Right Thing (20th Anniversary Edition): Spike Lee's masterpiece hits DVD and Blu with a new transfer and some addtional supplements; it's really one of the great films of the last couple of decades, and if you haven't seen it, do so. Some folks on the Internet are all up arms over the new transfer, which alters the yellow hue of Criterion's DVD a few years back; frankly, I've seen the movie multiple times over the years and wouldn't have noticed any chance had I not seen the frame-to-frame comparisons that are floating around. I stand by my five-star review of the video quality.

Two Lovers: James Gray's thoughtful, quiet, low-key character study is a fine showcase for the considerable (onscreen) talents of Joaquin Phoenix, while Gwyneth Paltrow does her best film work in years.

That's about it; it's a pretty slim week on disc. However, we had just cancelled HBO when Eastbound & Down hit the air, and I've heard great things about it (particularly from my colleague Jamie S. Rich), so I'll give it a look-see when I can.

On DVD: "Knowing"

So I know I’m late to the party on this one, but when did Nicolas Cage turn into such a terrible actor? And by that, I don’t mean bad in bad movies; he’s clearly aware that Bangkok Dangerous and Ghost Rider and those National Treasure movies are garbage, and appears to “act” accordingly. But it was once safe to assume that, given a decent script (like Adaptation or Lord of War or Matchstick Men), he’d put forth a little effort. However, his latest film, Knowing, is a serviceable enough sci-fi thriller with a fairly ingenious concept at its core, and his is a horrifyingly poor performance. In scene after scene, he veers between his two modes (sleepwalking and bug-eyed yelling), recites his lines dutifully but without inspiration, and generally seems to wish he were somewhere else. From his work here, you’d never guess that this was an Academy Award-winning actor and well-paid movie star; you’d think he was the secretary of the drama club, who stepped into the leading role of the high school play when the star got mono.

It appears that he’s gotten so used to phoning it in that he doesn’t recognize a flawed script that he could help by doing a bit of acting. Or maybe he just got confused, as Knowing’s plot sounds, at first blush, like a cross between Next and National Treasure. A grabber of an opening reveals the basic premise: in 1959, a young girl (Lara Robinson) puts a page of seemingly random numbers into a time capsule that her grade school is burying, to be opened 50 years later. Flash forward to the present day; MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) has a son (Chandler Canterbury) who attends the school, and when each of the current students is given a letter from the past, he gets the scrawl of numbers. Koestler starts to examine the document, and when a series of numbers spelling out 9/11/2001 pops out at him, he goes to the Internet and starts to crunch some numbers. He finds, to his horror, that the young girl predicted every major catastrophe of the subsequent half-century, down to the number of people killed. And there are three events, one of them major, within the next few days.

Knowing is helmed by director Alex Proyas, of the impressive Dark City and the far-less-impressive I, Robot. His style is slick and trim; he is undoubtedly a capable technician, and has a couple of virtuoso sequences here. The first, where Koestler takes the document apart and realizes the data it contains, has a thrilling, paranoid kick to it. It’s reminiscent of similar great scenes in Blow-Out or The Conversation, even if it contains too many familiar visual cues—when someone’s discovering crazy shit, they surely must be holding a highball glass full of booze, so that when the biggest shock reveal occurs, it can crash to the floor in slow motion. That Proyas can still score with that stock shot speaks volumes about his skill as a craftsman.

His other standout moment comes when Koestler realizes he’s about to witness the next prophesized event, and Proyas shoots it all in one shot, Children of Men-style. It’s a jaw-dropper of a scene; it takes your breath away, the technique is so absorbing. That scene depends considerably on computer effects, but most of them work, though a later scene on the New York subway doesn’t fare nearly as well. I’ve not seen CGI that slack since Air Force One—it’s like we’re suddenly watching a second-tier video game.

That fumble aside, Proyas’ direction is mostly tight and serviceable, though he should have recognized that the screenplay needed more work. The plot itself is so ingenious that you heartily wish the other aspects of the screenplay weren’t so undercooked. Much of the dialogue is clunky and obvious, leaving the actors to trip over awkward exposition and declarative nonsense. Rose Byrne can’t seem to figure out what the hell to do with her underwritten role, though Canterbury is a likably no-frills child actor. He takes the script’s odd (and unsuccessful) turn to the supernatural with a shrug and does the best he can with it.

But its switch to science-fiction in the shoot-the-works third act doesn’t play, primarily because the effectiveness of the film to that point is tied directly to its grounding in our specific (often explicit) reality. It rather paints itself into a corner in terms of the logical outcome (and gives us at least part of a ballsy ending on the order of The Mist), but tries to have it both ways with the somewhat fraudulent “twist.” And the climax might have worked on paper, but not with Cage melodramatically falling to his knees and wandering around in a bug-eyed stupor as Marco Beltrami’s bombastic score wanders in and sits on the movie’s head. Proyas deserves credit for attempting to work in more subtext and philosophy than expected throughout the picture, and for trying to push it into a darker, less expected place by its end. But the sequence misses its punch, and ultimately dithers away its last chance at pulling its interesting pieces together.

Knowing is full of interesting ideas and clever notions, but the fundamental thinness of the screenplay and the stunning ineptitude of the Nicolas Cage performance keep it from going much of anywhere. Director Proyas can put together a slam-bang set piece with skill and deliver occasional jolts, but the film doesn’t amount to much more than a weeknight rental.

"Knowing" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 7th.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On DVD: "Two Lovers"

James Gray’s Two Lovers was the movie Joaquin Phoenix was ostensibly promoting when he went on his tour of mini-insanity earlier this year, growing a mountain man beard, claiming he was quitting acting to become a hip-hop artist (in spite of his clear lack of talent in that arena), and making an increasingly bizarre series of public appearances, culminating in a mesmerizing train-wreck of an interview on Letterman (“Joaquin, I’m so sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”). Blogs and entertainment insiders quarreled endlessly as to whether the actor had genuinely gone off the deep end or was engaging in some sort of elaborate, Andy Kaufman-style performance art “stunt”; I think the constant presence of his video camera-wielding brother-in-law Casey Affleck (and, frankly, the flame-out on Kaufman’s favorite talk show) point to the latter, and clearly. But it was quite the hot topic for about ten minutes, and then everybody went back to their lives, and poor James Gray’s movie got lost in the shuffle.

And it is a shame that more people saw the YouTube clip of that disastrous Late Show appearance than saw Two Lovers, because the film itself is an accomplished, low-key character study that’s genuinely involving and beautifully acted. A clean-shaven and clear-headed Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, a slightly damaged and semi-suicidal young Brooklyn man (a passing mention is made of bipolar disorder) who has recently moved back home following a serious heartbreak. His parents (slyly played by Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov) do their best to fix him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate; she’s pretty and stable and reliable, so of course he’s got his eyes on someone else.

Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a new neighbor, blonde and willowy and mysterious; Leonard rides the Q train into Manhattan with her, and as he watches her step into a chauffeured Mercedes, he’s clearly smitten. It’s a fairly standard choice (uptown woman or around-the-way girl), but Gray’s intelligent screenplay (written with Ric Menello) has more complexity than that—Michelle has problems of her own, and may very well be more emotionally damaged than Leonard is. She’s in love with a married family man, there’s a specter of past addictions floating around her, and, in general, she seems someone who needs to be taken care of. So does Leonard, which Sandra recognizes, even if Leonard doesn’t.

Two Lovers’ greatest accomplishment may very well be the subtle delicacy with which Gray and Menello handle the themes and implications of the storyline. Leonard is clearly living in a perpetual adolescence (sneaking out of his room, dodging responsibilities, pining for the girl next door); an intelligent, emotionally mature human being would recognize the psychological minefield that a partner like Michelle would present, but Leonard is not emotionally mature. He’s drawn to the shiny object, to her flowing blonde hair and upscale attitudes and job in The City (Gray and cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay effectively convey the visual contrast between slick, glossy Manhattan and cluttered, busy Brooklyn). But while a lesser screenplay would have a secondary character (probably his mother) mouthpiece that in transparent dialogue, Gray lets us observe it and leaves it at that. The religious and social implications are also made clear but left unstated; Leonard and Sandra are clearly Jewish, but he’s drawn to the blonde yuppie shiksa, and Gray wisely leaves that elephant sitting in the room.

Gwyneth Paltrow is an actress I’ve had a harder and harder time with in films, due (unfairly, I’ll admit) to the number of loathsome interviews I’ve seen and read with her. But credit must be given: she is outstanding here. She shows you exactly how Leonard falls for her—she’s charming, funny and charismatic in her early scenes, then shows depth and complexity as she burrows deeper. This free, fresh, and (frankly) sexy turn is the most spontaneous work she’s done in years. Vinessa Shaw (who provided one of the few sharp jolts of genuine eroticism in Eyes Wide Shut) has the less showy role, but she handles it capably; among the able supporting cast, Rossellini’s quietly concerned mother is the stand-out.

Gray’s film is quiet and understated, and he finds just the right style for this personal, character-driven story: intimate and familiar, lived-in and delicate. There are moments that are barely spoken above a whisper, and even when the emotions are (literally) operatic, Gray keeps the tone in a minor key, and that’s the smart play. And for all of his quirks and eccentricities (or publicity-hungry showboating, however you’d like to spin it), Phoenix is just plain superb. His fully-formed performance is an accumulation of small but deeply felt moments (the way he sits in his window, staring up, pining; the way he waits uncomfortably in a high-priced Manhattan restaurant; the simple, plaintive way he pleads “Don’t go”); all ring true, all of them play. The closing scenes are a little pat; there’s a sort of inevitability to them, which is good, but the use of some cheap symbolism is unfortunate. However, the final shots are wonderfully loaded, and Gray stops the action at exactly the correct challenging, thoughtful ending beat.

Two Lovers is director Gray’s most accomplished work to date (it’s certainly more intriguing than its predecessor, the derivative We Own the Night); his handling of potentially melodramatic subject matter is smooth and professional, and he sustains a hushed tone and deliberate pace with aplomb. The slender bonus features are a minor strike against the overall package, but it’s still well worth your time.

"Two Lovers" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 30th.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Archive: "Transformers"

So everybody but me is apparently seeing "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" this weekend; frankly, I won't make the same mistake twice. The original "Transformers" was my pick for 2007's worst movie (and there was some stiff competition for that title). Here's what I wrote about it at the time.

I’ll tell you this much about Transformers—I kept waiting for it to transform itself into a watchable movie. It doesn’t happen. Michael Bay’s latest opus is one long miscalculation—a thuddingly serious, bloated, overlong (it’s fucking endless at two and a half hours), loud, obnoxious boor. This reviewer couldn’t wait for it to end. I seriously, actively hated this movie.

You can tell that it’s going down the tubes from its opening frames—from before then, actually, when the pre-title credits inform us that the film is presented “In Association with Hasbro”. It’s a nice reminder that, as with the animated series and movie of twenty plus years ago, Transformers really is little more than a toy commercial. Next we have the deep, nearly Biblical tones of Optimus Prime on the soundtrack, and his voice-over begins, no exaggeration, “From the beginning of time…” and those of us in the audience who were less polite (and there were several of us) burst into laughter.

You see, you have in those two moments the basic problem with Transformers—it’s an utterly ridiculous story about cars that turn into giant fucking robots and blow shit up, and it’s based on a toy line, for Chrissakes, but the entire enterprise in invested with a tone that is only slightly less somber than that of United 93. Everything is taken dreadfully seriously, with special reverential treatment reserved for the Secretary of Defense and fellow military higher-ups; the jingoism is hardly surprising from a director schooled under the hand of Jerry Bruckheimer, if at little at odds with the current political climate. Important, serious white men say dire things direly, while most of a base in Qatar is attacked and killed by the Decepticons (in bloodless, off-screen, PG-13 fashion, of course), but everything’s okay since the group of clichéd soldier types that we met at the beginning of the film make it out okay, especially the one who has a baby daughter back home (attention K-Mart shoppers: cheap, easy sentiment on aisle three).

Meanwhile, throughout the first hour, there is seemingly an entire other movie going on—the story of Sam (Shia LaBeouf), a goofy high-school kid who’s trying desperately to get his first car, and to get into the pants of the hottest girl in school (Megan Fox). Fox is an attractive girl, no doubt, though the degree to which Bay lets his camera ogle her ladyparts like a 13-year old boy is a little embarrassing for her, for us, and especially for him. Anyhoo, there’s two entire sequences here that work—Sam’s visit to a used car lot (run by the invaluable Bernie Mac) and his attempts to talk to his dream girl, assisted by the (seemingly) random songs blasted from his car radio. These sequences provide a tantalizing glimpse of the movie that Transformers could have been—a little goofy, a little charming, and (for God’s sake) with a slight sense of humor. No prizes for guessing which approach to the material ends up taking over the movie.

And look, I know that a big part of the appeal of the cartoons was that the Transformers had personalities and talked, but Jesus Christ, this is the most ham-fisted dialogue you’re likely to hear in a major motion picture. When archenemies Optimus Prime and Megatron face off in the (I guess) big climax, they charge at each other and scream, in their robot voices, “MEGATRON!” and “PRIME!”. And then, “IT’S JUST YOU AND ME NOW, MEGATRON!”, which prompts the retort, “THEN IT’S JUST ME, PRIME!” I’m saying it ain’t exactly Hawksian interplay. Oh, and when they introduced “Jazz”, who uses what I guess is supposed to be a “street” dialect (although it’s apparently the streets of 1993), I threw up in mouth a little.

(Sidebar: If you’re keeping track, the film does not violate the Tyrese Law. It’s not that complicated—basically, any movie Tyrese Gibson is in, blows. Look it up!)

Anyway. It’s all loud and dumb and just as serious as cancer, and my only explanation for its enjoyment by otherwise smart people is misplaced nostalgia. It happens. If I’m flipping around on TV and Over the Top is on, fuck it, I’ll watch. But that doesn’t mean that they should do a big summer blockbuster remake of it, either.