Spectrum Culture eased back into operation after a holiday break this week. Even though we had a very limited amount of content, I still squeezed some of my high-falutin’ words in there. On the film side, I wrote about the new film from director Miguel Gomes, which has been turning up on some of the more esoteric year-end “best of” lists. It’s not quite at that level for me, but I certainly see the appeal.

This week also marked the return of a regular yearly feature in which the writers collectively look back at the albums and films from five years ago to provide a fresh, hindsight-enhanced tally of the finest achievements in each form. We actually wrote these blurbs several months ago, so I’d completely forgotten which works I’d written on. As it happens, I was assigned a film for which I’ve already established some pretty significant admiration. As for the music side, I didn’t get to write about my clear-cut choice for the best album of 2007, but the release that was assigned to me was still a helluva record.

My first exposure to director Michael Haneke came via his 1997 film Funny Games, which was probably the entryway for many in that relatively small subset that have dipped into his filmography. I loathed it. Luckily, I think that may have precisely the response he was hoping for. There’s another important aspect to using Funny Games as the start of the cinematic relationship with Haneke: considering the thesis he put forth in that film helps to make sense of the other films that follow, even something as wildly different, in most respects, as the director’s latest, Amour.

There’s a moment in Funny Games which finds the protagonists seemingly poised to turn the tables on the home invaders who have been terrorizing them. Before the heroics progress much, one of the criminals grabs a remote control and backs up the film, giving him the opportunity to thwart the turnaround before it is set into motion. A positive outcome is what the audience wants–by that point, desperately–but it wouldn’t be truthful. Haneke is uninterested in pandering to an audience, giving them what they want, verifying their hopes about human nature. There is no desire to soothe, to approach his storytelling with any inclinations towards benevolence or catharsis. He’s is harsh, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as sadistic, though I’ll admit that I’ve not always seen it that way. Indeed, “sadistic” could be a word I used in assessing Funny Games all those years ago.

Amour is about a couple, an elderly couple to be exact. Played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, they are introduced returning home after attending a classical music concert. In a few deft strokes, Haneke hints at the totality of their shared life: it is mundane, satisfying, sedate, thoroughly interlocked. One morning, he is talking to her in the kitchen, and she suddenly stops. She is awake and stares straight ahead, but she is entirely unresponsive, at least until minutes later when she begins interacting with him as if nothing had happened. They discover this was a stroke, and the deterioration of a human existence begins.

Haneke has noted, somewhat obliquely, that the inspiration for the film comes from a similar situation he experienced in his own family, a loved one laid low by illness, instilling a smothering feeling of helpless in him as he witnessed the suffering progress. According to his cinematic ethos, Haneke relates this scenario with cold, clinical accuracy, and it is acted with heartbreaking rigor by both Riva and Trintignant. There are no reassuring Hollywood tropes here. No nobility to the infirm, no rekindled familial togetherness, no inspiring friendship to be found with a new caretaker. It’s what the audience craves, but it’s not reality, not for most who will experience something like this. Instead, it’s lonely, it’s trying, it’s exhausting, it’s devastating. That’s how Haneke show it to be, though not with pushy emotions or overt manipulations. There is a journalistic detachment that is enhanced by the natural chill of European cinema (Haneke was born in Germany and raised in Austria, and the film is set in France, like his exceptional 2005 effort, Caché). Haneke is a master of the mechanics of filmmaking, especially composing shots, but he doesn’t use his construction skills for exploitative ends in Amour. He is simply taking it all in. If the film is unforgiving, it is only because that’s the proper way to honor the very real dilemmas of aging and the ailments it brings.

Amour is wrenching, but Haneke devoutly avoids calling attention to its sorrows. The vast majority of the film is set in the couple’s apartment, a space that may as well be the entire world once the physical devastation wrought on Riva’s character progresses to the point of incapacitation. It’s obviously everything to her, but it is to Trintignant’s character as well, bound to her as he tends to her ever-growing needs. Again, this comes across as plain fact, not some haunting tragedy. It is a trudge until one finally gives up, out of desperation or mercy. The big monologue about fleeting time on earth, the pageantry and poetry of it all, never arrives. That may be how drama works, with sweeping thematic commentary, but that’s not life, which Haneke is determined to draw accurately. Even when what he’s actually drawing is death.

Let’s start with this: if Jennifer Hudson could win a Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award, despite showing no apparent capacity for acting beyond a suitable performance of a show-stopping musical number, then it’s somewhat remarkable that Anne Hathaway roaring with anguish through “I Dreamed a Dream” didn’t culminate with the personal delivery of an Oscar to her on the set of Les Misérables as the various crew members surrounded her, applauding. In bringing the blockbuster musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel to the screen, director Tom Hooper disregarded convention and had the actors sing live on set instead of lip-synching to prerecorded vocal tracks. The reasoning is clear enough; it’s the same thought process that would discourage any director from wanting actors to mouth dialogue being played back from a tape. Since the vast majority of Les Misérables is presented strictly through song, with barely a word that isn’t sung, he wanted his performers to feel the emotions they were conveying. He wanted them to act and sing at the same time, hardly a revolutionary notion. It serves Hathaway best. She’s a raw nerve for the duration of her role, culminating in the combustion of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Despite my fanciful notion, that Oscar didn’t arrive on the set, but it sure as hell is going to be put in her trembling hands come late February.

Hathaway’s performance is the one unqualified success in Les Misérables. Other than that, it’s as scattershot as a nineteenth century firefight. By now, the storyline should be familiar to most: the noble sufferer Jean Valjean, the obsessive police inspector Javert, the doomed Fantine, the rescued Cosette, the French revolutionaries taking to the streets of Paris. The original novel approaches 2000 pages in its original French, and, even running at nearly three hours, the musical necessarily condenses and contracts. The effort shows, with much of the drama feeling rushed and confused. More problematically, the psychological underpinnings are mere shadows. That puts additional pressure on the performers to make the characters work, which in turn makes Hooper’s less successful casting choices all the more damaging, especially Russell Crowe as Javert. Hooper’s approach to filming may have been intended to show how effectively every member of the ensemble can both act and sing, but, on the evidence here, Crowe can do neither. It’s as dire a piece of uncorrected miscasting as I can recall in any recent film of this size and stature.

Between the triumph of Hathaway and the train wreck of Crowe, performers sit on all points of the Spectrum. Hugh Jackman undoubtedly dreams of this sort of film role every time he retracts his special effect Wolverine claws–he has a chance to flash his musical theater chops in the most masculine manner possible–and he does very well, even if he sometimes succumbs to overplaying the heavy drama built into the role. Amanda Seyfried has a lovely singing voice, but can’t make Cosette anything more than a bland object of romantic desire (it’s especially unconvincing that she would inspire such longing when her ostensible romantic rival, Éponine, is played by gorgeous and charismatic newcomer Samantha Barks). As for Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as villainous comic relief the Thénardiers, the clearest way I can communicate my reaction is to note that their scenes seemed to stretch on for a painful eternity. And I realize that expecting anything approaching verisimilitude in regards to the story’s French locale is the height of foolishness, but did the youthful street urchin have to squawk in a Cockneyish accent, as if he’d been shipped over from a Charles Dickens novel in some sort of legendary literature exchange program?

I can’t deny the impressive scope of Les Misérables. The whole thing groans with ambition, and if that sometimes reads as empty bombast, at least there’s a sense of spectacle to it. There’s an earnestness to the project, a fully evident desire to get this thing right for the multitudes who cherish the original musical (or maybe even the novel that provides the story) and will hold onto this for ages as the biggest, boldest record of the piece in question. Maybe that means Hooper and his collaborators occasionally overreach (and Hooper remains that most uncommon of filmmakers: one whose style alternates wildly between utterly pedestrian and garish over-direction), but it’s in the name of clawing their way towards a cinematic work that can live up to the highest of hopes. They don’t reach it. I’d argue they don’t even come all that close to the goal. Still, I admire the sweat that practically flecks the camera lens.

It’s tempting to say that Quentin Tarantino has too many ideas, but that’s not quite right. Certainly every one of his films has been overstuffed, at least after his comparatively lean debut, 1992′s Reservoir Dogs. Even the one film of his that I think approaches genuine cinematic genius, Pulp Fiction, has elements requiring a certain amount of forgiving patience (if I’ve seen Pulp Fiction a hundred times, then I’ve skipped Bruce Willis philosophizing in the taxi cab with driver Angela Jones about ninety-eight of them). The problem, then, isn’t that he has too many ideas, but that he’s apparently incapable of discerning between the good ones and the bad ones.

For most of the running time of Django Unchained, Tarantino is brimming with good ideas, and he’s executing them well. Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a slave in the American South, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. He’s liberated by a bounty hunter named King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, who needs some information, the visual identification of a trio of brothers with an especially lucrative prices on their heads. When Django proves to have something of an inherent skill at gunning down quarry, King takes him on as a partner, with the eventual goal of tracking down and freeing Django’s wife, nicely played by Kerry Washington in an underconsidered role. The film rapidly turns into another one of those firecracker amalgamations of all the messy movie memories that keep Tarantino’s brain permanently asimmer. It’s a buddy picture, a spaghetti western, a revenge saga, a blaxsploitation barn burner and on and on.

It’s also a little more disciplined than Tarantino’s recent efforts, downplaying the self-conscious signifiers and mockable meanderings that made Inglourious Basterds, for example, a masterwork marred by a crust of blasted snotball indulgences. The floridness of his writing is toned down, or is at least caressed into an amusing, pleasant, surprisingly natural flow by Waltz, who has taken only two films to establish himself as the best interpreter of Tarantino’s words that the filmmaker has ever had. Waltz plays King as a kind soul who has paradoxically found himself in a brutal business, couching his actions in the sanctified logic of the law. Every scene has a hint of discovery, of a man trying to work out a moral code in a landscape pockmarked by ugly inhumanity. Foxx is also quite good early on, especially in the scenes in which Django is trying to register what’s happening as the world shifts beneath his newly unshackled feet. The performance grows progressively less interesting as the film goes on, presumably because Tarantino’s direction amounted to little more than, “Now you’re the baddest motherfucker around,” and Foxx ran with it.

There are other small hitches–the bloat of a nearly three-hour running time sometimes weighs on the film, and Samuel L. Jackson plays his admittedly fascinating character with a wholly predictable mannered menace–but the film doesn’t slip its groove completely until the last reel or so, when Tarantino pointlessly prolongs the mayhem. A colossal shoot-out at the plantation run by a sadistic dandy played by Leonardo DiCaprio (having fun, but it’s ultimately a negligible performance) could have been conclusion enough, with its heavily stylized violence and turmoil of thematic comeuppance. Tarantino drags it out as long as he can, though, with a circuitous route to the actual ending committing the cardinal sin of being dull. (It doesn’t help that this passage also creates room for an abominably bad cameo by the director, who really needs to hire someone whose sole job is to flatly refuse him anytime he expresses an inclination to give acting another whirl.) I expect to go through a lot of sensations while watching a Tarantino movie, but boredom isn’t one of them. For most of its healthy span, Django Unchained is far from that. But it’s hard to let go of the final impression it leaves as it drags painfully to the end.

Before getting down to pros and cons of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, let’s spare a moment of sympathy for Toby Jones. Pushing ten years ago, the veteran character actor got what seemed like a plum role that also had the benefit of being especially well-suited to him: Truman Capote, in a film depicting the genesis of the classic book In Cold Blood. Unfortunately for Jones, it just so happened to coincide with Philip Seymour Hoffman also being cast as the colorful author in a completely different film recounting that stretch of his life. Hoffman, of course, gave one of his very best performances that earned a gaggle of awards, including the Best Actor Oscar. Jones’s film became an afterthought, released to indifference around a year later. He went back to the trenches, toiling away in supporting roles, finally landing another juicy lead, this time playing Alfred Hitchcock in a HBO film depicting the production of The Birds, with a particular focus on the famed director’s notorious obsession with star Tippi Hedren. The resulting film, The Girl, was middling, but Jones acquitted himself nicely as the Master of Suspense (though he was surprisingly outacted by Sienna Miller as Hedren), only to be entirely overshadowed mere weeks later when an actor who already has an Academy Award on his shelf plays Hitchcock in a big screen offering which also focuses on the production of a single film a key to unlocking the man’s life.

It is Anthony Hopkins taking on the role of Hitchcock in the film that bears the director’s name, and it is the most engaged the actor has been in ages. Though he’s undermined somewhat by makeup work of varying quality, Hopkins effectively burrows into the passion and focus of Hitchcock during the run-to and making of the 1960 classic Psycho. Though Hopkins is a marvelous mimic, he mostly adopts Hitchcock’s droll, drawling cadence rather than attempts a full-on impression, but the pressure of playing a well-known figure still forces the actor to eschew some of his more well-worn habits–a reliance on the contrasts of loud and soft, a tendency to play each character as distracted by the drifting mists of life–which serves the performance well. It forces him to be inventive, to be probing. He properly finds and conveys the mixture of artistic nervousness and seasoned confidence that makes Hitchcock, particularly at this point in his career, so compelling.

Hopkins may also have been spurred on by having to match up against Helen Mirren, his most formidable costar in quite some time. Compounding her authority is the fact that she’s playing Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, in a story that is asserting, as much as anything else, the woman’s often neglected contributions to cinema. She was known (and yet simultaneously often dismissed) as a confidante and guide to Hitchcock, using her own considerable cinematic skill and knowledge (she has screenwriting credits dating back to 1927, just a few years after Hitchcock got his start). Mirren is her usual forceful self, demuring not one bit to the men around her. Just as Hitchcock found strength in his partnership with Reville, Hopkins clearly raises his game in the company of Mirren.

The film around these two actors is imperfect but entertaining, sparking to life most when it is immersed in the mechanics of making a film happen, a miniature miracle every time, even for someone with the clout of Hitchcock. Gervasi is at his best when concocting a clever way to introduce the filming of the renowned shower scene or depicting Hitchcock standing outside an early screening of Psycho, literally conducting the audience as they react to what’s unfolding before them in projections of flickering light (the latter inspired flourish apparently the result on an on-set improvisation by Hopkins). When Gervasi opts for storytelling tactics that hint at less confidence in the base material–most notably recurring scenes that have Hitchcock imagining interactions with Ed Gein, the Wisconsin madman who was the inspiration for Norman Bates–the wheels get a little wobblier. Hitchcock knew the movies were magic. If only Gervasi similarly understood that sometimes a lot of extra distractions aren’t required when delving deeper. Sometimes the sharing of the secrets of the trick can be enough all on its own.

The various promotional efforts for Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40, position it as the “sort-of sequel to Knocked Up.” The reasoning behind this is simple enough, reflecting the fairly unique creative starting point of drawing a couple of supporting characters from that earlier film to now be the leads and largely making no mention of anything else from the 2007 comedy. Ben Stone and Alison Scott have a five-year-old out there somewhere in the movie universe, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be paying a visit to the big, splashy birthday party that takes place here. It may be a novel model for the movies, but this is the sort of thing that used to happen all the time on television. So maybe “sort-of sequel” is less apt than simply calling This is 40 a spin-off, which also works because Apatow’s trademark unwieldy style has never seem quite so misplaced. He may be releasing This is 40 as a movie, but it feels, to its great detriment, like he actually made a ten-episode HBO series and tried to condense and crunch it into a running time suited for the multiplex.

The film transfers over Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, respectively), the married couple that served as a sort of forecast for what Ben and Alison might expect of their future, good and ill, when they inadvertently become parents-to-be in Knocked Up. It was clear that these were the characters that Apatow was using for the most autobiographical material in the film, a tactic underscored by casting his real-life wife, Mann, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, as the characters’ offspring. With each successive directorial effort, Apatow has edged further away from invention and towards total self-examination, his already marginal interest in the discipline of story eroding along the way. By this fourth feature, he’s approaching navel-gazing as a pure art, albeit one that’s not especially interesting. There’s barely any plot to the film, just middle-age misery rushing in and receding like the tides.

In Apatow’s most promising moments, his approach makes him into a sort of comedic John Cassavetes, using a cinematic replication of the messiness of life to try and scratch away at truths that sometimes difficult to corral into a tidy three-act structure. The troublesome difference is that comedy requires greater discipline, a precision of language, tone and character. Farce, for example, is clockwork that only looks like clattering wreckage, and improvisational humor needs to be deeply grounded in character, or at least a consistent sensibility, to work properly. Too often, Apatow ignores these guidelines in favor of whatever he finds funny in the moment, throwing it all onscreen whether or not it locks into place and contributes something meaningful to the whole. He doesn’t have subplots. Instead, he has digressions, and entire characters could have been excised without harming a thing, except maybe the egos of the big-name actors (Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel and Megan Fox come to mind) whom Apatow had the clout to recruit.

There are certainly times when the film is amusing and even smartly telling. It remains true that Apatow has a sharp understanding of how arguments work, especially within a couple. He knows how they escalate and how much the conflicts are built upon degrees of defensiveness. He brings that to the screen with a harsh accuracy, although there are also times in This is 40 when the relentless aggression gets to be too much, starts to feel like it’s slipped out of the category of plausible. Perhaps more damaging is Apatow’s utterly tone-deaf depiction of financial struggle, as the independent record label started by Pete is sinking fast and the family’s finances are dire enough that mortgage payments are being missed, and yet conspicuous consumption is everywhere and almost entirely unremarked upon. It another example–probably the most discomfiting one–of a filmmaker who wants to say something interesting and challenging, but is rapidly losing the conviction and rigor needed to say it well.

And so we come to the end of another calendar year of reviews for Spectrum Culture. The site is already in the process of downshifting ahead of the holidays, so there was a little less new content going up this week. I still took my turn in the film review rotation, however, with an evaluation of a new drama that got wobbly wheels but is finally made steady by a couple of very fine performances.

Most of my words this week were expended on our various “end of the year” lists. For the Favorite Books feature, I wrote about Richard Ford’s Canada, although I also considered expounding on the continuing astonishment that is Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. Matthew McConaughey’s turn as Dallas in Magic Mike was my pick for the Best Performances list, in part because I thought it would be immensely fun to write about. It was. For Best Films, I opted for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, being sure to plant my flag on that one early since I figured it might be in high demand among our staff. On our Top 25 Songs list, I was assigned the track that landed at #10 and I got the task of writing on the entries at #6 and #5 on the Top 20 Albums tally. In keeping with a fairly new tradition, I’ll have more on my picks for the best music on the year popping up in this space sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Like everyone else, my mind is elsewhere today, so I’ll keep this brief. I’m sure you understand.

I reviewed two things for Spectrum Culture this week. On the film side, I reviewed a documentary about the Lovings, the perfectly named couple whose court case against the state of Virginia ended anti-miscegenation laws across the land.

On the music side, I reviewed the new album from a band called Night Moves, which I primarily chose because I was amused by the peripheral Bob Seger connection. Lest I confuse anyone, the band’s music sounds absolutely nothing like anything ever cooked up by the boss of the Silver Bullet Band.

We are in the middle stages of prepping for end of the year material at Spectrum Culture, which means I worked on a lot of material for the site this week, but little of it has yet yielded words that made it to digital print. There’s a ton of writing on the way, though, which also means I’ve got to devote some time today to listening to 2012 album releases to concoct my personal Top 20 list for the year. With that in mind, I’ll keep the recap somewhat brief.

On the film side, I reviewed a newish documentary about Stephen Fry tracing the history and influence of the composer Richard Wagner while also considering the repugnant, anti-Semitic history of the man, particularly as it greased the flue towards his great music to later be proudly adopted by the Nazis. I actually had high hopes for the documentary, knowing from a fairly unique appearance on Craig Ferguson’s program that Fry is an exceptionally witty, charming and insightful conversationalist. Unfortunately, I also know from various BBC programs that Fry can also be an overly sedate and proper host. Sadly, that’s the version that shows up in the documentary.

On the other hand, the album I reviewed this week was exactly what I hoped it would be. Juno MacGuff might say it’s just noise, but it sounds pretty great to me.

In 1990, poet and journalist Mark O’Brien wrote a piece entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” A damaging bout with polio as a child left O’Brien largely confined to an iron lung and effectively paralyzed from the neck down, but he persisted in pursuing a career as a writer. After getting an assignment centered on sex and the disabled, O’Brien started thinking about his own lack of experience in that area. Nervously, even reluctantly, Mark sought out a surrogate who could therapeutically introduce him to lovemaking. The new film The Sessions tells that story.

Written and directed by Ben Lewin–himself a childhood victim of polio whose motor-functions were impaired, though in far less pronounced fashion–The Sessions is disarmingly frank about its subject, which is, of course, the only way to make this sort of film work. With an admirable level of knowledge and respect for O’Brien’s situation, Lewin carefully guides the film, finding the humor and sadness in the situations the lead character endures. It would be easy for the film to become overly maudlin, and a tilt towards overly cutesy celebration is just as likely. Either route would have proven miserable. If Lewin is sometimes overly pat and staid in his approach, the easy TV production rigor of the work remains preferable to the far riskier alternatives. The Sessions is committed to its story with a reporter’s plainspoken flatness, nicely in line with O’Brien’s original essay.

That prevailing commitment to veracity makes the script’s diversions into melodrama all the more unfortunate. As sympathetically played by John Hawkes (who wisely concentrates as much on the character’s emotional vulnerabilities and his diminished physical stature), O’Brien is undoubtedly a highly charismatic person, but the film still strains credibility when it implies that the sex surrogate, played with a study pragmatism by Helen Hunt, begins to have deeper emotional feelings for him. Certainly anyone involved with any level of social work winds up forging deep connections with different clients, but the welling emotions of Hunt’s character come across as nothing more than a movie contrivance, a way to build additional conflict into the final act.

Sure enough, there’s no indication in O’Brien’s essay of any aspirations towards romance on either side of the transaction (when the sessions end, O’Brien’s primary reaction is relief that he won’t be spending any more money on this), and it winds up as a sort of betrayal of the unique and genuinely important (if particularly intimate) physical therapy taking place. There are other concessions to movie mechanics–a convivial and confiding relationship between O’Brien and a priest played by William H. Macy has amusing moments, but is clearly there to provide an easy way to air out the film’s themes–but drumming up more material out of the supposed emotional connection between O’Brien and his therapist ultimately subverts the mature seriousness of the earlier portions of the film. O’Brien knew his story was interesting enough without too many embellishments. It would have been nice if Lewin had similar confidence.

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