Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

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Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

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Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

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Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Now Playing — mother!

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I have my own theory about the genesis of mother!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky. My supposition is supported by no investigative evidence, and it surely isn’t accurate. But it helps me make sense of the sprawling madness that spills across the screen. In my fictionalized version of the creative process, Aronofsky wrote about half the script and surveyed what he had. He saw a gleefully devious horror thriller, following a writer and his wife in a rambling, remote house. Their solitude is disrupted when a stranger arrives, claiming he was mistakenly told there were accommodations for rent. More strangers arrive, motives are questioned, secrets emerge.

Aronofsky looks at all this material — unsettling but somewhat conventional, or at least with the tinge of the familiar — and ruminates. “What is this really about?” he asks. The answer comes to him. It is about the creative process, especially the agony of the artist — the creator — as he experiences the nourishing pleasures of mass adoration, perhaps at the expense of personal relationships. Those individuals he has deigned to let into the closer circles of his existence simply — selfishly, really — don’t understand the symbiotic relationship an artist has with those who truly, madly, deeply breathe in his work. And any artist, when you get right down to it, is basically like God. Because when operating with an inflated sense of self-importance, one may as well go all the way.

Armed with this enhanced perception of the themes he’s developed, Aronofsky starts in on the second half of the film. And he really commits to it.

Characteristically, Aronofsky revels in the most lunatic notions sputtered out by his toxic id, lobbing them onto the screen in flagrant defiance of good taste and — far more problematically — any sort of narrative logic. When presented with a certain amount of restraint across the film’s first half, Aronofsky’s vision earns comparisons to some admirable forefathers, such as Dario Argento and David Cronenberg (in particular, there’s an especially troublesome blood stain on a hardwood floor that could have come straight out one of the horror offerings of the latter). There’s still a disjointedness, mostly because the actors have varying levels of success injecting personality into their desperately empty characters: Michelle Pfeiffer is vividly alive, Javier Bardem is surprisingly adrift, Ed Harris is somewhere in between.

Then there’s the star of our feature. Whatever else can be said about her performance, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t timid. In a manner that undoubtedly strikes Aronofsky as uncompromising rather than untoward, the story treats Lawrence’s character as a leather speed bag. After every blow, Lawrence is required to immediately ricochet back to receive another. It looks exhausting, but — through no fault of Lawrence’s — that’s not the same as great acting. It’s a longtime flaw of Aronofsky’s, stretching all the way back to Requiem for a Dream, in which the grueling outcomes endured by the main characters had no impact that connected to them as fictional beings. Had each of the actors waved wearily, punched out, and shuffled out of the frame to be replaced by all new performers, the queasy sensation of watching the final moments play out would have been exactly the same. That’s a problem, and it’s arguably an abdication of the filmmaker’s responsibility.

But mother! anticipates these complaints — any complaints, really — and refutes them. If I don’t like what Aronofsky has crafted, then it is decidedly my own fault. Like the women who move interchangeably through the artist’s life, excavated for their love, I am foolishly blind to the gifts being bestowed upon eager crowds. I don’t properly grasp the brilliant biblical symbolism or the allegories to nature ravaged by callous humanity. Any problems couldn’t possibly be him, so they must be me. That argument so thoroughly built into mother! that the whole messy spectacle is a defense mechanism stretched to two lurid hours.

The film has been so divisive that Paramount executives have felt obligated to defend its very existence, or at least its perplexing inclusion in their 2017 slate, which otherwise includes the likes of Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight. While pointing out there are plenty of people ready to celebrate the film’s daring, the studio’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, Megan Colligan, offered an acknowledgement that there is strong contrary sentiment among viewers. “The hatred is real,” she said, in part. I don’t have much help to offer the Paramount marketing team, but in this I can back them up.

Beers I Have Known — 3 Sheeps Brewing Fresh Coast

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This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

As summer slowly wobbles to its inevitable topple and stillness, I’ve been thinking of my happy discoveries from the past few months, especially those beers that seemed to taste especially good when offering myself a reward for working up a sweat in the out of doors. I have a few beautiful standbys that fulfill that particular hankering, but there’s always room for a few more.

That brings me to Fresh Coast, billed as a “juicy pale ale” by the fine people at 3 Sheeps Brewing, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It is what it claims to be, delivering one of those bursts of refreshment that can set the tongue and soul reeling with equal rapture. With cunning undercurrents of complexity, the beer adheres to the compelling tenet of drinkability.

I’m don’t mean to imply that this beer can only be enjoyed in the summer sun, but I know when the calendar circles around to this season again, my craving for it is going to fiercely reassert itself.

 

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 4

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4. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”

The highest-charting single of the Talking Heads’ career came about because drummer Chris Frantz attended a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden. Energized by the propulsive sound he heard coming from the stage — and the enraptured reception to it of his fellow concert-goers — Frantz figured a similar sound could be created by his own group, then more typically characterized by a restrained, almost icy type of post-punk.

Talking Heads had recently finished an extended tour that included musicians Bernie Worrell and Busta Jones, provided a more funk-driven undercurrent to the music. That gave Frantz confidence the main quartet — also comprised of bassist Tina Weymouth, guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and guitarist and lead singer David Byrne — could effectively push into similar territory on their own. In a jam session that was an integral part of the band’s creative process, Frantz drew inspiration from the thunderous concert and drove his cohorts to a fuller, more soulful sound. The sonic exploration gave the band the basic instrumental track that would become “Burning Down the House.”

“We gradually get the musical structure of the song set, so that when we went into the recording studio we just play about four-and-a-half, five minutes of it,” Byrne told NPR around the time of the song’s release. “We think, ‘Well, that’s enough. That’s long enough for a song.’ We leave it at that.”

When it came time to add the words, Byrne sang improvised lyrics, intuitive finding sounds and verbal rhythms that seemed to work with the music. That could lead to some odd steps along the line, including a little stretch in which the main repeated line was “Foam Rubber, U.S.A.” He eventually settled on “Burning Down the House,” a loose interpretation of the “Burn down the house” chant Frantz carried over from the P-Funk show. Despite the improvisational development process, the lyrics were built upon pure randomness.

“I’d have loads and loads of phrases collected that I thought thematically had something to do with one another, and I’d pick from those,” Byrne noted in the NPR interview.

Still, the lyrics remained abstract enough that plenty of listeners decided they were just plainly nonsense, an instinct compounded by the fact that the track appeared on an album Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983. The album title’s borrowing of a term describing people so moved by religious experience that they shout out jagged, basically indecipherable syllables led to a suspicion that Byrne was basically doing the same.

“The words in this particular instance don’t mean anything, do they?” David Letterman asked after Talking Heads played “Burning Down the House” on Late Night.

“They do, but not if you try to figure them out,” responded Byrne.

In the NPR interview, Byrne distinguished that a lack of an explicit expression of intellectual intent isn’t the same as offering no deeper thoughts in the song.

“I felt the meaning, but it wasn’t put in in a conscious way,” he said. “I think the meaning was put in in a more intuitive way. My assumption was that it might have a deeper meaning, or a meaning that was more universal, or spoke to more unconscious feelings in people, than one in which I just told a story.”

More specifically, Byrne saw the burning of the house as symbolic of the personal reinvention process people often go through.

“It symbolized rebirth and destroying oneself or destroying some sort of transitory personality, and shedding a shell and coming out with a new one,” Byrne told the BBC.

If some might be confused by the song, Byrne realized he had a new tool to convey his artistic intent. Other musicians chafed at the sudden influence of music videos, but Byrne was all for it. For one thing, he quickly figured out that the new form provided an avenue to get his music heard while radio programmers were perplexed by it.

“MTV and they were starving for content; they’d play pretty much any decent material they were handed,” Byrne wrote in his book How Music Works. “Not too many had cable TV back then, so mTV had no hesitation about playing the same videos over and over. Hard to believe, but at the time, if you made almost any halfway interesting video you possibly could have it up and running on cable TV almost instantly. For me it was a godsend — a way to reincorporate my art-school roots into the music side of things.”

The themes of the song were underscored by the music video, which found the band members being sporadically replaced by others as they performed. MTV gave it saturation airplay, helping to elevate the single into the Billboard Top 10. And it’s endured as a staple of the rock radio stations that were originally reluctant to play the song.

“I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today,” Frantz later told Rolling Stone. “Hey, it was a classic title…. What we really wanted to do was rock the house.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive — The Fountain

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On the occasion of a new film from Darren Aronofsky, arriving to acclaim and debate, and as I eagerly await my opportunity to screen said film and join in the carousing argument, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most of the director’s films simply aren’t very good. This was written for my former online home. As a nifty bonus of “From the Archive” timing, the review contains an offhand reference to a 1990 medical-based thriller that will see its remake hit theater in just a couple of weeks. 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Fountain is like What Dreams May Come altered so it’s less for a Mitch Albom crowd and more for a Chuck Palahniuk crowd. If all those references muddy the water a little too much, let’s put it this way: just because it’s arty and edgy and self-referential, all steeped in anger and darkness and blistering imagery doesn’t mean it’s not still a laughable piece of junk.

The film is about eternal love and endless life with science and mythology engaging in a tentative dance together around these subjects. The film moves willfully back and forth in time and between the fiction of the film and the fictions within the film. Aronofsky handles his multiple plot threads nimbly enough. It’s never especially confusing, but nor is it compelling. At its worst, the film is layered in woefully hoary conceits, stranding a talented cast to strain and emote or beam and twinkle. Poor Ellen Burstyn is reduced to the scientific equivalent of the tough precinct captain, berating obsessed doctor Hugh Jackman as “reckless” as he frantically tries to cure his wife’s illness by toiling in the most poorly lit operating rooms to grace a screen since Julia and Kiefer played with defibrillators.

Aronofsky had a wonderfully warped debut with 1998’s Pi, the wildness of the story secured by being grounded in ideas that felt right. With 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the ideas and humanity were buried by his relentless addiction to his own techniques. It took him six years to craft a follow-up and he’s only managed to compound the misjudgments of his prior film.

One for Friday — Grant Hart, “2541”

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During my first academic year at my college radio station, from the fall of 1988 through the spring of 1989, there was one song I was desperate to hear, even as it remained agonizingly elusive.

Before I showed up at the station, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü was a mere abstraction to me, an oddball name and a few stray music reviews that strained to convey the tuneful thunder of their sound. Once I heard music from the band, I fell fast and I fell hard. Other albums in the band’s catalog were considered more important — more seminal — but I adored the swan song Warehouse: Songs and Stories above all others. There was an amazing sense of agitated exchange across the four album sides, a feeling of aggrieved competition engaged by the band’s two songwriters, creative visionaries both. When I first listened, I didn’t realize the levels of contentiousness that existed in the relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart, but I heard it, I felt it.

Hüsker Dü was over by the time I got my FCC card and flipped on a radio station microphone for the first time. Hart was the first one to extend the creative argument past the confines of the band. His debut solo single, “2541,” was released on SST Records in 1988. At the time, “2541” was speculated to be all about the dissolution of Hüsker Dü, its lyrics wistfully remembering better days at a certain address as a sad ending has arrived. “Now everything is over/ Now everything is done/ Everything’s in boxes/ At 2541,” Hart sings, announcing the close of a relationship with a ruefulness tinged by anger.

My station got serviced with records from SST all the time, but we didn’t get that single. I ached to hear it, wanting to extend the drama I found on Warehouse. On some level, I just wanted more Hüsker Dü, and the best possible option in the wreckage after the breakup was a song about the band from the man who wrote nearly half its songbook, including stellar entries “Books About UFOs,” “Green Eyes,” “I Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” and “You Can Live at Home”.

Of course, all the speculation was wrong. “2541” wasn’t about Hüsker Dü. Hart supposedly had at least the foundation of the song as far back as the recording sessions for New Day Rising, the band’s third studio album, well before the end. He gladly disparaged lore around the song and the residence within it. “I don’t want to bust any bubbles or myths, but it was just a fuck pad,” he informed the audience at a show earlier this year.

The emotional rawness and highly fraught personal exposure that some saw in Hart’s songwriting was equally up for disparagement by the creator himself.

“I DON’T PUBLISH SONGS THAT I DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO HEAR,” Hart wrote in a Facebook Q&A. “I HAVE TAKEN STEPS TO PREVENT ANYBODY FROM EVER HEARING ‘MY FEELINGS OF INADEQUACY’ AND ‘MY DADDY’S PEE-PEE’.”

Whether he liked it or not, some of found deep, resonant truths in Hart’s songs. That was part of the skill he brought to his craft. He wrote in such a way that it was easy to find whatever was needed within his lines, his melodies, his beats. The lyrics were just specific enough to lap over into the universal, open to interpretation and then assured application.

I eventually heard “2541.” We never got the single, but the track was included on Intolerance, Hart’s first solo album, released in late 1989. I played it on the air many, many times, usually offering my own mistaken reading of the song. I may have been wrong about the particulars, but I think I was basically correct about the core of the song, its fierce and fervent heart. Deep down, we’re all looking for that place that has windows big enough to let in the sun.

Listen or download –> Grant Hart, “2541”

(Disclaimer: Hart was instrumental to the creation of a load of great music that can bought right now at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the designated recipients of all proceeds due to the artist. If nothing else, you could inquire about Savage Young Dü, the entirely atypical archival project on Hart’s most famous band. Hart was a key contributor to the project’s assembly, and it is already being cited as a jaw-dropping bit of legacy-building. I offer this song in this space as tribute and encouragement to engage in commerce, not as theft. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with authority to make such a request.)

Greatish Performances #31

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#31 — Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

When Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was released, in 1998, it was revelatory in about a half-dozen different ways. It introduced the artful showman side of Soderbergh after a series of increasingly agonized indies. It set the template for proper screen adaptations of the fiction of Elmore Leonard, an author who’d been notoriously ill-served by Hollywood to that point. (I’ll leave to another theoretical piece of writing my arguments about the suitable but still severely compromised Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.) It liberated George Clooney from rancid popcorn hellscapes of the likes of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker. Maybe most impressively, the film showed that Jennifer Lopez had great acting within her.

Truthfully, Lopez’s sterling work was one of the less surprising triumphs of the film. This was before she was J. Lo, before she was Jenny from the Block. This was before she was a pop singer and an internet-rattling fashion icon. Basically, Lopez wasn’t a brand. She was an actress who’d often been the best part of lousy movies. She also had one fiercely impressive star turn to her credit, in the 1997 biopic Selena. There was cause to believe she’d be very good in Out of Sight. She’s even better.

In Out of Sight, Karen Sisco is a tricky character to play. A U.S. Marshal based in Florida, Karen is highly capable at her job, fully prepared to stand up against thugs trying to intimidate her and psychologically astute enough to coax information out of the dim bulb aspirational criminals who are the most widespread constituency of any story that sprung from Leonard’s typewriter. She also needs to be vulnerable, a little damaged, prone to questionable decisions when it comes to the men in her life. These two pieces are wildly different, and yet they need to fit together in a clean, relatable whole. Leonard niftily achieves that on the page, with the added benefit of gentle dips into internal churning thoughts and telling hints of history. Onscreen, with a more threadbare safety net, Lopez needs to show how a person can make decisions that have a clear risk of disaster to them without necessarily being a disastrous person.

Lopez finds the needed balance by embracing understatement. She isn’t snapping off her dialogue with bravado-bolstered authority, in the manner of so many actors who are blessed with variants on Leonard’s words. She speaks them with restrained deliberateness, signaling how caution and certainty can coexist. Her Karen Sisco is never showboating. She’s just smart, which in turn heightens the power of her devotion, whether to her father (Dennis Farina) or, in the film’s chief relationship, the intriguing prison escapee Jack Foley (Clooney).

There’s a suggestion that Karen’s attraction to Jack is for little other reason than he engages her senses in a way the rest of the world doesn’t, that he can keep up when she lays out who she is and what she believes to be true. (And, yes, he looks like George Clooney in the late-nineties.) Whether sharing a car trunk during the prison-break getaway (Karen briefly lets her guard down and winds up a hostage) or indulging in a fantasy of mundane lives intertwining in a Detroit hotel restaurant, Jack wins Karen over by stepping up to her and fully expecting — and appreciating — that she’ll do the same to him. It’s one of the rare instances in which falling in love in the movies is believable, gradual, grounded in the experience presented to the audience. Clooney is strong in these scenes, but he still sometimes leans on his natural charisma to carry a moment. Lopez does something different. She shows every nuance of Karen’s emotional journey.

I haven’t seen Lopez reach this sort of gratifying intimacy with a character since. Tempting as it is to attribute the performance to the magic Soderbergh can sometimes spin, especially with actresses (the talent shown by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies, and videotape is so drastically different from that seen in any other performance in her filmography that I wouldn’t argue with a conspiracy theory positing she was replaced, Paul-is-Dead style, circa 1990). But, as noted, Lopez was good in other films before this. Instead, it seemed as though, after Karen Sisco, she simply lost interest in digging this deep. She remained invested in being a star, maybe not so much in being an actress. What I wouldn’t give to see the performer from Out of Sight return. I’d follow her anywhere.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move