From the Archive — Late Night with David Letterman

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On the occasion of the announcement of the second season premiere date for David Letterman’s Netflix program, I luckily have this archival piece loaded up and ready to go. Written for the “Flashback Fridays” feature I mounted at my former online home, this was one of several attempts I made at reckoning with the enormous influence Letterman and his NBC program (and, to a lesser degree, his follow-up on CBS) had on my comic and creative sensibilities.

I should acknowledge this piece was going to post (or re-post, in a way) today regardless of the actions of Netflix’s PR department. After launching the “In the Archive” feature several years ago to mine old writing efforts, I think I’ve basically run out of words to import to this space. I may revive it periodically if I ever stumble upon any other dusty pieces of writing (there are loads of old reviews from my radio movie reviewing days that I haven’t physically unearthed, but I’m hoping still exist somewhere in my household’s deep storage), but I’ve got something else in mind for Saturdays moving forward. But that’s next week….

Late Night with David Letterman debuts

It made no sense for David Letterman to get a job hosting a new late night talking show to air following the enduring institution of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. While a favorite of Carson, who had an astounding level of clout at NBC (and really in show business in general) in the early eighties, Letterman had already endured one disastrous failure at the network with his short-lived morning talk show. To many observers, creating the program Late Night with him and for him was just transplanting a known mistake to a different time of day. Instead, the show simply changed comedy.

It was a splendid contradiction from the beginning with Letterman taking a chainsaw to the very conventions of a late night talk show even as he so clearly revered them (I suspect he’d take greater umbrage at someone speaking unkind words about Carson than a person slinging insults at his mom). The show was greatly informed by the brilliant deadpan absurdity of head writer Merrill Markoe as filtered through Letterman’s unique sensibility, an appreciation of the purely goofy mixed with an an especially aggressive brand of irony. He also had an purely Midwestern uptight approach to the guests on the show which made his celebrity interviews a little awkward and the interviews with borderline crackpots wildly entertaining. In fact, during the earliest years of the show, when big name bookings were hard to come by, the producers discovered there were few things funnier than Letterman thrown into complete discomfort by a guest, meaning a steady parade of the likes of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Brother Theodore, and Harvey Pekar.

After taking a crack at sitcom guest spots and a turn as as a member of a variety show troupe, it was clear that something different was needed for the gap-toothed comic from Indiana. Basically, showbiz had no place for David Letterman, so he had to invent his own. And Late Night was a constant source of amazing comic invention. The current overpopulated landscape of late night talk shows is currently marked by a smothering control of the proceedings, but Late Night felt spontaneously and unpredictable. Any gag was fair game, and pushing against the very form of the show was the greatest gag of all. Letterman once did an entire show from the confines of his office, an experiment that culminated with regular guest Teri Garr taking a shower in his bathroom. The camera might rotate, a fountain of wine might be installed in front of his desk, they might leave the progression of the show up to audience vote. In some ways, the creation of the Top Ten Lists was the worst thing that could have happened to the show. It provided a structure that was confining, a recurring obligation that blunted the need for fresh creativity. It’s a problem that those working on the show recognized at different times, trying to discard the concept occasionally over the years, only to be forced to revive it due to its popularity. It was a sign that the show and Letterman’s comedy was moving from upstart to institution.

Without Letterman and his groundbreaking show, comedy would look very different now. I’m convinced that shows like The SimpsonsArrested Development30 Rock and others that stood somewhat outside of themselves as they delivered wry commentary on the foibles of their characters would have never come into being, or at least would have been incredibly different. Despite their emphasis on the sort of deep news coverage that never interested Letterman much back in the day, there may be no clearer progeny of Letterman’s Late Night than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. They are shows about being a show where the comedy is self-commentary. Even the correspondents have a certain Larry “Bud” Melman quality about them.

The show may not have arrived with the greatest fanfare. Instead, it was sort of friendly shrug, which took the pressure off, made it seem like it could be anything Letterman and his crew wanted it to be. That’s what made it free, and that’s what made it great.

From the Archive — Quantum of Solace

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For the second straight Saturday, I reach back for a review of a modern Bond film not previously loaded up to this particular site. This was written for my former online home.

Quantum of Solace is the twenty-fifth film to feature British superspy James Bond, and the twenty-second in the “official” franchise which launched some forty-five years ago with Dr. No. Really, though, all those antecedents have about as much connection to this new film as Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City drenched in melted Jolly Ranchers has to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. What is onscreen now is less Bond 22 and more Casino Royale 2. Bringing in Daniel Craig to play Bond wasn’t a mere casting change. It was an impetus to completely revise the franchise, jettisoning the familiar trappings. Whatever familiar notes held in Craig’s first outing are completely gone now. It’s a whole new era of filmmaking and James Bond has been Bourne again.

It’s not just the tone and style that are notable holdovers from Royale. The plot is built on a tendril of that film, with Bond seemingly shaken (not stirred) by the betrayal and death of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Her demise is tied into the megalomaniacal plotting of some global corporate overlords that call themselves Quantum, providing the film’s strained title and an attempt to create a massive, sustained adversary in a geopolitical environment where something like SMERSH no longer seems credible. The screenplay, credited to the same trio that wrote Casino Royale, achieves a strangely simplistic convolution. The villainous machinations are easy to suss out and yet nearly indecipherable, complex, and inexplicably dull.

The screenplay, however, could be overcome with right directing. Bond films, with their silly, schoolboy puns and paper thin motivations, have never been cinema with especially literary, erudite charms. The verve of the staging and directing (and, of course, in Sean Connery’s finest moments, the acting) went a long way towards forgiving the words on the page that may have been lacking. There’s no rescue providing by director Mark Forster here. Forster’s career highlights been marked by adequate direction of good materialQuantum of Solace requires something more. Forster apparently doesn’t have it in him.

The directing is clumsy all around. The digital hash of the editing is a familiar shortfall of modern action movies, but Foster’s technique has more significant problems. During the action sequences, his camera is usually in too close, occasionally too far away, and is rarely in the right place. A fight staged amongst scaffolding inside an opera house appears to be spectacularly choreographed, but it would take major editing room reconstructive surgery to know for certain. Plane battles, boat chases, exotic locales, seductive women — it all gets dragged on to the screen, feeling obligatory and lifeless. The movie churns and grinds, to little effect.

Casino Royale, imperfect itself, managed to raise some vital signs in the Bond franchise. It moved from being an occasional curiosity, tinged by nostalgia and even a touch of camp, to something that deserved some attention as filmmaking with high potential. There’s no doubt it was a change for the better, but it’s harder to see it that way the the follow-up has used that transformation for little more than finding a whole new way to fail.

From the Archive — Casino Royale

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I’m running low on older material, so we’re likely in the last few weeks of the “From the Archive” feature. Hence, the recent ramping up of pre-production promo for the next James Bond film — led by casting announcements that include a recent Oscar winner as the villain — are cause enough to dust off old reviews of Daniel Craig’s initial turns in the famed 007 role. Today, it’s Casino Royale. This was originally published at my former online home.

There’s the whole subculture of film fandom desperately devoted to discussions of James Bond. They’ll debate Bond cars, Bond gadgets, Bond villains and Bond girls with adamant dedication to their own list of favorites, but it usually results in fetishizing the years that Sean Connery played the British spy. Seriously, I doubt there’s anyone out there stumping for Dr. Christmas Jones as the best Bond girl, and if you encounter this individual you should probably avoid talking movies with them. It’s got to be a pretty frustrating brand of movie junkiedom when you’re chasing the high of films from around forty years ago.

Despite the fact that the recent outings starring Pierce Brosnan have ranked among the strongest of the twenty official Bond films in terms of box office, the producers felt it was time to reinvent the franchise, tossing away the weathered tropes in favor of a grimmer, more realistic approach more in keeping with author Ian Fleming’s original conception of the character. Call it “Bond: Year One,” or, in movie parlance, Bond Begins. They’ve rebooted with Casino Royale, introducing us to Bond at the precise moment he earns his double-oh status and depicting his earliest days as a member of her majesty’s secret service.

To help make the new beginning all the more clear, they’ve recast the central role, giving us the sixth actor to take on Bond since the series launched in 1961. Daniel Craig plays 007 as an angry, impulsive figure, still working off whatever childhood issues sent him into this suicidal line of work and developing the mental and emotional callouses that will help him survive. He’s driven rather than suave. Thrillingly enough, when he seduces a beautiful woman early on it’s a means to gather information, not a retreat from the urgent matters at hand for a little Playboy-era canoodling. This Bond is focused. He’s got a job to do, and a bedroom romp is only as valuable as the distance it edges our man closer to his international security goals.

The serious approach is welcome, longed for even. But they may have erred too far on the side of subduing the spectacle. This Bond film is serious, alright. It’s also a little dull. Director Martin Campbell helmed Pierce Brosnan’s original go-round as Bond, and he returns to help introduce Craig. His work is solid enough, especially in the action sequences, but everything seems to just take a little too long, move a little too slowly. He lingers on the set-up when we’ve already figured out the payoff. It’s worthwhile to jettison the more ridiculous elements of the previous films, but it seems they’ve mistaken slack pacing for thoughtful filmmaking.

It’s all the more frustrating because the perfect medium between invisible cars and ice castles and a realistic (okay, quasi-realistic) depiction of spy work is contained right there in the first reel. Bond chases a scarred bomb-maker through a construction site, matching the man’s incredibly athletic leaps and bounds up unfinished elevator shifts and from girder to girder. The sequence plays out like a less cartoonish version of one of Jackie Chan’s marvelously inventive set pieces. It also benefits from actual stunt work: real humans instead of imperiled video game avatars. There’s undoubtedly some CGI-bolstering of the on-set heroics, but it’s still oddly refreshing to see the thrills built the old-fashioned way. For one satisfying stretch, we’re actually getting a taste of the Bond we deserve: one that’s grounded in the times but still capable of making the impossible seem just real enough to believe it.

From the Archive — A History of Violence

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As the striking of the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 resounds, there’s been a revived interest in arguing that the bygone year in question might have represented the best twelve month span in the long history of cinema. That’s a notion Entertainment Weekly stumped for as the year was still unfolding, so I’ve had plenty of time to be not quite convinced. I might be more inclined to co-sign if more of the ’99-inclined film writers entered David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, released twenty years ago this week, as the chief exhibit. Plenty of Cronenberg’s films are imperfect, and I’d argue a couple are outright bad, but in the undeclared battle between iconoclastic moviemaking Davids, I’ll always vigorously champion the Canadian with plenty of dried blood under his fingernails over Lynch. I have one last review of a Cronenberg film that hasn’t been carted over to this digital space, a consideration of A History of Violence, arguably his last truly impeccable work. This was written for my former online home.

The are certain things you need to be prepared for going into a David Cronenberg film: unflinching gore, tricky explorations of the ways in which sex and violence intersect and a deadpan approach to these things that, by itself, can be off-putting. Luckily, you usually need to be equally prepared to dissect a piece of art that is more complicated and nuanced than the average Hollywood Important FilmTM or even (especially?) the latest example of dark, edgy, filmic genius. Even when his films aren’t very good, they’re interesting and challenging. And A History of Violence is very good.

The film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that was issued through the marginally successful Paradox Press line of DC Comics. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because it’s definitely one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible going into it. For one thing, Cronenberg’s odd rhythms will probably work better for those not trying to anticipate when certain plot elements will kick in. According to our expectations of a typical narrative, very little happens in the first reel. There is character development and the establishment of plot points, but Cronenberg seems to be primarily laying the groundwork for the themes he’ll explore through the rest of the work: identity is pliable, violence begets more violence, sometimes we choose the lie because it’s preferable to the truth. There are moments in the first portion of the film that are very stiff and stilted, but I think that’s by design. Cronenberg wants us to see the rigidity, bloodlessness and finally fakery of the idyllic, standardized world that his characters live in. That’s not to say that Cronenberg is satirizing and condemning American small time life, an approach that is so overused that it’s become a sure sign of creative laziness. He’s simply pointing out that’s a falsely constructed reality; that doesn’t mean it may not be a better choice than the honest reality that eventually intrudes.

There’s actually not much violence in the film, basically a few relatively quick scenes. There are some gruesome sights, but they come and go quickly. Cronenberg doesn’t let his camera linger. There’s nothing gratuitous about the especially graphic moments, something Cronenberg has occasionally been guilty of in the past, which he basically acknowledged and satirized in what I think still stands as his best film (although, I’ll concede that this one might actual deserve that title—I need to think on it some more). Every moment, no matter how difficult to look at, makes sense with and contributes to what Cronenberg is trying to say about violence.

The movie gets extra credit for being the first to properly showcase Maria Bello. She’s long been the best actor in bad moviesthe only actor maintaining some respectability in horrible movies, or the most neglected actor in mediocre movies in which other actors are celebrated to a baffling degree. Here Bello gets to really dig in and connects in moments both large and small.

And how did it take this long for Cronenberg to cast fellow space alien Bill Hurt in a film?

From the Archive — 90FM Trivia 1989

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The general intent of this “From the Archive” weekly feature is to drag some old piece of my personal writing and drop it into this shiny digital space. For today, I’m instead going to use the retrospective aspect of my Saturday task to tip my hat one more time to the World’s Largest Trivia Contest, being staged at WWSP-90FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. This is the fiftieth edition of the contest, and it is the thirty year anniversary of the first time I operated within the confines of the station, helping the run the whole endeavor. It had been a wild, wonderful journey with this strange endeavor, and as I type, I am far too weary to add more, except for one more major thanks to everyone who’s shepherded the event along over the years.

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

From the Archive — Synecdoche, New York

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I enjoy tinkering with formats and structure, but I employ the practice rarely. Goofing around for the sake of it feels overly intrusive. There should be a point, as when I spoofed Quentin Tarantino’s title cards to add one more ting of derision to my review of The Hateful Eight or the silly little trick I pulled when writing about The ABCs of Death for Spectrum Culture, a mirror of the movie’s gimmickry. And this big wall of text was constructed in an attempt to replicate the frustrating, impenetrable storytelling of Charlie Kaufman in his feature directorial debut. This was originally published at my former online home. 

Charlie Kaufman’s new film is entitled Synecdoche, New York. The Academy Award winner previously scripted such mind-benders as Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is first time he’s directed. The plot follows a theater director from Syracuse as he responds to some sad turmoil in his personal life by launching himself into a wildly, ludicrously ambitious new project. He uses money received from a MacArthur “Genius Grant” to purchase a cavernous New York City warehouse. Inside, he oversees the construction of a massive set, effectively a reconstruction of metropolis and sets forth a cast of dozens, hundreds, thousands to engage in an ongoing improvisational rehearsal. Around this there are varied romances, an estranged relationship with his daughter and looming medical problems. These are the details of the plot, but it is not remotely what the film is about. The film is about many of the same preoccupations that runs through Kaufman’s most celebrated works like veins under the skin. It is about the the pliability of identity, the shortcomings of art in addressing the messiness of the human condition, the enveloping bleakness of demise looming mercilessly on the horizon, the battle of artifice versus authenticity, the routine madness the infects the world, the haziness of memory as it tries to protect us from our own pain, the misery of being unloved and the inevitability of losing anything that gives us brief tastes of joy and solace. In short, it seems to be about the wounding burden of being Charlie Kaufman. His stand-in is that theater director, named Caden Cotard and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Caden is inventive and misunderstood, obsessed by his own creativity and wracked with self-doubt, even self-loathing. He is a stage-oriented extension of the character Kaufman created as his direct doppelgänger in Adaptation. with a MacArthur grant instead of an Oscar to bring a crushing, paralyzing expectation down upon him. If it seemed that Kaufman couldn’t get more insular that he was in writing a film that posited himself as the central character, depicting his own inability to write the very film being viewed, then let Synecdoche prove that apparently sound theory wholly shortsighted. Kaufman addresses his own fears about inauthentic in art by creating a film built upon being inauthentic but continually calling attention to its own inauthenticity and claiming higher, sounder, more artistic truth in that cunning self-awareness. Kaufman’s own falsehoods are cleansed and absolved by his depiction of Cotard’s struggles with finding truth within recreation, or so he thinks. Instead, Synedoche, New York is wearying evidence that when you gaze into the navel the navel gazes back at you. Kaufman’s bundles dense conversations about meaning and genuineness and love and art. They go nowhere. They spin aimlessly, as lost and endless as Caden’s production that never truly begins. It’s so distancing that it imperils the entire film. Even the flashes of insight, the handful of scenes—mostly early on, mostly involving Caden’s soon-to-be-disrupted family unit–that have some sharpness to them, a simple honesty that cuts through the rambling cleverness, feel buried eventually, deemed invalid by Kaufman’s itchy, paranoid judgment against his own words, his own worlds. Maybe the minuscule paintings renders by Caden’s wife are meant to lampoon art world pretensions, or maybe Kaufman is just amused by the visual of people prowling a gallery with magnifying glasses affixed against their brows like headlamps on descending miners. Either way, it’s plausible enough. But what to make of the ticket-seller played by Samantha Morton purchasing a house that always has low but active flames flickering in the woodwork. What does it mean? And how do we take seriously Kaufman’s explorations of the unavoidable deceits of drama when he sticks something so patently phony into the part of the film that’s supposed to take place in the real world, the world that Caden is investing so much effort into capturing? Or is that the point? Caden’s futility is not just a reflection of the inherent limits of artistic endeavor, but the lunacy of trying to depict, condense, render something real from an existence that is in itself awash in fakery? Caden can’t do it because it is impossible. And neither can Charlie. Therefore, this headlong dash into a narrative brick wall is weirdly honorable. The self-absorption is thorough and relentless. The film is a snake eating itself. More than that, it’s a snake in a snake costume consuming the tail, uncertain if it’s eating tail, costume, both, or if the distinction even matters. Whether it even matters is a whole other element. Kaufman has employed a foolproof methodology to make his film impervious to criticism. If the film is irredeemably messy, it is intentionally so, that messiness fully representative of the messiness of life, of art, of art rendering life, and life mirroring art. To call the film a mess, to call it confusing, to call it muddled or indulgent is simply to apply descriptors that bolster Kaufman’s thesis. Pointing out failures is the same as celebrating accomplishments. Everything is spot on right by virtue of being terribly wrong. The artists creates the art until the art consumes him, and that tragic finale, that suicide by creation, is the only acceptable ending in Charlie Kaufman’s reckoning. The impossibility of the endeavor is no more or less demeaning than any number of daily indignities, than the crossed up confusion of language or the sudden, silent endings of those tallied in the newspaper obituary section. Apply any mathematics you like, the sum is always zero. The film is a vicious circle, but the circle is so vast that you will have forgotten the ground you crossed before the journey leads you to recross it. That is, it seems, the way Charlie Kaufman likes it. The way he needs it to be. And all these words I tap out in response are more meaningless than usual. I’m not sure why you’re even still reading. You should have quit long before. God knows, I would have.

From the Archive — Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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As the new version of Dumbo soar into theaters, it seems a long lifetime since a new directorial effort from Tim Burton was cause for excitement. When I was crafting reviews for my college radio station in the early nineteen-nineties, Burton was an exciting presence, developing playfully gloomy visions that seemed revolutionary, or at least smeared-eyeliner subversive. He cast quite a spell. At the time his film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released, Burton was over a decade removed from his last truly laudable feature and I was still beginning from an assumption of cinematic authorship worth studying. His next movie, which launched the increasingly regrettable Disney practice of raiding and remaking the most beloved artifacts in its back catalog, put a decisive end to that generosity. I think this assessment is still sound, but I’d also wager Burton’s fingerprints on the film look a little different to me now. This was written for my former online home.

I’ll say this for Tim Burton and company: They didn’t flinch. In bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from the stage to the big screen, it would have been so easy to soften the material, finesse away the darkest of the dark elements, demurely turn the camera away whenever the title character opened up another throat. Sure, accusations of cowardice would have been founded and the most fervent devotees of Broadway musicals and Stephen Sondheim would have been tempted to take up their own straight razors against the filmmakers, but so many more tickets could have been sold with a friendlier PG-13 rating. Just a tweak or two to the grim ending, even by simply completing the unresolved romantic subplot involving the earnest sailor Anthony Hope and the sadly imprisoned vision of blonde purity Johanna, could have sent general audiences out the swinging theater doors more likely to trumpet about their fun time in the movie house.

Instead, here is Sweeney Todd, all of its anger and brutality intact, even enhanced by the fearless proximity of the camera, getting so close to the acts of violence that the spilled blood sometimes coats the lens. This boldness is easily the greatest strength of Burton’s direction. It is a solid, commendable effort, but he also winds up constrained by the material. Save for the number “By the Sea,” with which Burton takes full advantage of the limitless possibilities of film, none of the staging is especially novel. Eventually, watching Sweeney again gaze longingly at one of his razors held up to the light or watching another fresh cadaver tumble through the trap door becomes redundant. Even Depp’s performance in the lead role falls prey to this problem. He alternates between dour, glaze-eyed contemplation and snarling cries for vengeance. He does well enough, but there’s not enough variety built into the role. Helena Bonham Carter has more to work with as Mrs. Lovett: More vulnerability, more devious humor, more spirit. She responds with her best work in years.

How this holds up as a representative of Sondheim’s swath of work is better determined by others more intimate with the land of orchestra pits and greasepaint. I most admire the song score when it’s flashing the sort of fizzy word acrobatics that I associate with Sondheim. It, and the story, is at its flattest when it turns to the tortured young lovers. Maybe the melodies in these sections achieve a grandeur or intricate beauty that’s beyond my tin ears.

What limitations Sweeney Todd has as a film seem built right into the very story construction that the filmmakers inherited. It’s hard to imagine a current director better suited to this material than Burton, with his proclivity for candy-coated darkness. He may very well have carried the film as far as it could go. If great films sing, Sweeney Todd hums.

From the Archive — The Squid and the Whale

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I’m entirely sincere when I note it’s pleasing that so many media outlets reported on the surprise arrival of the first child of a movie biz power couple by neglecting the papa. In a culture that still routinely refers to an incredibly accomplished human rights lawyer and activity as as “George Clooney’s wife,” it’s heartening to see Greta Gerwig given top billing and her partner shunted off to the side of the spotlight. It’s okay, Noah Baumbach. We know you make movies, too. This was written for my former online home, upon the covered film’s initial release.

It’s been ten years since his debut Kicking and Screaming, so it’s a little jarring to realize how few films writer-director Noah Baumbach has had his name on since then. Until he replaced Owen Wilson as Wes Anderson’s duly appointed writing partner (beginning with last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Baumbach hadn’t been heard from since 1997’s widely unloved Mr. Jealousy.

Baumbach clearly prospers when he traffics in the highly personal. Kicking and Screaming felt like a brutally honest (and quite funny) self-portrait, capturing that time right after college when the sudden absence of a school-dictated game plan leaves one lost and wandering, unable to face a future that, for the first time, needs to be created rather than met. Anything is fodder to forestall the decision-making and forward progress, even, in a favorite moment from the film, a laundry detergent commercial.

His fine new film, The Squid and the Whale, takes place in 1986. Jesse Eisenberg (from Roger Dodger) plays Walt, our Noah Baumbach stand-in. Walt and his younger brother Frank struggle to endure their parents’ messy divorce, complete with power-play custody arrangements, poorly thought out décor in new second bedrooms, and awkward rebound romances. There is a lot of humor here, but Baumbach doesn’t shy away from raw emotions, either. These characters make rash decisions and lash out forcefully at one another. The laughter tempers it, but there’s some real pain onscreen.

The broken marriage at the center of film is perhaps explained in an observation delivered by the mother of the family, played by Laura Linney. Pressed to explain why she’d married in the first place, she reminisces about discovering this intellectual man when they both lived in Ohio. She gets a distant, appreciative look in her eye as she talked about how different he was. It’s easier to stand out as a bohemian in Columbus than in New York City, where college students and high school administrators sing the praises of New Yorker articles. Sometimes it’s not people that change, but the contexts in which they live. Of course, there’s ample cause for disillusionment in the relationship, regardless of mailing address. To that end, Jeff Daniels plays the father with a fearless command of the man’s poisonous self-regard.

The film itself is a fast 80 minutes. Some scenes come and go so quickly that it sometimes feels like glancing at a film rather than watching it. This can give the film a satisfying feeling of memories captured and conveyed, but on occasion it just makes the whole endeavor feel a little disjointed. After all those years between films, Baumbach clearly has a lot to say. When the movie moves by so quickly, it can feel like he’s not giving himself quite enough time in which to say it.

From the Archive — Transamerica

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I’m not sure I’ve watched more than a couple minutes of Transamerica since my first viewing, and I’m skeptical about how well it holds up. If nothing else, it’s clearer by now that casting a cisgendered actress in a transgendered role is a problematic choice. At the time, though, it was a major step forward to simply afford a character such as Bree dignity and agency. I might write this piece differently now. This is how I wrote it then. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Felicity Huffman is terrific in Transamerica. She plays Bree, a transgender woman days away from the operation that will provide her with the biological sex that matches the one already firmly established in her heart, mind, and soul. In presentation, the role holds an element of stunt to it. We watch, at least initially, to see how Huffman will tackle the contours of the character’s conflicted nature. What cues of body language will she employ to illustrate the dueling genders beneath the surface of Bree? How will she shade her voice? It is the actor as magician and we’re watching a little more intently to discover how the trick is done.

To her credit, Huffman avoids this trap. She quickly settles on some simple, effective bits of physicality that help define Bree: a certain stiffness in her comportment, a simple series of body language cues to keep others at length, all the better to prevent close inspections. With these elements sketched into place, Huffman concentrates on finding and relaying Bree as a person impacted by her trans identity but not defined by it. The impact is deep, of course, but, as opposed to what other good actors might do, Huffman uses it as an entry into fully understanding the whole character. Bree is shaped by her nature, an existence in which many of her external expressions of self are contradicted by her own physical features. In a way she is engages in an ongoing masquerade of her own future, who she is announced in a mixture of hope and personal definition by force of will. Huffman uses these things as a means to key in to Bree’s frustration, self-reliance, loneliness, and caution.

She fares better than the film that serves as her vehicle. First-time feature director Duncan Tucker is clearly well-intentioned, and he deserves credit for his part in the collaboration with Huffman that created so rich a character as Bree, but he has also constructed a weak product built on that hoariest of filmic frameworks: road movie with two mis-matched travelers. The plot is set in motion when Bree journeys from California to New York City to meet the son she unknowingly fathered some two decades earlier. She buys a car there and the pair begin a cross-country trek back to Los Angeles, with the son unaware of the family connection between the two of them. The stops along the way lead to situations that are didactically manipulative, broadly comic, and, by the time they get to Arizona, a muscle-tensing combination of both.

It’s significantly better when the film stays in the car with Bree and her son (played well enough by Kevin Zegers, who has apparently logged several cinematic hours with a highly athletic golden pooch) because then we focus on the characters rather than watch them flounder around in the constructed conflicts of uninspired screenwriting. Tucker has created some interesting people, but his strained story keeps getting in their way. It certainly doesn’t stop Felicity Huffman from turning in an inspired, committed performance, but it makes you wish the film itself had come somewhere near her level of accomplishment.

From the Archive: 90FM’s Top Ten Albums, Mid-March 1989

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Thirty years ago this week, I know what was being played at my college radio station. Or at least I know the ten albums that were being played more than any others. I’ve been sitting on this particular list for a while, and, as luck would have it, I hit this notable anniversary of the tally in question as I’m about take a welcome turn as a substitute DJ at the radio station in question, so the music I’ve been honored to pump out onto the airwaves is definitely on my mind. With a few annotations, here’s the list.

1. Violent Femmes, 3

There’s no doubt in my mind why this record sat at the top of our chart. In a very unexpected turn for a university programming board that previously brought the likes of Quiet Riot and the Outfield to campus for their big shows, Violent Femmes were booked to play the opening gig of a tour to support their fourth album. It was the Femmes’ first live performance in two and a half years, and we were overjoyed that one of our bands was coming to our little college town. The day of the show, a blizzard struck Central Wisconsin, and we spent most of the day worried about a cancellation. We should have known better. These were fellow residents of America’s Dairyland. A little snow wasn’t going to stop them.

2. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul

Perpetual underdogs with an uncommon mastery of self-sabotage, the Mats came as close as they ever would to crossover success with this album’s lead single, “I’ll Be You.” It was their only song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 and it topped the trade publication’s mainstream rock list for three weeks (in between Chris Rea and Julian Lennon).

3. Elvis Costello, Spike

And this album includes “Veronica,” the song that became only the second (and last) U.S. Top 40 hit for Elvis Costello. As I informed Central Wisconsin radio listeners with tedious regularity, the full title of the album is Spike the Beloved Entertainer, which Costello intended as an instruction rather than a description.

4. Rain People, Rain People

Hailing from Atlanta and presumably named after the 1969 Francis Ford Coppola movie, Rain People played a brand of mid-tempo, fiercely earnest rock-pop that was somehow irresistible to on-air staff at our station, myself included.

5. Brian Ritchie, Sonic Temple & Court of Babylon

The second solo outing from Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie also got a boost from the band’s local stop. The material on the record was wonderfully weird and deliberately caustic.

6. The Radiators, Zig-Zaggin’ Through Ghostland

The second major label album from a New Orleans band that successfully plied a slightly jammy, slightly bluesy, blast-the-paint-off-the-barroom-walls sound that was experiencing a brief commercial resurgence at the time. It wasn’t revolutionary, but it was good stuff.

7. Graham Parker, Human Soul

Perpetual cult hero Graham Parker enjoyed a brief rekindling of broader interest upon the release of his 1988 album, The Mona Lisa’s Sister. He worked fast in an attempt to capitalize of it, releasing a live solo set and a proper studio follow-up the following year. The new material wasn’t that strong, though, and the backsliding began. It continued all the way to becoming the embodiment of undervalued artistic antiquity in Judd Apatow’s This is 40.

8. Slammin’ Watusis, Kings of Noise

I remember Slammin’ Watusis as a pretty good band, but I think a lot of their success at the station was attributable to on-air finding it enjoyable to speak their name into the microphone. Make no mistake: that helped a few bands out.

9. XTC, Oranges and Lemons

It’s very possible this album could have stuck in the upper reaches of our chart for weeks entirely on the basis of spins for lead single “Mayor of Simpleton,” and that’s despite the station’s policy of no repeated songs during the day. That track dominated, but the whole record is dandy.

10. Bruce Cockburn, Big Circumstance

Every Bruce Cockburn album at the radio station required a unmissable pronunciation guide affixed to the front, to prevent the most phonetically straightforward reading of that last name. He got played plenty, if only because his completely unveiled political views were basically in alignment with the station staff consensus.