I’ve Loved You So Long

ive_loved_you_so_long.jpg

 

Writer / director Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is a textbook exercise in the dramatic withholding of narrative information. Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) is released from prison after serving 15 years for an unspecified crime, and is unwillingly housed with her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). Léa is initially her only ally, and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is distrustful for what turns out to be very good reason. Léa and Luc have adopted two children (a big clue to the central mystery of the movie), including their precocious older daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur, a rare movie tyke that is actually endearing). As part of her probation, Juliette is required to sign in weekly with a lonely cop (Frédéric Pierrot) with even more psychological issues than she. The slow leak of information ramps up the drama, but we’re told just enough to see that the movie is actually about Juliette’s gradual, sometimes painful reentry into life, not her mysterious crime.

Kristen Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long

Thomas’s unshowy performance is acting of the highest degree. The British already proved her fluency in French in Tell No One (read The Dork Report review), although a line of dialogue here explains away her accent. She doesn’t distract by inviting the audience to be constantly impressed at how talented she is. But that said, there were a few moments where I marveled at the complex emotions she conveyed. Two scenes in particular stand out: Juliette almost physically recoils when introduced to Léa’s colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill) and when reunited with her estranged mother. Also watch for the almost indescribably complex expression that plays across her face when she meets a sleazy bloke in a pub shortly after her release.

Kristen Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein in I've Loved You So Long

Only two factors kept me from considering the movie more highly. There’s a seemingly extraneous and unresolved subplot about Léa ignoring a student who appears to have a crush on her, and claims he’s a subject of prejudice. Was the point merely that Léa is an attractive, sympathetic person? Secondly, the movie arguably descends into talky melodrama at the very end; without revealing too much, we learn the truth about what motivated Juliette’s crime, and why she stubbornly kept her silence for so long.


Official movie site: www.sonyclassics.com/ivelovedyousolong

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The Decemberists Live at Radio City Music Hall, June 10, 2009

 

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (including Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Bill Rieflin of Ministry, R.E.M., and The Humans) opened with an enjoyable 30-minute set. I was unfamiliar with Hitchcock, but by total coincidence had just days before seen his appearance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. His quirky non sequiturs between songs (“I had a root canal this morning, which is why I’m wearing a hat” – which he wasn’t) contrasted with his focused, tight songs. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy briefly joined in on tambourine and backing vocals.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3 live at Radio City Music HallColin Meloy joins Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 as they warm up the crowd

I’m a latecomer to The Decemberists, only catching on with their third album The Crane Wife (2006), which features a guest appearance by Laura Veirs, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, on the wonderful track “Yankee Bayonet.” My interest was further piqued by a review (that I now can’t track down) that compared them to early Genesis, of which I am also a longtime fan. It’s a bold comparison, for few would classify The Decemberists’ music as progressive rock. But it is fitting insofar as their compositions are often epic narratives, encompassing styles ranging from pastoral folk to hard rock, all performed with high musicianship that eschews flashy individual soloing. Further bolstering their prog rock cred, the first half of The Decemberists’ set was the entirety of their 2009 concept album, The Hazards of Love.

In retrospect, a concept album was inevitable for a such a band that had already shown a penchant for lengthy story-based songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (on Picaresque, 2005) and “The Crane Wife Parts 1-3.” Compared to Genesis’ grand but slightly inconsistent epics “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Hazards of Love is actually one of the most cohesive concept albums I’ve heard. It rivals The Who’s Quadrophenia for clarity of vision and cohesiveness of its recurring musical themes.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallMy camera is momentarily overwhelmed by the proceedings

An instrumental organ intro (sorry to keep bringing them up, but possibly an idea borrowed from Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies”) launches the epic fairy tale. The role of a girl that falls in love with a forest creature is sung on record and live by the airy, sweet voice of Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, a pint-sized, multi-instrumentalist powerhouse, blowed everybody’s hair back as the evil forest queen. How does a girl that small have such powerful pipes?

Although a few tracks can stand on their own (especially “The Rake’s Song”), the entire suite deserves to be heard in one piece. It was a very bold move to release a 58-minute song suite at a time when the long-player album is dying, and music is consumed track-by-track and randomly shuffled by iPod algorithms. Personally, I had found the album a little slow to absorb, but now that I’ve witnessed the whole thing live… wow. It’s brilliant, and made to be experienced live, in one piece.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallBecky Stark & Shara Worden join The Decemberists to cover Heart’s “Crazy On You”

The second set mostly featured songs I didn’t know, so it’s time for me to visit Amazon MP3 to buy up their back catalogue. Peter Buck came back out to join them for a cover of “Begin the Begin” from my favorite R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant (I was unable to shake Michael Stipe’s hook “The insurgency began and you missed it” from my head the entire walk home from the show). Stark and Worden rejoined the band for a full-blooded cover of all things, Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Their rendition was totally faithful, and yet somehow managed to sound both like a Decemberist original as well as something Fleetwood Mac might have done. They ended on a high note for me, with one of my personal favorite Decemberist songs, “Sons & Daughters.”


Official band site: www.decemberists.com

Buy The Decemeberists’ The Hazards of Love and Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3’s Goodnight Oslo from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Nine Inch Nails & Jane’s Addiction live at Jones Beach, June 7, 2009

 

STREET SWEEPER SOCIAL CLUB

Street Sweeper Social Club, the new band formed by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, opened. Their badass cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” was a highlight.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

NINE INCH NAILS

It felt wrong somehow to see a band as moody and dark as Nine Inch Nails play while the sun was still up. But clouds soon moved in, obscuring a sunset that would have been impressive over the water, making everything suitably gloomy and very, very cold as NIN chased summer away. This stripped-down four-piece version of the band played a great cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the best song Nine Inch Nails could have but never wrote, and ended with the overwhelmingly sad “Hurt.” Surprisingly omitted was “Closer,” what I would assume to be a requisite entry in any NIN set list (but the end theme did feature in a short instrumental jam). Speaking of, said jam was one of only two instrumental portions of the set (the other being The Fragile’s ambient interlude “The Frail”). A little disappointing, given that Trent Reznor has been becoming more and more musically experimental and adventurous of late, with whole chunks of The Fragile and the entirety of the massive two-disc Ghosts being instrumental. Personally, when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, the music (not so much the gloomy lyrics) is where the action is for me.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York

JANE’S ADDICTION

All thanks to Reznor for playing peacekeeper in reuniting the notoriously fractious and unstable Jane’s Addiction, at least for the length of the NIN/JA tour. Basically a funk/prog/metal power-trio fronted by the antics of Perry Farrell, a… unique individual whose ego (he once re-released a raft of Jane’s Addiction songs under just his own name on a solo greatest hits album) has often created conflict with bassist Eric Avery. The full moon peeking out from the clouds probably only added to Farrell’s lunacy. They opened with their magnum opus “Three Days,” an epic featuring more discrete guitar solos by Dave Navarro than I could count. Honestly, where do you go from there? They kept finding high points to hit, however, including “Ocean Size” and the closer (what else?) “Jane Says.” It only took a few songs for the ageless Navarro’s vest to disappear (he must have one heck of a personal trainer, not to mention a chest hair waxer), and Perry’s shirt followed shortly thereafter.

Jane's Addiction live at Jones Beach New York

THE FUTURE

Reznor has made vague noises about Nine Inch Nails coming to some kind of end following this tour. It remains to be seen whether he means retiring the name in favor of solo work, starting a new band, or simply ceasing to tour for a while. He’s reportedly been clean & sober for some time now, and engaged to be married, so more power to him. If he retreats now, he’d be going out on a high note. I hope the original lineup of Jane’s Addiction manages to keep it together to continue working in some form or another. With only two studio albums to their credit (I’m not counting the awful Strays, written & recorded without Avery’s inimitable bass), the world needs some new songs from them.

GETTING THERE AND BACK

I had a little unexpected adventure on the long trip from Manhattan all the way out to Jones Beach. Met a few fans on the Long Island Railroad as we debated the various ways of getting there, all of which suck. Thanks to Kim & friend for the impromptu car ride to the venue! But I didn’t have the same luck on the way back, an ordeal that included waiting a full hour for a LIRR train to arrive. Picture dozens of hungry fans, shivering atop an elevated platform in the middle of nowhere.

Jane's Addiction live at Jones Beach New York

THE VENUE

Blech. Surrounded on three sides by water, Jones Beach sounds nice in theory, but in person it’s cold. Never mind if you’re going to a show there during the summer; dress warmly. Also, for a music lover used to all kinds of venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water for literally miles. The exorbitant concession prices are, let’s be honest here, graft. Just to keep from dehydrating and getting a migraine from all the second-hand pot smoke, I reluctantly paid $6.50 for a bottled water, which I certainly hope the venue recycled. Also, the sound system is kinda crappy. Jane’s were noticeably louder than NIN, but Farrell’s mike sounded pretty muffled, especially on the first and last songs.

THE AUDIENCE

The audience was a weird mixture of goths, metalheads, and graying thirtysomethings like me. Although NIN has remained extremely relevant for some time now, the original Jane’s lineup has been out of action for more than a decade, and both bands date back to the late 80s / early 1990s, when I was in high school. The black-fingernailed loners didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t really expect so many headbangers. I even saw a middle-aged, bearded, fat dude in a skirt, a look I thought fizzled on arrival in the mid-90s. In retrospect, I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I come at Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction from a different angle. Listening to NIN is an extension of my appreciation for electronic and progressive rock, and Jane’s viscerally filthy, slightly sleazy rock owes more than a little to Led Zeppelin (who were also arguably a bit prog).


Official band sites: www.nin.com and www.janesaddiction.com

Buy The Slip, Nine Inch Nails’ latest album, and the new Jane’s Addiction rarities boxed set A Cabinet of Curiosities from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Frozen River

Frozen River movie poster

 

The title of Courtney Hunt’s suspenseful Frozen River refers to both a literal body of water separating countries, and to the tenuous border between merely scraping by and true poverty. Melissa Leo was rightly praised last year for her performance as Ray, a woman struggling to support two boys in upstate New York. Her family appears to have been living beyond their means, even before her gambling-addict husband lit out with their savings. If she doesn’t make the next payments on their huge flatscreen television (a ridiculous sight in their shabby living space) or a coveted replacement double-wide home, they’ll lose the TV and the new home’s down payment. The TV is exactly the sort of needless extravagance that can put a checkbook in the red, and the double-wide upgrade becomes a necessity when their existing place looks unfit to survive the bitter winter.

Melisso Leo in Frozen River

Circumstances push her into an antagonistic partnership with Native American Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), whose situation is, if anything, worse. Lila’s business is smuggling illegal immigrants over the titular frozen river on Mohawk land. The fact that there is a question as to whether the practice is legal on a reservation is almost a point of pride. No one seems to know the actual law, but the perceived grey area in a way validates the Mohawks’ autonomy. Making a living this way is seen as prideful, never mind the exploited immigrants that pay about $40,000-50,000 each to make the trip, either in cash or the obligation to work it off as indentured slaves.

A still from Frozen River

As I recently wrote about the extraordinary Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (read The Dork Report review), a single event such as a car breaking down or a spouse leaving may be the tipping point leading to homelessness. Both films feature a woman on her own, struggling to meet pressing debts while feeding loving but needy dependents. But Frozen River suffers in comparison when watched back-to-back with Wendy and Lucy (as I happened to), feeling overwritten and with a neatly schematic ending. Without spoiling too much, a surprising burst of exposition near the end explains the rules of almost too-convenient new situation for Lila and Ray right as it’s happening.


Official movie site: sonyclassics.com/frozenriver

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Set Phasers to Awesome: Star Trek

Star Trek movie poster

 

Like the 1966 Corvette a reckless young James Tiberius Kirk commandeers in an early sequence, the new Star Trek is precision-crafted for speed, sex appeal, and total awesomeness. Kirk launches that beautiful machine off a cliff, but thankfully director J.J. Abrams never does the same with the movie. Star Trek (the first in the franchise to go by the perfectly terse name of the original TV series) joins the rarified ranks of the few other modern blockbusters that thrill and entertain (not to mention cost and earn massive piles of money) yet have lasting merit. Make room on the DVD shelf for a new entry in the canon, alongside Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man 2.

Trek has a long tradition of utilizing the science fiction conceits of time travel and alternate dimensions to playfully subvert its characters and mythos. The original series introduced the Mirror Universe, giving the cast the chance to reinterpret their goodly characters in hairier, eviler alter egos. Two of the best movies brought the Enterprise back in time, first to save the whales in the 1980s (in the lighthearted Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), and later to witness Earthlings’ first contact with an alien race in 2063 (in the underrated Star Trek VIII: First Contact). Two of my personal favorite Next Generation episodes “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “All Good Things” tasked Captain Picard with course-correcting an Enterprise skipping through time, no matter the sacrifice. The fun in these kinds of stories comes not just from their brain-teasing sci-fi concepts, but in enjoying new twists on the established characters fans love. But any real innovations were always only temporary, the status quo always quickly restored in time (so to speak) for the next episode.

Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana in Star Trekall hands on deck

Thus, the Star Trek franchise has managed to maintain a single (albeit massively complicated) timeline across six TV series, ten movies, and countless novels and comic books. There’s even a niche market in the continuity data itself, as evidenced by popular wikis like Memory Alpha and reference tomes such as Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. Such catalogs of the incredibly complex future “history” in which Trek is set are useful not only to obsessive fans, but also to the writers charged with creating new stories that don’t contradict what came before, at least too badly.

A certain degree of renewal was already built right in to Star Trek. When any one premise ran out of ideas, an ensemble aged beyond plausibility, or ratings dipped, the producers could always start over with a new ship, a new space station, or in a new year. The most radical departure yet attempted was the ultimately disappointing final series, Enterprise. The prequel, set years before Kirk would take the helm, got off to a great start with a Starfleet crew a world apart from any we had seen before. As many have pointed out over the years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry may have modeled Starfleet on the Navy, but the original 1960s series was basically a Western set in space. The 1980s The Next Generation reconceived Starfleet as kind of trans-species peacekeeping fleet, a kind of U.N. of The Milky Way. So, set between Earthlings’ rough-and-tumble early spacefaring years and the later idealistic intergalactic cooperation, Enterprise featured a bunch of cocky cowboys brazenly taking their values out with them into space, baseball caps firmly screwed on heads, and phasers defiantly set to kill. The series seemed poised to be a somewhat obvious but fruitful metaphor for an arrogant, George W. Bush-era United States forcibly spreading democracy where it wasn’t welcome. But its quality (both in writing and in special effects budget) bottomed out in just a few episodes, and even the smoking-hot, well-endowed Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) couldn’t keep the show on the air.

Zoe Saldana in Star TrekUhura models the latest in 23rd Century Bluetooth fashions

The entire Star Trek franchise seemed all but dead after Enterprise‘s cancellation, not unlike the no-win scenario Spock devises as a test to torture Starfleet cadets to see how they cope with failure. A cherished part of Star Trek lore is that Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and thus cheated in order to win Spock’s unwinnable test. Paramount evidently learned a lesson from Kirk’s lateral thinking, for the first they they have given the OK to an irreverent new creative team to permanently reboot Trek from top to bottom. Nearly all of Trek’s meticulously maintained continuity (excepting, ironically, the failed Enterprise, set chronologically before any of the events of this movie) has now forever been redefined as belonging to an alternate timeline. At least, that is, until the next reboot. As the heavily-advertised appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the original “Spock Prime” attests, nothing necessarily precludes the reappearance of any beloved original actors or other kinds of crossovers between timelines (anything in possible in science fiction). But Star Trek does mark a very clear end to Star Trek as we knew it.

After 40 years of unreliable quality control and diminishing box office, such drastic measures were arguably essential to preserve Trek as a viable franchise. But I do sympathize with the grumbling of longtime fans upset at scrapping everything and starting over. And this is not even to mention the many writers, directors, and actors that created the no-longer canonical stories. All of which hasn’t disappeared from our reality, and will be enjoyed forever on DVD, but this film does render pretty much everything that came before it as second-class Trek. I can’t help but wonder how all future spinoffs are now going to be handled on a practical level. For instance, if there are to be future comics or novels featuring the characters from The Next Generation, are the physical products going to have to be labelled as taking place in the now-depricated original fictional universe? How does “Trek Classic” and “Neu Trek” sound?

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star TrekSpock has had enough Kirk and can’t take it anymore

But back to the topic at hand: the totally awesome new movie is packed with glossy art direction, genuinely exciting special effects, fight scenes, chase sequences, and attractive young actors young and attractive enough to strut about on the big screen in their space scanties. Despite all this gloss, it somehow manages to not be totally stupid, which is more than This Dork Reporter can say about your typical summer movie (*cough* Transformers *cough*). However, I can’t help but point out a few, forgive me, illogical plot elements, especially in the mad rush towards the end:

  • Why does Kirk bother firing upon Nero’s ship as it’s being torn apart by a black hole? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe Kirk feared Nero would time travel yet again to create mischief in yet another timeline (hey, there’s always the inevitable next reboot in a few years).
  • Starfleet is busy elsewhere in the galaxy, so we see the cadets mobilized into a strike force to confront Nero. So why is the Academy still full of students when Nero’s ship reaches Earth? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe they were Freshmen not qualified to do more than merely swab the decks.
  • It’s wildly implausible for young Spock to maroon Kirk on the same planet that Nero did Spock Prime. The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: nope, I got nothing. I mean, really, come on! (but still, the movie is awesome, just go with it)
  • The hardest plot point to swallow is why Spock Prime does not accompany Kirk back to the Enterprise. Would he really risk the fate of Earth because he thinks it’s more important that Kirk and his young self forge their destined friendship? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: yes.

But enough complaining. Did I mention the movie is TEH AWESOME? There’s not one bad performance to drag things down (a notable problem with Watchmen – read The Dork Report review). Despite being tasked with recreating characters beloved by fans for over 40 years, no one attempts an outright imitation or caricature. The most faithful is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Beyond his eerie physical resemblance to Nimoy (maybe not how he actually looked in 1966, but how he might have), he has a fresh take that plays up the character’s internal struggle between emotion and logic. Chris Pine artfully embodies Kirk’s blend of righteous nobility and brash rule-busting attitude without aping William Shatner’s famously hammy style (for which we all, admit it, love him). Karl Urban nails Bones as a seasick pessimist, and Zoe Saldana and John Cho bring welcome sass and physical action hero prowess to Uhura and Sulu, two characters often left on the sidelines. Only Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg come close to overdoing it. Pegg mugs and shouts, playing Scotty as much more of a mad Scotsman than James Doohan ever did, and Yelchin overexaggerates Chekov’s accent for pure comedy. But that’s not to say both performances aren’t hugely entertaining, just like everything else on display.

Simon Pegg in Star TrekPegg gives Scotty’s accent all she’s got, Captain!

Star Trek goes much much further with Spock’s half-human nature than any of the Trek I’ve seen. Spock was such a key ingredient that almost every version of Trek that followed was obligated to include a similar character: most obviously the android Data (Brent Spiner) in The Next Generation. We are reminded the Vulcan species is not naturally emotionless, as many casual fans assume, but rather a deeply passionate people that holds its warlike nature in check by elevating logic to the level of religion. A purely devout Vulcan would be about as dramatically interesting as a robot (but it must be said that even Spock’s father Sarek (Ben Cross), a high-ranking Vulcan elder, privately admits to being moved by the irrational emotion of love). The aged Spock Prime is practically jovial, seemingly having come to terms with his duality. It’s actually rather heartwarming for a longtime fan to see him at a place of peace with himself.

I have room for one more small complaint: there’s an overreliance on clichéd father issues as easy story shortcuts to define character, for which I blame J.J. Abrams. Both Kirk and Spock are torn between rebelling against and owning up to their respective heroic, accomplished fathers. Abrams also built his TV series Alias and Lost upon the same dramatic crutch, in which seemingly every character is primarily motivated by strained relationships with absent and/or bad fathers (e.g. Sydney, Jack, Locke, Kate, Miles, etc…). One wonders, statistically speaking, how many people in the world actually do have such complicated relationships with their dads. Maybe those that do are just more likely to make their careers writing scripts for Hollywood.

None of the many Trek sequels, prequels, or spinoffs to date have ever reached the mythic status of the original series and its core dynamic duo Kirk and Spock. Star Trek makes a bold bid to reclaim what made the original such a phenomenon: it goes back to the original scenario and characters, and thoroughly remasters, reinvigorates, reinvents, and gives them a swift kick in the ass. It restores the names Kirk and Spock to the realm of legends and icons.


Official movie site: www.startrekmovie.com

Mutant Mayhem: X-Men

X-Men movie poster

 

On a whim, this Dork Reporter decided to rewatch X-Men and found it surprisingly good, even better than I remembered from my first viewing almost 10 years ago. I used to be a comics fan, and read most of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.‘s lengthy run on The Uncanny X-Men series in the mid-80s. Even though I had long since stopped reading comics regularly by the time the movie was announced in 2000, I recall being convinced there was no way a live-action X-Men movie could not be a ridiculous folly. But I went to see it partly out of morbid curiosity and partly out of a sense of duty as an ex-fan (see what I did there?). As it turned out, writer David Hayter and director Bryan Singer’s expert adaptation of the Marvel Comics source material turned out more fun, clever, and exciting than it had any right to be. Most welcome of all, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (in a good way), a key ingredient unfortunately lacking in the mostly humorless (but still pretty good) sequel X2: X-Men United (2003).

Hayter and Singer managed to dig up every ounce of subtext baked into the X-Men mythos by original writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At its heart, the X-Men series was essentially a neverending sci-fi soap opera with a noble moral of progressive social awareness. The weirdo superheroes that make up The X-Men are “mutants,” born of human parents but with superhuman powers typically manifesting during adolescence. Prior to Lee and Kirby’s innovation, comics’ superhero templates were either extraterrestrials like Superman or ordinary humans with artificially gained superpowers like Spider-Man (mere mortals Batman and Iron Man don’t count, no matter how inordinately driven to fight injustice). Unlike the physical ideal Superman, most of Lee and Kirby’s mutants did not view their powers as gifts, and some were outright monsters.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-MenThe Royal Shakespeare Company mutants face off

The X-Men formula also incorporates deeper themes of racism, xenophobia, and even evolution. Indeed, the entire premise is built upon the theory of evolution: as multiple species of humans walked the earth simultaneously hundreds of thousands of years ago, so too do humans now find themselves sharing the earth with arguably the next branch of homo sapiens’ evolution: known in the comics as “homo superior.” Carried through to the next logical conclusion, this mutant minority is feared and demonized as freaks by the humans that vastly outnumber them.

The X-Men’s sympathetic antagonist Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) is a survivor of a German concentration camp. The horrors he experienced at the hands of those that hated his race (but didn’t yet realize he was actually a different species) in 1944 Poland inform his actions as the supervillain Magneto. As he listens to contemporary American politicians argue over how to contain and suppress the increasing mutant population, he disgustedly states “I’ve heard these arguments before.” His former friend (and fellow mutant) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hopes to find a way to live in peace, and counters “That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.” But Magneto is unyielding. “Yes. Into us.”

Hugh Jackman in X-MenTalk to the claws

The crucial factor that had me simply assume the movie would be terrible was casting. It’s not hard to imagine a young actor able embody Spider-Man’s secret identity Peter Parker as a put-upon geek harboring tremendous reserves of guilt and righteousness. But how do you cast Wolverine, a diminutive, half-animal Canadian supersoldier with ridiculous hair? Easy! You hire the tall, absurdly handsome Australian studly song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman. Against all odds, he totally nailed the fan-favorite character. The moment in the film when this former X-Men comics fan decided that Jackman succeeded is a sequence in which he steals an X-motorcycle and discovers a handy turboboost button. The entire audience at the New York Ziegfeld theater laughed heartily along with his undisguised glee at its total awesomeness. This doubter was completely sold.

Another casting coup was the double-dose of Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas provided by McKellen and Stewart (both with extensive experience in fantasy and sci-fi genre material, as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, respectively). Bruce Davison (as the xenophobic Senator Robert Kelly) also has a long history in science fiction, having starred in Willard and the influential classic The Lathe of Heaven.

Famke Janssen in X-MenJust don’t call her Marvel Girl

James Marsden later proved himself to be entertainingly charismatic in Enchanted, but here he’s a victim to the humorless character of Cyclops. As Wolverine correctly psychoanalyzes him, he’s a dick. Similarly, Famke Janssen isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the no-fun-please Dr. Jean Grey (known in the comics as Marvel GIrl, later to die and rise again as Phoenix in Brett Ratner’s crap sequel X-Men 3: The Last Stand – read The Dork Report review). But together with Jackman, the trio brings alive the Wolverine/Cyclops/Phoenix love triangle drawn from the comics, helping to make the movie accessible.

The one real weak spot in the cast is Halle Berry. Like Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she seems to have only one real acting performance under her belt (Monster’s Ball, of course). Here she turns in one of her most bland and toneless performances yet. For extra amusement, be sure to catch the deleted scenes on the DVD edition in which she can be heard affecting a weak pseudo-African accent. It’s a shame, because Storm was a very strong character in the comics around the time I read them. Writer Chris Claremont obviously had an affection for her, even promoting her to leader of the X-Men.

Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin in X-MenFerocious mutant super-soldier Wolverine can really relate to Rogue’s teenage angst

Aside from casting, I imagine the second-biggest obstacle facing the filmmakers was how to introduce the complex X-Men universe to mainstream audiences while preserving its integrity to appease longtime fans. Hayter and Singer came up with the excellent solution of having us meet Professor X and his X-Men through the eyes of newbies Wolverine and Rogue (Anna “That’s my mother’s piano!” Paquin). Both are very different characters that share key common experiences that allow them to bond in a big brother / little sister relationship: Wolverine is a loner amnesiac unaware there are others like him, and Rogue is a young runaway isolated by particularly extreme powers that prevent her from experiencing normal human interaction. Almost anyone can identify with the painful coming of age that comes with her exaggerated adolescence. A startling moment of pathos occurs between them when she sees him wield the fearsome metal claws sheathed in his forearms: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

On an even more practical level, the filmmakers came up with an ingenious solution to the comics characters’ silly costumes by having the movie X-Men wear more photogenic uniforms. Cyclops’ joke about yellow and orange spandex is an easter egg for fans: Wolverine sports such an ensemble in the comics. Best of all, the requisite action set pieces are justified by the characters, not just the plot. For example, a big blow-out staged at a train station is the result of a heartbreaking misunderstanding that causes Rogue to flee the longed-for safe haven she had only just discovered.

The franchise is now set to continue with a trilogy of prequels including this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and rumored projects X-Men Origins: First Class and X-Men Origins: Magneto. But with the first of these wracking up some notably awful reviews, it’s clear the first in the series will still stand as the best for some time.


Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009

 

The Scottish instrumental rock outfit Mogwai earned their reputation in part for sheer volume, like My Bloody Valentine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for exploring the kinds of extreme dynamics you usually only hear in electronica or progressive rock, wholly unlike the fatiguing constant loudness of most pop, punk, and metal.

My teeth are still resonating. This was far and away the most viscerally physical concert I’ve ever attended. In all seriousness, I believe it would be possible for a deaf person to enjoy a Mogwai show. I don’t mean to be offensive to the deaf community here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.

This concert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009Mogwai fear nothing

Official band site: www.mogwai.co.uk

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Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In movie poster

 

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapologetically a vampire story. It follows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the standard trappings of spectacular bloodletting (like, say, Blade) and simplistic sexual metaphors (we’re looking at you, Twilight). Director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide (adapting his own novel) are startlingly frank not just in their depictions of the ritualistic violence inherent in a vampire’s everyday toil, but also in the desperate hungers and desires of all their human characters as well.

Novel and film are both set in 1980s Sweden, at a time when the famously independent, neutral nation was struggling through a Cold War economic recession. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scolding mother and a loving but distant father with unexplained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when playing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An ominous guest arrives, muting even conversation (we never learn the man’s identity, or the reason for his smothering effect, but for story purposes it only matters that Oskar cannot be happy even here). Oskar is constantly bullied by school thugs seemingly inspired by the savage torturers from the movie Deliverance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The constant pressure drives him morbidly inward, rapidly becoming a potential danger to himself and others. He secretly collects gruesome newspaper clippings of local crimes, and sneaks outside at night to playact his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Century viewer to imagine Oskar becoming a school shooter.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InEli (Lina Leandersson) has been twelve for a long time

A mysterious couple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl appearing about his age, and her adult companion Håkan (Per Ragnar). Eli interrupts one of Oskar’s solitary nighttime revenge fantasies, and they strike up a sort of friendship. As the habitually aloof Eli warms to his company, she advises him to fight back against his oppressors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s startling performance during his triumph conveys a disturbing impression of a too-young boy experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Compare and contrast his obvious pleasure with the wholly dispassionate murders committed by Eli and Håkan. One wonders how Alfredson directed the young actor towards such a performance, and how much Hedebrant knew about the subtext of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best interests at heart; was she urging him to stand up for himself, or setting him up for a bigger fall later? Either way, she succeeds in binding him more closely to her.

Although Oskar is pubescent, his infatuation with her does not seem to be especially sexual. His hungers are more for companionship and understanding. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With little hesitation, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, seeing what seems to be a castration mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Subtle special effects give us fleeting images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is permanently frozen in a state of childhood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intellectually and emotionally as her body remains in stasis (unlike the young character Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”

Let the Right One InVampires are hot stuff in bed

Although it doesn’t resemble more typical vampire tales, Let the Right One In does follow most of the mythos: vampires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter uninvited will cause a painful, bloody death – a fate Eli demonstrates to Oskar to prove her affection for him); any victim bitten but not killed will become a vampire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feeding – a belated form of mercy coming from a vampire, I suppose); housecats are compelled to attack vampires (as seen in not one of the most convincing special effects sequences), and sunlight causes them to spontaneously combust (as seen in one very convincing sequence).

Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encouragement to fight back against bullies, here is the key to understanding the mystery of her devoted human companion Håkan. Eli has outsourced her physical needs to her selflessly devoted servant, essentially making him into a serial killer on her behalf. What motivates him to comply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? Whatever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.

After writing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excellent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robinson (part of a series also including Watchmen). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omitted from the novel to shape the story into a feature film. But Robinson approves; rather than leaving too much out, the movie fruitfully chooses a very different, more internal version of the story. Some tidbits gleaned from the article that may be of interest to anyone else that hasn’t read the book:

  • The book is a more graphic, conventional horror story.
  • Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sinister character in the book. Simply, he’s a drinking buddy, and Oskar’s otherwise decent father is apparently a mean drunk.
  • The title is derived from a Morrissey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They cannot do what you want them to do”
  • The Oskar of the novel is overweight, inspiring the bullies’ “piggy” taunts.
  • The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encountered him as an adult, and she trades some sexual favors for his services. Skimming the comments left below Robinson’s article, I see most other viewers interpreted the movie the same way I did.

Official movie site: www.lettherightoneinmovie.com

Must read: Let the Wrong Subtitles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the English translation lacking.

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Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky movie poster

 

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her (she’s a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher). Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.

In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her. Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.

happy_go_lucky_2.jpgYou’re driving me mad! See what I did there? No? Too easy?

Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.

Most narratives are usually structured around a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:

  1. Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
  2. Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
  3. Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).

happy_go_lucky_1.jpglatitude, longitude, positive attitude

While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.


Official movie site: happygoluckythemovie.com

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The Visitor

The Visitor movie poster

 

The Visitor is the excellent sophomore effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Station Agent (2003). The disgustingly talented McCarthy is also an accomplished actor, most recently appearing as a corporate espionage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and as a plagiarizing journalist in The Wire.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a political science professor at Connecticut College. The recent widower has regressed into a willfully lonely state, having lost his social graces and merely coasting in his responsibilities. In one small way at least, he does seem to be trying to grow a little as the movie begins. He runs through a number of piano instructors, futilely attempting to pick up the instrument at an age he is counseled to not even try. We later learn that this effort is facing backwards and grasping at the past; his late wife was a concert pianist.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

Walter reluctantly travels to New York City to present a paper he nominally cowrote. He finds that his neglected vacant city apartment has been illegally sublet by a man named Ivan (which comes across like a clue dropped for a future conflict – who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is never picked back up). His unexpected tenants are a young couple barely making a living in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. The conscientious Walter balks at throwing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djembe, which he takes to more immediately than he ever did the piano.

My one complaint is that the character of Tarek is too sketchily drawn. He’s an implausibly good and nice guy, without a hint of anything even remotely dark. Where are this very gregarious man’s other friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the outdoors market where she sells her handmade jewelry.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

The trio’s brief period of happiness is broken when Tarek is detained over a misunderstanding that incidentally reveals he and Zainab have both overstayed their visas. As Walter tries to aid his new friends, he finds himself plunged into the black hole of illegal immigration and Homeland Security. Tarek’s overprotective mother Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Walter becomes her ambassador as they shuttle back and forth to a detention center in Queens (a borough the movie portrays rather unflatteringly). If finding new friends and an invigorating creative outlet had not already plunged Walter back into life, a budding romance with Mouma completes his new slate.

The Visitor and The Station Agent both manage to just barely skate the razor edge of sentimental cheese. Keeping the story of Walter’s emotional rehabilitation from being too corny is the worry that Walter is maybe a bit too desperate to ingratiate himself. Mouna understandably does a doubletake when she learns how much he is sacrificing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the perpetually nervous Zainab suspected his intentions from the very beginning – his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a desperate hole in his life. Zainab’s distrust is the defensive stance of someone who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment – xenophobia dressed up as combating terrorism. It’s all the more affecting when she finally melts and opens up to Walter and Mouna.

Any one of these characters could be the titular Visitor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, at worst potential terrorists and at best temporary labor, no matter what they may have to offer. Walter has homes in Connecticut and New York but doesn’t really live in either one.


Official movie site: www.thevisitorfilm.com

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