Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reviews of "TRUE GRIT" and "SOMEWHERE"

Two Holiday releases reviewed.

There are times when those gifts under the tree look a lot more exciting than they turn out to be once unwrapped. This season, we have two films that looked amazing in their gift paper, and once viewed became varying degrees of disappointment. I’ll start with the film that was like getting a Mexican Strat when you thought it was going to be a Les Paul. Then I’ll follow with the cashmere sweater that turned out to be socks.


As my friend Michael said, “even mediocre Coen Brothers is 10 times better than the other garbage getting released.” This is the case for “True Grit”, a film I couldn’t wait to see. It IS better than most of the films I have seen in the theaters lately, but it’s really not going to be considered one of the Coen’s greatest.

At the center of the film is unknown Hailee Steinfeld, who is in every scene of the film. Her charcter, Maddie Ross is expertly drawn, and her performance is at times wholly engrossing and believeable, and at other times straight out amateurish. There are scenes in which Maddie’s obstinacy and determination are perfectly captured, and then moments when Ms. Steinfeld rushes the dialogue so that it sounds like a high school drama production. The other performances are all letter perfect, including a drawling Jeff Bridges’ very different take on Rooster Cogburn, Josh Brolin’s dunce of a bad guy in Tom Cheney, and particularly effective is Matt Damon’s foppish but somewhat heroic Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf.

Roger Deakins’ camera is again the main star of this film; landscapes change, but the picture remains exquisite regardless—he is Edward Weston with an Arriflex. The Coen’s have also taken great pains to recreate the florid dialogue and speech mannerisms of the era. Pacing, sets, costumes and cutting are all flawless. The brothers’ attention to detail is something we are all spoiled by and accustomed to.

Yet the film itself is a good old-fashioned oater, melodramatic and linear. Whereas “No Country for Old Men” reinvented the “drug deal gone wrong” sub-genre, with an unforgettable villain, and violence that decreases in graphic representation as the film evolves, “True Grit” stays unerringly true to the Western, with the simple twist that the toughest guy out there is a 14 year old girl.


I am a big fan of “Lost In Translation”, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s second feature, a film that had an original tone, and treated the “outsider” theme with a gentle yet comic treatment. The strength of the movie was in Bill Murray’s rare, understated performance, and Ms. Coppola’s juxtaposition of Murray’s calm persona and the hyper world of modern day Tokyo. Unfortunately everything that was so successful in that film, fails miserably in her newest release, “Somewhere”.

The opening alone is worth discussing. A static camera watches about 1/8th of a deserted racing car loop, as a black Ferrari tears around, time and again. You hear the sound, but you only see a small part of the racing. This goes on for what seems like the better part of 10 minutes. It’s surely much shorter than that, but it FEELS much longer. This is the overall story-telling method employed for the entire film. Scenes that you are used to taking a certain time to run, take about twice as long. Ms. Coppola is telling the audience, “This is my chosen form of communication today. Deal with it.”

The story is of an actor (Stephen Dorff) at the height of his fame, who lives at a hotel for the rich and famous, drinks, screws and does drugs, virtually wasting his gifts and money in an aimless life-style. His estranged wife dumps their daughter into his life, and he must re-examine his way of being. THERE. That’s it. There is no funny dialogue, no clever plot device to help the two meld, basically nothing but the two characters doing nothing of interest. Oh yes, and tons of footage that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, rendering the film about 25 minutes long. If she had used this method while making “Lost In Translation”, the karaoke scene would have had each song performed in it’s entirety, lasting about an hour.

In one particularly enraging scene, the static camera focuses on our “hero”, Johnny Marco, sitting on a couch, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Nothing happens but that. 5 minutes of that. If you were in the room, you might have broken up the tedium with, “Hey Johnny, how about those Dodgers?” It’s like Ms. Coppola saw a bunch of Ozu films, and said, “I’d like to make a movie like that, only with uninteresting characters”. When Marco and his daughter, Cleo (played realistically by Elle Fanning) fly to Milan for a promotional appearance, MY daughter turned to me and whispered, “I’m surprised they didn’t just show them sitting on the plane for 5 minutes”.

There are occasional paeans to great filmmakers; a strange woman removes her bikini top for Johnny from a nearby terrace, looking more grotesque than appealing—it is an unmistakable Fellini reference. The “nothing happens” of Antonioni is also part of the film’s fabric. If this is neo-neo-realism, I want no part of it.

Mr. Dorff’s performance is one-note, but that is not his fault. Ms. Coppola dominates this film as if she were training the camera on herself throughout. The desired effect of the slug-like pacing is to force the audience to go inside the heads of the characters. This never happens. Most of the time you are thinking to yourself, “when will this scene/movie be over so I can have something stimulating happen, or listen to someone say something of interest”, none of which goes on in this movie.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA


On a frigid night in early December, one of the great singer/songwriters of American music played a show featuring the entire contents of her first 2 LP’s. For people of a certain age, recordings are meant to be heard this way; in their entirety. Actually, I had these records on cassette, and mostly listened to them on my Walkman while on tour. The second LP, “Pirates” holds a particular place in my personal pantheon. It was one of the few pop records of which I never grew tired. Every listen seemed to offer a new revelation.

Ms. Jones’ influence on pop culture should not be understated. Her look, her drawly singing style, her edgy lyrics and soulful grooves permeated hipster society in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. Street urchin chic, is how I classified it. Musically, she is the offspring of Laura Nyro and Bruce Springsteen, but she is nonetheless her own creation.

The show began with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love”, a clever turn on the grown up tom-boy who hangs with the guys but never gets one. Ms. Jones’ vocals still have the cutting high belt that is her signature, and in this song her unintelligible diction was at it’s most cryptic. The band was nice and groovy right from the start. Remarkable too was the restrained sound level; no earplugs were needed. The material on Rickie Lee’s first LP is much less challenging than “Pirates”, and the band seemed to have an easier time with it. Missing however, were the amazing high harmony parts mostly sung by Ms. Jones on the recordings. Probably not in the financial cards, but a couple of female backup singers would have really helped.

Some of the highlights from the first half of the show were “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, “Coolsville”, which featured the unmistakable cat wail of guitar and vocals, “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on which the band really glowed, and “Company”, a great jazz ballad. Ms. Jones preceded the performance of this song with a disclaimer, mostly about her inability to play along with it. Curiously , she seemed to struggle much more with the vocals on this complex piece. Throughout the show she spent a lot of energy on tempo changing, much to the band’s chagrin. It seemed like someone who has spent a lot of time touring solo, and expecting the band to follow her every whim. During the rubato bridge of “Weasel and The White Boys Cool”, you could tell the band was at sea trying to follow her quixotic phrasing.

As she embarked on “Pirates”, it seemed she was getting a little crabby. After a moving rendition of “We Belong Together”, her most Springsteen-ish work, Ms. Jones berated the audience for being unresponsive, which was far from the truth. “Lackadaisical” was the term used, and it worked, the crowd ratcheted up their response from thereon out. The weakest performance of the night was “Living it Up”, and with good reason. It is a very difficult piece, with multiple groove changes. The original recording is miraculous, I doubt if any live version could be its equal. Rickie Lee grew somewhat angered at the band at this point. I believe “cranky” was the word that sprung to mind. Before a stirring version of what she referred to as the saddest of all songs, "Skeletons", Ms. Jones admitted that she got a bit testy at the piano, blaming it on acid flashbacks and indiscretions of her youth. It seemed a bit like an apology. After "Skeletons", she adjusted the song order to make it more show-like; rather than end with downers like the jazzy but dark "Traces of the Western Slopes" and the quietly reflective "The Returns", Ms. Jones omitted the latter altogether, placing the crowd-pleasing "Woody and Dutch" at the end of the show, and smartly so. The song that launched a hundred Pepsi and McDonald's ads, worked it's magic with the audience, and their rousing response elicited what Ms. Jones said was their first encore of the tour, which turned out to be "Satellites" from the album Flying Cowboys.

The fear that the years, which have been so unkind to many of her generation, would have undone Rickie Lee Jones' sound, style and ability to evoke powerful emotions were quite unfounded. This 2-sider show was immensely moving and entertaining, and Ms. Jones proves why she is still a unique talent, and a treasure of American music.