Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bustin’ Into June With Sweet, Silly Poetry


Not a single snowflake was present — in fact, it was a sunny, 75 degree day — when my friend’s 6-year-old daughter, Catherine, suddenly sang, “Do you want to build a snowman?” I thought she’d momentarily taken leave of her senses, a swoon brought on by too many Skittles.

But then she swung into yet another number from the animated musical Frozen. This time, it was “Let It Go,” the rousing song by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Like millions of other kids, Catherine heard “Let It Go” only once — and had it down cold. Now she belts it out at will: When she’s sad and wants to feel happy, or when she’s happy and wants to stay that way.

The song that does the same thing for me is particularly apt in these final days of May: “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Just read the following words — and as you do, think of the special feel of a summer day, and of how that essence is so well captured by Oscar Hammerstein II’s sweet, funny rhymes: “June is bustin’ out all over / The feelin’ is gettin’ so intense, / That the young Virginia creepers / Have been huggin’ the bejeepers / Outa all the mornin’ glories on the fence!”

There is something wonderfully corny about this tribute to summer fecundity, something charming and cheerful and unsophisticated. We live in a dark and complicated world, a brutal one, and it’s a relief to be able to sing, “The saplin’s are bustin’ out with sap! / Love has found my brother, Junior, /And my sister’s even loonier! / And my Ma’s gettin’ kittenish with Pap!”

Poetry has a reputation for being pretentious and effete, as impossibly remote from the lives of ordinary people. But the truth is, we’re surrounded by poetry — it just happens to come to us most often these days in popular songs both old and new. Whether it’s the winter of “Let It Go” or the summer of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” such poetry syncopates all the seasons of our lives — and maybe makes the world a little less bleak. It’s hard, after all, to be too gloomy when you’re saying words like “creepers” and “bejeepers.”

Julia Keller’s next novel is called Summer of the Dead.

Punk Is Alive And Living In Three Swedish Girls


Mira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST!i i

hide captionMira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST!


Sofia Sabel/Magnolia Pictures

Mira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST!

Mira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST!

Sofia Sabel/Magnolia Pictures

Somewhere in liberal-minded but boring Sweden, two teenage girls begin a rebellion. If the premise of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! sounds familiar, that’s because it’s roughly identical to that of the writer-director’s charming 1998 debut, Show Me Love.

As well as being something of a retread, We Are the Best! is a thematic retreat from its predecessor, Mammoth, a well-meaning if contrived globalization parable. Artistically, however, the new film is a rebirth. Lightly plotted but abundantly felt, it embodies the youthful high spirits of its protagonists.

Stockholm 7th-graders and natural born dissidents, boyish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Mohawk-haired Klara (Mira Grosin) are drawn to punk rock — even though Klara’s older brother insists the movement is dead. (It’s 1982, and he now listens to Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen.) The girls decide to start a band on a whim, simply to aggravate the patronizing older boys whose heavy-metal group monopolizes the rehearsal room at the local youth center.

The facility has a drum kit and an electric bass; Klara appoints herself singer-bassist, leaving Bobo the drums. Klara just wrote a song that expands from the girls’ hatred of gym class to encompass such downers as nuclear power. But neither of them has any musical skill or knowledge.

This lack causes them to reevaluate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an 8th-grader who’s just as much the outsider as they are, but for a very different reason: She’s a staid churchgoer. Hedvig is also a skilled classical guitarist, and Bobo and Klara figure they can remake her with a haircut and exposure to an anti-God song by their favorite Swedish punk group.

Hedvig’s reeducation doesn’t work out exactly as planned, but she does join the band, and her skills prove useful. She answers Klara’s elementary musical questions (“So what are chords?”). More importantly, she shames the middle-aged hipsters who run the youth center when they smugly assume that none of the girls can play.

If Moodysson had chosen a negative rather than positive title, the movie might be called Adults Are the Worst. In addition to the youth-center guys, the girls must suffer such fools as Bobo’s divorced mother, who always seems to have a new boyfriend, and Klara’s father, who tries to jam with them on clarinet. Seen through 13-year-old eyes, most of the parents are hopelessly juvenile.

Yet a clash with Hedvig’s mother over her daughter’s hacked-off tresses demonstrates the movie’s generous nature and layered characterizations. Mom is upset by Hedvig’s new look, but the lesson she tries to teach is gently Christian. (The director himself is a believer who included religious visions in Lilya 4-Ever, his child-prostitution drama.)

Not all the trouble comes from grownups. Bobo and Klara clash over the latter’s bossiness, at one point jealous Bobo makes a play for the punker who might loosely be termed Klara’s boyfriend.

We Are the Best! was adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by the filmmaker’s spouse, Coco Moodysson. The director tells the story in a documentary-like style, using hand-held camera and jump cuts to convey adolescent energy, frustration and mutability.

Sometimes too faithful to teenage aimlessness, We Are the Best! can be shapeless and uneventful. But the movie often jolts to life, whether with outbursts of hostility or moments of gleeful female bonding. When they show the audience at a “Santa Rock” teen-center concert that punk’s not dead, Bobo, Klara and Hedvig pull together like the best troupers in all of dreary Sweden.

Ralph Ellison: No Longer The ‘Invisible Man’ 100 Years After His Birth


Ralph Ellison in 1957, four years after his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Ellison died in 1994.i i

hide captionRalph Ellison in 1957, four years after his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Ellison died in 1994.


James Whitmore/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Ralph Ellison in 1957, four years after his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Ellison died in 1994.

Ralph Ellison in 1957, four years after his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Ellison died in 1994.

James Whitmore/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

A monument outside 730 Riverside Drive in Harlem, N.Y. — writer Ralph Ellison’s longtime home — commemorates his life and his work. The marker, and many biographical sources, list his birth date as being 1914. But in fact, he was born a year earlier.

Still, events in Oklahoma City — his birthplace — and New York City, where he spent most of his life, are celebrating the centennial of his birth this year.

Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a searing exploration of race and identity that won the National Book Award the following year and was named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century by Time magazine and The Modern Library.

Among the commemorations, the Schomburg Center for Black Research, where the novelist did some of his research for Invisible Man, presented a day of readings from the novel.

Seventeen-year-old Nelaja Muhammad read a scene in which the narrator — searching to find his place in a hostile society — buys a baked yam from a corner stand, and the aroma releases a Proustian flood of memories.

“I stopped, as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back, back. At home we baked them in hot coals of the fireplace; had carried them cold to school for lunch, munching them secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid from our teacher behind the largest book, The World’s Biography.”

Muhammad, a high school junior who lives in Harlem, says even though the book was written more than 60 years ago, its narrator endures the same challenges as African-Americans today.

“If he wants other people to believe that he’s his own person, he has to believe in it himself,” she says. “So I kind of relate to that, because everyone goes through struggles. Everyone goes through hardships. And at times, people give up on themselves. But that one moment where you realize that you are worth it. You have to be able to realize that you’re not alone.”

‘A Course In History’

Ellison walked the streets of Harlem in 1938, interviewing people for a history of African-Americans for the Federal Writer’s Project. In 1983, Ellison said that experience was essential in shaping the writer he became.

“Some of those interviews affirmed the stories that I had heard from my elders as I grew up,” he said. “They gave me a much richer sense of what the culture was. I might say it was like taking a course in history.”

The history of African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century provides the backdrop for his novel. The unnamed narrator grows up in the rural South; attends a prestigious black university; then travels north to Harlem, where he is first embraced, and then rejected by leftist intellectuals.

The novel’s opening lines reflect themes that run throughout the story.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Invisible Man

Ellison’s treatment of race in the 1952 novel anticipated questions about the future of African-Americans that still resonate, says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg center and the great-grandson of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

“Whether we look at the invisibility of a Trayvon Martin, or the invisibility of a Magic Johnson in light of the most recent controversy over Don Sterling,” Muhammad says, “or even the ways in which the contemporary art world for black visual artists turn on whether they have a responsibility to depict blackness through traditional narratives — are all themes that Ralph Ellison brought to his work.”

Writing Out Of Experience

Ellison drew on his own struggles to create Invisible Man. He was born in Oklahoma City to Lewis and Ida Ellison, who named him Ralph Waldo Ellison after the 19th century American writer Emerson.

His father died at the age of 39 after an accident delivering ice to a grocery store. “The death of his father when he was 3 was the decisive event of his earlier life because it plunged his family into poverty,” says Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad. “And so he — although he had influential upstanding friends and patrons in his youth, he really was always aware that he … had virtually nothing and was dependent on others.”

Rampersad says Ellison spent the rest of his life trying to redress his impoverished beginnings. He became something of a Renaissance man — turning to sculpture, photography and music. He studied the cornet and then trumpet and piano.

In 1933, he attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, intent on becoming a composer. Three years later he traveled to New York to earn money to pay his tuition. There he met writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

Rampersad says Ellison started late as a writer: “He was 22 or so before Richard Wright turned to him one day and said, ‘Why don’t you try a short story?’ And he worked very hard over a period of seven years to produce a masterpiece. And he succeeded.”

Literature Is Integrated

Invisible Man was hailed as a landmark. But in 1983, Ellison said he wasn’t writing only about the black experience in the novel.

“When I was a kid, I read the English novels. I read Russian translations and so on. And always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero,” Ellison said. “Literature is integrated. And I’m not just talking about color, race. I’m talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience.”

The novel ends this way:

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

After Invisible Man, Ellison spent the rest of his life working on a second novel. When he died from pancreatic cancer in 1994, he left behind 1,600 pages of an unfinished manuscript, which was eventually published under the title Juneteenth.

James McAvoy As A Creep? In ‘Filth,’ The Anti-Typecasting Works


Filth is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh — who also wrote the profane, drug-fueled epic Trainspotting. James McAvoy plays Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson — a bipolar, bigoted, junkie cop — with enough foul-mouthed sleaze to be thoroughly off-putting.

hide captionFilth is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh — who also wrote the profane, drug-fueled epic Trainspotting. James McAvoy plays Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson — a bipolar, bigoted, junkie cop — with enough foul-mouthed sleaze to be thoroughly off-putting.


Neil Davidson/Magnolia Pictures

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) swaggers down the street at the start of Filth swiping balloons from children, ogling their mothers, flipping off foreigners and smirking as he ticks down a list of what makes Scotland a place where he feels he can be cock-of-the-walk.

“This nation brought the world television, the steam engine, golf, whiskey, penicillin and, of course, the deep-fried Mars bar,” he snorts. “We’re such a uniquely successful race.”

He’s the kind of soulless, racist, drug-and-alcohol-addled operator you might call the police to protect you from. Except he is the police — a homicide detective who’s angling for a promotion to detective inspector, convinced that this will bring his wife back, even as he’s whoring around with the wives of his colleagues.

As he angles for that promotion, of course, Robertson’s got little time for actual police business. There’s so much undercutting of his competition to do, whether he’s getting a teetotaler drunk, or hiring someone to make a fastidious colleague seem gay, or embarrassing a guy who feels sexually inadequate by suggesting, at an office party, a full-frontal variation on that photocopy-your-butt prank.

McAvoy, looking puffy, eyes perpetually glazed, plays this creep with enough foul-mouthed sleaze to be thoroughly off-putting. I had a hard time finding dialogue to quote that wouldn’t have to be bleeped in the radio version of this piece, and language is, in many senses, the least of the film’s transgressions. Filth is based on a novel by Irvine Welsh — who also wrote the profane, drug-fueled epic Trainspotting — and though this story’s been sweetened a bit for the screen, it sometimes feels equally unsavory.

Other times, it just seems as if writer/director Jon S. Baird is playing around with moviemaking jokes — say, by casting Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis (who played dancer Billy Elliott and his dad, respectively, 13 years ago) as two of the cops Robertson is hell-bent on sabotaging; or by staging some Terry Gilliam-style hallucinations featuring animal masks and a pill-pushing, Christmas-caroling Jim Broadbent.

As intriguing as it is to watch McAvoy getting uncharacteristically down and dirty — and he’s almost alarmingly good at it — the film gets emotionally squishy as it heads into its final reel, with perhaps a few more behavior-explaining revelations than it really needs. But credit the filmmakers with descending persuasively into the swampy squalor of a diseased mind. If you’re in the mood to go there with them, Filth offers an indecently bracing wallow.

Richard III: Not The Hunchback We Thought He Was?


King Richard III, seen here portrayed by actor Paul Daneman in 1962, has often been described as a hunchback. A new study of his skeleton seeks to set the record straight about the monarch's condition.i i

hide captionKing Richard III, seen here portrayed by actor Paul Daneman in 1962, has often been described as a hunchback. A new study of his skeleton seeks to set the record straight about the monarch’s condition.


John Franks/Getty Images

King Richard III, seen here portrayed by actor Paul Daneman in 1962, has often been described as a hunchback. A new study of his skeleton seeks to set the record straight about the monarch's condition.

King Richard III, seen here portrayed by actor Paul Daneman in 1962, has often been described as a hunchback. A new study of his skeleton seeks to set the record straight about the monarch’s condition.

John Franks/Getty Images

The physical condition of England’s King Richard III has been a subject of debate for centuries. Now scientists say 3-D skeletal modeling shows the monarch who lived 500 years ago had a common form of scoliosis and that he’s been a victim of spin on a historic scale.

The new findings cast a different light on the monarch Shakespeare described as a “poisonous bunch-backed toad.” Killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the Richard’s remains were verified by DNA tests last year after they were found under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Researchers wrote about “one of history’s most famous spinal columns” in The Lancet Friday, saying their 3-D visualization “reveals how the king’s spine had a curve to the right, but also a degree of twisting, resulting in a ‘spiral’ shape.” They say Richard had a “well-balanced curve” that might not have been plainly visible.

The study of Richard’s skeleton also found no sign that he limped or had a withered arm, ailments that have also been assigned to him.

From London, NPR’s Larry Miller reports for our Newscast unit:

“King Richard’s condition was scoliosis, where the spine curves to the side. The analysis suggests only a slight effect on his appearance and his movement would not have been limited.

“Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge co-authored the report. He told the Lancet medical journal Richard was a victim — but of political spin:

” ‘Richard would’ve had a much better function and a much better life than people may have anticipated merely relying on written sources from after Richard’s death written by the Tudors rather than the Plantagenets, who had a significant reason to try and portray Richard III as a deformed monster.’

Richard was the last monarch of England’s Plantagenet dynasty. Last week, officials announced a plan to rebury his remains in Leicester.

The research team that has been working with Richard’s remains has posted a video about their work:

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Recycling Franchises And Judging Books By Their Covers


A drawing of two clinking martini glasses.


NPR

With Glen Weldon tweeting from the various paradises of Barcelona, this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour calls on the services of two familiar Code Switch pals — Kat Chow and Gene Demby — to discuss the eternal recycling of unlikely pop-culture franchises. We use the July return of Sailor Moon as an excuse to talk about everything from Girl Meets World to Hocus Pocus, George of the Jungle, Newsies, Transformers and more.

Then it’s on to the topic of covers — not cover songs, mind you, but actual cover art. In music, that means lamenting the endless shrinkage of album covers from mural-sized fold-out vinyl sleeves to the minuscule avatars we see today. For books, we dig a bit deeper, discussing clichés, coding, color schemes, Kindles and more. Along the way, that brings talk of books about Africa, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the books of Rainbow Rowell, Chip Kidd‘s designs, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

And, as always, we close with what’s making us happy. I sing the praises of a new way to watch Tiny Desk Concerts, while Kat is happy about the response to an absurdly high-end product. Gene joins me in celebrating sports, though our opinions vary on his favored icon. And Linda offers up a grab bag, from her growing nephews to yelling-intensive TV to a Mad Men moment.

And, of course, she reminds you of what every man, woman and child in America should know by now: We’re having another Pop Culture Happy Hour live show, this time to celebrate Episode No. 200! It’s the evening of June 24 at NPR HQ, and tickets go on sale at noon ET on June 2. Come join us, won’t you?

Until then, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: Linda, me, Kat, Gene, producer Jessica, producers Nick and Lauren, and our dear friend Mike.

‘Maleficent’ Tells The Fairy Tale From The Wicked One’s Perspective


Maleficent rehabilitates the most maligned figure in the fairy tale canon.i i

hide captionMaleficent rehabilitates the most maligned figure in the fairy tale canon.


Frank Connor/Disney

Maleficent rehabilitates the most maligned figure in the fairy tale canon.

Maleficent rehabilitates the most maligned figure in the fairy tale canon.

Frank Connor/Disney

Of all Disney heroines Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty, was the least inspiring. Not her fault: how much spark can you wring from a Forever Nap, especially one that’s cut off by a kiss from a prince named after the Duke of Edinburgh?

Which may be why my 16-year-old, who’s going through one of those inexplicable regressions into Disney toddler fare that seem to hit girls in their teens and beyond, made it through all of five minutes of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, then went back to binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But my girl really grooved to Maleficent and, in a rare confluence of inter-generational pop taste, so did I. And after all, what’s not to like when the spotlight shifts to the (allegedly) wicked fairy, as channeled through the bone structure of Angelina Jolie?

I say allegedly because Maleficent, capably directed by Robert Stromberg from a sharp script by Linda Woolverton (who also wrote Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) sets out to explain why the chilly lady turned into such a hater. That’s a very American question: The vibrantly pre-Freudian Brothers Grimm, who wrote the 1812 Briar Rose story that built on Charles Perrault’s 1697 original tale, regarded both evil and good as immutable character traits that needed no explanation. The battle between them was the story.

Maleficent muddies those waters in ways that may upset moviegoers looking for visceral action, though it surely doesn’t lack for battle scenes. At its core the film wants us rooting for the bad fairy, and, to push things a little further, to suggest that humans make much more natural evildoers than their ethereal neighbors, especially when rendered in 3D.

We meet young Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy, then Ella Purnell), parentless but frolicking happily in The Moors, a fairyland landscape more out of Maurice Sendak than the happiest place on Earth. No tweety-birds hopping around this live-action paradise — only gnarly tree-monsters and wonderful toad-goblins, as devoted to their de facto queen as they are terrified of her anger. And why not? Maleficent has two fancy big horns and a massive wing-span that helps her repel invaders from the all too human monarchy next door.

The Moors, by contrast, is a democracy that needs no royalty because it functions on mutual trust. Enter Stefan (Sharlto Copley, and someone tell me please, why is it that so many Disney characters speak Glaswegian these days?), a rank careerist who, under cover of sweet nothings, brutally reduces poor Maleficent’s powers, then rushed back home to lobby for leadership.

Thus is born Maleficent the Avenger, now fully grown and ready to crash the christening party of Stefan’s baby daughter, Aurora. You may think you know the rest, but watch for all manner of interesting twists, beginning with Angelina Jolie, who even in jutting cheekbones, Spock ears and ruby-red lips set off by the usual deathly pallor, is surely the most quietly inscrutable wicked fairy to walk this digital Earth.

It hardly matters that Jolie’s accent rambles a bit between pungent Cockney and plummy Buckingham Palace. She’s a Presence who mostly strides around, green eyes a-glitter, doing magic things with her long fingers like sending humans flying, turning creatures into other creatures the better to do battle, and putting dweeby visiting princes to sleep as needed.

No wonder Aurora, on the cusp of 16 and played as a high-spirited enthusiast by the captivating Elle Fanning, is more impressed by Maleficent than she is by the three incompetent good fairies (wittily played by Juno Temple and two actresses better known for playing women of woe in Mike Leigh movies) who can’t seem to focus on caring for their young charge.

No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Maleficent doesn’t just rehabilitate the most maligned figure in the fairy tale canon and place brackets around received notions of naughty and nice. More daringly, the movie places a giant question mark around who in all of Fairyland make the mommies dearest, or even the fairest lovers of all.

We are cautioned not to take this the wrong way — but blink and you might miss Prince-y (Brenton Thwaites) hovering redundantly over the finale. When you stop to think about the implications of who in this innovative re-telling gets to arouse the damsel from her truncated snooze, Uncle Walt must surely be shouting “cut!” from the grave.

‘Night Moves’ Leaves Too Much In The Dark


In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.i i

hide captionIn Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.


Cinedigm

In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

Cinedigm

The natural world has never been the most hospitable place for Kelly Reichardt’s characters. In Meek’s Cutoff, a group of 19th century settlers nearly lose their lives while traveling west across the scorching Oregon desert. In Wendy and Lucy, when Wendy is forced to sleep in the woods after her car breaks down on the way to Alaska, she wakes up in the middle of the night to a deranged man talking to himself right by her side.

Reichardt’s characters have also tended to be defined by their rootlessness, whether it’s the pioneers or Wendy searching for new homes across the country, the runaway lovers in River of Grass fleeing past lives in Florida, or nomadic Kurt aimlessly wandering the streets of Portland at the end of Old Joy.

So it ought to be immediately suspicious that Night Moves, Reichardt’s ultimately unsatisfying new film, portrays nature at first as a calm refuge and emphasizes the peaceful homes that its characters inhabit. Reichardt keenly observes these spaces — the spa that Dena (Dakota Fanning) works at, the idyllic farm where Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) lives — to the point that when Josh and Dena purchase a boat together, Reichardt has Josh enter the seller’s home and, in a quick pan around his dining room and living room, lets us briefly relish in the comfort of his suburban life.

It’s all very quiet, very still, a standard mood for Reichardt that in this case slowly turns to dread as Dena, Josh and a third partner in crime, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), set in motion a plan to load Josh and Dena’s boat with explosives and blow up a nearby dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

Reichardt, working with her regular screenwriting partner Jonathan Raymond, keeps us at a distance from the trio. That’s true both literally — we watch many parts of their plan unfold through long shots, with unaware bystanders appearing in the foreground increasingly as the event nears — and morally. Night Moves doesn’t doubt the basic rationale behind the trio’s activism (this isn’t a surreptitious case against environmentalism), but it’s clearly skeptical about this particular cast of characters, whose motives turn out to diverge significantly or, in Josh’s case, be nearly impossible to discern. So much is clear when Harmon reacts strongly to Dena’s doomsday facts about the world’s declining fish population. “Who says?” he asks, and then scoffs at her reply: “Yeah, well, maybe science is wrong.”

More On Kelly Reichardt

Ultimately, Night Moves is not overtly preoccupied with the future of the planet or the species. That’s a topic too grandiose for Reichardt, who has always preferred to address politics through a focus on individuals and here zones in on a group of people who, while combating an urgent environmental crisis, may have become dangerously estranged from their society, isolated from the broader culture. Their homes and workplaces seem like sanctuaries to begin with, but later, in retrospect, come to feel like bubbles. And when Sean (Kai Lennox), the paternal, hardworking owner of Josh’s farm, denounces the dam bombing as “theater,” the underlying message is that there’s more than one way to do right by the environment but only a few by which to do right by your fellow humans.

Reichardt is one of the most talented, thoughtful American directors working today. But having watched Night Moves twice now — the first time when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year — it remains her only film that has left me cold, even as I can’t seem to quite shake it. The reason, largely, is Josh, the least personable character that Reichardt and Raymond have ever crafted, particularly as played by a taciturn Eisenberg. After carrying out their plot, Josh, Dena and Harmon, never particularly united in the first place, separate. Each is left alone with their own consciences, their own moral compasses, and the audience is increasingly left alone with Josh, whose suspicious, gloomy expression hardly changes throughout and who, to the end, remains unknowable.

This impenetrability perhaps is meant to position Josh as a lost soul fighting for a lost planet. But in the film’s final third, the inscrutability feels more like a miscalculation through overcompensation: In its aim to tamp down Eisenberg’s neuroticism and have him offer slow drips of revelation rather than bursts of loquacious energy, Night Moves keeps too much hidden from view. The more Josh and the film retreat from the group, the more it asks pivotal questions about ethics, about how exactly one ought to fight for a more hospitable world, both politically and environmentally. In Josh’s face, however, we find little insight and too many blank stares.

MacFarlane’s ‘Million Ways To Die In The West’ Is An Assault Of Its Own


Seth MacFarlane, who wrote and directed A Million Ways to Die in the West, stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson).i i

hide captionSeth MacFarlane, who wrote and directed A Million Ways to Die in the West, stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson).


Universal Pictures

Seth MacFarlane, who wrote and directed A Million Ways to Die in the West, stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson).

Seth MacFarlane, who wrote and directed A Million Ways to Die in the West, stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson).

Universal Pictures

There’s a scene in Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom Family Guy in which the precocious baby Stewie attempts to get his mom’s attention through a solid 30 seconds of just repeating her name or variations on the word “mom.” That’s the whole joke: A kid just keeps repeating essentially the same word for 30 seconds until he wears her down, and then he doesn’t have anything more to say than “hi” once he finally gets her attention.

That’s MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West in a nutshell: A constant assault of repetitive jokes designed to wear the viewer down, without much to say in the end.

What’s frustrating about MacFarlane — who writes, directs and stars in this Western about Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer who inadvertently falls in love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a dangerous outlaw (Liam Neeson) — is that sometimes, maybe even as much as half the time, he actually is legitimately funny. There are subtle, smart jokes scattered throughout the film, but they tend to get drowned by the bleating volume of lazy jokes about bodily functions, racial and gender stereotypes and learning-disabled sheep. The problem isn’t that the jokes are crass; they’re just not that funny.

MacFarlane’s obvious touchstone here is another Western comedy that was both crass and smartly provocative, Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles. Like Brooks, MacFarlane attempts to hit satirical hot buttons, making jokes at the expense of racists and the closed-minded, and employing strategic anachronisms and fourth-wall breaking to help make points about the ridiculousness of old-fashioned attitudes.

It’s odd to point to Brooks as a model of restraint, but Blazing Saddles is a model of Bergmanesque austerity in comparison to A Million Ways to Die. Where Brooks made a funny point about bean-sparked frontier flatulence in one brief and memorable scene, MacFarlane can’t let five minutes go by without a fart joke. Poor Neil Patrick Harris — playing the foppish owner of a mustache-accessory store who steals Albert’s girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) — has to play a seemingly endless scene of violent diarrhea in the middle of a street, with a particularly unnecessary payoff at the end. Bridesmaids did nearly the same thing, but MacFarlane is determined to up the ante on that scene in every respect except the humor.

Occasionally, quietly, MacFarlane plays the thoughtful provocateur rather than the carnival huckster, and it comes down to the old storytelling rule of showing rather than telling. Albert sitting at a table self-consciously telling a couple of friends a bunch of terrible ways the West can kill you, like a second-rate stand-up comic? Not so funny. But when his character shows blithe insensitivity, by accepting the government’s propaganda about Native American relations, it’s a funnier way of poking at 19th century racial attitudes than the moments when Albert just comes out and tells us what we’re supposed to be getting out of a scene.

All creative projects are about choice, and more than anything else, A Million Ways to Die in the West comes off as an abdication of creative choice. There’s no sign of a filter here, no indication that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild ever looked at a gag and thought, “You know, this one isn’t good enough.” Instead, we get everything that crossed their minds.

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As a result, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long. There are a lot of repeated jokes that just start to feel stale: the sixth joke about the prostitute played by Sarah Silverman being called away from her virginal boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) to have loud sex within earshot isn’t any funnier than the first. But the lack of editing also means that they can’t resist trying to hit every Western trope they can. Just when the movie seems like it should be about to end, we get an extended sequence with Indians and a mescaline-induced vision quest that just drags the already choppy pacing of the film off a hallucinogenic cliff.

The other choice that might have benefited the movie is a different lead. MacFarlane may have a facility for playing voice characters, but when he’s on screen himself, he just seems like a version of the same smirking presence that hosted the Oscars, in a cowboy hat instead of a tux. With MacFarlane on screen as a minor variation of his real-life persona, it’s that much harder to get away from the feeling that he’s playing the role of Stewie here, spending two hours tapping us on the shoulder, constantly asking, “Is this funny? Is this funny? What about this? Is this funny?”

‘Night Moves’ Leaves Too Much In The Dark


In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.i i

hide captionIn Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.


Cinedigm

In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

In Night Moves, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and two other partners in crime (played by Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plot to load a boat with explosives and blow up a dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

Cinedigm

The natural world has never been the most hospitable place for Kelly Reichardt’s characters. In Meek’s Cutoff, a group of 19th century settlers nearly lose their lives while traveling west across the scorching Oregon desert. In Wendy and Lucy, when Wendy is forced to sleep in the woods after her car breaks down on the way to Alaska, she wakes up in the middle of the night to a deranged man talking to himself right by her side.

Reichardt’s characters have also tended to be defined by their rootlessness, whether it’s the pioneers or Wendy searching for new homes across the country, the runaway lovers in River of Grass fleeing past lives in Florida, or nomadic Kurt aimlessly wandering the streets of Portland at the end of Old Joy.

So it ought to be immediately suspicious that Night Moves, Reichardt’s ultimately unsatisfying new film, portrays nature at first as a calm refuge and emphasizes the peaceful homes that its characters inhabit. Reichardt keenly observes these spaces — the spa that Dena (Dakota Fanning) works at, the idyllic farm where Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) lives — to the point that when Josh and Dena purchase a boat together, Reichardt has Josh enter the seller’s home and, in a quick pan around his dining room and living room, lets us briefly relish in the comfort of his suburban life.

It’s all very quiet, very still, a standard mood for Reichardt that in this case slowly turns to dread as Dena, Josh and a third partner in crime, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), set in motion a plan to load Josh and Dena’s boat with explosives and blow up a nearby dam in an act of consciousness-raising eco-terrorism.

Reichardt, working with her regular screenwriting partner Jonathan Raymond, keeps us at a distance from the trio. That’s true both literally — we watch many parts of their plan unfold through long shots, with unaware bystanders appearing in the foreground increasingly as the event nears — and morally. Night Moves doesn’t doubt the basic rationale behind the trio’s activism (this isn’t a surreptitious case against environmentalism), but it’s clearly skeptical about this particular cast of characters, whose motives turn out to diverge significantly or, in Josh’s case, be nearly impossible to discern. So much is clear when Harmon reacts strongly to Dena’s doomsday facts about the world’s declining fish population. “Who says?” he asks, and then scoffs at her reply: “Yeah, well, maybe science is wrong.”

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Ultimately, Night Moves is not overtly preoccupied with the future of the planet or the species. That’s a topic too grandiose for Reichardt, who has always preferred to address politics through a focus on individuals and here zones in on a group of people who, while combating an urgent environmental crisis, may have become dangerously estranged from their society, isolated from the broader culture. Their homes and workplaces seem like sanctuaries to begin with, but later, in retrospect, come to feel like bubbles. And when Sean (Kai Lennox), the paternal, hardworking owner of Josh’s farm, denounces the dam bombing as “theater,” the underlying message is that there’s more than one way to do right by the environment but only a few by which to do right by your fellow humans.

Reichardt is one of the most talented, thoughtful American directors working today. But having watched Night Moves twice now — the first time when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year — it remains her only film that has left me cold, even as I can’t seem to quite shake it. The reason, largely, is Josh, the least personable character that Reichardt and Raymond have ever crafted, particularly as played by a taciturn Eisenberg. After carrying out their plot, Josh, Dena and Harmon, never particularly united in the first place, separate. Each is left alone with their own consciences, their own moral compasses, and the audience is increasingly left alone with Josh, whose suspicious, gloomy expression hardly changes throughout and who, to the end, remains unknowable.

This impenetrability perhaps is meant to position Josh as a lost soul fighting for a lost planet. But in the film’s final third, the inscrutability feels more like a miscalculation through overcompensation: In its aim to tamp down Eisenberg’s neuroticism and have him offer slow drips of revelation rather than bursts of loquacious energy, Night Moves keeps too much hidden from view. The more Josh and the film retreat from the group, the more it asks pivotal questions about ethics, about how exactly one ought to fight for a more hospitable world, both politically and environmentally. In Josh’s face, however, we find little insight and too many blank stares.