The Artist: A Tarantino Movie For Silent Film Buffs

The Artist revealed that silent movies were kind of boring. Sure, there are nice touches: It’s charming, formally witty from time to time, and fits its old-movie nostalgia perfectly into a contemporary three-act template. But mostly it reminded me how little I actually care for the silent era, with its picture-book presentation and emphasis on broad vaudevillian physicality. Watching the movie was like listening to some enthusiastic professor lecture me about something he loves — that I just can’t bring myself to care about at all.
In a weird way, though, it also helped me understand why some people don’t really like Quentin Tarantino. Here’s why: I love 20th century genre trash — the good stuff, obviously, but even a lot of the bad stuff too. It’s the stuff I was raised on, the stuff that’s a part of me. Tarantino is probably the best popular appreciator of 20th century trash making movies today — and to varying degrees, all of his films reflect this. Which is why people who don’t care for 20th century trash frequently don’t respond well to his films.
I feel the same way about The Artist. It’s a Tarantino movie for silent film buffs — a clever exercise in appreciation and celebration. But I just don’t care enough to enjoy the revelry.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Irritating

Here’s my review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for The Washington Times:

It almost doesn’t matter whether “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a good movie or a bad one. It’s a 9/11 movie, so how one reacts will inevitably hinge to some extent on individual feelings about the terrorist attacks that stunned and shocked Americans a decade ago.

As it happens, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is not a good movie, despite some strong performances. Instead, it’s something of an ungainly misfire - an unfortunate, occasionally enraging, mix of Hollywood treacle and twee Brooklyn literary gimmickry.

Like the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer it’s based on, the movie follows the adventures of jarringly precocious but emotionally disengaged 9-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), whose father,Thomas (Tom Hanks), died in the attack on the World Trade Center. A child with a fanciful imagination and a penchant for spitting out not-so-subtly relevant factoids, Oskar spends most of the movie searching the whole of New York for the lock that fits a mysterious key found in his father’s closet. His hope is that he’ll find something to help him connect with his father one more time - and, in the process, finally come to grips with the death of his dad.

The problem is that Oskar is less a fully developed character than an obvious and cringe-worthy stand-in for America - a-too-smart-for-his-own-good kid who knows a million little things but doesn’t have the maturity or emotional bandwidth to understand the one big thing that matters. His quest, with its lonely key and missing lock, is an equally blunt metaphor for America’s collective search for meaning in the aftermath of 9/11. 

Jon Huntsman is Dropping Out of the GOP Primary Race

He might have had a chance if he hadn’t turned his campaign over to a guy whose idea of a good campaign was, “Hey, people who might vote for me: Fuck you.” 

I Have Seen the Future…

…and it is a subscription to beef jerky

Homeland, Season One: False Alarm

Showtime’s Homeland might best be described as a character-driven existential technothriller. And because it’s part thriller, I’m willing to tolerate a certain level of implausibility — characters coming across exactly the right snippet of information (the order number on this heavily redacted document tells us there was a drone strike!) or being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, a formerly captive Marine who is both so unstable that he beats up his best friend for having an affair with his wife yet also manages to perfectly execute a months-long deception about the fact that he is both a converted Muslim and a terrorist, easy street parking in downtown Washington and the existence of high-rise apartment buildings in Foggy Bottom. 

I can tolerate all these things, some easier than others. But because the show is fundamentally character driven, it loses me when it uses those implausibilities to avoid testing its characters’ most fundamental beliefs — or tests them, and then cries false alarm.

The season one finale was all false alarm. Boiled down, the entire season was devoted to two big questions about its Marine-turned-maybe-terrorist protagonist, Nicholas Brody: Is he or isn’t he (a terrorist)? And will he or won’t he (carry out a major attack)? 

Over the course of the season, we learn that Brody is indeed a converted terrorist, and that he’s willing to carry out a suicide attack on the Vice President and a host of Defense Department bigwigs who’re locked inside a secure location after a sniper attack. He flicks the switch on his suicide vest, but there’s a wire loose. He repairs it, and then, in one of those just-go-with-it thriller implausibilities, his daughter manages to get a call through via a Secret Service agent at the secure location. His suicide vest is ready to go, but with his daughter on the line, he can’t flip the switch a second time. 

The problem isn’t that I wanted to see him die, or that the show’s writers didn’t deliver a sufficiently violent shocker in the season finale. It’s that they set up the whole season as an exploration of Brody’s character — the upstanding Marine who, after eight years of imprisonment overseas, returns as a secret terrorist — and a test of his most fundamental beliefs: Will he die for the cause he’s adopted? But after testing those beliefs, they didn’t make him live with the consequences — didn’t make him truly commit.

Yes, he pulled the trigger. Once. But on the second try, under pressure from his daughter, he didn’t. This isn’t a resolution; it’s a restatement of the original question. Will he or won’t he? Well, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. It’s a cop out. 

The best drama doesn’t just force its characters to make hard choices; it makes those characters live (or die) with the outcomes of their choices. But thanks to a convenient last-minute implausibility — a little loose wire — the writers allowed Brody and the rest of the show’s characters to evade the full consequences of his turn to terrorism. It’s an escape hatch — for Brody, for the network (a second season is in the works), for the writers, and ultimately for the audience as well. 

An Incomplete List of Records I Enjoyed in 2011

It used to be that getting old, by which I mean turning 30, meant you gave up on new music. I turned 30 this year, but instead of ignoring new music, I ignored old music.

I listened to about 250 new releases this year, as well as another 100 or so new-to-me albums from previous years. Which didn’t leave a whole lot of time for the classics, or even personal favorites. Inevitably, that changes the way I listen. The sheer volume of new music I’m consuming these days means that I’m listening restlessly rather than patiently, always on the hunt for the next great thing instead of focusing on what I already have.

The records that I adore the most are the ones that calm that restlessness, that silence the voice in my head constantly asking whether maybe there’s something better out there that I haven’t heard yet. Finding a great album means I can quit the hunt, rest, and enjoy the music — at least for a little while. 

In no particular order, then, here are 28 of the new records that stopped me in my tracks in 2011:

  • Bon Iver - Bon Iver || There are several genuinely great songs on Bon Iver. But it’s the album’s full-length sweep — its sense of self, and completeness — that gives it its power. 
  • Drake  - Take Care || Like everyone, I appreciate Drake because he’s confessional, funny, dry, self-conscious, an entertaining diarist as much as (or more than) a hip-hop technician. But I think what I enjoy most about his music are the moody soundscapes, which go a long way toward establishing the sexy, sly, self-deprecating world he seems to live in. 
  • The Weeknd - House of Balloons
  • The Weeknd - Thursday
  • The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence || It’s hard to say which of The Weeknd’s three 2011 releases is the best. House of Balloons, a sort of deconstructed R&B record, had the biggest impact, and was the most startling just because it was so self-assured, so perfectly conceived and executed — even as a free-download debut. It would have been a hard act for anyone to follow up, but The Weeknd delivered —  twice! Indeed, if anything, the pre-Christmas Echoes, which further twists and subverts current R&B/hip-hop paradigms to brilliant effect, suggests that The Weeknd is getting better, honing its sound and ideas rather than running dry. As far as I’m concerned, musically, 2011 belongs to The Weeknd. 
  • Feist - Metals
  • Class Actress - Rapprocher
  • Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean || This seems to have been overlooked in a lot of best-of lists. I’m surprised! Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it was released in January? Regardless, it’s a lush, beautiful record that, like Bon Iver, needs to be listened to as a complete record rather than a collection of singles.
  • Jay-Z and Kayne West - Watch the Throne || I was actually kind of disappointed by this record after Kanye’s glorious Dark Twisted Fantasy. Eventually, I came around. Watch the Throne isn’t as rich in its pleasures, but as indulgently shallow hip-pop goes, it does the job. 
  • Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
  • Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
  • Killer Mike - Pl3dge || Killer Mike is the sort of rapper who gives the sense that he’d be a great talk show host, or columnist. He has strong opinions, and they’re interesting, and he works hard to share them in a way that’s engaging and entertaining. 
  • Purity Ring - Ungirthed 7” || I fully expect that whatever full-length Purity Ring releases next year will end up near the top of my best-of-2012 list. 
  • St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
  • Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
  • TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light || Another early-year release that seems to have been overlooked in the year end lists. 
  • Twin Sister - In Heaven
  • Tyler, The Creator - Goblin
  • Curren$y - Weekend at Burnie’s
  • Danny Brown - XXX || This is a really weird record. Imagine if David Lynch made a movie about a Muppet rapper and you start to get the idea. 
  • Das Racist - Relax
  • EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
  • Hooray for Earth - True Loves || Big sound. Big hooks. A vibe that’s part Animal Collective, part “Kids”-era MGMT. Why aren’t these guys huge yet?
  • My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind
  • Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine
  • Toro Y Moi - Freaking Out
  • Maria Minerva - Sacred and Profane Love
  • Office of Future Plans - Office of Future Plans || I loved Burning Airlines. I loved Jawbox. So it’s not really surprising that I also love this new J. Robbins project, Office of Future Plans.