Monday, December 17, 2012


Angelina Jolie tries to persuade Morgan Freeman to see things her way in Wanted.
Originally posted July 8, 2008

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

While much of the world awaits Angelina Jolie’s delivery of twins, here’s what I’ve been wondering: How does someone who, by all appearances, wants to save the planet one child at a time (and you’ve got to be very cynical not to commend that) decide to act in a movie like Wanted? I’m not talking about the critical value (O.K., there isn’t much) but rather the ethos of the film, which seems to say: Life is cheap. Right needs might. Nerds should pack heat (also knives and blunt instruments like computer keyboards). If you haven’t murdered someone today, you’re really lazy.

It’s not enough that director Timur Bekmambetov has a fetishistic thing for bullets, so that we have to watch them close up, in slo-mo, as they shatter glass, curve (care of the curvebullet shooter played by James McAvoy) around Jolie’s stunning face to merely tousle her hair—well, what would you do if you were that bullet?—and, mostly, tear through human heads with the attendant blood, sinew, and bone. (And the silver bullets are pretty, too, with carvings of various kinds. Objets d’art.) No, he wants to take cold-heartedness to a higher level, so that, for example, a simple bull’s-eye target for shooting practice won’t do; nor will grotesque pig carcasses. For this in-your-face flick, only real human bodies measure up—dead bodies, to be sure, but hung on meat hooks, huge iron hooks going right through them, one of them looking like your grandmother. I don’t know what to make of this. Are we to applaud the seriousness of the cabal—I mean, fraternity—of assassins (I see I’ve been avoiding getting into the absurd, incomplete, and derivative plot, which involves a monastery, an oracle loom, and suicide-bomber rats), who just want to be really good at what they do?

I had a hard enough time with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, in which, of course, Jolie starred with the future other half of Brangelina (O.K., maybe that one was fate) as spouses who, unbeknownst to each other at first, are assassins. Secret marital murderous thoughts notwithstanding, are we really supposed to delight in watching the Smiths try to hurt and kill each other? And then they come together against a common enemy at the end—isn’t it cute?—to create mayhem and your general blood-splattering, assault weapons blazing. (For some reason that I can’t remember—comic effect?—this last part takes place in a vacant home-improvement store.) The Times’ capsule TV-listing review called it “a goof and a drag.” Precisely, with the “drag” scale skimming the floor.

But Wanted, in which Jolie plays yet another foxy (oh funny, her name is Fox!) assassin (who is not only tattooed, natch, but branded), ventures quite a bit further in the offensiveness department, mainly with scenes involving the “training” of a new hit man (McAvoy). A lot of Wanted seems to revisit Fight Club. I say “seems to” because I avoided Fight Club (though by coincidence I have a coffee-cup bathrobe like the one Pitt—we’re still keeping it in the family—wears in the movie). I’ve got this peculiar aversion to people getting their faces smashed in; therefore, I had my eyes closed for about a quarter of Wanted. Indeed, the initiation shown in that film pretty much consists of torture—beatings, stabbings, etc. From what I’ve heard, the violence in Fight Club had an artistic point. (I realize this is also true of The Sopranos, but I always wondered about what that does to the audience—is it encouraging sadistic impulses, all of this violence as entertainment? Or at the least isn’t there something disconcerting about people having spaghetti parties for marathon watching of Tony & Co.’s craven acts?) But with Wanted (bad title, by the way), it seems to be the point.

I think we know that Jolie doesn’t need the money. Speaking of the Wanted role, she told Vanity Fair: “It’s about being physical and jumping and running and being violent, and instinctively I knew I needed to do that.” I guess for her it was just a goof. And that’s a drag.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Best Film About the Porn Industry Since “Boogie Nights”

Cherry (Ashley Hinshaw) and Frances (James Franco) look for love in the world of XXX.

About Cherry
Directed by Stephen Elliott
Written by Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee
Starring Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Heather Graham, Dev Patel, and Lily Taylor

There was a time in the porn industry, about 25 years ago, when people spoke of X-rated films that had “crossover potential.” I discuss this phenomenon at some length in my book Beaver Street, in a scene where I’m asked to play a “nerdy file clerk” in Tickled Pink, which I describe as “a screwball comedy with hardcore sex.” This is a historic film, I’m told, because, “never before had a porn movie employed fourteen paid extras in one non-sex scene.

Tickled Pink, like a lot of other pornos produced in this brief “Golden Age,” had “upscale production values, a quality soundtrack, performers who could act and fuck, and a well-plotted script written by a smart young director who just happened to be passing through smut on his way to respectability.

Tickled Pink never did crossover into the mainstream. Nor has any other porn flick. In fact, with the porn industry having degenerated into amateur exhibitionism on sites like YouPorn, and professional studs wired on Viagra engaging, as the inimitable adult-industry critic Gail Dines would put it, in “body-punishing sex” with a succession of anonymous starlets, the idea of crossover porno has been long forgotten.

Though it comes very close, About Cherry contains no hardcore sex and therefore cannot be called a crossover movie. It does, however, contain a lot of very explicit sex scenes, and is also the best and most realistic film about the porn industry I’ve seen since Boogie Nights. It’s certainly the best movie yet to be made about pornography in the 21st century, an age when the Internet has taken over and relegated what remains of the venerable “men’s magazine” industry to its deathbed.

This realism can be attributed to About Cherry’s co-writers, director Stephen Elliott, who has written extensively about sex, and Lorelei Lee, a porn star who plays a porn star in the film. Obviously, they both know the business, and their insider knowledge and experience comes across in such scenes as when Angelina aka Cherry, played by the gorgeous young actress Ashley Hinshaw, is interviewed by a porn production company before they hire her to make videos.

Realistically depicted, as well, is the arc of a porn star’s career—single-girl still shoot/single-girl video/two-girl video/boy-girl video—as is the nature of a porn star’s romantic relationship. Cherry begins dating Frances (James Franco), a wealthy coke-addict attorney who doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her job: “It’s disgusting.”

The extraordinary ensemble of actors—notably Heather Graham as Margaret, Cherry’s lesbian mentor/director who’s dealing with a jealous girlfriend; Dev Patel as Andrew, Cherry’s supportive gay friend; and Lily Taylor as Phyllis, Cherry’s alcoholic mother—create a milieu of such verisimilitude it can, at times, border on queasy. But the porn industry can, indeed, be a very queasy place.

The plot is basic: Cherry, a high school student, runs away from her dysfunctional family and sleazy boyfriend, Bobby (Jonny Weston), accompanied by Andrew. She winds up in San Francisco, needs a job, and after waitressing in a strip club, finds her way into porn. What’s different is that About Cherry, unlike, say, Boogie Nights, ends on a positive note, if not necessarily a happy one.

Guaranteed to piss off Gail Dines, and that’s a good thing.

Monday, August 13, 2012

UK to US: Have a Little Faith

Paloma Faith at the Edison Ballroom in New York City.

The Olympics are so last night (the highlight of the Games for me: a fencer screaming her head off at every jab as though she were in a horror film), but that’s okay: the latest across-the-pond phenomenon, in reverse, is singer Paloma Faith, a pint-sized firecracker with formidable lungs (yes, firecrackers of this species have lungs). Recently, she gave a concert—after being introduced by music honcho L. A. Reid (what did he say? I don't remember, but he scared me a little with his stern tone, and really there was no need to scare us into liking this extremely likable 26-year-old, who was willing to jiggle for us while singing her tune “Cellulite”)—at the intimate Edison Ballroom in NYC’s Theater District. (It's attached to the Edison Hotel, which has a kind of funky Old World café beloved by actors.)    

Wearing a long black satiny dress with giant-rhinestone X straps in the back that matched her rhinestone-studded ear monitors, the saucy songstress endeared herself to the crowd with her Duffy-like sound, humorous patter, and down-to-earth demeanor. (I’m also partial to her straight-line black eyebrows, set in a tiny porcelain-complected face that’s topped off with elaborately coiffed blond/bronze hair.) In the course of the evening—her appearance evoking the 40s, her dance-inflected music the 70s—she draped herself across not only a studio piano but also a miniature one. Following in the blue-eyed soul tradition that includes Adele and Amy Winehouse, she didn’t quite hit the emotional highs and lows as those beloved fellow Brits, but, backed up by two singers with synchronized moves (take that, Olympic swimmers) and gold-sequined skirts, she spread a kind of pixie dust—you had to smile and you had to move.

Her set included the UK hit “Picking Up the Pieces“ and “30 Minute Love Affair,” both from her new album Fall to Grace, but the song that drew the loudest response was “New York” (despite the lyric “It was New York, New York/She poisoned your sweet mind”). That song was a hit in the UK too, but “it really belongs to you,” Faith told her Gotham fans.

Declaring that her success in England has not enabled her to buy a house, she seemed to want to belong to us herself. Okay with me—did I mention she ran with the Olympic torch while wearing red platform stilettos? 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Two for the Long Road

The look of love: Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg).

Celeste and Jesse Forever
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack
Starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg

Here’s the main reason I liked Celeste and Jesse Forever: it acknowledges that life holds many possibilities but not all of these can be fulfilled, and that luck and circumstance often have as much to do with what happens to us as our own choices—in other words, our choices do not exist in a vacuum, so half the time we don’t know what we’re doing.

Indeed, Jesse—a somewhat restrained Andy Samberg—at one point bluntly tells his soulmate (or is she?) Celeste, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” even as he’s trying to set himself on a more self-determined path.

Rashida Jones, who plays Celeste, a savvy media consultant separated from the artist/slacker Jesse, co-wrote the script—with Will McCormack, also in the film, as a philosophic pot dealer—which could easily have succumbed to rom-com formula. Instead, it hints at a maturity that goes well beyond the Apatow-esque shticks Celeste and Jesse amuse themselves with and the inevitable will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together question at the heart of the story.

Having decided to divorce six months before (“The father of my child will own a car” is Celeste’s shorthand explanation for the split), the two have settled into a BFF situation. Jesse lives in his artist’s studio behind Celeste’s L.A. house, and the pair see each other every day, as Celeste’s “regular” best friend, Beth (played by a refreshingly real Ari Graynor), angrily points out over dinner one night. This complacent relationship is threatened only when Jesse—in the company of, of course, Celeste—runs into Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), a one-night stand (mid-separation) that he hasn’t told his sort-of-ex-wife about.

Veronica (who has crooked front teeth! Where did director Lee Toland Krieger find these attractive but kind of normal-looking actors?) throws Jesse a shy but dazzling smile in the middle of a bookstore, thus, for “trend analyst” Celeste, ironically underscoring the title of her new book, Shitegeist—“I read that!” Veronica tells her—while also, for the audience, calling into question the movie title’s “forever.” 

Except that the clever people behind this film know that “forever” transcends doodles and tree-carvings—that it may even transcend our notions of what love, friendship, and romance itself mean.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Suu Kyi’s Choice

Burmese soldiers police the estate of Aung San Suu Kyi 
(Michelle Yeoh), who is under house arrest.

The Lady
Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Rebecca Frayn
Starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I knew little about the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—recently elected to the parliament of Burma (also referred to as Myanmar)—before seeing Beyond Rangoon in 1995. In that movie, the main character, played by Patricia Arquette, stumbles into, while on vacation, the violent upheaval taking place in Burma. At one point, standing in a crowd, she sees Suu Kyi, the hope of the oppressed Burmese people, walking toward her; the older woman, with a Mona Lisa smile, gazes at her in a way that seems to impart an otherworldly serenity. (Indeed, my husband, fellow blogger Robert Rosen, was similarly affected by our filmic encounter with Suu Kyi—he talked about the value of serenity for months afterward.)

The new biopic The Lady (its title echoing Suu Kyi’s honorific in her native country) contains a similar scene, only this time the stakes are much higher: With Gandhian courage, Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), the epitome of grace under pressure, slowly makes her way through a phalanx of soldiers, who warn her to stop while aiming their rifles directly at her face. Such is the power of someone willing to die for a cause, in this case democracy for a country that has anointed her its savior. We learn that she is, in a way, an accidental savior, having been born the daughter of a general who became a martyr in the fight for democracy, and having arrived from her home in England to care for her dying mother just as Burma is exploding with revolt and bloody crackdowns.

Eventually, Suu Kyi and her family—her husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), an Oxford academic, and their two sons—realize that if she leaves Burma, she will never be allowed to re-enter the country. And so Aris and the boys content themselves with visits—until the time comes when, in a tactical ploy, they are denied entry. “You have the freedom to choose: your family or your country,” a government official tells Suu Kyi. “What kind of freedom is that?” she answers.

I had to wonder if Suu Kyi’s husband was really that consistently supportive. As a teacher dealing with that part of the world, he too was passionate about democracy in Burma, but the movie never indicates the slightest hesitation as monumental decisions are made, despite the months and then years that pass without the boys seeing their mother. (You can almost hear hearts breaking when they inevitably lose the connection during their occasional phone calls, which Suu Kyi makes from the British embassy.)

Suu Kyi spends much of the film under house arrest—the house being her family’s, the general’s, a grand if decaying mansion on a lake. (You may recall the news reports a few years ago when an American man swam across the lake to Suu Kyi’s house, thus jeopardizing her freedom.) With its terraces overlooking the water, it looks beautiful, as do the orchids in Suu Kyi’s hair and her colorful long skirts and delicate blouses.

A dead ringer for Suu Kyi, the ultra-slim Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) conveys not only the activist’s bravery and dignity but also the anguish she suffers as her own sacrifices become her husband’s and sons’ as well. In depicting Suu Kyi’s remarkable story through the prism of her family life, screenwriter Rebecca Frayn and director Luc Besson have made their own wise choice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Earle and More at the City Winery

Steve Earle with one of his many guitars.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Watching Steve Earle and Allison Moorer in concert Monday night at the City Winery brought to mind another musical couple: also-populist-singer Bruce Springsteen and also-redheaded-wife-and-musician-in-her-own-right Patti Scialfa (though Moorer is moorer, I mean more, of a strawberry blonde). And I thought: god, how we need these people. Earle is inspiring in his been-there knowingness, down-to-earth accessibility, political outspokenness (or maybe outsungness—listen to “John Walker’s Blues”), and I-still-have-hope-ness.

Moorer—looking chic in a ruched black skirt, very high boots, and black-frame glasses she said she wore because “they kinda go with the outfit, and god knows it’s all about the outfit”—appears to be, if not a deus ex machina for Earle, perhaps an earth-goddess ex musica. It’s hard not to think that she, younger by a generation, shone a light into what has been at times a rough life (Earle was a heroin addict and spent time in jail). Especially when Earle sings a song like “Every Part of Me” (“I love you with all my heart/All my soul/Every part of me) or “Waitin’ on the Sky” (“Singing a song about a red-headed girl…I am sitting on top of the world”), both off the recent release I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, nominated for a Grammy for best folk album.

Though her porcelain looks might make you think nothing bad has ever touched her (she’s like a cross between Nicole Kidman and Taylor Swift), Moorer too has known some very dark days; her father and mother died in a murder-suicide when she and her older sister, singer Shelby Lynne, were teenagers. Monday night Moorer sang, among other originals, “A Soft Spot to Fall,” which made a splash a while back as part of the Horse Whisperer soundtrack, as well as a dramatic new song involving a thunderstorm and a hurricane—“Songs that I seem to be writing now have to do with tense situations,” she explained, adding that in this case she wanted to call someone “a bitch-face” but wrote the song instead.

Her voice is both lovely and strong, with a tone similar to Lynne’sthey recently toured together for the first time. Hearing Moorers harmonies with Earle, it occurred to me that he could have been tempted to marry her just to have at the ready that oxymoronically bluesy-ethereal sound as a counterpoint to his country-gritty one.

Both with and without Moorer, Earle gives good show—and had the sweat-soaked shirt to show for it. With the help of several guitars, a mandolin, a bouzouki (“It’s called a bouzouki —unless you’re going through an airport; then it’s not a bouzouki, especially if you’re me”), and a harmonica, he did 21 tunes, including the audience requests “Copperhead Road” and “Galway Girl.” For the latter Moorer joined him on accordion (“She only learned to play this instrument before we went on tour last spring—it freaks me out”).

The concert also featured Mike Doughty, formerly of Soul Coughing, doing tunes such as the exhilaratingly bitter “Na-Na-Nothing” (“It has that certain Mötley Crüe je ne sais quoi,” Doughty joked) and reading from his new memoir, The Book of Drugs—as Earle pointed out, he too has a book out, a novel that shares the title of his new CD, both alluding to the Hank Williams song. Throughout their residency at City Winery, Mondays through February 6, Earle and Moorer are featuring guests such as Doughty and the Mastersons, who’ve toured with them as members of the Dukes and Duchesses.

Yes, we can! Sing, that is. And listen to others do so with every part of themselves—an act that somehow carries with it hope and inspiration. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It’s About Them

John Mellencamp at Sun Studios in Memphis.

It’s About You
Directed by Kurt Markus and Ian Markus
Starring John Mellencamp

Having married a musician and written a biography of John Lennon, I take an interest in music documentaries of all kinds, even those about musicians whose work I don’t feel a great passion for. Such is the case with John Mellencamp. Though I’ve enjoyed some of his earlier songs, like “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane,” for the most part I find his later material lacks excitement.

Even though the documentary It’s About You, directed by photographer Kurt Markus and his son, Ian, focuses more on Mellencamp’s later material, it’s at times a compellingly unique film—not only because it was shot in Super 8 and recorded with a vintage microphone and a mono reel-to-reel tape recorder, but because Kurt Markus plays an unusually large role in it.

As he follows Mellencamp and his band on a 2009 tour through the decaying landscape of the American south, and as they record the album No Better Than This, Markus provides wry voiceovers as he searches for his own identity through Mellencamp, whom he’s known for decades. He doesn’t interview Mellencamp, or accept an invitation to join him on the tour bus. It’s not reality-TV, Markus notes, and he doesn’t want to intrude. Nor does he manage to film or interview Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson when they show up. Instead, he tells us what we missed in a voiceover. It’s this sort of thing that gives the film its homemade charm. Ultimately, like Mellencamp's music, It's About You is sometimes evocative and sometimes a little boring.

My favorite bit was Harvard professor Cornel West backstage, grooving to “Pink Houses.”