I talked to Shirley Manson from Garbage. It was pretty great.
I talked to Shirley Manson from Garbage. It was pretty great.
Just a quick entry by way of pointing to my A.V. Club Primer on the films of Studio Ghibli. Argue over your favorties in the comments — and be sure to scold me for my insufficient love of Spirited Away. And really, watch Pom Poko next chance you get.
Previously: Reviews of The Secret World of Arrietty, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro, plus a talk with Neil Gaiman about writing the English-language script for Mononoke. I reviewed Ponyo as well, but the internet seems to have et that one.
Part Two of my ongoing series, "Sam Adams Talks With Actresses of a Certain Age About Working With Alfred Hitchcock and Vincente Minnelli" is my highly enjoyable-in-retrospect, slightly terrifying-at-the-time, interview with the great Eva Marie Saint, who remains as spirited and sharp-witted as ever. The ostensible occasion for our talk was her visit to Philadelphia, where she was to be interviewed on stage by the doubtable Ben Mankiewicz before a screening of North by Northwest. As her time in town was short, I was advised to speak with her beforehand by phone, and told I'd have 15 minutes. That's less time than I'd normally accept, but given that she's Eva Marie effing Saint — of NXNW, On the Waterfront, and many more indelible performances — I could hardly say no.
As it turns out, our time wasn't limited, although I wasn't aware of the fact until I'd rushed headlong through a series of her greatest hits and realized that no one was going to cut us off. So I started our conversation in a slightly agitated state, amplified by the fact that, as noted above, she is Eva Marie effing Saint. And boy, did she pick up on it. This is, after all, a woman who matched wits, and charm, with Cary Grant on screen and at the very least held her own, and no way was she going to let a loosely phrased question or the slightest hint of disingenousness get by her. So when, rather than saying, "Remember that overblown piece of junk The Sandpipers?" I told her I had a soft spot for the film, her response was, "You have a soft spot for that? Have you seen it lately?" If, in reading our "Random Roles" for the A.V. Club, you get a mental picture of her as a tennis racket and me as a somewhat dingy ball, you're on the right track.
Of course, an interviewer would rather have an engaged subject than a polite one, and that she was — delightfully, and, to use her word, "naughtily," so. She didn't let Cary Grant get away with anything either. When I dropped by the hotel where she was doing brief roundtable interviews during her Philadelphia visit, she asked me for my business card, which, living as I do in the post-print era, I don't carry. So, when I broke a rule and asked her to autograph my Blu-ray of North by Northwest, she naturally signed it, "To Sam — ALWAYS bring your card!!"
I don't often (read, almost never) get around to posting my Inquirer concert reviews — sometimes because thanks to the paper's nightmarish website, I can't even find the damn things — but I'm pretty happy with how this account of Leslie Feist's show at the Academy of Music turned out. For me, at least, the show was a revelation, a dramatic and at times emotionally violent performance that sent me back to Feist's albums, wondering, "How did I miss that?" In all honesty, I still thought of her principally as the woman behind the ubiquitous, Muppet-friendly "1234," pointedly absent from Tuesday's two-hour show. But I also think that she's got an unfortunate tendency to sand the edges off her spiky and surprising songs on record; they literally get lost in the mix. The show transformed how I think of her, a rare experience for which I'm always grateful. Plus, any chance to drop a gratuitous Mary Margaret O'Hara in the pages of a major daily is a welcome thing.
And speaking of Bernie, it gave me an excuse, I mean opportunity, to talk to Shirley Maclaine, who plays a wealthy, mean-spirited widow opposite Jack Black's guileless mortician. Even better, the A.V. Club's "Random Roles" format let me quiz her on her past triumphs, including the beyond-brilliant Some Came Running, as well as her experiences with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis. Did I ask about her role on the upcoming third season of Downton Abbey? I sure did.
Lots to catch up on, so we'll make this quick. I talked to Jack Black about Bernie, the Richard Linklater movie in which he plays a soft-spoken East Texas mortician who winds up shooting an elderly widow in the back. (It's based on a true story, so shut up with the spoiler talk.) He's more subdued in person than his bigfoot persona might lead you to expect, and especially so in this case since he was jetlagged and sick, apologetically offering an elbow bump in lieu of a handshake. Even so, he was great fun to talk to, especially with regard to costar Shirley Maclaine and his memorable guest spots on Mr. Show.
—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I'm not moved to write a full-on review of The Avengers, mainly because I'm disinclined to wade into summarizing plot, recapitulating backstory and so forth, but there's one aspect of the project that struck me as particularly interesting. There's a burden built into the framework of The Avengers that Joss Whedon handles with exceptional grace, and yet still weighs down the movie considerably, which is that assembling a group of previously unaffiliated superheroes to fight a common enemy involves not only the textual burden of reconciling their personalities — finding common group between Chris Evans' square-jawed Captain America and Robert Downey, Jr.'s cynical Iron Man — but fusing the vastly different styles of the mythologies (and the movies) they spring from. It's hard enough to manufacture a threat that poses equal challenges to the quasi-divine Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who's essentially a superlatively competent human assassin. Logically speaking, a force strong enough to threaten the one could easily reduce the other to goo. But on top of that, their stories are told in very different ways: Captain America's as a self-consciously retro evocation of patriotic duty, the Hulk's as a psychodramatic battle between id and superego, Iron Man's as the glossy, mildly tongue-in-cheek story of an amoral egotist accepting the responsibility that comes with his considerable gifts. (There I go with the backstory. It's hard to avoid.) It's not that Whedon has a lot of balls to keep in the air — he's juggling balls, bowling pins, possibly a chainsaw or two.
The Avengers takes its sweet, occasionally dragging, time introducing its characters before bringing them together, and a large part of the reason the setup takes so long is because Whedon has to find a common idiom that can accomodate the styles already established by Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. (The burden of assimilating the Hulk movies is lessened by the fact that the role played by Eric Bana and Edward Norton has been recast with Mark Ruffalo, giving Whedon something of a clean slate.) The back-and-forth between Downey's Tony Stark and his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a snappy, screwball-comedy sheen that's worlds away from the desaturated, even-keeled introduction of Captain America, who's just come out of seven decades in deep freeze. (Whedon cut a scene in which Steve Rogers, Cap's civilian alter ego, meets up with his nonagenarian love interest from the Second World War, which would have made for an even more pointed contrast with the Stark-Potts banter.) There's a tremendous amount of busywork involved in simply getting the film to the point where Captain America can joke about a pop-culture reference and not have the line fall utterly flat.
Whedon knows where the red meat is, and he tosses plenty in the movie's climactic battle scene, which seems to run for the better part of an hour. There are references for newbies, casual fans, and more in-depth ones I'm sure I missed. (I read plenty of superhero comics in my youth, but the Avengers were never my thing. I'd have to guess they seemed too square, although it wasn't a decision I ever made outright. I had to hit the web to discern the meaning of the film's post-credits tag, which features an appearance by an unnamed character I barely recognized.) Even in in the thick of battle, he's still shifting gears. While the more superhuman of his heroes are fighting giant, snakelike beasts pouring from an interdimensional hole in the sky, the more down-to-earth slip into a bank and rescue a clutch of hostages from a handful of alien thugs. It's hardly on a par with saving the world, but from each according to his ability...
Apart from the climactic battle, which had a slightly goofy grin plastered across my face from beginning to end, the most joyous moment was a quiet confrontation between Tony Stark and Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, two scientific geniuses who approach their powers from very different angles. In large part, it's the thrill of watching two great actors finally allowed to punch their weight rather than tossing off quips in an ensemble setting. (Downey is The Avengers' Fran Kranz, dispensing self-aware snark at every available opportunity.) In some ways, The Avengers is more a feat than a film, but it's still a hell of an act.
I'm well aware that making Grantland's Humblebrag honor roll is a dubious honor at best, but when Isabella Rossellini's name pops up on the CallerID, it's hard to suppress the urge to crow. (Even my wife, who's long since used to interview subjects calling the house, was moved to a "Shut up!" when I told her about it.) But enough about me — read the article instead. It's one of the A.V. Club's "Random Roles," which allowed me to talk not only about Rossellini's two new movies, Late Bloomers and Keyhole, but to go all the way back to Blue Velvet and Tough Guys Don't Dance, as well as her utterly beguiling tribute to her father, the great Roberto Rossellini, in My Dad Is 100 Years Old.
With Mad Men entering the Swinging Sixties — as in "to swing" — it seemed like a good time to survey the career of one Richard Lester, whose movies Petulia and The Knack... and How to Get It embody the spirit of the time better than any others. As I point out in the A.V. Club's "Gateways to Geekery," that's scratching the surface of a long and varied (and sometimes patchy) career that owes as much to Jacques Tati and Ernie Kovacs as it does to the Beatles, who put Lester on the map as the starts of A Hard Day's Night. More in the article, of course, but the short version is this: Watch Robin and Marian at your earliest opportunity, and Superman III is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests.
One of the myriad joys of writing for the A.V. Club is that there's an audience for pieces that might meet with a shrug elsewhere. Case in point: my interview with animator Don Hertzfeldt, who's currently touring the country with his hilarious and unsettling short films. I lucked into Hertzfeldt's shorts early on — my review of Billy's Balloon was blurbed on his site, which thrilled me at the time — at still remember the shock I felt watching Rejected, which began in by-now familiar territory and somehow managed by the end to tap into a profound sense of existential terror, which I feel safe to say was the first time I was genuinely moved by a piece whose protagonists were exclusively stick figures. He's built up a well-deserved following over the years, recently selling out four shows at New York's IFC Center, and it was a delight to connect with him to discuss, among other things, the completion of the "Bill trilogy": Everything Will Be OK, I am so proud of you and It's such a beautiful day. See him if you can, and check out the DVDs at his site if you can't.