The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: 1999 Albums – Ben Folds Five and Fountains of Wayne

Like we said before: The SportsAlcohol.com podcast is doing a Fall 2019 mini-series about albums from 1999, short but impactful discussions about old but impactful albums from 20 years ago! In the latest installment, we tackled a nerdy, suburban double feature: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five and Utopia Parkway by Fountains of Wayne. Join Rob, Marisa, Randy, and Jesse as we navigate our old teenage-ish selves who first heard these albums, and figure out why (or if) they mean much to us today.

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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: 1999 Albums – When the Pawn…

Like we said before: The SportsAlcohol.com podcast is doing a Fall 2019 mini-series about albums from 1999, short but impactful discussions about old but impactful albums from 20 years ago! Next on the docket is Fiona Apple’s second album, popular and weirdly abbreviated as When the Pawn, an artistic breakthrough following her commercial breakthrough Tidal. Rob, Jesse, and Sara look back on Apple’s ’99 record, and how it informs the music she’s made since then. Join us as we ask three simple questions: what did this album mean to us at the time, what does it mean to us now, and is this the best album by the artist in question?

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: 1999 Albums – Emergency & I

The SportsAlcohol.com podcast is particularly good at two things, if we do say so ourselves: (1.) talking at length, particularly (2.) about the pop culture of 20 years ago. So our new mini-series about albums from 1999 is both in and out of our comfort zone: We’re producing some of our shortest episodes ever, but we’re adding to our popular talks about 1999 summer movies and 1999 pop with some (probably Will Smith-free) talks about individual albums that mean a lot to various members of the SportsAlcohol.com team. First up is one for the indie rockers, an album just about to turn 20, and a personal favorite of Rob, Randy, Jesse, and Marisa: the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I. Join us as we ask three simple questions: what did this album mean to us at the time, what does it mean to us now, and is this the best album by the artist in question?

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

NYFF57: The crime stories of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and OH MERCY!

Though it was far from the most acclaimed film of this year’s main slate, it made sense for the 57th New York Film Festival to close with Motherless Brooklyn. The NYFF is the a major festival-season gathering that still feels a little bit local, and as such, has an unofficial but clear obligation to its hometown. That was evident in the opening night selection (Scorsese!), the centerpiece selection (Baumbach!), the quasi-secret screening (Safdies!), and a reoriented version of Motherless Brooklyn that takes place in the 1950s instead of the Jonatham Lethem novel’s then-contemporary 1990s.

Brooklyn had a particular weight on it this year because Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, while set in a familiar Classic Scorsese milieu, is not actually a New York crime picture—it’s more of a tri-state area affair. Uncut Gems (as yet unseen by me) is legit NYC, but it wasn’t an officially announced main-slate attraction. So that leaves Edward Norton’s passion project as the crime movie representing New York City, playing alongside The Irishman (skulking around Philadelphia and New Jersey) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (set in the French city of Roubaix).
Continue reading NYFF57: The crime stories of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and OH MERCY!

NYFF57: The Past Lives in FIRST COW and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, both of which just played the 57th New York Film Festival, are not exactly set contemporaneously, but they’re not too far apart, at least from our contemporary vantage. Portrait unfolds over a few days toward the end of the 18th century, while First Cow is relatively early in the 19th, around 1820. They’re also set thousands of miles apart, First Cow remote (the Oregon territory) and Portrait, in some ways, remoter (the coast of France, in and around a well-appointed but seemingly isolated house). And superficially, they don’t have much in common beyond that remoteness, and an accompanying ender segregation. First Cow features only a few women, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire has almost no men.

A man, mostly unseen, nonetheless looms over the story of Portrait, told as a flashback from Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and art teacher, prompted by a student’s question. Years earlier, Marianne is sent to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that the resulting picture may be sent to a potential husband, to seal the deal on an official marriage proposal (the painting will convey mostly Héloïse’s physical presence, and she is a terribly attractive woman). It feels like a formality, but it’s one that Héloïse will not sit for; upon her arrival, Marianne learns that she’s accepted a stealth assignment. She will pose as a companion for Héloïse, observe her, and paint her portrait in secret. The movie gets right into Marianne’s point of view, and her painter’s eye for detail; you can see her observing Héloïse’s hands, her earlobes, the back of her neck. Eventually also her face; Adèle Haenel is given a “you were expecting someone else?” face-reveal introduction.
Continue reading NYFF57: The Past Lives in FIRST COW and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Ad Astra, or: Why Don’t I Like James Gray Movies More?

James Gray is having a moment. His 25-year career as a writer-director encompasses seven movies, many well-reviewed and almost all underseen, but despite the ever-shrinking audience for critically acclaimed art movies or even just movies made for adults uninterested in superheroes, despite one of his best-loved movies getting the Harvey Weinstein spiteful-shelving treatment, Gray is getting more movies made now than ever. Ad Astra is his latest, arriving just two and a half years after The Lost City of Z, with $80 million worth of big-studio backing from Fox, movie-star backing from Brad Pitt, and a 3,400-screen release—easily the widest in his filmography, which has just one other movie that played more than 1,000 screens (We Own the Night, which came out 12 years ago). A recent New Yorker profile goes deep, and glowing, on his methods, his work, and the cultish adoration it’s attracted. It’s enough to make a Gray skeptic feel downright heretical.

This is absurd, of course; by most measures, Gray remains an underdog, as even some of his fans have anticipated, mock-gleefully, the bafflement with which general audiences will greet Ad Astra, which is a space adventure movie, yes, but a very James Gray one, in which a taciturn Brad Pitt searches the outer reaches of the cosmos for his presumed-dead astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). The adventuring is quixotic and melancholy, like it was in Gray’s The Lost City of Z, though not all of its touchstones are as lofty as the oft-cited Apocalypse Now. Gray’s portrayal of the moon, sort of a commercially accessible weigh station with an Applebee’s and bands of moon pirates, owes a debt (consciously or not) to the moon-set episode of Futurama. The casting of Jones and also Donald Sutherland brings to mind Space Cowboys (which, I must stress, rules). Where the movie earns its 2001 and Apocalypse Now comparisons are the visuals, which are often stunning: never overdesigned or fussy, often spare and evocative, the complicated mechanics of space travel simplified and sometimes abstracted. The moon is depicted almost entirely in gray, black, and splashes of gold. Color-bathed corridors are both gorgeous and oppressive. Space has been depicted as beautiful and lonely before, but Ad Astra makes it feel scary, solitary, and otherworldly even in comparison to other space movies. It’s like am unsettling dream someone had after watching Gravity.

In other words: How the hell did I not like this movie more?

This happens almost every time I watch a James Gray picture: The distinct sense that what’s on screen has been well-crafted, that the subject matter appeals to me in theory, that the actors are performing with grace and subtlety, and that it is not really working for me on an emotional or narrative level. (Though Lost City of Z comes closer than most.) In Ad Astra, almost everyone speaks in hushed, even tones; their souls ache, but no one seems especially fussed about the possible destruction of Earth, which is why Pitt’s spaceman is sent to find his dad in the first place. Our glimpse into his psyche isn’t a glimpse at all—blurry faces are a recurring visual motif—but an eavesdropping on his thoughts via some sub-Malickian narration, the kind of explanatory muck that drops line about the sins of the father being revisited upon the son about an hour after you’ve said to yourself, got it, this is a sins-of-the-father type of thing.

There’s been some speculation that the narration was added during the movie’s apparently extended post-production process, maybe against Gray’s objections. If it’s either his original work or his patchwork solution to executive concerns, it’s both baffling and consistent with his weaknesses; writing has never been his strong suit. In a movie like Two Lovers, the stilted dialogue feels, at least, of a piece with his characters’ struggles to communicate, and maybe that’s always supposed to be the case. Certainly a level of clumsy formality in speech has been accepted as a stylistic tic for the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Woody Allen, countless others. But those filmmakers usually get dinged for their clunkiness; Gray seems immune, even though he often makes what amounts to extraordinarily talky silent movies.

Granted, I tend to think too much emphasis is placed on writing in movies, especially dialogue. There are filmmakers who can create their own distinctive music out of it—Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Leslye Headland, Wes Anderson—and outside of that realm, it doesn’t much matter to me if James Cameron gets a little dorky or Joe Swanberg leaves his actors in charge of it. But it’s not just Gray’s ponderous obviousness that gets me. It’s the way that he self-consciously toys with familiar narratives, making adventure movies about loneliness or melodramas with the veneer of history or romances where romance solves nothing. Again, it all sounds pretty great in theory, but it often robs his movies of momentum, especially when it becomes clear where they’re going early on.

We Own the Night, his cops-and-crooks thriller, plays like an outline of a satisfying crime picture. The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan, put its star through a simulacra of suffering not so far removed from an Oscar hopeful. In Ad Astra, we’re meant to feel for the alienation and disappointment of the Pitt character, and his failed marriage to a non-character played by Liv Tyler, seen mostly looking sad and making her exit. Maybe this is concise, visual storytelling—or maybe it’s an astronaut-family cliché played out with a barely-written character.

Given the effectiveness of his more genre-y moments—the superb rain-soaked car-chase in We Own the Night; a shoot-out with moon pirates in Ad Astra—his insistence on paring his stories down to a kind of quietly masculine anguish feels perverse. Despite the real possibility for audience puzzlement, Ad Astra is one of his more accessible movies, because it does deliver some spooky, otherworldly space-travel suspense, chased with that sense of crushing loneliness. I’m not sorry I saw it and may well watch it again at some point. But everything Gray observes in the movie feels like a foregone conclusion, maybe because so much of it, whether we’re watching Pitt grapple with his dad’s remoteness or maybe commit de facto serial murder, proceeds with a kind of dully declarative evenness. I’m told he’s interrogating notions of masculinity, but mostly he seems to be making it kind of boring. I spend a lot of time during Gray’s movies wondering if there’s a reference I’m not getting.

Filmmakers like Tarantino have been charged with an inability to see beyond that frame of (movie) reference—of constructing an alternate reality super-saturated with movie-world ephemera and little resemblance to reality as we know it. But I’ve never felt especially puzzled by Tarantino’s references, or smothered by that referential quality; his movies are easy enough to take at face value, and too engaging for me to wonder if he’s “really” just cribbing moments from other movies that did it first (I tend to doubt it—and even if he is, that’s so much harder than it looks). Maybe that’s because Tarantino plays more to the cheap seats; maybe the cheap seats is where I hang out, wondering what’s the big deal about with the unshowy grace of James Gray.

I have similar feelings about Todd Haynes, another filmmakers who does pastiche-riffing with obviously encyclopedic film knowledge. But I can recognize a few times when I’ve found Haynes’ work genuinely touching; I may not adore the restraint of Carol, but it has a tactility that bursts through its immaculate restraint—that tension between its lush beauty and its rougher 16mm grain.

In my less charitable moments, I think that a lot of critics tend to prize restraint sometimes to the point of treating it as an end unto itself. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what’s going on with the notion that James Gray has delivered any masterpieces, let alone as many as three or four in a row; obviously there’s a resonance about his work that touches people, and more than anything, I’m continually disappointed when it doesn’t reach me. I would suggest, though, that he’s uncommonly talented in convincing at least part of the audience that his symbols and images and references mean more because the movies around them are so unadorned. That’s what I see in between the gorgeous compositions and evocative moods and well-wrought performances: an extended tribute to, not interrogation of, the value of impeccably sourced masculine restraint.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Indie Movies of Summer 2019

Every summer for five years, Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse have gotten together to discuss the wealth of indie movies released during the blockbuster-laden summer movie season, offering an alternative to the big multiplex stuff, plus a bunch of rental recommendations for the fall. (Here are the past episodes for 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.) We’ve done it again for 2019, blazing through over a dozen indie releases that dabble in horror, comedy, memoir, and more!

Just listen to what the critics have to say!

“It’s such a human, lived-in, honest, real performance… it’s not even that it’s written in a way that doesn’t allow you to do that kind of comedic-person-tamping-it-down performance; it’s just not what happened.” – Nathaniel

“Pretty lackadaisical response, I would say, on behalf of all of us in the theater, and on behalf of maybe half the people in the movie, as well. I kinda forgot this even came out.” – Sara

“I would want one of those dresses if they weren’t white. White’s a little tough if you’ve got kids. Give it to me in navy.” – Marisa

“Weirdly, he makes these movies about these really unpleasant people, and I come out of them feeling like he’s the one I find hard to take, moreso than the characters.” – Jesse

What do these quotes mean in context? Listen and find out!

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It, The Goldfinch, and temporal mismatches

While it always feels a little gross to solicit praise for any of the big five (formerly six) movie studios, a microsecond of appreciation, please, maybe, for Warner Bros., a conglomerate that nonetheless saw fit to release two supersized literary adaptations in as many week. It Chapter Two may be a blockbuster, but it’s an expensive R-rated horror-movie adaptation of a very good book. The Goldfinch, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning bestseller, is unlikely to follow in its $200 million-or-so footsteps. But Warner made it anyway, tasking director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan with taming Tartt’s 800-page opus. That this sort of Oscar-hungry play can now feel like bittersweet nostalgia feels oddly appropriate to the movie does with its timeline—or what it hopes to do, anyway.

Like It, The Goldfinch weaves together its lead characters’ past and present, and has to make some temporal adjustments to do so. Stephen King’s seminal 1986 horror novel whips between 1986 and 30 years earlier, following the reunion of childhood friends and the story of how they became bonded together in the first place. (Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you may have intuited that killer clowns are involved.) Because the book is very long, the film adaptation has been split into two films, and the chronology re-organized: movie one is about the characters as kids, and Chapter Two is about the characters as adults.

The Goldfinch does the opposite: The book (I’m told) proceeds retrospectively but chronologically, following Theo, a boy who loses his mother in an art-museum terrorist attack, steals a painting from the rubble, and eventually becomes involved with antique-dealing and, by proxy, the Russian mob. The movie cuts between adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) and his younger self (Oakes Fegley).

Neither movie stays completely true to their narrative conceit. It Chapter Two, trying to forge cinematic bonds between the kids and their grown-up replacements, and presumably understanding how much audiences loved the kid characters in the first film, includes plenty of flashbacks to the timeline of the first movie (though the scenes are new, to the point where the kid actors are digitally de-aged, sometimes creepily and noticeably). The first half of The Goldfinch inevitably skews more toward the younger Theo, while the second half is heavier on Elgort, even though they’re both present all the way through.

It’s easy enough to suggest, backseat critic-style, that these adaptations should have left well enough alone, and trusted the structure of their source material, and that may be well be the case (as an It reader, it’s even more tempting to suggest that they should have just found a way to make one damn movie that works, instead of two that only kind of do). But movies are well-suited to these kinds of adjustments; prose sometimes needs to establish a pattern (alternating chapters) or hold up signposts, while movies can make time-jumps so concise. One shot of Fegley or Elgort, and you more or less know where you are; that goes double, or maybe times seven, for those It kids after spending a whole movie with them.

And that is exactly what makes both The Goldfinch and It such dispiriting, bittersweet-for-the-wrong-reasons experiences. The reunion angle of It is a major part of its primal power. The group of outcasts comes to rely on each other, rather than the various ineffectual adults in their lives, and team up to defeat a force of unfathomable evil (or at least beat it back into hiding). Later, when It resurfaces, they attempt to finish the job—and must remember old lives that they’ve let themselves forget. It’s a heightened, fantastical version of an old cliché: Hearing someone’s voice (in this case, the phonecalls from group historian Mike that kick off both Chapter Two and the original novel) and having memories flood back—or, stranger still, to feel the flood of memories knocking against a dam, but not quite breaking through yet.

The It movies simplify some of this into cheap insta-nostalgia. As fun as it is to see the talented kids back on their bikes for certain scenes of It Chapter Two, the movie is an object lesson in the trickiness of portraying youthful friendships and then translating them into adult roles. Those relationships are supposed to form the backbone of the newer film, as it introduces the grown-up versions of Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean). After the friends (or most of them, anyway) come together in their hometown, director Andy Muschietti nimbly edits together a series of haunted-house set pieces where each goes on a quest for a childhood “totem” to aid them in the fight against evil. Each character confronts a personal demon, provided by their collective demon, Pennywise the Clown. And each scene has a little flashback to the It kids, explaining the objects’ importance.

This is meant as an elegant solution to the book’s unwieldly narrative, and technically speaking, it is; Muschietti’s transitions between past and present are often graceful, and they’re true to the spirit of the original narrative. As it turns out, that includes the book’s unwieldiness, because the adults don’t really have as much to do, narratively speaking. In theory, mixing their solo adventures with kid flashbacks is clever; in practice, it’s repetitive, and often traps the charming kid actors from the first film in a series of exposition-laden moments that play like deleted scenes. Though that earlier movie had some overcrowding problems—leaving Eddie and Stanley feeling vaguely interchangeable and poor Mike barely developed at all—it at least had the space for some effective shorthanding of the group dynamic. Adding the adult versions doesn’t deepen those the relationships, with certain developments (like an unspoken longing experienced by Richie, well-played by Hader) feeling almost like retcons. The kids themselves become the movie’s totems, providing pithy bits of backstory in place of real emotional connection. It’s arguable that this is at least semi-intentional—that by their 40s, the characters’ childhood friendships (which most of them barely remember at the beginning of the film) are more symbolic than functional. A less sentimental movie might have better integrated that into the story; it’s telling that the bittersweet memory fades of King’s novel aren’t a major feature of the film’s postscript.

The Goldfinch only has one totem: that stolen painting Theo secrets away and takes with him as he bounces from a childhood friend’s well-to-do family in Manhattan to his actual father’s ne’er-do-well makeshift family out west. The film’s childhood scenes are busy and a little overwrought, but Crowley captures the details of childhood helplessness—the friendships that form in its wake, the routines that form, the alliances and negotiations. The rough-edged-yet-tender friendship between Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, who also appears in It) feels lived-in, yet somehow, when it resurfaces in adult form, it feels as phony and superficial as if the characters were being introduced for the first time. Forced to interact with what might feel like an entirely different movie, these past-present narratives become a minefield for the poor actors—none poorer than Ansel Elgort, who feels utterly adrift as the grown-up Theo, like he’s dressing as a famous literary character for Halloween. Finn Wolfhard, meanwhile, has to navigate this space twice, and while he’s not exactly bad in either movie, he has trouble forging much kinship with his adult counterparts: Bill Hader is basically doing his own thing, while while Aneurin Barnard (the older Boris) feels weirdly over-imitative of his younger self.

As in It Chapter Two, it’s possible to read the adult play-acting of The Goldfinch as an intentional reflection of arresting childhood traumas. It’s also possible to read it as a bad movie spliced into a good one—more so than It, which has some pleasures on the adult side of things even if they’re ultimately kinda self-negating. There’s something both magical and clumsy about the tricks these two movies play with time, not least because both movies are overlong to the point of distention. The way they stretch out, trying to encompass the fullness of years passing, of faces changing, of childhood traumas echoing, feels like an authentic struggle. It was a struggle even with the “realness” of Boyhood, where Richard Linklater really did film some of the same actors across twelve years of incremental, accumulating changes, but there the imperfections and hiccups and narrative detours felt, in their own way, true. It’s hard to fit life into a coherent. It Chapter Two and The Goldfinch find a more specialized, less moving truth: It’s hard to fit novels into movies.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Top Movies of Summer 1999

It’s the longest-running SportsAlcohol.com Podcast Franchise: Since 2014, we’ve been revisiting the top-grossing North American box office attraction of 20 years earlier, discussing how we feel about some of these movies with the fullness of time (or in the case of one 1999 movie, with the fullness of having watched it for the first time just days earlier). So, in the tradition of 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, and 1994 comes our take on the blockbusters of 1999, including:

    • The Sandman!
    • Will Smith’s best!… theme song
    • The future star of The Fanatic and Gotti!
    • Peak shagadelicism!
    • Toydarians!
    • AND MORE!!!

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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Quentin Tarantino (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)

Last month, Quentin Tarantino released (by his count) his ninth feature film, which is also (by his count) the second-to-last film he’ll ever direct. With the takes, thinkpieces, praise, and outrage flying thick and fast, your movie core at SportsAlcohol.com felt it was a good time to talk about every single movie Tarantino has directed so far, starting with his newest one. Hence our brand-new two-part episode: first, a rundown of what Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse thought about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; then, a consideration of how it relates to all of his other films. So strap into your death-proof cars, drop a needle onto some semi-obscure oldie that may actually be from another iconic film, and enjoy our discussion of all things QT. (Even that Four Rooms segment.)

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast: