If you're surprised to hear that M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out this week and wonder why you hadn't heard about his return to the director's chair, it's because that was precisely the idea. His new film After Earth (released on Friday) is a soul-smushingly boring sci-fi flick about a monster-infested future Earth that stars Will and Jaden Smith. The fact that the marketing department of the project took great pains to downplay Shyamalan's role is the only interesting part about it.
There was a time at the tail end of the '90s that gun-jumping critics and fans hailed Shyamalan as the "next Hitchcock." 1999's The Sixth Sense was borderline classic. Unbreakable andSigns also showed his promise as a director who could deliver thrills and dark drama. But beginning with 2004's The Village, Shyamalan embarked on a road to acute mediocrity, which then merged onto a highway of insipid aimlessness, which then plummeted off an unfinished overpass of "Why Are You Still Here?"
This rapid degeneration has made him into a critical and pop-cultural punchline, which was apparently not lost on the the people marketing his new film. The AP reports:
While Shyamalan's name is the first to pop up in the credits at the conclusion of the Sony Pictures film, it's been notably missing from trailers, TV commercials and marketing signage—a stark contrast to his previous films like Unbreakable and Lady in the Water, which were prominently billed as being "from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan."
Much in the same way that a marketing campaign will go out of its way not to use the word "gay" when promoting a film about two despondent gay cowboys, the marketing campaign for After Earth has gone out of its way not to mention the words "M. Night Shyamalan." That sort of tells you everything you need to know about how highly Sony thinks of the 42-year-old director and his current standing. Ditto the movie.
JesseEisenberg prepares for his roles the same way just about any other responsible actor would: He does his research.
In 2007'sThe Hunting Party, Eisenberg played a TV news reporter and wannabe war correspondent. The film, also starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, is loosely based on an Esquire article from October 2000 that tells the true story of how three American and two European journalists accidentally set off an international incident after drunkenly deciding to hunt for a fugitive Serbian war criminal hiding out in Bosnia. To prepare for this role, Eisenberg hung out with members of the real-life "party," which included author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger (whom Eisenberg calls a "total badass").
His latest film, released on Friday, is action director Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me (Summit Entertainment, 116 minutes). Eisenberg plays J. Daniel Atlas, a cocky Vegas illusionist who steals from the wealthy and wicked and then literally showers the money onto his working-class audiences. Eisenberg teams up with Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco as a band of Robin Hood-like criminals who routinely outsmart and mystify an FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo and an Interpol officer played by Mélanie Laurent.
To prep for this "intense character," as he put it, the 29-year-old actor became an amateur magician.
The new season of the critically acclaimed cult comedy Arrested Development finally happened (on Netflix in lieu of Fox). And for those who have already made it to the end of the fourth season's 15 episodes, you heard this new, and most likely unfamiliar, pop song play over the final episode's end credits:
The song, released as a single last week, is "Boomerang" by Lucy Schwartz, a 23-year-old Los-Angeles-based pianist and singer/songwriter. The tune will appear on her next album, Timekeeper, which comes out August 6.
Is Britain's Laura Marling the modern Joni Mitchell? Her stellar fourth album underscores the similarities, among them ringing acoustic guitar, insistent vocals that linger on high notes, and cliché-free songwriting rooted in folk-music traditions.
But Marling is nobody's disciple, and the hour-long Once I Was an Eagle takes its own distinctive head trip in the course of 16 bracing tracks. Songs flow from one into the next like movements of a single suite as she reflects on desire, loneliness and the impulse toward self-realization that inevitably reinforces isolation at the expense of connection. "We are so alone / There's nothing we can share / You can get me on the telephone / But you won't keep me there," she sings in "Master Hunter." On "Pray for Me," she declares, "I will not love, I want to be alone."
While such sentiments might seem self-indulgent in lesser hands, she's a reliably stirring chronicler of the heart's colder recesses.
Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra (which premieres Sunday, May 26 at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO) is as good as you've heard. It's a moving and beautifully made film that traces the clandestine half-decade romance between Vegas showman and pianist Liberace and his much, much younger live-in boyfriend Scott Thorson, who cowrote the 1988 memoir on which the film is based. (My colleague Maggie Caldwell has a good reflection on, among other things, meeting the flashy and famous entertainment icon when she was a baby here.)
The whole cast does a superb job; as Liberace, Michael Douglas crafts a portrait of celebrity isolation and capriciousness worthy of an Oscar nomination—if only he were eligible.
The reason he is not eligible is because Behind the Candelabra, despite competing in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, will not be released in US theaters. And the reason you will be watching this film (which could very well be Soderbergh's last before he retires from movies and moves on to making TV shows full time) on cable television instead of at your local multiplex is because of its conspicuous gayness.
During a press tour in January, Soderbergh explained how he was turned down by every studio he approached with his Liberace project because executives deemed it "too gay" to turn an acceptable profit:
Nobody would make it. We went to everybody in town. We needed $5 million. Nobody would do it…They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us…[The people at HBO are] great and they're really good at what they do, and ultimately I think more people will see it, and that's all you care about. Studios were going, "We don't know how to sell it." They were scared.
This is the same Hollywood that still hasn't come to terms with showing a black man and a white woman having passionate sex on-screen.
The film does indeed have its share of gay love and intercourse, including a sweaty, grunting sequence in which Scott (played by Matt Damon) is taking Liberace from behind while the aging performer offers him drugs to take during sex. But the Hollywood rejection shouldn't have been all that shocking to Soderbergh and company. Hollywood and mainstream cinema have a long and well-documented history of not "knowing" how to "sell" and market movies featuring explicit gay sex to a wide audience.
Films starring big names that also deal with gay sexual content—such as the sweet 2009 comedy I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as prison lovers—typically do not fare too well at the box office. (It's worth noting that Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 Oscar-winner that Soderbergh referenced on his press tour, included a marketing and publicity strategy that went out of its way not to mention even the word "gay.")
Hands down, Fast & Furious 6 is by far the best movie ever made to feature Ludacris and Tyrese trapped in a Jeep dangling inches off the ground from an imperiled cargo plane.
And there is so, so much more to cherish about the film.
The Fast & Furious franchise has become genuinely fascinating over the last couple of years. One of the most fascinating things about the series is the addition of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the ultra-brawny Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs, a character who seemingly cannot go ten minutes without torturing somebody for information. Another fascinating thing is that after a long stretch of churning out barely passable B-movies, the series somehow managed to produce critically acclaimed entertainment, starting with 2011's Fast Five. (The sixth film has received similarly high marks.) Credit for the newfound critic-and-crowd-pleasing goes to Taiwanese-born American filmmaker Justin Lin, who initially demonstrated the full extent of his directorial talents with the stereotype-subverting independent film Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002.
But the single most fascinating thing about the series so far is the enormous tank in Fast & Furious 6. The tank is arguably the main character in the movie.
This TV series—about a spoiled family wading through a glut of personal, financial, and international scandal—occupies a place in popular culture that few other shows have managed to reach. Fans have even witnessed Arrested Development burrow itself into Western politics. In March 2011, before NATO forces launched an air war that would help topple Moammar Qaddafi's mass-murdering regime in Libya, TheNew Republic ran a fantastic slideshow comparing the notorious Qaddafi family to Arrested Development's Bluth clan. During a speech this month in the House of Commons of Canada, opposition leader Thomas Mulcair quoted a famous episode of Arrested Development while criticizing the prime minister for over $3 billion in unaccounted anti-terrorism funding. And as the series revival neared, Republicans started dropping Arrested Development references to ridicule the Affordable Care Act, Democratic leadership, and the Obama administration.
The series has also found its way into the syllabi of college courses, and onto the pages of academic essays. "The writers worked miracles addressing philosophical and social issues," says J. Jeremy Wisnewski, an associate professor of philosophy at Hartwick College who served as a volume editor on the book Arrested Development and Philosophy. "To see the way race, gender, sexual orientation, and class are handled in the show is to witness genius at work."
There's something else the show handled so well that's often taken for granted: During its original run on Fox from 2003 to 2006,the series delivered what was arguably the sharpest satire of the Bush era and the Iraq War that has been broadcast on television.
The 2009 action-comedy "Zombieland," starring Jesse Eisenberg (above) and Emma Stone, is one of the films that the NRA's magazine has endorsed as really awesome.
When conservatives try to list their favorite pop-culture items to make a political point, the results are often baffling. In 2005, Human Events released the list of "Most Harmful Books" written in the 19th and 20th centuries (Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill are put in the same league as Hitler and Mao). The following year, National Review compiled a much-discussed "50 greatest conservative rock songs," which for whatever bizarre reason included Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun." In 2012, the Telegraph declared their brazenly idiotic "top 10 conservative movies of the modern era." And just over a week ago, the American Enterprise Institute posted the "21 greatest conservative rap songs of all time," which prominently features Justin Bieber.
And now AmericanRifleman, the National Rifle Association's shooting and firearms consumer magazine, has published its official list of the 10 "Coolest Gun Movies." Writes American Rifleman blogger Paul Rackley, "Many of these movies also take us back to simpler times, when dreaming of saving the day got us through that oh-so boring class." Here's his list:
Radiation City Animals in the Median
Tender Loving Empire
Dreamy and wistful is the default mode for plenty of modern bands that haven't figured out who they want to be when they grow up, but the striking Portland, Oregon quintet Radiation City shows how to do it right. Their second album, Animals in the Median, shimmers like a unearthly mirage, weaving together misty melodies, analog electronics and the siren vocals of keyboardist Lizzy Ellison to create a poignant sense of faded optimism and missed opportunities. Hazy gems such as "Wash of Noise" and "Lark" echo the melancholy retro-futurism of Stereolab, albeit with a more delicate touch, while the gauzy "Wary Eyes" evokes the gently eerie sensation of hearing soft music from another room at 3 a.m. Ellison and company could create a great soundtrack for David Lynch.
You know how when you get a song stuck in your head, you're not always sure how it burrowed its way in there? Well, people who attended The National's May 5 performance at New York's MoMA PS1 museum can be pretty damned sure. Over a six-hour period, the band played "Sorrow," off its 2010 release, High Violet, 105 times in a row.
The special performance, aptly dubbed "A Lot of Sorrow," was technically a work created by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson as part of his ongoing "explorations into the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound."
The following clip, supposedly starting around 2 hours and 40 minutes into the show, includes three of the repetitions.
During a Reddit AMA three days later, a band member reflected:
Actually as the hours went on I think we all realized that this experience was something special for us—there was a weird hypnotic resonance and spirituality to repeating the song over and over. We almost didn't want to stop and we learned something about our capacity for endurance and the song opened up in surprising ways...By the end it didn't feel like we were playing it anymore. We know the idea seemed pretentious in some way, but Ragnar has this mix of humor and sadness that feels quite similar to what our songs about...We're very glad to have done it.
This week, The National, follows up its hypnotic performance with the release of Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth studio album, on the 4AD label.
Trouble Will Find Me
Trouble... is replete with the usual mix of sorrow, longing, depression, and nearly infrasonic tone of singer Matt Berninger's voice that fans of The National have come to know and love. But some of the tracks still provide you with the opportunity to rock out, lest you need a break from your whimpering.
For example, there's "Sea of Love," the video of which the band premiered during its AMA. A fan had asked, "What is your guys' favourite music video?" Whereupon the band replied, craftily, "Actually there's one video that we all really love, so we made this homage." They revealed the link to the new video. And the sleuthing promptly began for the original.
A single-take shot in a sparse, nondescript room, with nothing but a dangling microphone, air-conditioning unit, and boy wandering in from off-screen: It didn't look familiar.
Nor should it. It mimics a video for a song first released in 1995—in Russia—by Soviet-era punk band Zvuki Mu. The song title, "Grubiy Zakat," means "Rough Sunset." Check it out:
Bryce Dessner, who plays guitar for The National, told PRI's The World that he "fell in love with it immediately" when he first saw the video on YouTube. "We have to do something like this," he told his bandmates.
They reached out to Zvuki Mu, but were unable to track down any of its members. Obviously, that didn't deter them from making their own version.
Next up for The National: a vinyl version of their six-hour MoMA performance for charity. Seriously.
If the new album, epic vinyl repetition party, and homage to a Soviet video aren't enough for you, you can get more of The National in movie form. Singer Matt Berninger's brother Tom was brought on tour as a roadie and ended up making a haphazard documentary about the band called Mistaken for Strangers. If you can make it to Australia by June, you can catch the next screening at the Sydney Film Festival. I'll leave you with the trailer.