Kate Winslet wanders into the alienation of suburbia in the near-brilliant "Little Children." Elsewhere, "Deliver Us from Evil" chills the blood and Tina Fey gets too big for her britches.
Looking over the below list, I see that this installment is overrun with sex offenders (both fictional and real) and a plethora of confessional singer-songwriters. A very odd juxtaposition, to be sure.
Little Children (New Line Cinema)
In the Bedroom, Todd Field’s first feature, was three-fourths of a magnificent film, an assured, mature drama that frittered away its momentum with a marginal last act. Little Children is more of the same, an exceptionally rendered piece with enough great moments and sequences to suggest the depth of Field’s talent but also enough false notes, bad decisions, and questionable character motivations that will drive his admirers stark raving mad.
Field’s thematic model for Little Children is Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s great, sympathetic satire of a young man living in a rarefied world he can’t control or really understand. Little Children (based on the Tom Perrotta novel) transplants that alienation to the suburbs. And after mediocre picket-fence nightmare fables like American Beauty, Happiness, and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Little Children feels smart and kind, not smug or glib, and while Field hasn’t lost a shred of his self-seriousness, the movie rarely veers into preciousness.
I recognize the many flaws this film has – don’t even get me started on the ending, which I can only assume made sense in the novel – but I can’t tolerate the curt dismissals of those who feel that we’ve "seen" this movie already, that Field is simply mocking these deeply unhappy people. Why then is the creepy sex offender a fully realized, heartbreaking character? Why then do we find ourselves both recognizing the failings of middle-class life and sympathizing with these people’s dreams for some sort of tranquil fairy tale? And why then do we know without a doubt that Field wants us to care about these flawed little children and see ourselves in them?
Deliver Us from Evil (Lionsgate)
Amy Berg’s urge to advocate is commendable, but I think it lessens what is otherwise a superb but slightly unfocused documentary. A three-dimensional portrait of a professional pedophile. An investigation of the hypocrisy within the Catholic Church. A compelling account of how the psychic wounds of sexual abuse extend beyond the victims and out toward their families for years to come. A report on those who are trying to change the Vatican’s inflexible doctrines from within. Any of these four narratives would have made for a great film, but the intermingling of them creates a cacophony of ideas that doesn’t always congeal – especially when Berg gets distracted from her straightforward (but still damning) profile of Father Oliver O’Grady, the disgraced priest whose horrible confession of the many young children he abused angers us, especially since his evilness is so subtle and therefore so blood-chilling.
The Pernice Brothers, Live a Little (Ashmont Records)
His is a career so minor that you’d expect that his pretty songs would eventually harden with bitterness or the fading of inspiration. Except they don’t. Joe Pernice knows his niche and he’s going to drill until he finds every last scrap of gold in it – he doesn’t have enough transcendent moments, but his songs are so consistently solid that too many of us take their lazy melodic sighs for granted.
Live a Little reaches its peak at the end, on the remake of one of his older songs, "Grudge F***," where his slightly sardonic sadness gives way to pure beauty and the background singers, guitars, and piano all rally around the tune’s stoned late-night booty call to an ex-girlfriend. Before that, he’s Joe Pernice – pining, joking, looking at the glass as half empty, trying hard enough to make sure the songs sound as sweet as possible, but never worrying about their permanent placement in the firmament of sad love songs. Sometimes, I wish he’d give more of a damn. But that would negate the bookish, wallflower casualness that keeps him from getting bitter.
Howie Beck, Howie Beck (Ever Records)
You think you can figure him out from his bio. He’s from Toronto; his sound is described as "bedroom recordings." But while there’s a cozy comfort to his material, he doesn’t sound like he’s afraid of sunlight or girls – and he doesn’t act like he’s too smart for the room, bedroom or otherwise. His voice stays around a whisper, but he swears and vents like a regular guy. And the slide guitar and country leanings are grace notes, enlivening songs that already had a strong pulse. When he picks up the acoustic guitar and goes for Beatles-ish melody, he’ll fight the Elliott Smith comparison every time. He’s not as undeniable as Smith, but he’s also less erratic, less consumed by darkness – although "Lay Down" is certainly the kind of sinister love song Smith would have been proud to own.
Adem, Love and Other Planets (Domino Records)
Fall leaves, the bite of a chill in the air, the earlier nightfall – Adem’s music could possibly be enjoyed any time of year, but it’s unquestionably the soundtrack to autumn, just as much as Automatic for the People or most of Jay Farrar’s output. Trying to isolate what it is exactly that makes me feel that way about Love and Other Planets, I focused on a few things: the moaning organ, Adem’s low groan of a voice, the almost total absence of sunshine in these muted arrangements. None of this should suggest that Adem is a gloom-meister – he’s just bundling up and fortifying himself for the long winter to come. Anybody with seasonal depression will relate to the struggle for hope amidst the tears. And anybody with a soft heart will love "X Is for Kisses," where he tells his girl how much he adores her by using every letter in the alphabet.
Irving, Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers (Eenie Meanie Records)
I caught them live unintentionally – they opened for the band I was there to see. I was outnumbered – Irving has a solid L.A. following, and the majority of the crowd was there for them. I noted that Irving had a good amount of poppy energy, and that the guys in the band looked like they were barely older than the youngish fans bopping along to every song. On disc, the live energy is replaced by a playful-enough devouring of different musical styles – New Wave, indie pop, the outer realms of goth – but I find myself only sorta half paying attention. There are hooks, but they don’t rearrange my nervous system in any discernible way. But if someone else wants to pop it into the CD player, hey, I won’t complain.
Tina Fey on 30 Rock (Wednesdays on NBC)
Cute and smart she may be, but what even her fans fail to admit – and I used to be one of them – is that she can’t, uh, act. Now, it’s not that she’s a bad actress, but where her smart-ass sass worked well behind the desk of Weekend Update, she seems a bit out of her element here. She shouldn’t feel too bad – neither Craig Kilborn nor Jon Stewart was much of an actor either. But what bugs is the narcissism that started creeping into Update once she started getting significant press. That self-congratulatory streak was tolerable when she ruled the roost, but on a hit-and-miss sitcom still struggling to find its legs, it smacks of indulgence and unchecked ego. I mean, shouldn’t she just relax and figure out that Alec Baldwin’s the star anyway?
It’s the song featured in those Chevy commercials during the baseball playoffs. If you only know it from those spots – lots of waves of grain and American flags and proud people looking into the camera – it would seem like one more jingoistic piece of rah-rah. But while there’s a certain amount of artistic compromise inherent in letting your song be used to sell cars – and, not to mention, keep your name in the minds of consumers – the song’s full meaning almost redeems that compromise. "Our Country" is very much in the Mellencamp tradition – he likes regular people and he detests anybody from the outside muscling in on them – and its message is simple. The country – its ideals, its system of right and wrong, its promise – belongs to us, not them. Mellencamp makes the tune common, sing-along, rousing. It won’t measure up with his best, but I can only hope that a small fraction of the people who’ll hear it over and over again in 30-second chunks decide to give it a listen in its entirety.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.