August 27, 2006
Life and work

From Maud Newton comes the news that Paul Giamatti has signed on to play Philip K. Dick. But I had thought some other actor was cast as the science-fiction author. Reading the Guardian article, my confusion is resolved -- There are now two competiting Dick biopics. Bill Pullman will play the writer in the other one.

Giamatti doesn't yet have a director. But he does have a screenwriter, Tony Grisoni. The Brit has a... let's say interesting take on the film biographer. He plans to weave Dick's stories into the narrative of the writer's life. "I'm not really interested in the literal truth," Grisoni says.

Odd, then, that this is the project being produced by the Dick estate. But maybe it isn't so strange. Laura Leslie, Dick's eldest daughter, says she didn't want a film to be "'Let's focus on this guy's five wives and the drugs." Heirs are often reluctant to give approval to biographies, written or filmed. Dick's daughters may be shrewd in encouraging this one to focus on the work instead of the life.

Let them read Brown

Novelist Nick Hornby, writing in the Telegraph, makes an earnest plea that we read for enjoyment's sake:

"In Britain, more than 12 million adults have a reading age of 13 or less, and yet some clever-dick journalist still insists on telling us that unless we're reading something proper, we might as well not bother at all.

But what's proper? Whose books will make us more intelligent? Not mine, that's for sure. But has Ian McEwan got the right stuff? Julian Barnes? Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, E.M. Forster? Hardy or Dickens?

Those Dickens-readers who famously waited on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell - were they hoping to be educated? Dickens is literary now, of course, because the books are old.

But his work has survived not because he makes you think, but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters."

He also reveals why he reads:
"I'm a reader for lots of reasons. On the whole, I tend to hang out with readers, and I'm scared they wouldn't want to hang out with me if I stopped.

(They're interesting people, and they know a lot of interesting things, and I'd miss them.) I'm a writer, and I need to read, for inspiration and education and because I want to get better, and only books can teach me how.

Sometimes, yes, I read to find things out - as I get older, I feel my ignorance weighing more heavily on me. I want to know what it's like to be him or her, to live there or then.

I love the detail about the workings of the human heart and mind that only fiction can provide - film can't get in close enough."

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was one of the more pleasurable reading experiences I've had in the last five years.

Truth and fiction

My review of Peter Ackroyd's latest novel, The Lambs of London, is in the books section of today's Washington Times:

The prolific British writer specializes in historical fiction of the most creative type. "Chatterton," shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987, asked whether 18th-century English poet Thomas Chatterton really committed suicide at age 18. "The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde" tells the story of the Irish wit's last days in Wilde's own voice.

Mr. Ackroyd continues the tradition with his latest novel, "The Lambs of London." The Lambs of the title are ostensibly Charles and Mary Lamb, the brother and sister who in 1807 published the children's book "Tales from Shakespeare." But it may also refer to the many Londoners who fell for a particularly well-executed scam...

August 26, 2006
Show

I have two pieces in the Show section of Friday's Washington Times. One is a look at the film Quinceanera, which opens in DC this week. I talked to the filmmakers and stars of the movie that was made for just $500,000 and won two of the top awards at Sundance this year:

"Most reaction from the Latino press has been positive," says Mr. Glatzer. "But we've had people say, 'How dare you have two men with their shirts off in a movie called 'Quinceanera.' Our distributors were nervous."
I gave the movie three stars.

I also reviewed Wednesday's Steve Miller Band show at Wolf Trap.

August 18, 2006
Morality tales

My piece on French director Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," released this week on DVD by the Criterion Collection, is in today's Washington Times:

The "Six Moral Tales" all have the same basic plot: A man in love with one woman is tempted by another. That simple summary does nothing to get at the heart of Mr. Rohmer's singular cinema, however. Perhaps no director in the history of the genre has taken one seemingly small idea and done so much with it over the course of a career.
This box set is one of the year's notable DVD releases, containing some of the most interesting work any filmmaker has ever done. Anyone who doubts the worth of film as a narrative form should watch these movies. They're the closest things to novels we have on film, I think. The set includes a plethora of extras, even by Criterion standards, including some of Rohmer's short films, a book of his original "Moral Tales" short stories, and an excellent video afterward by Neil LaBute, which sheds light both on Rohmer's work and his own.

Poor André

Which is worse for André Previn? Getting divorced from the beautiful and talented Anne-Sophie Mutter? Or having the New York Post refer to you as merely "the Fight Club composer"?

But what if you can't?

I have a movie review in today's Washington Times:

Most romantic comedies throw up some sort of barrier between the hopeful couple. It may be a disapproving parent, some social more, or even a current spouse. Whatever it is, it's often external. But what if it's the man himself that's the problem?

That's the idea behind "Trust the Man," the latest cinematic collaboration between writer-director Bart Freundlich and his wife, actress Julianne Moore...

August 15, 2006
Minimalism in movies

My review of Philip Glass' score to the film The Illusionist, in stores today, is in today's Washington Times:

Soundtracks have a complicated place in the music world. Movie scores are written as incidental music; they're often most successful when they're barely noticed, adding to the film's unity but not overshadowing its other elements...

Booker and the bookies

The 2006 Man Booker Prize longlist was announced yesterday. Bookmakers have decreed that David Mitchell's Black Swan Green is the favorite, with 5-1 odds. I reviewed the novel, which I enjoyed greatly, for the Washington Times. Mitchell was shortlisted in 2004 for Cloud Atlas, but lost to Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.

Mitchell is beating out three former winners at the betting houses: Peter Carey, who is the second-favorite, Nadine Gordimer, and Barry Unsworth. Hisham Matar is the only debut author on the list.

Notably missing are Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh.

Agence France-Presse has a rather amusing line in its story on the Booker: "Last year's winner was 'The Sea' by John Banville, with the award helping propel the book to sales of almost 250,000 copies." Sales have little connection to quality, of course, but it's a bit funny to hear the word "propel" in the same sentence as "sales of almost 250,000 copies."

This year's shortlist of six will be announced on September 14 and the final winner will be announced on October 10. This year's chair of the judges is Hermione Lee, the distinguished biographer of Virginia Woolf. The other judges are poet Simon Armitage, novelist Candia McWilliam, freelance writer Anthony Quinn, and actress Fiona Shaw.

Here's the full list of Booker competitors:

1) Peter Carey - "Theft: A Love Story"
2) Kiran Desai - "The Inheritance of Loss"
3) Robert Edric - "Gathering the Water"
4) Nadine Gordimer - "Get A Life"
5) Kate Grenville - "The Secret River"
6) MJ Hyland - "Carry Me Down"
7) Howard Jacobson - "Kalooki Nights"
8) James Lasdun - "Seven Lies"
9) Mary Lawson - "The Other Side of the Bridge"
10) Jon McGregor - "So Many Ways To Begin"
11) Hisham Matar - "In The Country of Men"
12) Claire Messud - "The Emperor's Children"
13) David Mitchell - "Black Swan Green"
14) Naeem Murr - "The Perfect Man"
15) Andrew O'Hagan - "Be Near Me"
16) James Robertson - "The Testament of Gideon Mack"
17) Edward St Aubyn - "Mother's Milk"
18) Barry Unsworth - "The Ruby In Her Navel"
19) Sarah Waters - "The Night Watch"

August 14, 2006
Summer reading

I've compiled two summer reading lists that are very much worth your time. I asked some of the smartest young people who would answer my e-mails about their summer reading plans. My first compilation, published in Brainwash, includes contributions from, among others, Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher, David Skinner of Doublethink and the Weekly Standard, CEI's Peter Suderman, and uber-bloggers Julian Sanchez and Eve Tushnet.

I had hoped to post some other responses to my query -- a lot of notables couldn't get me their lists by my deadline -- on this website. But I received so many great ones that I decided to publish another compilation, this time with a couple of mini book reviews from me.

This second list is in the American Enterprise and features contributions from, among others, Stefan Beck and James Panero of the New Criterion, American Conservative literary editor Daniel McCarthy, and Reason managing editor Jesse Walker. (How's that for spanning the spectrum?)

I should mention that the American Enterprise column is my last for the magazine. I spent over two years as the books columnist there and it was a great experience. I was free to choose whichever books I liked to review without editorial interference, and read everything from The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker to The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. I had a little fun with the column now and then, even inspiring an amusing e-mail from one of my targets (whom I always approached lightheartedly), Judith Regan. It was a difficult decision to make, but the demands of my new job at the Times combined with other writing projects (that I'm either working on or would like to work on) proved to be too much.

On the subject of summer reading, I've actually managed to read more books this summer so far than I thought I'd have time for. Besides the ones mentioned in my columns, I can think of a number of very good books I've read this summer: Dawn Powell's Turn, Magic Wheel, Steve Martin's Shopgirl, Francine Prose's Lives of the Muses, and, most recently, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Mrs. Dalloway. These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I'm not used to reading, guilt-free, books I'm not reviewing. (My review of Peter Ackroyd's latest should be published this Sunday, though.) So this has been very freeing. I suppose half of these are books I've just bought and the other half are books I've had on my shelves for who knows how long. People sometimes criticize me for owning so many books I haven't read. But it makes it very easy to just select something that suits my current mood without having to wait for an Amazon order or stand in line at Borders.

What I do feel guilty about, however, is not writing anything about these books here. But do people still care about books that haven't been publishing within the last year -- or even decade? I certainly hope so.

Thought for the day

"I absolutely do not read reviews. Critics are working for somebody - an imagined audience. They like actors to follow expectations. Before, critics like David Robinson helped us to find our mistakes and helped the audience to understand our values. I can mention other names of great English, French and Italian critics. But this period is over and now critics are giving only stars and following what they think an imagined audience would like to have. Forget them!"

--István Szabó

August 11, 2006
Show

I have two pieces in the Show section of today's Washington Times. One is a commentary on the debate over rising admission prices at art museums:

Fans will shell out upward of $800 apiece for tickets to Barbra Streisand's upcoming concert tour. But ask people to spend $20 to see one of the world's greatest collections of visual art, and an uproar ensues...
The other is an interview with that quintessential teen idol, David Cassidy.

Over 50 hours of the master

In my Washington Times television column yesterday, I drew attention to some great weekend programming. It starts tonight (Friday) at 8 and continues until the wee hours of Monday morning:

Alfred Hitchcock's birthday is Sunday, but cable's Encore Mystery is starting the celebration early with a weekend of the suspense master's films beginning tomorrow.

The debut of "Hitchcocked!" a half-hour special airing at 8 p.m., explores the work of the British director, who died at age 80 in 1980.

"Hitchcock has influenced just about every filmmaker," one observer notes at the beginning of the documentary. Filmmakers young and old -- including James Wan, the twentysomething director of "Saw," and Larry Cohen, the 68-year-old TV mystery veteran and writer of the 2002 feature "Phone Booth" -- discuss his techniques and themes, as do a few film critics and historians.

Unfortunately, there are no really big names here. We don't get to hear firsthand how Mr. Hitchcock influenced today's crop of Hollywood filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg or Brian De Palma. Still, the contributors are intelligent commentators who cover the main themes of Mr. Hitchcock's work -- "innocence in jeopardy," voyeurism and sexual dysfunction -- and trace his influence. One commentator, for example, describes director David Lynch as "Hitchcock on acid."

On the other hand, "Hitchcocked!" is almost too meaty. We hear line after great line about the great director's work but barely get a chance to digest them all.

Mr. Hitchcock was a rare auteur, as popular as he was serious. He was also a consummately visual filmmaker, which can be seen through the documentary's liberal use of clips from his treasure trove of classics, including "Vertigo," "Rear Window" and "Psycho."

As "Waking the Dead" director Keith Gordon says, "You don't like Hitchcock, you kind of don't like movies."

August 08, 2006
Yikes

Some critics complain of snarky reviews. Here's an example of snark marvelously done: Cristina Nehring's review of Erica Jong's Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life in the latest Atlantic:

Who is this heartless woman? Could it really be the late twentieth century's great defender of erotic love? The woman who claimed, in Fear of Fifty, that she still adored each one of her many ex-partners, that in fact "I even love them better than I did when we were together, because now I have more empathy"? Empathy? The only emotion visible in the hodgepodge of Jong's latest "memoir" is narcissism. All her politics have dwindled to vanity -- and a vague sense of aggrievement. Perhaps she feels the human race hasn't accorded her the adulation she deserves, but where once she was the Feminist Who Loved Men she now comes off as the Slut Who Hates Them.
I recommend reading the whole thing. The end is particularly tight.

Thought for the day

Vic: "Did you understand the script?"
Reader: "No."
Vic: "That's what makes it indie."

--IFC's The Business

Buy this album

The best CD I've listened to in a long time is Dirty Pretty Things' Waterloo to Anywhere. My review of the album, which comes out today, is in the Washington Times:

The dissolution of the Libertines 2 1/2 years ago was one of the most lamented -- and infamous -- of band breakups in recent years. Frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barat co-wrote two albums together, released in 2002 and 2004, that helped reinvigorate British music. However, Mr. Doherty's well-publicized struggles with cocaine and heroin abuse caused a rift with his partner, culminating in a prison sentence for burglary when Mr. Doherty broke into Mr. Barat's apartment.

That falling out may have been the best thing that ever happened to Mr. Barat, if his latest project is any indication...

August 07, 2006
Lynch on Lynch

Publishers Lunch reports on a new book deal: "Filmmaker David Lynch's book providing insight to his personal methods as an artist." Sounds intriguing. David Lynch is one of the few directors (Woody Allen is another one) who has never done a director's commentary track on DVD. But I doubt he'll do something that many of his fans would salivate over, which is to explain his films. He's said many times that he would rather viewers take away their own interpretations of his work.

Scoop

My review of Woody Allen's latest movie, Scoop, is not online. So here it is, from the July 28 edition of the Washington Times:

Woody Allen finally has found a new muse.

It's not clear yet whether it's the city of London or actress Scarlett Johansson, but one of them -- or maybe both -- has helped revitalize the director's career.

After a string of so-so films over the past decade, Mr. Allen returned to form with last year's "Match Point" and maintains that momentum with "Scoop," his funniest film since 1998's "Celebrity."

"Scoop" opens with the funeral of Joe Strombel, a London journalist of the old school who would do anything for a scoop -- especially if it involves paying bribes.

Cut to a Bergman-esque scene in which a boat full of unfortunates moves through the mist. Joe Strombel (Ian McShane of "Deadwood," gruffly funny) is trying to bribe the Grim Reaper. It doesn't work. Strombel soon meets Jane Cook (Fenella Woolgar), the recently deceased secretary of aristocrat Peter Lyman. She's certain the reason she was killed was that she discovered Lyman, the son of a lord, is London's notorious "Tarot Card Killer."

Strombel can't believe his poor luck; it's his best scoop yet, but he can't take advantage of it. He's determined that someone will.

Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) is an eager and ambitious young American journalism student. She's also a bit naive: She hops into bed with a big-time film director -- without snagging the interview she had sought.

She may not be the ideal choice for surrogate journalistic sleuth -- but when, like Strombel, you're an ectoplasmic specter, well, you take what you can get. When Sondra is plucked from the audience at a magic show and placed in magician Splendini's (Mr. Allen) "dematerializer," Strombel manages to appear to her long enough to offer her the story.

Sondra soon enlists the reluctant Splendini -- real name Sid Waterman -- to help crack the case. That gets complicated when Sondra falls in love with the suspect. Hugh Jackman's Peter Lyman is sweet, sophisticated and sexy. Could he really be a serial killer?

The story is an old-fashioned murder mystery in "The Thin Man" tradition, complete with a classical music score from Grieg and Tchaikovsky. It's a little like Mr. Allen's 1993 film "Manhattan Murder Mystery," just as "Match Point" bore more than a passing similarity to 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors." However, these are more than just the same stories recycled for a London setting.

In Miss Johansson, Mr. Allen finally may have found his new Diane Keaton. Miss Johansson couldn't be more different from the cerebral star of "Annie Hall," however. She's much more earthy. In "Scoop," her earnest cub reporter is hidden behind an unflattering pair of spectacles for most of the movie. The few times she removes them, she's transformed into a sexpot.

Sid Waterman is the perfect role for Mr. Allen. He's too old to be chasing starlets anymore. In "Scoop," he plays a father figure. The Allen-Johansson pairing is superb. The jokey banter between the two has perfect comic timing. "You're the daughter I never had," Sid tells Sondra. "That's so sweet," she responds. "No, I'm kidding," he quickly says. "I never wanted kids."

In a movie in which some of the acting seems a little too stagey, Mr. Allen, with his mini-stand-up routines, may be the finest actor in the cast. "You see the glass as half-empty," Sondra complains. "No, I see it as half full," Sid counters. "But of poison." Miss Johansson reveals a wonderful talent for comedy, making up for the moments when she seems to be trying a bit too hard.

In finding a fresh locale, a youthful partner and a new place for himself in front of the camera, Woody Allen has scored his best scoop in years.

(Three and a half stars out of four.)

By the way

Am I the only one that thinks Fiona Apple sounds a lot like Queen at times?

August 04, 2006
Thought for the day

"What made you choose the life of the writer over the life of the academic?

I don’t really feel that I had a choice. Graduate school was driving me quite literally insane. I wanted a different approach to the work. I just felt that the passion I felt as a reader was not being reflected by my professors and by my future colleagues. I don’t know what they were doing, but it wasn’t what I was doing. And I don’t know how they were reading, but it wasn’t the way I was reading. When I look at the list of papers presented at an MLA convention, I still get that same feeling of What are these people talking about? It was extremely alienating, because in theory we were all talking about the same (as they would say) 'texts,' but I really, literally could not understand."

--Francine Prose, interviewed at The Atlantic Monthly

Showtime

I have three pieces in today's Show section of the Washington Times:


August 03, 2006
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, RIP

German soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has died at the age of 90. No cause of death has been given yet.

My favorite recording of hers might be Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs under the baton of George Szell. She was one of the greatest of Strauss interpreters. This album is certainly a good place to start if you're looking to explore Strauss' genius and Schwarzkopf's mastery.

August 02, 2006
Tidal wave

My review of Fiona Apple's Monday night concert at Wolf Trap is in today's Washington Times:

A critic might be nervous about writing a less-than-stellar review of a Fiona Apple concert. During one New York show, Miss Apple became frustrated with what she saw as sound problems. She cursed the press in attendance with a profanity-laced tirade, saying, "Put your notebooks away. If there are any critics here who give me a bad review because of this I'll ... kill you."

Given that, I'll preface my remarks by saying that Miss Apple is an incredibly talented young woman...

August 01, 2006
Thought for the day

"The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are all probably going to heaven, and Vandyck is, we hope, to meet us round the next corner--that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day's work breed between them."

--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own