March 30, 2007
On the town

I had a great time in New York last weekend. But I couldn't fit in everything I wanted to do, so I'm going back today. I saw Joan Didion's play The Year of Magical Thinking, but I'll save my thoughts for the magazine piece I'm writing on it.

I also saw Murray Perahia play Avery Fisher Fall. He's one of my favorite pianists and was one of the main reasons for my trip. It was a wide-ranging program, with Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann. This New York Sun review gets a bit closer to my feelings than the New York Times review, although I have to disagree with the critic's somewhat tepid notes on the Chopin.

I was less than impressed, however, with the New York audience. Talking during the performance, even a cell phone going off -- which rang and rang, its possessor perhaps too embarrassed to shut it off and admit ownership. What took the cake, however, was the couple that came in late. They walked down the aisle just after the pianist finished the first piece, a Beethoven sonata. Then they stood there, inexplicably waiting until he started playing again before they decided to go to their seats. This was accompanied by apologies out loud that could be heard eight rows up. The pianist had just begun playing a Bach partita -- and I'm most fond of Murray Perahia's Bach.

In print

I have four pieces in today's Washington Times:

I reviewed Into Great Silence, a documentary that follows the daily lives of Carthusian monks:

Film is a visual medium. But few of its current practitioners make their art only through images.

That's one of the reasons the documentary Into Great Silence (Die Grosse Stille) is so astonishing. The film has very little dialogue and even less of a plot.

Yet, it's entirely engrossing...

I reviewed The Lookout, which I found didn't quite live up to its promise:

Scott Frank has had a distinguished career writing intelligent, noir-ish films.

He made his name in 1991 when Dead Again, just his second screenplay, was turned into a clever movie by Kenneth Branagh. He adapted two Elmore Leonard novels into the acclaimed films Get Shorty and Out of Sight. The second, a Steven Soderbergh film, got the writer an Oscar nomination in 1999 for best adapted screenplay. He then turned a Philip K. Dick story into Minority Report for Steven Spielberg.

The Lookout, the writer's directorial debut, follows in the same thematic tradition. The script isn't as tight as those he previously wrote, however. As talented as Mr. Frank is, The Lookout raises the question of how much of his previous success had to do with such accomplished collaborators as Messrs. Branagh, Soderbergh and Spielberg...

I wrote the Beyond Hollywood column, profiling a website that bills itself as an online film festival:

Al Gore isn't the only former Democratic senator who ran for president in 2000 moving into the world of small films.

Bill Bradley is one of eight luminaries listed in the "advisors and investors" section of The new site offers viewers access to a huge library of independent and world cinema.

The collaboration may not be as odd as it seems. The start-up, whose online doors opened just six weeks ago, has the same lofty goal as some politicians: to bring people together...

I also reviewed the new Showtime miniseries The Tudors. Some of it was cut for space, so I'm printing it here with some cuts restored:

The Tudors, Showtime's new miniseries, is insouciant about history, sometimes anachronistic and seems to have been created simply to give HBO a run for its money.

It's also completely addictive.

The 10-part series, which cost $42 million to make, premieres on the cable channel Sunday night at 10. It aims at nothing less than making us rethink an icon.

We're all familiar with the fat, pompous Henry VIII from Hans Holbein's famous portrait. The Tudors offers us something rather different: The attractive, magnetic young king he was before that.

Producers have found just the man for the part in Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Woody Allen's Match Point, CBS' miniseries Elvis): He's intelligent, sexy, decisive, headstrong but not out of control. What more could you want in a king?

The very first scenes establish the tone of The Tudors. "We meet to consider questions of great moment," Henry tells his gathered advisers. It's around 1520, and Henry, not yet 30, has been on the throne for a decade.

The French have murdered England's ambassador in Urbino -- Henry's own uncle. With his advisers' agreement, he decides to declare war. But Henry can't be bothered with the details. He tells Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) to arrange matters. "Now," the king says, "I can go play."

This recreation involves some very strenuous exercise with a comely blonde. His first words to her after they've finished: "How is your husband?"

The Tudors has a steamy mix of sex and politics. Comparisons to such HBO series as The Sopranos and Rome are inevitable. Tudors has the same generous helpings of sex and violence -- although it's never off-the-charts graphic -- combined with slightly highbrow thematic elements that make viewers feel less guilty about enjoying themselves so much. Producer Ben Silverman might have summed up the series ethos when he told the London Telegraph of the man with six wives, "The fact is, his d**k changed the course of history, literally."

Creator, writer and producer Michael Hirst, who wrote the script for Elizabeth, the feature film that starred Cate Blanchett as Henry's daughter, says in the press notes that Showtime asked him how accurate The Tudors was and that he guessed, off the top of his head, 85 percent.

It might be lower because Tudors is riddled with historical inaccuracies.

For starters, Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was only five years older than the king, but she's played by an actress (Maria Doyle Kennedy of The Commitments) 13 years older than Mr. Meyers.

Gabrielle Anwar (Scent of a Woman) is a lusty Princess Margaret, the king's sister. But the details of her life make it clear she's based not on the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, but Princess Mary, another of the king's sisters. Here, however, the princess marries not the king of France but the king of Portugal. (Her sex scenes are clearly influenced by Hollywood; what English princess would have such tanned legs?)

And while Joan Bergin's costumes are quite stunning -- Henry is dressed ostentatiously, with fabrics as elaborate as those of the women -- they're not exactly the sort of thing worn in the Tudor period.

Finally, many historians argue that Henry wasn't even particularly promiscuous.

But never mind the historical license, the source material is inherently rich in dramatic conflicts. The first is that within Henry himself. He's an intelligent man, a humanist who struggles to reconcile his ideas with his hope for immortality. He insists, "I intend to be a just ruler. But tell me this: Why is Henry V remembered?" Hint: It was a battle, not a tax break.

Another interesting intellectual battle is waged between Wolsey and Thomas More (Jeremy Northam, Gosford Park). The former -- the putative man of God -- chooses king over God, while the man of the world chooses God over king. Mr. Northam, one of the show's standouts, imbues his principled character with humanity and a deep sense of unease. This family man provides a foil to Henry and Wolsey, decadent men of God. (Remember that Henry's older brother was supposed to be king; the man who broke with Rome had been destined for the church.)

There are plenty of nods to the viewer, who knows the end of this story. "There's something deep and dangerous in you, Anne," Thomas Boleyn says to his daughter, played with the right sense of cunning unavailability by Natalie Dormer (Casanova). Henry tells More not to be so modest: "You're not a saint." (More becomes one, of course.)

Mr. Hirst is already at work writing season two of The Tudors. There's plenty of material -- Henry won't even have married his second wife by the end of this series, of which critics were sent the first half.

In this sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII, even the decision to consider annulling his first marriage seems almost defensible. His father, Henry VII, took the throne in battle. The Tudors are a new dynasty, and one that might not last if Henry doesn't have a male heir. "All my father's work, finished," he despairs after a close call with death. "And it's all my fault."

Henry VIII, the man who beheaded two wives, a sympathetic figure? Forget about Tony Soprano, the lovable mobster. With "The Tudors," Showtime has out-HBOed HBO.

March 24, 2007
In print

I had a rather busy week. Here are the five pieces I had in Thursday's and Friday's Washington Times:

What does Ringo Starr do for fun? I found out when I interviewed the former Beatle, whose art is on display this weekend in DC:

Only someone as iconic as Ringo Starr would consider delving into an entirely new art form a hobby.

"I am a busy guy, but also I do like to have downtime," the former Beatle says by telephone from London.

The work produced in his "downtime" will be on display this weekend...

I've now talked to both living Beatles. I spoke briefly to Paul McCartney at the premiere of the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show featuring the music of the Beatles, LOVE.

I also interviewed Mark Wahlberg, the Oscar-nominated actor whose new movie Shooter opens this weekend:

What will Mark Wahlberg turn his talents to now that he's joined the select club of Oscar-nominated actors?

"English period dramas. The Royal Shakespearean Academy," the actor says by telephone in a thick, fake British accent.

He's joking, of course. This is the actor formerly known as rapper Marky Mark, after all.

Not that one should underestimate Mr. Wahlberg...

And I interviewed Julianne Nicholson for the "Beyond Hollywood" column. The actress has a dual career as a television star and indie darling:

Julianne Nicholson has spent the morning on top of a building in New York. It's a windy day, and she's been watching babies get dangled from the roof.

The treacherous work is for an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Miss Nicholson joined the cast of the television series this season, playing partner to Chris Noth. But instead of taking a well-earned break at lunch, the 35-year-old actress is speaking to a reporter by telephone about a small independent film in which she stars. Flannel Pajamas begins a run today at the Avalon Theatre...

I reviewed the witty new film Color Me Kubrick:

"Color Me Kubrick" is a delicious romp of a film, as outrageous as the man whose life it re-creates.

Alan Conway (John Malkovich) was an out-of-work London travel agent who impersonated Stanley Kubrick while the legendary director was working on his 1999 film "Eyes Wide Shut." His con jobs were unlikely successes. Mr. Kubrick was American; Mr. Conway was British. Mr. Kubrick had a beard; Mr. Conway didn't. Mr. Kubrick was happily married to his third wife; Mr. Conway left his first for another man...

I also reviewed The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, a tale of one small man caught up in the absurdities of war. It's a documentary about an Iraqi journalist who was thrown into Abu Ghraib and appears to have been completely innocent:

Yunis Khatayer Abbas is one of the countless victims of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime.

The Iraqi journalist was tortured in a jail run by Uday Hussein, one of Saddam's sons, after writing of the U.S. embargo. He recalls Uday telling him, "If you do it again, maybe I kill you."

Things didn't get much better for Mr. Abbas under the American occupation...

March 21, 2007
Didion got her start at NR, you know

I have made my first appearance in National Review. The April 2 issue of the venerable magazine contains my essay on Joan Didion's We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. It's on newsstands now, but you can read it online if you're a subscriber:

The 1960s gave Joan Didion a nervous breakdown — or so it often seems, judging from her work on those years. “I went to San Francisco,” she writes in the preface to her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.” Lines from the Yeats poem from which she took her book’s title — and that of her essay about a 1967 trip to the Summer of Love — “reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.” (One of its most famous: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”) While writing about the events of 1967, she was seized by an unnamed illness. “I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.”

Other writers have explored those riotous times. But none were as personally troubled by them as Joan Didion...

As a celebration of sorts, I'll be seeing Didion's first play, The Year of Magical Thinking, on Broadway this weekend.

UPDATE: My piece is now available online.

In print

My pieces from Friday's Washington Times:

I had the "On the Edge" column with a look at digitally enhanced performances:

Jennifer Connelly is one of the most acclaimed of popular actresses. Her performance in the recent film Blood Diamond is no exception. There's a scene, for example, near the end of the film in which Miss Connelly learns some tragic news while having a difficult conversation on her cell phone. The effect of the information can be seen on her face: a single tear rolls down the actress's cheek.

It's a moving performance. There's just one problem -- it wasn't all performance.

A visual effects supervisor exposed a trade secret earlier this year when he revealed that part of that performance was created digitally...

I talked to a couple visual effects artists, who had some interesting insights.

I reviewed The Namesake, the film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri:

Many books and films in the last few years have bewailed the suffocating customs that stubbornly follow Asian immigrants to their adopted homelands in the West. These stories have been welcomed for telling a truth that's often little known in the wider society.

That truth is not the whole truth, however. Some immigrants find comfort in the old ways that we modern Westerners would find constricting.

In The Namesake, the refreshing, yet flawed, saga of one Indian-American family, filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) succeeds in offering a different view of immigrant life...

In the "Beyond Hollywood" column, I previewed the Environmental Film Festival and spoke with Namesake director Mira Nair:

Mira Nair has made a diverse group of critically acclaimed films. But whether chronicling the lives of a displaced family of Indians from Uganda (1991's "Mississippi Masala") or adapting a classic English novel about a social climber (2004's "Vanity Fair"), the director usually illuminates the troubles outsiders have in integrating into society.

It helps that, in many ways, she's one herself...

One of her next projects will be a documentary on the Beatles' 1968 trip to India. Rather than make another piece of Beatles memorabilia, she plans to create a film about inspiration.

Happy Birthday

"Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?"

--Michael Torke on J.S. Bach, born March 21, 1685

March 11, 2007
In print

My pieces in Friday's and Saturday's Washington Times:

I wrote the On the Edge column for Friday's Show section:

Observers have been predicting the death of classical music for years now. Symphony orchestras from coast-to-coast are struggling to sell tickets. Those who do attend concerts are more likely than not to have gray hair. Critic Norman Lebrecht already declared the industry dead when he asked, in the title of his 1997 book, "Who Killed Classical Music?"

So it came as a surprise to discover that classical was last year's fastest-growing musical genre, with album sales up 22.5 percent...

Who might have been responsible for such an impressive climb? Did a legendary symphony orchestra release a particularly stirring rendition of Beethoven's Fifth, for example? Did a talented young soprano bowl us over with her Isolde in Wagner's masterpiece?

Sadly, there's no such encouraging explanation, as you'll discover from reading my piece.

I reviewed Howard Katz, the Patrick Marber play that just opened in New York:

"What is it, a little midlife crisis?" asks Robin (Euan Morton), as he happens upon the title character on a park bench looking rather ragged in his expensive suit in "Howard Katz," which opened off-Broadway last week.

"Yeah, but it's bigger than me," responds Katz (Alfred Molina).

There are many plays about the male midlife crisis. And there are many plays about one man's search for his soul. Yet what keeps Howard Katz, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, from feeling like warmed-over territory is a fairly sharp script, tight staging and a flawless performance by its star...

I reviewed the British film Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy:

"Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be clever," Brian Jackson tells us at the beginning of Starter for Ten. "I want to know everything."

Nothing is off-limits to young Brian. He wants to learn about the political philosophy of Plato. The scientific breakthroughs of Newton. "I want to know why people actually like jazz," Brian says...

I also had the first item in Friday's Beyond Hollywood column:

Richard Wagner invented -- and perfected -- the music drama. His operas were "total artworks" in which not just music, but also story, costumes and sets were all fundamental to the piece.

It's no surprise this revolutionary composer had a lasting effect on music, but he's also influenced those working in a genre that had barely been born in his lifetime -- film.

You can sample a taste of his influence at the Goethe-Institut Washington's "Wagner in Hollywood" film series, which runs through March 26...

Thought for the day

"Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them."

--Bill Vaughan

March 07, 2007
In print

A few things I've published recently in the Washington Times:

My interview with director Michael Apted, whose latest film, Amazing Grace, recently opened in theaters. He's president of the Directors Guild of America and also talked politics.

My review of Avenue Montaigne, a charming film that was France's entry into the foreign language category of the Academy Awards.

My short reviews of a made-for-television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, with a compelling performance by Mary-Louise Parker, and Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlance's first live-action series, The Winner, are in this Tuning In column.

March 06, 2007
Not quite Long Island, but


This photograph, taken at the conclusion of the weekend, seemed somehow appropriate.

March 05, 2007
Thought for the day

"We live in an endorsement culture. That's how people come to opinions about arts and culture."

--Paul Bogaards, Director of Publicity at Alfred A. Knopf publishers