April 26, 2007

I found this Agence France-Presse story disturbing. Not because of the news that "Alain Delon, the 71-year-old French film star, has been laid up by a minor heart problem." More frightening was the revelation that there exists a French play called Sur La Route de Madison that is an adaptation of the American film and book The Bridges of Madison County. First EuroDisney, now this?

April 25, 2007

I'm not sure I should post a link to this article. After all, the subhead is "Fans of British novelist Barbara Pym are as quirky as her books." And I did rather like her novel Excellent Women -- I'm always looking for Jane Austen-esque books from this century. I also seem to be about 50 years below the average age of the Barbara Pym fan. But while it mostly deals in biography, and offers only hints of what sounds like interesting material at an annual conference, this CBC article is still worth a read for its look at an underappreciated author:

...she wrote in the morning, she cobbled together overheard snippets and notes in her journals, and she was a solitary creature. “There’s very little you can do not to be lonely,” she says [in an interview] with a twisted smile...

April 23, 2007
Nail on head

Lionel Shriver, whose novel We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with the aftermath of a school shooting, had an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post on the Virginia Tech killings. It's not without problems -- a very minor one being that author or editor can't seem to decide whether to print the killer's name in the Korean or American form -- but it's very worth reading. I particularly liked this paragraph:

Consider what we have done to airports. Thanks to Richard Reid, we're obliged to dump our sneakers on the belt, struggle to tie our laces on the other end and sacrifice our cigarette lighters -- since otherwise, so goes the default presumption, we will all set our explosive shoes on fire. Thanks to a handful of British would-be terrorists who have yet to be convicted, we travel with humiliating Ziploc bags of no more than 3 ounces of shampoo, since otherwise we would obviously combine our full-size Herbal Essences with our chamomile conditioner and blow out the side of the plane. I doubt I'm alone in not feeling one whit safer as a result of this theatrical pretense of "security." Is this what we want to do to our schools?
Finally. I've been feeling this way for months, but haven't found anyone else who seems to care. Americans often seem to be all too willing to give up their rights, great or small.

Shriver's comment about "humiliating Ziploc bags" is just right. I took a flight just a couple days ago at what seemed like a particularly zealous airport. They were going through many, many carry-on bags by hand after putting them through the x-ray machine. Why, I couldn't tell. They seemed to know from the scanner just what was in the bags, and though mine were searched quite rigorously, nothing was confiscated. I was told, however, with a stern look that, "You have a lot of liquids." Yes, my regulation Ziploc bag was full. I'm a young woman -- how many of us don't carry a fair number of lotions and potions along on a trip? And who doesn't grab that hotel-issue lotion to take home if it smells good? But since I don't seem to have broken any rules, I wonder why I received what was most certainly an admonition. Perhaps this screener would prefer it if I quit wearing my contact lenses -- I need to bring solution with me, after all -- in the interests of greater airport security. Or at least the appearance of it.

Sore loser

Here's a funny follow-up to my feature a couple months back on a controversy in in-flight entertainment. In writing about censors in the air, I had reported that a number of airlines aired a version of The Queen in which the word "God" was excised seven times. Now AP reports that one airline has edited Casino Royale in an interesting way: "British Airways cut a cameo by Richard Branson from its in-flight version of the latest James Bond film and blurred out the tail fin of a Virgin Atlantic plane seen in the movie." BA's move is all the more lame because, as AP notes, Virgin kept BA's logo when it aired another Bond film, Die Another Day.

April 22, 2007
Thought for the day

“Women were born to be taken care of by men."

--Pat Buckley, 1926-2007

In print

My pieces in Friday's Washington Times:

I interviewed Paul Verhoeven (director of the highly enjoyable but widely misunderstood satire Starship Troopers), who has returned to Holland to make his first film there in over 20 years:

In Paul Verhoeven's latest film, Black Book (Zwartboek in the original Dutch), almost no character is wholly good or evil, from the Nazi officers occupying Holland to the members of the Dutch Resistance attacking them.

"Is that not what life is about?" asks the director, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles. "I think it's more real this way than the black and white portrayals we see in American movies, where people are just good or bad. Even good people can do mean things, and mean people can sometimes be generous."

Of course, Mr. Verhoeven has made his share of American movies...

Black Book is his first Dutch film in 20 years. It may feature a European take on character, but it has plenty of the trademark sex and violence for which Mr. Verhoeven's American films are known. He says it's just another example of hewing close to reality.

"Life is full of violence. It would be really a cheat to show 1944 and 1945 without an abundance of violence," he argues. "Sexuality has been treated in my movies always in an open way. I attach a lot of importance to sexuality because we are all biological animals."

I also reviewed Black Book:

Paul Verhoeven, after 20 years of making big-budget blockbusters in America, has returned to his native Netherlands. He took everything he learned with him.

His new movie is an example of what can happen when Old and New World sensibilities join forces. Black Book (Zwartboek) combines a European morality tale with a sleek American thriller, resulting in a deeply entertaining film that's also a serious exploration of rules during wartime...

I also reviewed The TV Set, directed by Jake Kasdan, whose movie The Zero Effect is not nearly as known as it should be:
Anyone who thinks there's an awful lot of drivel on television -- and wonders how it got there -- should enjoy The TV Set.

This sharp satire, which follows a single show from inception to possible pick-up, demonstrates how even good series invariably seem to go bad...

I also had a brief in the Beyond Hollywood column on Filmfest D.C., going on now, in which I mentioned one of my favorites from the Toronto International Film Festival. It's the closing night film:
This year's focus is new films from France. You couldn't do better than attend the festival's closing film, Paris, je t'aime. This piece, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, features 20 short films by acclaimed directors, all exploring a different neighborhood in the City of Light.

The Coen brothers' entry, set at the Tuileries metro stop, is almost entirely silent. Steve Buscemi carries the short with his expressive face. Horror master Wes Craven's entry is surprisingly sweet, its supernatural element a visit from the late wit Oscar Wilde. But the best of the bunch is an insightful look at the French Muslim's world, from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha...

April 13, 2007
Lit crit

I think I blushed when I read this post on GalleyCat, one of my must-read sites, naming me as a "potential lit crit hottie." It's true that I spend the majority of the time at my day job writing about film. But just before I started there, I spent a couple of years as a biweekly books columnist. And as books are my first love, I spend most of my freelance time reviewing them. (My recent piece on Joan Didion for National Review is now online, by the way.) I'm also the fiction editor of Doublethink magazine, choosing and editing the short story for each issue. All my own published works there -- including my own short story, I suppose -- deal with literary fiction. (I really mention this to remind readers that I'm always looking for submissions -- we aim for stories between 2,000 and 4,000 words. We pay quite decently.)

Perhaps I'm just making myself feel a little better about spending so much time watching movies. I just wrote two stories about an animated film about fast-food items, after all. But what I really wanted to say was that even as an arts and entertainment writer at a daily newspaper, I get the chance to write about literature. In today's paper, for example, I have the "On the Edge" piece with what I'd like to think is an interesting argument about the great American writers of the twentieth century:

On the final pages of her 880-page biography Edith Wharton, released this week, Hermione Lee recounts her visit to the novelist's neglected grave in Versailles. "[T]he tomb was covered with weeds, old bottles and a very ancient pot of dead flowers," she writes. Miss Lee "tidied up" the grave, weeding it and planting a single silk flower.

One hopes her magisterial biography will do the same thing for Miss Wharton's reputation.

When the phrase "great American novelist" is tossed around, the 20th-century names most often cited are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. But a trio of female writers -- Miss Wharton, Willa Cather and Dawn Powell -- has done just as much to chronicle the American psyche.

These three aren't simply undervalued women who in the name of "diversity" deserve a more secure place in the canon -- they should be at its peak.

That they're not says much about how literary reputation is born and sustained. Experimentalism counts for a lot; so does cutting a romantic figure...

In print

I'm all about animation in today's Washington Times:

I review the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie:

There have been many times, reviewing a film, when this critic has been tempted to say simply, "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. If you don't, you won't."

That maxim might never be truer than for Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters -- even taking David Lynch's films into account.

The movie is based on what is likely the most successful original series on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim late-night animation block -- this, despite the fact that the charms of this surreal television show are nearly impossible to explain.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force explores the foibles of three New Jersey roommates who just happen to be a self-centered milkshake, a thoughtful pack of fries and a really dumb but cute piece of meat.

In the Beyond Hollywood column, I talk to Dana Snyder, perhaps the best voice actor in the business, who brings Aqua Teen's Master Shake to life:

Dana Snyder, like many struggling actors, put in his share of time on the boards. He did plays and musicals, comedy in New York and regional theater around the country. "That's all I did," he recalls, speaking by telephone. "That was all I wanted."

Then he found fame as a trash-talking milkshake.

In the second half of the Beyond Hollywood column, I talk to Satoshi Kon. The director will be talking about his films at the Smithsonian's anime marathon on Saturday:
Speaking through a translator by telephone soon after he touched down in this country, Mr. Kon reports this will be his first visit to Washington. "I'm always excited by events like this," he says. "I know, logically, about the fact that there are fans of my work in America, but it's hard for that feeling to sink in."

His acclaimed films are known for their exploration of serious themes and their psychological complexity.

"There's a presumed stereotype that live-action films carry more dramatic content or more depth than animated films, and that's not an idea that I've ever shared," he says.

April 12, 2007
In print

The April 23 issue of The American Conservative, which should be hitting newsstands now, contains my review of A Photographer's Life: 1990 - 2005, Annie Leibovitz's latest book. It's proven controversial because of the many pictures of the photographer's lover, the late Susan Sontag. Leibovitz shows Sontag stricken with cancer in her final days and even as she lies dead. I think that this is an important book, one that "marks a new phase for our most famous celebrity chronicler." Here's a snippet:

Perhaps no one has done more than Annie Leibovitz to make celebrities the gods of the 21st century. Her breathtaking photos inspire nothing less than worship. Perhaps A Photographer's Life, then, is to serve as a mea culpa. Nicole Kidman would never let Leibovitz photograph her as a real person, imperfect and just as subject to the ravages of age as the rest of us. But Sontag did, even if she never meant for the photos to be seen. Through her personal relationship with one professional contact -- she met Sontag when she photographed her for a book cover -- Leibovitz has succeeded in calling her entire career into question.

April 09, 2007
Thought for the day

"Bad women are always the romanticists, the sentimentalists to begin with. They are bad but tragic or beautiful to themselves and it is this quality of imagination that makes them artists."

--Dawn Powell

April 08, 2007
In print

I gave three stars to both films I reviewed in Friday's Washington Times.

The first is The Wind That Shakes the Barley:

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is the title of a 19th-century Irish rebel song. The Irish have revolted against English rule for centuries, but it's the Troubles of the early 20th century that have repeatedly found their way onto celluloid.

The latest in this genre, British filmmaker Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is a beautiful but brutal film...

The second is First Snow:
As the new film First Snow begins, you might be forgiven for thinking you've stepped into a repertory showing of Memento.

It opens with the voice of actor Guy Pearce giving something of a philosophical monologue over a striking visual image -- much like the 2000 film.

In fact, First Snow contains a lot of familiar elements: the startlingly accurate fortuneteller, the old friend out for revenge, the question of what to do when you know your days are numbered.

Yet first-time filmmaker Mark Fergus manages to take these standbys -- and more than a touch of classic noir -- and turn them into something that feels new...

April 03, 2007
Broadway meets Beowulf, via opera

My piece on Elliot Goldenthal's opera Grendel, directed by Julie Taymor, is in the April 9 issue of the Weekly Standard:

"I've discovered that I don't have that much talent, really," the composer Elliot Goldenthal confessed a decade ago. "If I work on something for 10 years or three weeks it's not going to make a difference. It's not going to get any better. No matter how many years I work on something I'm never going to get to Beethoven's level."

That last sentence is a truism for any modern composer. But the rest of the sentiment is surprisingly humble coming from someone who works regularly in Hollywood--and particularly odd coming from the man who scored one of the most ambitious new operas in recent memory.

Grendel, with a $2.8-million budget, was the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Opera's 20th-anniversary season. The joint production with Lincoln Center premiered in Los Angeles last year and was later staged in New York as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival. The bicoastal nature of the project was fitting: Grendel was, more than anything else, a high-minded partnership between Hollywood and Broadway...