Here's most of my last few weeks of work for the Washington Times:
Michael Moore has been proclaimed the savior of the documentary. He's often credited with single-handedly reinvigorating the genre, bringing millions to the multiplexes for what used to be art-house fare.Then again, I actually know something about one of the subjects discussed in the film: the Canadian health care system. His segment on that topic was disingenuous to the point of disbelief. Perhaps it's because the only Canadians he talks to in any depth are his own relatives.
His last film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," is the highest-grossing documentary ever. His previous one, "Bowling for Columbine," won the Best Documentary Oscar.
His latest, "Sicko," is likely to replicate that success: Every sneak preview across the country last week sold out. Mr. Moore is still the big man on the documentary campus.
It's too bad that "Sicko" isn't actually an example of the genre...
Sicko, if not particularly helpful to the health care debate, is entertaining, though:
Mr. Moore is a talented man. His gentle, singsong voice is perfect for sly narration. He is almost always funny when he sets out to be. The best bit here is when he details the great treatment given to Guantanamo Bay detainees. (Including colonoscopies, but I suspect that's just part of the interrogation.)For the Beyond Hollywood column, I spoke to documentary legend Albert Maysles, who took some out from his own projects to serve as cinematographer on the documentary Gypsy Caravan:
Without showing how exactly he got there, he's joined in a boat by some September 11 volunteer rescuers who can't get free treatment in the U.S. "They don't want any more than the evildoers," he calls out in the bay over a megaphone.
Albert Maysles could have rested on his laurels decades ago. He and his late brother, David, pioneered documentary feature filmmaking with their American take on cinema verite, evident in such classic portraits as 1968's "Salesman," about four door-to-door Bible salesmen, and 1976's "Grey Gardens," which showed the squalid lives of two secluded relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy (and was recently turned into an unlikely musical).He made some provocative comments on the state of genre, which I found very a propos with the release of Sicko this week:
But the 80-year-old filmmaker seems as busy as ever...
The increasing popularity of documentary film today doesn't surprise Mr. Maysles. He says the shift was inevitable, "just the way it's happened in literature, which has moved from fiction to nonfiction."I also reviewed Gypsy Caravan, which is out in DC this week:
Still, many of these newer films eschew the "direct cinema" that Mr. Maysles helped found, instead relying on voiceovers, interviews and, often, a distinct agenda.
"It's somewhat unfortunate that so many films are dedicated to a point of view rather than allowing the viewer to exercise his or her own judgment," he argues. "I think that's a higher form."
A documentary, he believes, should give the viewer "an insight into what's going on in the world" rather than a two-hour editorial. And he prefers films about real people — like those Bible salesmen or the Bouvier Beales — to those featuring yet more Hollywood celebrities.
It's unlikely that a single film could end centuries of persecution and prejudice, but if it were possible, "Gypsy Caravan" would be that film.
The Roma, better known as Gypsies, originated in northern India and began migrating to Europe and North Africa almost 1,000 years ago. They've been fighting for respect ever since, enduring enslavement, sterilization and concentration camps. However, one learns on watching this glorious, life-affirming documentary, their spirit was never broken.
They poured their suffering — as well as the pleasure they found in love and family — into their music, which has influenced non-Roma all over the world. Spanish flamenco, to give just one example, was created in part by the Gypsies.
"Gypsy Caravan" follows five musical groups from four countries as they make a six-week, often sold-out tour of North America...
Earlier in the week, I reviewed the highest-grossing entertainment event of all time, now making a stop at the Kennedy Center:
"The Phantom of the Opera" is there, inside the Kennedy Center Opera House.The week before, I reviewed A Mighty Heart, which I found to be a missed opportunity:
Andrew Lloyd Webber should be pleased. Though the composer was one of the first to bring popular music into musical theater, he's always insisted his work (much of it through-composed) is operatic.
When I interviewed him in December when he received a Kennedy Center Honor, I asked if his next project would be an opera or a musical. "What's the difference?" he responded. "Is 'Phantom of the Opera' an opera?"
Maybe, maybe not.
But this musical about opera certainly features some wonderfully clever operatic pastiches. And with accomplished singing, sumptuous costumes, gorgeous sets and impressive effects, the Cameron Mackintosh/Really Useful Theatre Company's national touring production feels perfectly at home in the District's most prestigious show biz venue.
In fact, the music phoned in by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is the only element out of place...
Daniel Pearl was a fascinating man. The journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002 grew up in an intellectual Jewish household in Encino, Calif., but ended his life across the world in Muslim Pakistan. He was a member of two groups — Americans and Jews — much hated by fundamentalist terrorists, but he spent his time investigating them. The journalist risked his life both to document a culture and to probe how some in that culture are funding terrorism. He was also an accomplished musician who brought his violin along for impromptu jam sessions in the bars of Asia.For the first half of the Beyond Hollywood column, I talked with A Mighty Heart director Michael Winterbottom:
Yes, Daniel Pearl is a compelling character, but you wouldn't know it from the new movie based on his life, "A Mighty Heart."
You learn more about him in the first five minutes of last year's HBO documentary "The Journalist and the Jihadi" than you do in the entire 100 minutes of "A Mighty Heart." Flashbacks (with Dan Futterman as Mr. Pearl) are meant to acquaint us with the man before his death, but all they really reveal is that Mr. Pearl was a very good-looking man and that he was much in love with his wife.
Then again, it's Mariane Pearl who wrote the book on which the film is based and Mariane Pearl who's at the center of this film...
Recreating a true story that had embarrassed the government of Pakistan led to some particular problems filming in that country.After intelligence people told Karachi police to quit cooperating with the film, the director had to get real actors to play the police. They were then arrested -- for "impersonating" police officers.
There were security worries. "You make a film that's quite controversial, there are probably people who would like to get publicity by doing something violent," he notes.
It turned out not to be terrorists, however, but the intelligence agencies who proved the real impediment.
"There were always people in the lobby, following us around," he reveals. "They harassed our crew."
The film has even created controversy in the Western world: Some critics have complained about Miss Jolie playing a woman who is part black, even using the term "blackface."I also reviewed the interesting but flawed Angel-A:
"It never crossed my mind as an issue because they seemed very similar, very close," Mr. Winterbottom says. Of Mariane, he notes, "Her mom was Cuban, her dad was Dutch. She has a Chinese grandparent. What, are we supposed to find a quarter-Chinese, half-Cuban, half-Dutch, French-speaking-but-could-act-in-English actress? It's ridiculous."
"Angel-A," Luc Besson's latest French feature, starts out as a rather amusing criminal comedy.The week before that, I had a Think Piece about Nancy Drew, in conjunction with the opening of the new film. (Read the whole thing to find out one of the things I was up to as a kid.)
The appealing (in both senses of the word) face of Andre (Jamel Debbouze) fills the screen as he muses on his sudden popularity.
"Maybe it's down to me being such a cute, fun-loving kinda guy," he suggests.
Maybe not. None of the many people looking for Andre seem interested in shooting the breeze over a pint. The members of one crowd throw some well-timed punches, while those of another hang Andre off a very high point of the Eiffel Tower.
"Two things were crystal clear," Andre finally admits. "I really had to change my life. And I definitely hated Paris."
As soon as the title character makes her appearance, though, "Angel-A" quickly turns earnest...
It's the post-feminist age, but you might not know it from a look around your local toy and book stores.I also reviewed the film Nancy Drew:
From Bratz to Barbie, stereotypes reign. The favorite heroines of young girls are most interested in fashion, and their loftiest goal is to snag Prince Charming. Those passive Disney princesses have had remarkable staying power — the first appeared in 1937's "Snow White," but they have survived second- and third-wave feminism to remain as popular as ever.
Thankfully, in the midst of the tarted-up dolls and royalty-obsessed storybooks, there's one character who could serve as a feminist icon. Never mind that she was created in 1930, years before the word even was used.
If you're looking for a role model who's intelligent and independent, Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, is your man — er, girl.
"Nancy Drew" acknowledges its storied legacy within its first seconds. The new film opens with a shot of a bookcase, its shelves filled with copies of the classic mystery books. One moves off the rack, and we see the same illustrations of a spunky teenage sleuth that girls have been poring over for decades.For the Beyond Hollywood column, I spoke to Olivier Dahan, the French director of a new film about singing legend Edith Piaf:
This new Nancy Drew, played by Emma Roberts of Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous," doesn't look all that different from the Nancy Drew many of us remember. She has crawled right out of the 1960s, clothing, manners, roadster and all.
But the movie is very much an update on the series that was created in 1930, revised in the 1960s and on, and has appeared on our screens, big and small, for almost as long.
Nancy's new sleuth kit has an IPod, to give just one example.
Thankfully, she's still the fiercely independent girl who doesn't allow her soft spot for Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot) to get in the way of crime-solving.
It wasn't the singular sound of Edith Piaf's voice that led French director Olivier Dahan to make a film about the singer. It was her singular look. "I wasn't a fan of her music," Mr. Dahan admits on a recent stop in the District to promote "La Vie en Rose" (titled "La Mome" in his homeland) opening in theaters today. "I don't like the word fan, anyway. I'm still not a fan."
I'm back from a sojourn in Europe. But as usual, it wasn't no work and all play. I had two pieces in Friday's Washington Times.
The first was a feature on DC's increasing status as a cultural capital:
It was one of the cultural events of the year. Literary lion Philip Roth received this year's PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction for his novel Everyman last month. Joining him on the stage were three of the finalists, some of the country's best short story writers. Intellectual celebrities, such as actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, dotted the mingling crowd.I also wrote the Beyond Hollywood column, which was dedicated to a look at this year's lineup at Silverdocs, DC's annual documentary film fest that starts Tuesday:
This celebration of serious fiction didn't take place in New York, the country's publishing capital, however -- it was right here in the District.
It wasn't even the only event last month that brought the cultural cognoscenti to Washington. Paul Simon received the first annual Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Performers at the star-studded gala at the Warner Theatre included Stevie Wonder and Philip Glass.
When you think of an arts and culture destination, you probably think New York or Los Angeles. "D.C. is known really for its political and news media celebrities more than anything else," notes Library of Congress director of communications Matt Raymond.
That's starting to change. AmericanStyle magazine just named Washington the fourth-best arts destination among big cities -- ahead of, among others, Los Angeles...
Silverdocs gets bigger and bigger every year. The American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary festival has quickly become one of the most important showcases for nonfiction film. Its fifth annual program starts Tuesday at the AFI Silver Theatre with more than one hundred films, an additional day -- it runs through June 17 -- and four new awards.
One of those is the Beyond Belief Award, presented to "a feature documentary that shows excellence in telling complex issues in faith and society." Many documentaries that get widespread attention are the fun titles focusing on the amusing foibles of obsessives -- like last year's Silverdocs feature Wordplay -- or warm stories only a cynic could hate -- like March of the Penguins. So it's good to see recognition given to those filmmakers grappling with some of humanity's most intractable problems, even if they don't always do well at the multiplex.
The festival features a number of docs under the Beyond Belief rubric, but what might be the festival's most fascinating film on the subject wasn't given the classification. Lake of Fire didn't have to be about faith -- but Tony Kaye's look at the American abortion debate most certainly is...
I have two pieces in today's Washington Times.
I wrote the On the Edge column on the extremely funny new film Knocked Up:
The premise of the new comedy Knocked Up is succinctly summarized on its poster: "What if this guy got you pregnant?"For the Beyond Hollywood column, I interviewed actress Elisabeth Shue about her new film, Gracie:
Underneath that tag line is a huge photograph of the movie's star, Seth Rogen.
He's no Brad Pitt.
He's not even an Adrien Brody.
Some reviewers -- including our own Christian Toto -- don't find this modern-day Beauty and the Beast story completely believable. Sure, Ben is a sweet guy and he admirably takes responsibility for his unborn baby. But Alison is Hollywood good-looking -- couldn't she do much better?
Perhaps it takes a female critic to point out that while Knocked Up may be fantasy for many men -- minus the unplanned pregnancy -- it's reality for many women...
"It took a lot to get attention in my family," Elisabeth Shue laughs. "No wonder I'm an actress."
Actors are normally reticent to discuss their families publicly. But Miss Shue isn't just opening up about her life in interviews. Gracie, a film opening in theaters today, is bringing a fictionalized portrait of the Shue family -- particularly Elisabeth -- to the big screen...