July 30, 2007

"Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul."

--Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007


Well, I certainly can't be accused of trying to win this thing when I don't even bother to mention it on my website until the last day of voting. But I was amused to discover that I'm a finalist in Fishbowl DC's Hottest Media Types poll. (The picture my nominator submitted was taken in Cyprus, by the way.)

July 27, 2007
In print

I had a rather busy week. (Which might partly account for the three migraines.) I have five pieces in today's Washington Times:

I wrote the On the Edge column on the recent spate of biographical films:

We've been fascinated by the mystery of artistic creativity since long before Giorgio Vasari published his illuminating — and gossipy — "Lives of the Artists" in 1550.

But a twentieth-century medium has proved particularly popular in delving into the complicated world of artistic genius, from Irving Stone's 1965 film "The Agony and the Ecstasy" to Milos Forman's 1984 "Amadeus."

This summer alone sees three movies about artists amidst the sequels and blockbusters. "Becoming Jane," about England's greatest female novelist, opens next week. "Goya's Ghosts," about one of Spain's greatest painters, opened earlier this month. "Moliere," about France's greatest dramatist, opens here Aug. 17.

It's too bad that two of these three movies about artistic geniuses almost completely ignore their genius...

I interviewed Aaron Eckhart, star of one of my favorite films, Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. He's starring in No Reservations, opening today:

It took Aaron Eckhart a decade to go from being accosted in the street by viewers angry with his dead-on portrayal of one of film's great misogynists to playing a leading man whose smiling visage prominently graces a top studio's film poster.

But it always made sense that the character actor with the movie-star looks would one day become a big star — just not one of those types whose off-screen personality should be confused with the characters he plays, though it happens often enough...

I also reviewed No Reservations:

"No Reservations" is like one of those fancy but retro-inspired desserts so popular in restaurants these days.

You can deconstruct it, pile the elements sky-high or even turn an ingredient into a foam in an admirable attempt at achieving transcendence. At heart, though, it's still the same sticky-sweet confection your mom might have made.

Similarly, the new film set in New York City's restaurant scene tries desperately hard not to be the typical romantic comedy...

For the first half of the Beyond Hollywood column, I talked with Swiss filmmaker Fredi Murer:

Talking with Fredi M. Murer, the director of "Vitus," is rather like watching his fine new film. You're so charmed by his sense of wonder that it's easy to follow him on whatever flight of fancy strikes him next...
I also reviewed his film, Vitus:
Finally — a family film that really does have something for everyone.

"Vitus" is a heartwarming drama with enough charm to delight the kiddies and enough depth to satisfy their parents.

It's too bad that the film, Switzerland's entry in last year's Oscars, is foreign. It might be tough to get children — and even adults — to watch a film with subtitles. But "Vitus" is so much fun that reading will hardly feel like work.

The problems of the prodigy have been explored on film before — as in 1996's "Shine" and 1993's "Searching for Bobby Fischer" — but rarely with such inventiveness...

July 26, 2007
Poetry corner

by Emily Dickinson

Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With "This was last her fingers did,"
Industrious until

The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then 't was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.

A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him, --
At rest his fingers are.

Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

(for BJT, born July 26)


Some sad news today out of Germany: actor Ulrich Mühe has died. He was only 54.

Ulrich Mühe was one of the stars of The Lives of Others, the astonishing film I named best of the year in 2006. He played a Stasi agent in East Germany who gains his humanity after he begins spying on a playwright and his actress girlfriend. In the film, neighbors spy on neighbors, lovers inform on lovers. Mühe himself said that his ex-wife had informed on him. As Deutsche Welle reports in its obituary, "When asked how he prepared for his role as Stasi officer Wiesler in 'The Lives of Others,' Mühe responded, 'I remembered.'"

He only revealed that he had stomach cancer in this last week. Though sick, the actor came to Hollywood with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in February to see their film win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Here is the New York Times obituary. And here is a nice tribute from Germany.

It's tragic that the actor died just as he was getting international acclaim. He's been well known in Germany -- mostly as a theatre actor -- for some time now. But The Lives of Others really catapulted his career and I was looking forward to seeing him do many other great things.

July 23, 2007
Thought for the day

"I think it was Verlaine who said that he could never write a novel because he would have to write, at some point, something like 'the count walked into the drawing-room' - not a scruple that can have bothered JK Rowling, who is happy enough writing the most pedestrian descriptive prose.

Here, from page 324 of The Order of the Phoenix, to give you a typical example, are six consecutive descriptions of the way people speak. '...said Snape maliciously,' '... said Harry furiously', ' ... he said glumly', '... said Hermione severely', '... said Ron indignantly', ' ... said Hermione loftily". Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you're one of the many adults who don't have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn't make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost.

This is the kind of prose that reasonably intelligent nine-year-olds consider pretty hot stuff, if they're producing it themselves; for a highly-educated woman like Rowling to knock out the same kind of material is, shall we say, somewhat disappointing."

--Nicholas Lezard

July 20, 2007
Thought for the day

"That's the irony of women in charge: They don't like other women in charge."

--Dr. Allison Cameron on House

Potter mania

HarryPotter.gifI really don't understand all this hand-wringing over early reviews of the final Harry Potter. "How on earth could you run a review of the last Harry Potter?" Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Posts asks The New York Times. Ummm, because it's news? With all the inches devoted to celebrity coverage these days, it's nice to actually see the arts section reporting a little news.

I read Michiko Kakutani's review, which Ms. Sklar didn't, so perhaps that explains why I don't understand the fuss. It seemed rather spoiler-free to me. The only thing she revealed about the ending is that, in retrospect, it seemed inevitable. That's the same thing the Baltimore Sun reviewer said. Notice the words "in retrospect" -- it sounds not like the ending is an obvious one that everyone predicted but that it makes sense after you read it. It doesn't seem to me that Ms. Kakutani has given much away here.

Ms. Sklar is not just upset because she doesn't want to know the ending ahead of time, of course. She writes, "But honestly, embargoes are in place for a reason, and entreaties from the author (or the Crying Game director, for that matter) are there specifically for the benefit of the public..." But are they? I think this Baltimore reader, who received the book early, is a bit closer to the mark when he says, "It's actually a very clever marketing ploy." This is why I found the Washington Post's slightly pretentious pronouncement, "The Washington Post plans to honor the embargo," a little amusing. The New York Times and other papers wouldn't be publishing early reviews if they didn't think some section of that public would like to read them. The bottom line is, if you don't want to read a Harry Potter spoiler, you don't have to. Neither of these papers revealed specific details of the ending in the review, let alone the headlines. They aren't trying to spoil the book for the millions of fans who want to discover the ending on their own -- despite what critics like Ms. Sklar are arguing. Indeed, a review like Ms. Kakutani's, overwhelmingly positive but without revealing much of the book's plot, will likely just have Harry Potter fans drooling for more.

(Kudos to Ms. Sklar, though, for predicting last year, when the Times had its last book-embargo scoop, that the paper would get a copy of the book early: "Where is this bookstore and are they stocking the next Harry Potter?")

In print

I'm in the Washington Times today with an interview with Milos Forman and a review of his new film. I interviewed the director for the Beyond Hollywood column about his latest film, which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition:

More recent events like the Holocaust and communism influenced the period film, while the director can't help but think of the Iraq war on hearing a piece of dialogue he penned before it even happened.

The genial 75-year-old director, whose enthusiasm makes him sound like a man decades younger, says the first seeds of the film were planted 50 years ago, when he was a student in a communist country.

"I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition," he recalls. "I couldn't believe that what I was reading about was happening the same way today in Czechoslovakia. People arrested, nobody knows why. They confessed to crimes you know they hadn't committed and you know they did it because they didn't want to be tortured any further."

Mr. Forman was out of the country during the 1968 Soviet invasion and didn't return...

Milos Forman directed one of my favorite films of all time, but I was disappointed by his latest offering, Goya's Ghosts:
Milos Forman directed one of the great films about the mystery of artistic creativity, 1984's "Amadeus."

But don't go into "Goya's Ghosts" expecting another biographical tour de force. Don't go expecting to learn much about the titular artist at all.

In fact, it's not clear what "Goya's Ghosts" is about...

July 19, 2007
Second guessing

I suppose it's pointless to criticize Hollywood award nominations. When have they ever had much to do with quality? But today's announcement of the Emmy nominations grated on me more than usual. Perhaps it's just that, now that I spend part of my time covering the subject for a daily newspaper, I know more than I have in years past. Showtime's series The Tudors didn't get a single nomination in the major categories. But USA Network's miniseries The Starter Wife managed to snag four. (Okay, one was deserved -- I could never deny Judy Davis anything.) This is the series I said "feels merely like a dumped wife's fantasy."

After checking, I see I am slightly comparing apples to oranges. It seems The Tudors is counted as a drama series, not a miniseries. I believe the news of future seasons didn't come through until after the first episodes began airing, though. (And c'mon -- even longtime fans of 24 are declaring the show to have jumped the shark, so I don't see why Keifer Sutherland couldn't have been shuffled out of the way to make room for the delicious Jonathan Rhys Meyers.)

The Tudors was certainly more in the style of a miniseries than a series. And it's interesting to compare it to The Starter Wife because, if we can call them both that, they were the two most heavily promoted miniseries this year. Subways in New York City were almost taken over by The Tudors ads, while the streets of the city itself were almost taken over in some places by The Starter Wife. The one, if you accept that the business is always going to play fast and loose with history, was an addictive guilty pleasure; the other was a disappointing attempt at a Sex and the City-style addictive guilty pleasure.

My review of The Tudors is here:

"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...

I realized I never posted my review of The Starter Wife here, so here it is:
Slow 'Starter'

USA Network's "The Starter Wife," premiering at 9 tonight, has to be one of the most highly promoted miniseries ever.

Besides airing the usual barrage of television ads, the cable channel has been blanketing the streets with news of the series -- literally. Streets in New York, for instance, not only were littered with the remains of "Starter Wife" postcards, but also had what can only be described as huge "Starter Wife" stickers stuck on the pavement.

Whether the show lives up to the hype remains to be seen. Tonight's two-hour installment is uneven, sometimes feeling like a good episode of "Sex and the City" but more often feeling as if it's trying very, very hard to be a good episode of that storied HBO hit.

"The Starter Wife" is based on the New York Times best-seller of the same name by Gigi Levangie Grazer. It's about a subject the author knows all too well. She's married to "A Beautiful Mind" producer Brian Grazer.

The series has a familiar face in Debra Messing ("Will & Grace"), who stars as Molly Kagan, a Hollywood wife who appears to be happily married to a studio head. So when her husband of 10 years, Kenny (Peter Jacobson), tells her over the phone that he wants a divorce, the news seemingly comes from nowhere. Even less believable is her reaction: "Oh my God. I'm a starter wife," she says within seconds of receiving the dreaded news.

Rejection from her husband also means rejection from the tight Hollywood community. She can't get a table at a hot restaurant, and her spa membership is revoked. Yet, it's hard to feel sorry for a single mother who can afford to live in a nice house and take fabulous vacations.

"Sex and the City" was a phenomenon because just about every woman could relate to one of its four characters, but few of us can identify with a woman who moves to Malibu to get away from it all. (And must every fictional woman in the post-"Sex" era have a homosexual friend?)

"The Starter Wife" at times feels merely like a dumped wife's fantasy. Still, the sometimes sharp dialogue and winning performance from Miss Messing keep the series from going overboard into cliche. The series also is helped by the always sublime Judy Davis (an Emmy winner for her stunning portrayal of Judy Garland in 1998's "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows") who plays a friend in rehab.

A hunky young love interest also is introduced within the show's first half hour, but more intriguing is a possible relationship with another studio exec -- this time with a heart as played by Joe Mantegna.

Thought for the day

"People read or they don't read -- by the time they're adults, it's usually too late to change that. As for kids, well, there does seem to be some odd virus that affects some and not others, no matter what their intelligence. My guess is that kids who read yearn for something they don't have in their own lives."

--Michael Dirda

July 18, 2007
Duh watch

"Ian McKellen says playing the title character in William Shakespeare's 'King Lear' is more nerve-racking than his recent Hollywood film roles."

--Associated Press. Compare the AFP story, in which Sir Ian considers wearing "false genitalia" during the play's run in Singapore.

July 17, 2007
Paragraph of the week

"After Angelina Jolie first surfaced playing a lesbian junkie supermodel who dies of AIDS in 1998's 'Gia,' she stood out from Hollywood's fungible ranks of blonde and bland starlets by being dark and demented. After lurid years of soul-kissing her brother and wearing around her neck a vial of then-husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood, however, Jolie has been trying to recast herself as a globe-trotting humanitarian, a sexy Albert Schweitzer. Not surprisingly, she has brought the same demonic energy she once devoted to playing with knives to adopting orphaned children from different countries, like an obsessive Pokemon player who's gotta catch 'em all."

--Steve Sailer

Thought for the day

"One should examine oneself for a very long time before thinking of condemning others."


July 16, 2007
Thought for the day

"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo."

--H.G. Wells

July 15, 2007
Renoir imagined

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer includes my review of Susan Vreeland's novel Luncheon of the Boating Party:

It must be impossible to look at a painting for which we feel some special delight and not imagine how it was made. Was American Gothic meant to be taken seriously or satirically? What memories must the onetime Blue Boy have dredged up when, bankrupt, he sold the painting of himself by Gainsborough? And, of course, there's the eternal question of what Mona Lisa was smiling so enigmatically about.

Susan Vreeland has made a career out of such flights of fancy...

July 13, 2007
In print

I'm in New York but I've got three pieces in today's Washington Times. I wrote the On the Edge column, which was cleverly titled (not by me) "Rock in a hard place":

The White Stripes are one of the world's biggest rock bands. It's only fitting that their summer tour includes some of the biggest venues in North America: New York's Madison Square Garden (capacity: 20,000), Fairfax's Patriot Center (capacity: 10,000), Whitehorse's Yukon Arts Centre (capacity: just over 400).

Yes, you read that right. The same band that can fill the most prestigious arena in the country also played a city whose entire population could fit into that arena.

The band is playing all 10 Canadian provinces and the three territories: Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Yellowknife in Northwest Territories and Iqaluit in the eight-year-old Nunavut Territory.

"We want to take this tour to the far reaches of the Canadian landscape. From the ocean to the permafrost," Stripes frontman Jack White said in announcing the groundbreaking tour.

It's either the silliest or the smartest move in years by a top-tier band...

I asked some northern Canadians what the last great live show they saw was, and offered a few of my own memories on growing up a music lover in northern Canada.

I interviewed British actress Brenda Blethyn for the first half of the Beyond Hollywood column. Her breakthrough role came when she was almost 50, in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies:

Many actresses complain that the quantity and quality of roles dry up as they get older. But Miss Blethyn is still in her prime, working steadily since she became a star.

"Fortunately, I haven't had a problem. But I don't have any ego about the size of the roles I play," she says matter-of-factly. " 'Beyond the Sea,' that was a little tiny part. 'On a Clear Day,' that was a tiny bit. I liked the roles, so I did it."

Read on to get her thoughts on the highly anticipated Atonement, the Ian McEwan adaptation due out later this year.

I also reviewed Introducing the Dwights, the funny new film starring Brenda Blethyn:

Let me introduce you to the Dwights, film's latest hilariously dysfunctional family:

Mother Jean (Brenda Blethyn) spends her days working at a canteen, her nights working the club circuit as a stand-up comedienne. Jean had a bit of fame a few decades ago and believes that if it worked once, it'll work again. (A typical joke: "Having sex with a big bloke is like having a wardrobe fall on you in the night -- with the key stuck in the lock.")

July 10, 2007
An American original

PKDLOA.gifMy recent National Review piece on Philip K. Dick's inclusion in the Library of America is now available online to all:

"In 1981, less than a year before his death, Philip K. Dick wrote that managing to publish only one of the many non-genre books he had written was the “long-term tragedy” of his creative life. The science-fiction writer published over 30 novels and more than three times as many short stories in his lifetime, but the mainstream success he craved always eluded him. Like many American originals, Dick was taken seriously by the French — some even suggested him as a Nobel Prize candidate — before his own countrymen understood his talent. Even after his death, his reputation didn’t increase at the same rate as his name recognition: Hollywood turned Philip K. Dick into an identifiable brand, but one that was best known for providing a brainy basis for big-budget action flicks.

If only Dick, born in 1928, had lived to 78 instead of just 53. A quarter-century after his death, he is finally considered not just a serious American writer but one of the century’s greatest. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Dick’s inclusion in the Library of America: the first science-fiction writer to be so canonized in what is the closest thing to secular sainthood in American letters. Best known for collecting the works of such titans as James and Faulkner, the Library of America presents “America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.” And Dick has been included not for his realist books, which finally started appearing in print posthumously, but for some of his most outlandish sci-fi creations.

Some may complain that a genre writer has beaten Hemingway and Upton Sinclair into the Library of America. But these four novels — The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik — are not simply outstanding examples of their form. With their haunting evocations of alienation, thoughtful meditations on reality and religion, and vivid prose style, they are among the best American novels written in the last century..."

July 08, 2007
In print

In Friday's Washington TImes, I reviewed The Treatment, a film based on the novel by Daniel Menaker:

Now that Woody Allen has decamped to Europe — at least for filmmaking purposes — those of us who looked forward to his yearly chronicles of the love lives of cerebral New Yorkers will take what we can get.

There's The Treatment, for example...

I also wrote the second item in the Beyond Hollywood column, noting that the 2006 feature documentary Glastonbury, Julien Temple's film about the legendary music festival, is available free on Movielink.com through Monday.

July 05, 2007
Thought for the day

"Writing after work at the kitchen table, I was risking nothing except my sentences. No one knew I was there. There was no one to network with or suck up to. There were not 567 agents and 5,345 editors who imagined, rightly or wrongly, that their lives depended on discovering my unknown self, running me to ground at my Olivetti Lettera 24, breaking me through, publishing me too early, and losing interest when my second book did not fulfill the quirky promise of the first.

There was just one literary agency in Australia in 1962, but I didn’t know what a literary agent was. As for an M.F.A. in creative writing, I’d never heard of such a thing. Denied these distractions, all I could do was write.

...I am thinking that there is no worse place than New York to be a young writer. In my secret heart I believe they should not be here at all, but in Melbourne in 1961 when the bars closed at 6 p.m., there were three channels on TV, and the gas stations shut on Sunday. Who needed Yaddo or MacDowell? This was a perfect place to write."

--Peter Carey

July 04, 2007
Happy 4th

I hope all you Americans out there are having a relaxing Independence Day. I celebrated with an all-American lunch of.. umm.. chicken tikka masala and tara chicken. I'm in New York and we stumbled on what looked like a stylish Indian restaurant. While awaiting our food, I overheard someone a couple tables away rave that it was the best Indian food she'd ever had. In my head, I made fun of this woman. Then I tried the food. And I had to admit, it may have been the best Indian food I've ever had. I apologized to this woman in my head. In any case, I highly recommend Surya in the West Village and in particular their tara chicken, delicious chunks of meat cooked in the tandoor with yogurt, basil, and other yummy spices.

I made up for my holiday-inappropriate lunch by going back to the apartment and listening to WKCR. The station celebrates Louis Armstrong's birthday twice -- on August 4, when scholars think he was actually born, and on July 4, when the man himself always celebrated his birthday. The program's been a very fitting celebration of America. (These things and an all-too-kind mention have very much made my day.)

I would have liked to wander outside more, but the weather here is cloudy and a bit cold -- although I am sitting outside at a cafe right now, with some sadly cold tea. (Of course, I also complain when the hot sun pours down on me in DC.) And it appears it'll be like this the rest of the week. But after a few days in DC, I'll be back here next week, this time mostly for work. Although annoyingly, some people don't seem to think watching movies and interviewing the people who made them is work.