August 31, 2007
In print

I have a feature in today's Washington Times about an under-reported story that has ramifications far beyond the fate of one book that Cambridge University Press pulped after immediately capitulating to a threat of legal action:

Book burning, in these enlightened times, might seem like something found only in science-fiction novels. But two American authors have found the practice quite literally still exists.

Their tome wasn't destroyed because of populist outrage. Rather, a single man succeeded in pressuring their publisher to pulp the book — without having to set foot in the country in which its authors live.

Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J. Millard Burr, a former U.S. Agency for International Development relief coordinator, and scholar Robert O. Collins, was published last year by respected academic publisher Cambridge University Press. The book details how money is funneled to Islamic terrorists through charitable foundations.

It's probably required reading for those fighting a war on terror at its foundations — if they can get a copy. A few weeks ago, the British publisher agreed to burn all unsold copies of the book after it received a letter threatening legal action...

In yesterday's paper, I had a short review of two British period dramas now available on DVD:
Anthony Powell's 12-novel opus, A Dance to the Music of Time, is one of the lengthiest achievements in fiction.

Ten years ago, screenwriter Hugh Whitemore (84 Charing Cross Road) managed to turn it into an eight-hour miniseries. Taking on the mid-20th-century novels that Vanity Fair said were "seen as the absolute quintessence of Englishness" was a bold move. Even though certain aspects of the plot and beautiful language were lost, the elegiac tone remained...

One thing I didn't mention in my review was how the filmmakers manage to catch — and keep — viewers' attention in the first part of the miniseries. The series begins with Nicholas Jenkins arriving at the flat of his mistress, Jean Duport. She opens the door completely naked, and remains so for most of the scenes set in her apartment, where Jenkins reminisces about his schooldays. You don't often see full frontal nudity in a British costume drama, and certainly not within the first few minutes of one.

August 27, 2007
In print

My interview with Moliere director Laurent Tirard is in today's Washington Times:

It might seem odd for Laurent Tirard to have reinvigorated the reputation of one of his country's greatest dramatists. The 40-year-old French director didn't even like the theater before embarking on his film "Moliere."

"Like everybody in France, I studied Moliere's works in school at an age where I was absolutely too young and too immature to understand them and appreciate them. So, I decided he was old-fashioned and boring and I didn't care much for theater anyway," Mr. Tirard said during a recent stop in the District. "Everything is fake; everybody's talking very loud."

That changed when he rediscovered the 17th-century playwright's work as an adult.

"By accident — although nothing ever happens by accident — three years ago, I re-read 'Le Misanthrope,' " he said. "And I was just amazed by how brilliant he was and by how contemporary it was. I think 'Le Misanthrope' is really about depression and about trying to fit in society when you have very strong moral ethics. And of course that doesn't mean anything to a 16-year-old. Only when you turn 30 and have to deal with these things do you really appreciate it..."

August 24, 2007
Happy birthday

"My vocal cords are made of tweed. I give off an air of Oxford donnishness and old BBC wirelesses."

--Stephen Fry, born August 24, 1957

In print

I have reviews of two films today in the Washington Times.

On the front page of the Show section is my three-star review of a clever French film:

If Moliere is France's Shakespeare, then Moliere is France's Shakespeare in Love. Or, to be more timely, France's Becoming Jane.

Like those British flicks, Moliere weaves a fictionalized story around an artist, combining the few biographical details we know with elements of the works we love to suggest that nothing inspires art so well as life.

The French film is just as fun and frothy as the British duo. But of the three, only Moliere offers any real insight into how its singular artist might have transformed himself, and in doing so, transformed the world...

Look for my interview with Moliere director Laurent Tirard in Monday's paper.

I also reviewed the latest environmental doc:

You know a documentary is a yawn when the biggest laugh from the audience comes when James Woolsey quotes Winston Churchill.

The trailer may prominently feature narrator-heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to the strains of a rockin' Linkin Park song, but don't be fooled: The 11th Hour is mostly an hour and a half of talking heads that gives short shrift to its best elements...

August 22, 2007
Thought for the day

"Novels are, among other things, expressions of faith in endings."

--John Leland in Why Kerouac Matters

August 20, 2007
Thought for the day

"Who, being loved, is poor?"

--Oscar Wilde

August 17, 2007
In print

I had three pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

I talked to Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold and star Anne Hathaway about the difficulties of bringing a beloved British author to the big screen:

Julian Jarrold is a sucker for punishment.

There's no other explanation for the English director's choice of projects.

His first feature film, 2005's Kinky Boots, was about a Northampton shoemaker who attempts to save the family business by starting a line of fetish footwear.

He's currently filming Brideshead Revisited, an adaptation of the much-loved novel by Evelyn Waugh, which has already been made into a much-loved British miniseries.

His second feature, Becoming Jane, which opened in U.S. theaters recently, marks the first time the most beloved English author after Shakespeare is portrayed on-screen...

One interesting tidbit from the piece -- Anne Hathway is a fan of Jane Austen, whom she first read at age 14. But her favorite book is one she read at 23: "My favorite book in the world is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand," she says. "I think she's pretty genius."

Brideshead Revisited fans (and I know you're out there), take note: Julian Jarrold is in the midst of filming that remake right now. There wasn't room in the printed piece for these comments from the director about the project:

"I think it's timely," Mr. Jarrold says. "My memory of [the miniseries] now -- I might be being harsh -- was of a nostalgia for something that's been lost, of this beautiful aristocratic world and I just think the book, and what one should be looking at, is not just that, but these religious themes that have resonances now." Themes like individual aspirations gone wrong, desires that conflict with religious belief, and parent-child relationships are "universal," he says.

Mr. Jarrold calls religion "this slightly mysterious thing that's going on in the background that's the key to these characters," which should reassure Brideshead fans: Screenwriter Andrew Davies caused a bit of an uproar when he said a few years ago that he planned to take the religion out of the story.

"I think it's quite an adult kind of film," Mr. Jarrold concludes.

(I reviewed Becoming Jane here.)

For the Beyond Hollywood column, I interviewed Jeffrey Blitz, an Oscar-nominated documentarian for Spellbound whose first fiction feature, Rocket Science opens today:

If a funny, touching movie can be made about a stuttering boy who, against all odds, joins his high school debate team, then maybe one should be made about the boy's creator, a writer-director who was also a stutterer and is comfortably chatting with a reporter about his feature film debut.

Rocket Science, which opens in theaters today, follows the fortunes of Hal Hefner, a New Jersey high schooler who is persuaded to join the debate team by the girl of his dreams. Director Jeffrey Blitz, on a recent press stop in the District, reveals that the film is something of an emotional autobiography.

"There are certain key facts that are drawn from my own life. And then a lot of stuff is just completely fanciful," he says. "I did stutter at that age and I still stutter now, but I stuttered intensely at that age."

One would hardly know Mr. Blitz, a smart and friendly guy in his late 30s, was a stutterer. There's little trace of it during our interview. It's worse on the telephone, he says...

I also reviewed Rocket Science:
Resolved: Rocket Science is a literate, touchingly funny film that marks an auspicious feature debut for documentarian Jeffrey Blitz.

There's no debate — in high-school debating, Mr. Blitz has found a milieu that's every bit as intense and interesting as that of the spelling bee contenders he followed in Spellbound...

August 16, 2007
Thought for the day

"Anyone who arrives at self-knowledge through desperation is the raw material for a great play."

--Kenneth Tynan

August 15, 2007
In print

I had four pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

I wrote a feature on books that have become hits through online word-of-mouth, for which I got to interview some of my favorite bloggers: Mark Sarvas, Edward Champion, and Ron Hogan. In his kind mention of the piece, Mark Sarvas got my goal exactly: it "eschews the usual print v. bloggers storyline (we also called it a 'false dichotomy' when the LA Times came calling) and looks, instead, at how literary bloggers might actually be influencing and/or anticipating print coverage."

Bibliophiles have grown alarmed over the past few months as newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, cut their book coverage. Much of the hand-wringing has taken place on the many literary blogs that follow publishing news along with the latest releases.

So when Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda took a swipe at bloggers in a recent post on Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle's blog, it set off something of a firestorm.

"If you were an author," Mr. Dirda wrote, "would you want your book reviewed in The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books — or on a website written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biografiend?"

But had the eminent critic set up a false dichotomy? After all, some authors wouldn't have received a review in a big paper at all if it hadn't been for the attentions of the literary bloggers at whom Mr. Dirda pokes fun...

I interviewed Steve Buscemi for the Beyond Hollywood column:

Conducting an interview with an iconic celebrity can be unnerving at the best of times.

Try talking to one whose latest role is a political journalist who's sent to interview a celebrity and moans about how inconsequential such an assignment is.

Such was the burden I had in interviewing that most recognizable of character actors, Steve Buscemi, when he made a recent stop in the District.

He was promoting the new film Interview, which the 49-year-old actor also directed...

Mr. Buscemi called the Hollywood promotion process "a little dehumanizing."

I also reviewed Interview:

Pierre and Katya really don't hit it off when they meet.

Pierre (Steve Buscemi, who also co-wrote and directed) is a political journalist galled that he's missing a big story in Washington because his editor sent him to New York to do a puff piece on a starlet.

His simmering resentment boils over when said starlet is an hour late for their interview. (Which proves he really hasn't done this before — believe me, it happens all the time.)

When Katya (Sienna Miller) finally arrives at the restaurant, she can tell Pierre's not happy. She can also tell that he knows almost nothing about her and hasn't seen a single one of her films.

"I know you by your reputation," he insists.

You mean, she asks incredulously, whom I'm sleeping with?

Things go downhill from there. It's one of the most delicious opening scenes of the year...

For the Tuning In column, I reviewed the new Showtime series Californication, starring David Duchovny:
Take the title of Showtime's new half-hour comedy seriously.

Californication features plenty of it. In the first episode of the series, which bows Monday at 10:30 p.m., following the third-season premiere of Weeds, I counted six breasts in under half an hour.

That's not the only way the new show, which marks The X Files' David Duchovny's return to series television, differs from the safer offerings on broadcast. Californication takes cliches — about geography, relationships and work life — and plays with them until they're almost unrecognizable...

August 14, 2007
Thought for the day

Frylock: "Stop doing that."

Master Shake: "I can't. And you should respect my addiction."

--Aqua Teen Hunger Force (or was that me and my boyfriend?)

August 12, 2007
Wishful thinking

As an arts and entertainment writer, I don't always keep up with politics as well as I should. But perhaps the bar after all isn't too high. From an IMDb news item on Leonardo DiCaprio comes this howler: "But DiCaprio admits the frontrunners for 2008's election - Democratic candidates Senator Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican Ron Paul - have yet to catch his attention with their environmental policies."

Then again, if Ron Paul really were the Republican frontrunner, American politics would be so interesting, I'd actually keep up with it.

August 11, 2007
Deeply funny

So I just discovered Patton Oswalt's blog. How a successful comedian, actor, and voice talent has time to maintain a hilarious and thoughtful site is beyond me. But it sure makes my lame excuses seem pathetic. I always enjoyed his work playing one of Doug's buddies on The King of Queens. But a little while back, I discovered he's done all this neat stuff behind the scenes. His cartoon work includes stints on my favorite animated series. And he's done a lot of "retouching" work on film scripts.

I was going to quote a line from one of his posts for a "Thought for the day." But there was just too much to choose from. This brutally honest piece on a Hollywood gifting suite is quite something. Some excerpts:

Hot, tan, blonde girls who are so fucking ugly. Buff, gelled, open-collared boys who can't read, and flash the SuFi.

This is not a screed against Los Angeles. Los Angeles is five of the best cities in the country, and three or four of the worst...

I got my ID from the receptionist, and found out that the gifting suite was put on by some organization trying to raise awareness for AIDS. I clung to this fact like a piece of goodness in a sea of shallowness and evil...

The second those shoes went into the bag my brain started screaming, "OUT! I want OUT!". It comes down to this: I love money. I love success even more. But I worked very hard to get money so I can pay for things myself. That's what turns me on and makes me happpy. Having shit handed to me by surly hipsters, or people whose mouths smile but eyes don't, is bad for the soul...

Super-crowded. That's the habitat. That's where these people thrive. I was surrounded by women waiting for someone to cut in front of them. Their upper lip is permanently curled, and their jaw is always half-relaxed, ready to fully snap open and let fly with a string of righteous bitching at some perceived slight...

While I was waiting for the SUV to take me back to my car, I got waylaid by one of the producers of MTV's PIMP MY RIDE. You know what a pimp is, right? He's a dude who tricks, frightens, or flat-out bullies a woman to fuck other men for money, which she then gives to him. Just wanted to clear that up. 'Cuz there's a show called PIMP MY RIDE. Maybe they can do another show called RAPE MY CRIB...

So he was showing me a "party van" they'd outfitted, with an extendable wheels of steel and mini-bar. It was kind of nice. Wow, someone had actually, you know, CREATED something. Had used skill and talent to craft something kind of new. My heart warmed for a moment.

"Yeah, we had this thing at a Ja Rule record release party, and we hired a fuckin' midget to serve drinks out of the side. And this one bitch..."

But I couldn't hear him anymore. My heart had snapped shut. Even the few good things in this world were always turned towards ugliness.

(I don't know what SuFi is, but I don't think he's referring to the mystic tradition in Islam and Google is no help otherwise.)

And it's always nice to hear from a celebrity who doesn't feel like a victim. He rips into these Jim Carrey lines: "Comedy is a high form of art because it brings us more joy than anything else, practically but at the same time it doesn't get a lot of respect. That's the sacrifice you make to do it." As Oswalt says,

No respect? Tell that to Ricky Gervais, or Woody Allen, or Albert Brooks. And "sacrifice"? I get to hang out with COMEDIANS most of the time. I'm not trapped in an office, pretending to enjoy when my co-workers regurgitate catch-phrases from Carlos Mencia or last night's FAMILY GUY.

RIP

"'Punk was Stalinist,' he elaborates, his arms waving wildly in emphasis, heads turning in the restaurant, 'It tore away the dross but all it could say was, "fuck you!". Joy Division came along and said something much more dark and complex. They said, "we are lost".'"

--Tony Wilson, 1950 - 2007

August 10, 2007
Becoming Lefroy

Practical Writer co-editor Therese Eiben tells GalleyCat that the New York Times review of Becoming Jane got the allusions wrong in saying that Jane Austen's filmic love interest was based on Pride and Prejudice's Darcy; it's really Sense of Sensibility's Willoughby.

There are shades of Wickham from P&P, too, as I noted in my review of the film. There's that attempted elopement, after all. And one thinks Wickham had that same charm and dandyism.

I asked the director, Julian Jarrold, about this when I interviewed him a few weeks before the film opened.

"That's something I haven't talked about today," he told me, noting that American interviewers hadn't noticed that the character of Tom Lefroy has a lot in common with the Jane Austen cads. "That's one of the things that Jane Austen was fascinated by. In all the novels, there is this rogueish dark stranger who's sexy and attractive and not to be relied upon. The unreliable young man. That aspect of it, which obviously Lefroy embodies, although he turns in the end -- that referred a bit more to Persuasion."

He says that the film is, in part, an attempted answer to the question of where this recurring rogue comes from.

Even Elizabeth Bennet, that very common-sensical heroine, falls for Wickham.

"She does, doesn't she? If he played his cards a bit more carefully, he would have gotten her, wouldn't he?" the director says, chuckling. "She's so angry, isn't she, with Lydia? She acts quite badly to Lydia. It's not that Christian forgiveness at all. You think, why is that? Perhaps she's just a teeny bit jealous."

August 08, 2007
Tip

Amazon is currently having a sale: Buy two Random House paperbacks, get one free. The list of over 170 eligible titles includes some great books: Julian Barnes' Arthur and George and multiple titles by Kurt Vonnegut and Alexander McCall Smith. There are three right there. But wait, I already have those three. Perhaps Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, and Alice Munro? This will be difficult...

Line of the day

"We’re very excited about making this movie, but on one condition, and that is that the c*** stays in the picture."

--Joe Wright, director of the upcoming film adaptation of Atonement, in the London Sunday Times

Thought for the day

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

--Thomas Mann

August 03, 2007
In print

I have three pieces in today's Washington Times:

I wrote the On the Edge column, which is partly a review of the new film Arctic Tale and partly an essay on the new breed of documentaries of which Arctic Tale is a part:

There's a lot of buzz around Arctic Tale, the family film opening in theaters today. Even before its wide release, it "already seems to be a front-runner for the '07 documentary Oscar," William Arnold writes in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

If that's true, it will likely be competing against the year's biggest documentary, Michael Moore's Sicko.

Should it matter that, if veracity counts, neither of these films is a strict documentary?

The genre has undergone a renaissance in the last few years, moving out of the art house on the strength of such box office hits as March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. At the same time, docs have become more tendentious, with filmmakers using the form as vehicles for their personal views on subjects ranging from the obesity epidemic to the war in Iraq.

The new, more polemical documentarians don't mind tinkering with inconvenient facts in the service of a larger "truth" — to the point that it's getting harder to tell where a documentary ends and a fiction feature begins...

I also reviewed the film that marks the first time Jane Austen has been portrayed on the big screen:

Becoming Jane is a fun and frothy costume drama that Austen fans should enjoy — as long as they're not expecting anything close to biographical accuracy. Few biographers believe that Austen and Lefroy had anything but a mild flirtation, but two brief comments in Austen's letters are here turned into a romance that was more important to Austen than her art.

Bits and pieces from Austen's six novels are sprinkled throughout the story, and Janeites will have fun spotting them.

But while most critics see Lefroy as a real-life Darcy, he shares much more in common with those handsome cads Wickham and Willoughby.

That's not the only subversive element in Becoming Jane...

Look for my interview feature with Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold and star Anne Hathaway sometime next week. Those curious about the upcoming remake of Brideshead Revisited will be particularly interested — Jarrold is the director and I spoke with him about that project, which he's now in the middle of filming.

Finally, the Tuning In column contains my little review of the first installment of ABC's Masters of Science Fiction series, which stars two of my favorite actors, Judy Davis and Sam Waterston.