September 28, 2007
In print

I interviewed veteran director (and really nice guy) Robert Benton for the first item in the Beyond Hollywood column in today's Washington Times. His new film Feast of Love opens today. But he'll go down in movie history as the co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde:

The screenplay he co-wrote with David Newman was their first, and it changed film history. No one was more surprised than they were. It took four years to sell after being turned down by every major studio. "We used to joke that we'd be 80 years old, standing at a street corner still trying to sell Bonnie and Clyde," he laughs.

Success, though, almost cost him his marriage. Warren Beatty, who starred in the film, called the writer up one Saturday morning to say Francois Truffaut told him to look at the script.

Mr. Benton, who'd been married about six months, neglected to inform his wife that Mr. Beatty was coming over. "Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang and Sally was in blue jeans and a man's shirt and had rollers in her hair and no makeup. She thought it was the super and opened the door, and there is Warren. And that's when Warren was full-bore Warren. She almost killed me." Luckily, the pair are still happily married.

Inspired by the new wave, he and his partner wanted to write an American French film. Mr. Benton says that after the first excoriating reviews came out, he told his wife the film would have a two-week run. Instead, it became an international hit and forever changed the way violence was portrayed on-screen.

"The violence in this film comes from one line in the screenplay," Mr. Benton says. "And that is, 'In this movie when bullets hit, they should hurt.'"

I also asked him about New York Times writer A.O. Scott's look back at the movie on its 40th anniversary, in which the critic suggested early reviewers were right to lambast the film for its violence.

I also reviewed Feast of Love:

There are very few movies in which one character saying to another the three simple words "I love you" can bring a tear to the eye. Feast of Love is one of those films.

True to its title, the movie is full of feeling but, thankfully, not sentimentality. That's thanks to the sure hand of its director, Robert Benton, the veteran helmer of Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart.

Based on the novel by Charles Baxter, Feast of Love follows a handful of interconnected and troubled couples in Portland, Ore...

September 24, 2007
In print

I had four pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

I interviewed actor Terrence Howard, who's currently on screen in two films, The Brave One and The Hunting Party:

Many actors are an odd mixture of humility and bravado. Terrence Howard seems to be a particularly extreme example of the personality type. The 38-year-old actor makes a surprising aside when talking by telephone about his upcoming album (yes, he plays guitar, piano and sings, too).

"I came into the business as a songwriter. I bumped into [producer and former Motown executive] Suzanne de Passe, and she put me in The Jacksons: An American Dream," he says of his debut as an adult Jackie in the 1992 miniseries. "I sucked thoroughly in that. I still suck thoroughly in almost every film I'm in."

Academy members, among others, disagree.

Mr. Howard received a best actor Oscar nomination for 2005's Hustle & Flow and starred in the best picture winner that year, Crash...

He throws himself into his characters, describing how he would wake up "The Brave One" director Neil Jordan on weekends during shooting to talk about his character, a morally conflicted man he found harder to play than the easily good or bad guys.

Mr. Howard sees the vigilante film, which stars Miss Foster, as a political statement. "My uncle told me as a kid," he recalls, "fear is the most uncomfortable feeling for any creature. You will do anything, including sign away your rights in the Patriot Act."

It's a somber thought, but then the very funny, easygoing actor is quick to laugh and says, "I wish I could say that's why I did the movie. No, it's because Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan were doing it."

I also interviewed, for the second item in the Beyond Hollywood column, actor and director Justin Theroux:
Justin Theroux says he has much enjoyed making the transition from actor to director with his new film, Dedication. The movie stars Billy Crudup as an irascible children's book author forced to work with an insecure young illustrator played by Mandy Moore.

But, while the new role might mean more artistic satisfaction and more power, it also means more work — not all of it glamorous.

Take the (very memorable) opening scene of Dedication. Tom Wilkinson takes a reluctant Mr. Crudup to a blue-movie house in search of inspiration for their next children's book.

"Because we were so broke, we couldn't shoot porn," Mr. Theroux explains by telephone. "It's hard to call in a favor like that. So I trolled through days and days of bad '70s porn." He describes the work as "soul-crushing."

I also reviewed his film:
Dedication is, I suppose, a romantic comedy. The general plotline is boy meets girl, boy and girl don't much like each other, boy and girl realize they do like each other, boy does something stupid to lose girl, boy tries to win girl back.

But the similarities between this film and the genre's blueprint end on the surface.

There's the question of the lead character, for example. Usually in a romcom, we like both the boy and girl, even if they don't like each other (see You've Got Mail).

As a matter of fact, I did like Henry, the depressed and possibly obsessive-compulsive children's book author played by Billy Crudup. But he's awfully hard to like...

I gave four out of four stars to Forever, a documentary by Dutch-based filmmaker Heddy Honigmann:
Just about everyone fascinating ends up in Paris at some point — at least it sometimes seems that way. The feeling is reinforced on watching Forever. The documentary is ostensibly about visitors to Paris' famed Pere-Lachaise cemetery, reputed to be the world's most-visited. But this is no somber doc about death. In exploring the life-changing, death-defying power of beauty, Forever turns out to be a fascinating, beautiful meditation on art...

September 16, 2007
In print

I had three pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

I interviewed Canadian director David Cronenberg for the Beyond Hollywood column:

This summer, the world lost two of its greatest directors — Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni — on the same day. David Cronenberg, in the District to promote his new film Eastern Promises, says both men certainly influenced his work.

"They were part of that late '50s, early '60s wave when there was a genre called the Art Film with a capital A," Mr. Cronenberg says. "That was very important to me."

There are plenty of good directors still working, and promising newcomers pop up all the time. Yet, says Mr. Cronenberg, "what seems to be very difficult is for someone to have consistency, to make film after film after film that really is unique, that has a voice that's recognizable."

The director is too modest — too Canadian, perhaps — to point out that he himself is one of the best examples of a singular filmmaker whose clear vision is all over every film he's made...

I may have broken some news during the interview. The director wouldn't say what he was working on next:
Still, a question about a writer with whom he shares a sensibility elicits one possibility: Will he ever do a Philip K. Dick adaptation?

Mr. Cronenberg worked on Total Recall for a while, before abandoning the project to Paul Verhoeven.

"It's very strange that you should mention it. But I can't say more," he coyly says. "I'm a fan of Philip Dick as well. And I've never turned my back on the genre. It was only a couple movies ago that I did eXistenZ, which in a way is my homage to Philip Dick."

I also reviewed his new film, Eastern Promises, which I loved. It has what I think is the most astonishing scene of the year so far:
No one can take a genre film and turn it into art like David Cronenberg.

The Canadian auteur made his name in the 1970s and '80s with philosophical horror and sci-fi films such as Videodrome and The Fly before making cult classics including Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. With his last film, 2005's A History of Violence, he found some mainstream acclaim working off another writer's script while still making something identifiably his own.

He has repeated the feat with another tale of alienation, Eastern Promises, a gangster flick that plays with every convention of the genre...

I also reviewed In the Valley of Elah. Some critics seem to think director Paul Haggis' political views keep this from being a great film. I thought that holding back too much on what he really wants to say is what actually hurts the film:
With Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, the fall season of heavy-hitting Oscar contenders officially begins.

Mr. Haggis wrote two of the last three best-picture winners (Million Dollar Baby and Crash) and directed one (Crash). His new film, inspired by a true story, stars three Oscar winners. And it takes on a big and timely topic, the war in Iraq.

With the stars so aligned, you could hardly go wrong, and for the first two-thirds, this film goes very well indeed. However, Mr. Haggis seems so intent on restraining his own antiwar views to make a nonpartisan, emotional rather than polemical film that his work falls apart in the last act...

September 07, 2007

"Just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist."

--from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, 1918 - 2007

A different Road

The September 24 issue of National Review contains my review of John Leland's Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think). You can read it online now if you're a subscriber; it should hit newsstands soon.

The rebel, in all his incarnations, has long been misunderstood. Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, has long been misunderstood as a rebel — 50 years, to be exact, ever since the publication in September 1957 of his second and best-known novel, On the Road. At least that’s what New York Times reporter John Leland argues in his new book. Now, when a critic says that, for decades, the real meaning of a book “has eluded most readers” — but not that critic himself — one prepares for an idiosyncratic, agenda-pushing reading that bears little resemblance to the author’s intent. But not in this case: Leland is, broadly speaking, absolutely right...

Kerouac initially intended to report the events of his road trips exactly as they happened, with real locations, dates, and names. In the draft of the book Kerouac wrote over three mad, caffeine-fueled weeks in April 1951 — one long paragraph taped together into a 120-foot scroll — there was no Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, or Carlo Marx; there was Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and poet Allen Ginsburg. Publishers asked Kerouac to change details to avoid libel suits.

On the anniversary of this putative novel, two new publications return it to the status of one of America’s most honest memoirs. Viking is publishing On the Road: The Original Scroll, real names and excised scenes intact; Library of America is publishing Road Novels 1957–1960, in which helpful footnotes indicate the real-life counterparts of the fictional characters.

Leland’s book has its own genre: It’s a self-help guide to a self-help guide. On the Road, says Leland, offers lessons on work, friendship, love, and spirituality: “It survives because, like The Road Less Traveled or The Purpose Driven Life, it gives readers something they can use.”

One hopes Leland isn’t as literal-minded as he sounds. Life lessons, to put it crudely, might have something to do with the appeal of moralists like Jane Austen and George Eliot; but one wonders what such masterpieces as Lolita and Waugh’s Decline and Fall give us that we “can use,” after the manner of the simply stated lessons of pop-spiritual tomes. On the Road survives, I would suggest, not because it’s particularly helpful in navigating the stormy seas of life, but because of the allure of its singular voice: that of a man full of wonder at and wildly in love with all God’s creation...

In print

In today's Washington Times, I had a very enjoyable conversation with Shoot 'Em Up director Michael Davis for the Beyond Hollywood column:

Mr. Davis, with his background in independent teen comedies, might seem like an odd choice to make the action flick to end all action flicks...

"I would love to try to take the action movie but add that indie film voice/spirit," he says. "The great thing about the action movie is if you give everybody the candy that they want, you can sneak in the other odd stuff and the movie won't suffer. It'll actually be better."

In fact, Shoot 'Em Up turns out to be a very personal film.

"I just went with my gut; this is me," Mr. Davis says. "There's definitely a crude side to me. I like telling dirty jokes. I'm not a classy guy. I don't look good in a suit. But there's also a side of me that's kind of smart."

That came through even in his "raunchy, R-rated teen movies," he says. One critic said Eight Days a Week felt like Woody Allen-meets-American Pie...

I also reviewed Shoot 'Em Up, which stars Clive Owen:
"Violence is one of the most fun things to watch," Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti) gleefully declares in Shoot 'Em Up.

Maybe — but that's not why Shoot 'Em Up is the most entertaining film of the year.

Sure, it's a nearly nonstop rush of adrenaline that should please even the most jaded action junkie. But it's also one of the most ingenious films of the year. It's at once a sendup of a genre and a love letter to it, while also being a particularly exciting example of it. The genre-busting pic is so good at the sendup that it's also one of the funniest of the year...

This week's Show section was the fall preview, and I wrote two out of three looks ahead to the fall. One was on film:
Temperatures are still in the 90s and autumn doesn't officially begin until the 23rd, but no matter: To students and studio execs, fall begins the day after Labor Day.

The fall movie season, of course, is the one in which studios release their likeliest Oscar contenders, hoping to keep powerful performances and delicate directing in the minds of Academy members just before nominations are announced early in the calendar year.

That always means mostly big-budget epics, serious dramas and literary adaptations, but this year may see a record-breaking number of the latter...

The other was on television:
Television execs this fall are doing what they do best — bringing us new series just like the old ones we love so much...