October 30, 2007
Thought for the day

"This splendid fountain pen came in a red leather case, and I showed it to my girlfriends the first chance I got. Me, Anne Frank, the proud owner of a fountain pen."

--Anne Frank

In print

Busy, busy. I had five pieces last week in the Washington Times.

For the Beyond Hollywood column, I talked to the director of Bella and found out how a sense of mission led him to start a production company before he'd even written his first feature. It's a nice rags-to-riches sort of story -- he and his partner almost bunked in the Cadillac Escalade that the partner, a Mexican soap star, had gotten from a sponsor:

Alejandro Gomez Monteverde is just 30 years old, but he's already had what some seasoned directors might think of as a career high.

His very first feature film, Bella, won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. (Previous winners include Best Picture Oscar winners American Beauty and Chariots of Fire.)

The Smithsonian Latino Center gave his film a "Legacy Award." President Bush invited him to sit with the first lady during the State of the Union address.

Recognition, however, isn't enough for this ambitious young Mexican-born filmmaker. Mr. Monteverde wants nothing less than to change the industry of which he's just become a part.

The thing is, he's actually taking some smart steps to do it...

I also reviewed Bella.

I reviewed Kenneth Branagh's reinterpretation of Sleuth:

Sleuth is one of the most pedigreed films of the year, as its poster trumpets in huge letters: "Caine. Law. Branagh. Pinter."

But it's the word in the middle of all those big British names that proves the movie's undoing: Sleuth itself.

And I reviewed The Bubble, which I gave three and a half stars out of four:

It's hard for Americans, living in relative security with no terrorist attacks in six years, to imagine what day-to-day life in the Middle East is like.

Judging from The Bubble (HaBuah), it's difficult for some Israelis to understand, too.

The title of the latest film from Eytan Fox, who last year received the Washington Jewish Film Festival's first Decade Award, refers to Tel Aviv. It's the cultural center of Israel, much more secular than the rest of the country, and it hasn't had to face nearly as much terrorist activity as, say, Jerusalem. It might be easy to forget, strolling past the cafes and art galleries, the fighting taking place mere miles away...

I also wrote the second half of the Riffs column, talking to Cowboy Junkies bassist Alan Anton in advance of the band's two shows here. This was fun, not only because I've been a fan of the band for over a decade (favorite album? the underrated Pale Sun, Crescent Moon), but also because I got a copy of Trinity Revisited months before it comes out in the States:
The New Pornographers' frontman may have decamped to the U.S., but another Canadian favorite, the Cowboy Junkies, have spent their 22-year career based in Toronto.

The alt-rock band with the heavenly-voiced female singer found early international success with 1.5 million copies sold of its second album, The Trinity Session. But the group's members never really thought about capitalizing on it by moving to the U.S.

"It was not our goal as a band to be part of the mainstream entertainment complex," says bassist Alan Anton. "We never said, 'Great, we're a mainstream band now, let's make mainstream records.'"

Perhaps the Junkies have a bigger U.S. fan base than some other Canadian bands because their music is so obviously influenced by stateside artists...

October 25, 2007
Ouch

"'People could say Kate [Beckinsale] is too good-looking to be a reporter,' admits Rod Lurie, the writer and director of the independently financed film."

--from a Washington Post story on the "Judith Miller movie"

October 24, 2007
In print

I had three pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

I gave three stars to both films I reviewed. One was Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro:

It's enough of an accomplishment to release one outstanding film in a year.

Susanne Bier has released two.

The Danish director's After the Wedding, a best foreign language film Oscar nominee, is easily one of the year's best. She makes her English-language debut with Things We Lost in the Fire, opening today.

This drama isn't nearly as good as After the Wedding, perhaps because the experienced filmmaker who usually co-writes her films is working from Allan Loeb's first produced script. But in style, it's clear the Dogme director has made no concessions in her move from Europe to America...

The other was Rendition, starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Omar Metwally:

Rendition is one of those ripped-from-the-headlines movies that usually ends with a few screens of text that reinforce the moral of the story by tying the events of the film to events in real life.

Rendition doesn't have or need those lines — its message comes through loud and clear without them...

Two strands of this story develop predictably. The Americans are almost entirely archetypes of good and evil. True, Miss Streep does explain, succinctly, the rationale for rendition: "A thousand people in central London are alive because of information we got in just this way." But with Anwar's innocence barely ever in any doubt, her claim that torture is necessary is completely unconvincing. Rendition would have raised far more interesting issues had the man being tortured not been such a saint.

That's why the third strand, that of the young Arabic students, is the most moving...

I also wrote the Beyond Hollywood column. The first half is devoted to a preview of C'est Chic, a festival of new films from France. I recommend Tres Bien, Merci:

This black comedy might be the start of a new genre: Kafkaesque realism.

Gilbert Melki, recently seen here in Luc Besson's "Angel-A," stars as Alex. The accountant has a bit of a problem with authority: The film starts as he's fined for smoking in a metro station. Then his boss scolds him for smoking in the office lavatory...

The second half is a review of a new Iraq war documentary:
The Iraq war has spawned a veritable industry of documentary films. Even if you watched the first few with interest, by now you may be saying, "Enough."

But Meeting Resistance is unlike any documentary on the war you might have seen. It opens today for a weeklong run at the AMC Loews Dupont Circle...

As they say in a preface to the film, they wanted to find out just who was behind the insurgent attacks that were frustrating U.S. forces between the time President Bush declared "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" in early 2003 and the elections that first took place in 2005.

The result is a daring documentary in which Iraqi insurgents speak directly about how and why they decided to take up arms. Almost all of the interviewees have their identities obscured — many of them are still fighting. They're identified by generic names like the Teacher, the Warrior, the Wife, the Fugitive. The filmmakers found them all in a single neighborhood in Baghdad, the Al Adhamiya district.

What you hear may surprise you...

October 16, 2007
Rocky shores

I'm in today's Philadelphia Inquirer with a review of the latest novel by the most recent Nobel literature laureate:

Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last week, with the judges in Stockholm calling her "that epicist of the female experience." But it's unlikely that most women will want to admit that her latest speculative novel, The Cleft, accurately captures that experience.

Lessing, best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, explains in an author's note at the beginning of The Cleft that her story was inspired by a scientific article that suggested "the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later." What follows is a sort of creation myth...

I actually stopped by to visit Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson just hours after the announcement last week. It's always nice to put a face to a name, and even to talk about things other than books now and then. The chat was a nice end to my brief Philly jaunt (which included interviewing Robert Redford). And if you don't already read Frank Wilson's blog, you should.

In print

I had three pieces in Friday's Washington Times.

The first was a column on the occasion of Edmund Wilson's entry into the Library of America. The literary critic introduced Vladimir Nabokov to American audiences; he was the first American reviewer of Ernest Hemingway; and he even inspired artists -- W.H. Auden once said he wrote for Wilson alone. But rather than reconsider his judgments, I ask: Why does the 21st century have no Edmund Wilson? I take a look at a few critics now considered the best of their generation and conclude that "the cultural climate is no longer suited to nurturing a pre-eminent critic."

I reviewed the latest in a long line of films about Elizabeth I:

Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the second of a projected trilogy that began with 1998's Elizabeth, is very much like its predecessor.

Both visually stunning films feel like a series of paintings brought to life, interspersed with set pieces of cutting, precise dialogue that feel like Great Historical Moments brought to life. In both films, there's much to marvel over — not the least of which are the performances. But those looking for a penetrating and pertinent analysis of one of the Western world's defining moments will be sorely disappointed.

Australian actress Cate Blanchett reprises the role that made her a star. The film begins in 1585; Elizabeth has ruled England for over a quarter of a century, but doesn't feel much more secure on the throne than when she got it after barely escaping her sister Mary I's reign with her life.

She doesn't look much older, either. In reality, the queen was over 50 by now, but Miss Blanchett is in her late-30s and barely looks it.

The historical inaccuracies don't stop there. Both films portray Elizabeth as a model of religious tolerance. "I will not punish my people for their beliefs, only for their deeds," she says.

Tell that to the martyrs of Tyburn...

I also wrote the Beyond Hollywood column. The first item is a preview of the DC Labor FilmFest:
Many critics have complained that for decades, the novel has ignored the workplace. Thankfully, a more popular art form has not.

From Nine to Five to Silkwood to Clerks, the friction between bosses and employees — and employees and employees — has provided grist for the creative mill.

This is not only true in America, as the 2007 DC Labor FilmFest reminds us. Running now through Wednesday, the festival organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute and the American Film Institute is presenting a selection of new and classic films from around the world that broadly explore work life...

For the second item, I interviewed Jeffrey Roth, director of The Wonder of It All, a documentary that offers the personal perspectives of the men who walked on the moon.

October 12, 2007
Thought for the day

"OBLÁTH (consolingly): Everyone here makes a botch of his life. That’s the local specialty, the genius loci. Anyone who doesn’t botch up his life here simply has no talent."

--Imre Kertész, Liquidation (thanks, R)

October 11, 2007
Catch up

In August, I had a piece in the Washington Times about a modern-day book-burning. Cambridge University Press immediately capitulated to a threat of legal action by a Saudi billionaire, pulping Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins. In my story I wrote, "Perhaps there's a reason big papers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post haven't mentioned the Alms for Jihad case: All three have settled with Mr. Mahfouz in the past."

I'm happy to note that the New York Times Book Review finally reported the story this week.

I believe there is one error in the story by Rachel Donadio, though. She writes of bin Mahfouz' previous lawsuits in the United Kingdom, "In each case, defendants have paid settlements before trial." One of the cases she mentions involves Rachel Ehrenfeld, the New York author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It. I interviewed her for my story, and she told me she'd never paid the Saudi businessman a dime.

I will have another piece on the topic in the December issue of Reason, out next month. I talked to Prof. Collins again and wrote a short Q&A for the magazine.

October 09, 2007
Thought for the day

"Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work."

--Chuck Close

October 05, 2007
In print - with extras!

I have a few pieces in today's Washington Times.

For the Beyond Hollywood column, I interviewed two major directors. The first was Ang Lee, whose latest film, Lust, Caution, opens in DC today:

His resume is varied — audiences don't care about genre, he says, but "about themselves; they want to see themselves in the movie."

But from his eclectic oeuvre, repression emerges as a common theme. "Repression is something I grew up with, to try to conform to societal needs, to try to live with each other," he says. China, he continues, is "not a pastoral culture" in which "you live peacefully in nature and with each other. And Buddhism came into our mix, with the idea that you should repress your desire rather than exert it and show your personality. Everything's about how to fit in."

He adds, laughing, "Even in 1973 America suburbia, I found some repression," referring to his 1997 film, The Ice Storm...

One fun tidbit that didn't make it in print: Ang Lee says he makes movies to learn from travels around the world, always taking something back with him. Shooting Brokeback Mountain in Alberta, it was affection for a hockey team: He become a fan of the Calgary Flames. "I saw eight playoff games. And I never do anything during a shoot," he says. "I was a screamer." When I chuckled, mentioning I'm from Edmonton, Calgary's rival, he's quick to joke, "It's not funny! I take it seriously."

I also talked to Wes Anderson, whose latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, is one of his best — hilarious and touching, but with a wider scope:

Countless Western artists, from Kipling to the Beatles, have been inspired by India.

Most of them visited the country first, though.

Writer-director Wes Anderson's latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, follows three slightly estranged brothers hoping to rekindle brotherly bonds during a train trip through the country. Mr. Anderson had never set foot in India before making the film, but its genesis came from the desire to make a movie there.

"I knew India just from the movies," he says by telephone from New York, "from the movies of Satyajit Ray and a Jean Renoir movie, The River."

And here's a fun Wes Anderson tidbit that didn't make it into print. You could learn a great deal about the director just by watching Hotel Chevalier, a 13-minute, perfectly executed short starring Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman available free on iTunes. It's a prologue to Darjeeling, showing Schwartzman's character in a Paris hotel not long before the India trip.
As in Anderson's features, Chevalier features a series of visual set-pieces, the hotel room teeming with photographs, books and albums. Do these visual feasts take a long time for Mr. Anderson to compose?
"I don't think so," he responds. "In the case of the short, I just used what I had with me in Paris."

Huh. Who would have expected Mr. Anderson to be reading Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate? Perhaps his own wildly dysfunctional families were inspired by the infamous Mitfords.

I also reviewed Lust, Caution, giving it three and a half stars:

Here's a useful exercise for aspiring filmmakers or artists of any kind: Watch Black Book on DVD, and then head to the theater and see Lust, Caution.

The story, in its barest bones, is the same in both films: During World War II, a young woman is drafted into the resistance to seduce a high-ranking government official in an audacious assassination plot. Both films are intense, meticulously crafted dramas exploring an ugly and complicated period in a nation's history. What makes them so different is that each has the mark of its maker's obsessions.

Dutch director Paul Verhoven's Black Book uses thrilling, American-style filmmaking to tell a morality tale about decadent Europeans. In Lust, Caution, Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) cares less about the lessons, or even the story. He explores secrets, but it doesn't really matter what the secrets are. It's their power to destroy that interests him.

His haunting film begins in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. A group of well-groomed women sit around a mah-jongg table, their mouths moving almost as fast as their hands, the gossip not quite drowned out by the incessant clicking of the tiles...

The short story by Eileen Chang on which the film is based is now back in print here in the States. It's very good, but Ang Lee and his screenwriters have wonderfully fleshed out what is a rather spare story, but they've done it in visuals, rather than in words. The result really is a tale brought to life rather than a tale woodenly told, as too often happens with literary adaptations.

I also reviewed Michael Clayton:

I never thought that the screenwriter of the trashy Devil's Advocate would make a tense, heart-pounding legal thriller. But that's just what Tony Gilroy has done with his directorial debut, Michael Clayton.

George Clooney is the title character, a legal fixer at big Manhattan corporate law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. "I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor," he modestly tells one of his clients. Really, he's both. Firm co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) sends the toughest and dirtiest work Michael's way.

Right now, that's firm partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens has kept his manic depression under control for almost a decade with medication. But a particularly ugly case seems to have sent him over the edge: He strips naked during a deposition, ranting semi-coherently in favor of the opposition's witness in the class-action lawsuit...

Radio, radio

I realized that, though I appear now and then on a couple radio stations here in DC, I rarely post the details here. Well, today I'll be on WTOP radio at around 3:50 pm to talk about this week's new releases in film. You can listen live online.