November 15, 2007
Libel chill

A while back, I wrote a piece about Cambridge University Press pulping the book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World because of the threat of a libel lawsuit from a Saudi billionaire. I revisited the issue again for Reason. The December issue of the magazine, which is on newsstands now but not yet online, has my Q&A with author Robert O. Collins in its Soundbite feature.

In print

I've got quite a bit of catch up to do here in listing my recent pieces. But in my defense, I was out of town -- twice -- and it was my birthday. Here's what I had the last couple weeks in the Washington Times.

I sat down with Robert Redford to talk politics and his latest film, Lions for Lambs. I've been told this piece was linked on Drudge, but I didn't get a chance to see that myself:

Penn is an Ivy League school, and Mr. Redford and his young stars might have expected some hard-hitting questions from the students in the audience after the screening and there were. However, there was also the young woman who revealed she had conducted an informal poll among the females waiting in line, and the consensus was clear Robert Redford is still a very sexy guy.

"What kind of a weird evening was that?" Mr. Redford asks with disbelief the next day, sitting comfortably in a hotel room in the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton.

Mr. Redford may look younger than his years, but those years still total 71, after all. "I was genuinely taken aback," he says. He never really got used to the adoration: "It was pretty intense there for a long time, but I thought, 'I'll grow out of this. America's obsessed with youth, and they'll get tired of me.' "

They never did, of course.

Though Mr. Redford started directing almost 30 years ago he won his Oscar for his directorial debut, 1980's Ordinary People he's never stopped acting, but he's developed a few other interests along the way. The liberal actor actually thanks a conservative politician for making that possible.

The environmentalist who founded the Sundance Resort and Film Festival in Utah was one of the first actors to use his fame to talk politics. He spent a lot of time studying the literature on, for example, renewable energy sources so he wasn't talking about issues he knew nothing about, but still took many shots from opponents.

"I got hammered pretty well until Reagan got elected," he says. "Because they used to say, 'What does he know, he's an actor.' When Reagan got elected, that was the end of that argument."

I also reviewed Lions for Lambs. I seem to be one of the only critics in the country who liked it:
The box office hasn't been kind to war-themed movies so far this year. Lions for Lambs, however, has three things In the Valley of Elah and Rendition don't Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

It's not just having three generations of bona fide movie stars that should get Lions better business. The film's focus on Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, might allow it to sidestep some of the politicized discussion of Elah and Rendition.

More importantly, the sharp script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote this year's most successful ripped-from-the-headlines war-on-terror movie The Kingdom, is full of smart one-liners memorable for not just their cleverness, but also their ability to get a point across.

For the Beyond Hollywood column last week, I interviewed Josh Brolin, star of No Country for Old Men:
Few actors disappear into a role quite so well as Josh Brolin.

The 39-year-old actor is nearly unrecognizable from film to film. This year alone, he's portrayed four very different characters whom most viewers probably have no idea are played by the same man.

He was a corrupt cop in American Gangster. He was the smarmy police chief in In the Valley of Elah. He was an abusive doctor in the schlocky Grindhouse. Finally, in No Country for Old Men, opening today, he's a confident Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a massacre and thinks he can escape with the $2 million left in the drug deal gone bad.

So you're not sure what to expect from an interview. What I found on sitting down with the actor at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton last month was a character actor who turns out to have more charisma than many movie stars...

I reviewed Control, one of the best films I've seen this year:
Joy Division left a small output but a large legacy. The British post-punk band recorded just two albums before lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself on May 19, 1980, at the age of 23. But the music didn't die there. The remaining members of the band regrouped as the critically and commercially successful New Order, while the life of Mr. Curtis became rock myth.

Now that myth is brought back to life in a new biopic of the troubled artist. "Control" marks the feature film debut of photographer and video director Anton Corbijn, whose photographs of Joy Division helped establish his own career.

One wonders what took the 52-year-old so long to take on the feature form. With "Control," Mr. Corbijn has made a beautifully shot, sensitively rendered black and white film that's as moody and atmospheric as the band's music...

I wrote the Beyond Hollywood column that week on the European Union Film Showcase now taking place in the District. I focused on two films, the Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the Czech I Served the King of England:
The EU may be a union, but the films coming out of the member countries wildly vary in style and mood. More and more, it seems, European filmmakers are looking to their respective countries' pasts and trying to come to terms with them. The Lives of Others, about an East German Stasi officer spying on two artists, was certainly one of these. So are two standout films from this year's festival, although on the surface they seem nothing alike.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won both the Palme d'Or and the Fipresci Prize at Cannes this year. It's easy to see why: It's powerful filmmaking difficult to watch but so compelling you can't turn away.

Like The Lives of Others, it takes place in the last years of a communist regime, this time Romania in 1987. The film opens in a dorm room, as Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) seems to be packing for some sort of trip with the help of her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca).

It soon becomes clear that Gabita is simply going to a hotel across town and that the purpose of the "journey" is to get an illegal abortion...

Czechoslovakia also spent time under communist rule, but it's another dark time in the country's history that's illuminated in the Czech Republic's official Oscar selection, "I Served the King of England." Writer-director Jiri Menzel's first film, "Closely Watched Trains," won that award 40 years ago; like this latest, it was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal.

I Served the King of England is as cutting about naivete and the way politics affects people as "4 Months," but it tells its story in a very different way. Where the Romanian film is committed to a gritty realism, the Czech film has a lighter sensibility. It's like a ballet, with movements gracefully choreographed to the classical music the city of Prague loves so much...

There's more. We've started a new DVD column at the paper called Media Room, which I've been spearheading. I wrote the first column, which features an interview with Twin Peaks star Madchen Amick and a look at the cult TV favorite My So-Called Life:
A common theme emerges in the [Twin Peaks DVD] interviews. Catherine E. Coulson, who played the Log Lady, echoes the comments of many of her colleagues when she says, "We really didn't know what we were creating." Speaking by telephone recently, Madchen Amick, who played Shelly the waitress, confesses to similar feelings. But she points out that sometimes they'd all just read too much into a scene.

"There was a specific experience where he was telling me to gaze up at the ceiling during a phone conversation I was having," she recalls of Mr. Lynch. "I kept wondering, What is the meaning behind that?" It turns out there was none: "It just looks good."

I also wrote most of the second Media Room column, which looks at some Pixar releases, including Ratatouille and the Pixar Short Films Collection, and the final season of Seinfeld. ("The Frogger" is definitely one of my favorite episodes, but that may just because of the hours I spent playing the game as a kid.)