December 28, 2007
Top ten time

If you get a print copy of today's Washington Times, you'll see a familiar face on the front of the Show section: My picture accompanies my picks for top ten films of the year.

This was a particularly tough year to single out 10 movies from the hundreds released. Two of our greatest directors released masterful films that didn't even make my cut David Lynch with Inland Empire and David Cronenberg with Eastern Promises. As with most Top 10 lists, this is a varied group of films. But I noticed one theme this year: The best filmmakers, particularly the Europeans, grappled with their countries' sometimes complicated histories, including two that almost made my list: Englishman Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Romanian Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile).

1. Red Road For the second year in a row, I've put a debut on the top of my list. (Last year it was the powerful German film The Lives of Others, which also fits the theme I mention above.) English director Andrea Arnold has crafted a perfectly paced thriller, a moving drama and a profound character study, all in her very first film. Kate Dickie also makes a staggering screen debut as a woman who becomes obsessed with a man from her past she sees on one of the CCTV screens she monitors in Glasgow, Scotland. One of the many scenes from this film I'll never forget is a heartbreaking moment near the end. The woman makes a scarecrow of sorts by stuffing her dead daughter's clothes in an attempt to remember what it was like to hold her. I get chills just recalling it now...

My interview with Denzel Washington for the Beyond Hollywood column is also on the Show front:
The Great Debaters is Mr. Washington's second film from behind the camera, after 2002's Antwone Fisher. He starred in that film as well.

Is he just unwilling to take a break in front of the camera?

"It's strictly business. It helps me get the budget I need to make the movie. They say, 'We'll give you $2 if you're not in the movie to make the movie, and we'll give you $4 if you are in the movie,'" Mr. Washington explains...

It's hard to imagine anyone not paying attention to the man we all want to see on-screen, but Mr. Washington says that wasn't always the case. He says he relates to the youngest member of the debating team, played by Denzel Whitaker, who is hopelessly in love with the female member of the team. He recalls a time as a student when he would rush to a class to catch a glimpse of a certain girl. "Trust me, that Denzel Washington, they weren't looking at," he says, laughing. "Or maybe she was looking. But if she talked to me, I probably wouldn't have known what to say."

In the film, the girl is more interested in the team's third member (Henry, played by Nate Parker) though he doesn't treat her particularly well. "Isn't that who they always go for?" Mr. Washington says, chuckling. "I remember when I was doing interviews for 'Training Day.' Women would tell me, 'I could have changed him.' " though the corrupt cop Mr. Washington played in Training Day was a pretty unrepentant villain...

In this week's Media Room column, I take a look at two DVD releases coming out New Year's Day: Shoot 'Em Up and The Tudors: The Complete First Season.
If you or someone who loves you a lot put a high-definition DVD player under the tree this week, you're probably wondering what movies you should buy to take full advantage of the increased quality of sight and sound.

Well, you're in luck: One of the movies I put on my Top 10 list (see Page D1) is a nonstop 90-minute thrill ride that comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on New Year's Day.

Shoot 'Em Up (New Line, $27.98 for DVD and $35.99 for Blu-ray) was the most entertaining movie of 2007 and also one of the most original. It's an exciting action flick that's also a hilariously over-the-top sendup of an action flick...

In print

My Q&A with Robert O. Collins, co-author of the publisher-pulped book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World from the December print edition of Reason magazine is now online. My previous Washington Times piece on this important story is here.

Still kickin'

Oops. It's been a while, hasn't it?

Here's a roundup of most of my last month of work at The Washington Times.

I wrote a feature on the controversy surrounding the film The Golden Compass:

"It's fairly clear that William Donohue's a loon," says Chris Weitz, writer-director of The Golden Compass, of the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "I've published several books, been a college professor, have a Ph.D. Why would I worry about a screenwriter?" Mr. Donohue retorts.

He implies that Mr. Weitz is a coward for not debating him in person and so, for that matter, is Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, the young adults book trilogy (which includes the source novel for The Golden Compass) that has sold 10 million copies.

"It's hard to have intellectual respect for such people," sniffs Mr. Donohue.

On the surface, this nasty back-and-forth is about, of all things, a children's fantasy film.

But its roots run deeper.

The dispute over The Golden Compass, which opens today, is part of a larger, surprisingly bellicose debate between atheists and Christians that reignited complete with best-selling books on both sides after followers of an entirely different creed attacked America on September 11, 2001...

I covered the State Department dinner at which the Kennedy Center Honors were bestowed earlier this month. It featured what for me was a rather exciting moment:
Last night's Kennedy Center Honors Gala included soon-to-be-televised performances by some of the world's great artists in tribute to the five honorees. At the much quieter Trustees Dinner on Saturday night at the Department of State (where the awards were actually bestowed) attendees were treated to a very special performance of a more intimate nature.

Two members of "The President's Own" Marine Corps string quartet gave up their seats to violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for an impromptu performance. Delighted guests couldn't believe their good fortune and neither could the two musicians who got to play with the pair (one of whom made a motion to indicate her heart was all aflutter). And then violinist Joshua Bell wandered by looking as if he wished he'd been in on the fun, too...

I got to chat briefly with a number of big names at that event, including Martin Short, Diana Ross and Ricky Jay. I also briefly spoke to Martin Scorsese, whom I profiled as part of our Honors coverage:
We might see Martin Scorsese as many things: An American filmmaker who chronicles American stories of immigration, power and wealth through techniques he learned watching French and Italian films.

A master at pulling you into the point of view of his larger-than-life characters while, as one of our most strikingly cinematic of filmmakers, never letting you forget you're watching a film. A champion of film history who has drawn much-needed attention to the importance of film preservation.

But the director of modern classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas sees himself as, above all, a storyteller...

I wrote a Beyond Hollywood column featuring my interview with Frank Langella, best known as Dracula and now getting major Oscar buzz for his performance in one of the best films of the year:
On the surface, Frank Langella isn't much like Leonard Schiller, the aging novelist he plays in the new film Starting Out in the Evening.

"I'm quite gregarious I'm Italian, I'm not Jewish. And I tend to be very demonstrative. I like life, and I like to laugh, and Leonard is very closed down," says the veteran actor, in the District last week to promote the film. But he found a way into the character nonetheless. "Years ago, I remember seeing a professor or someone like Leonard giving a lecture," he recalls. "I looked at him with his legs very tightly closed, and I thought, 'This guy is very repressed.' And I remembered it and I thought, 'That's Leonard.' "

Mr. Langella is constantly taking from life in developing his characters, of which he's played dozens in a forty-year career.

"I can't help it," he says of his watchful eye. "If I were playing you, I'd do this about four times during the scene," he remarks, demonstrating a hair-flipping mannerism this reporter didn't even know she had. "If you're an actor, you're like a writer. You're storing things," he says. "You just remember it when it's time to act."

For another Beyond Hollywood column, I took a look at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, including capsule reviews of great films like Sixty-Six -- a warm, nostalgic British coming-of-age tale co-starring Helena Bonham Carter and directed by Paul Weiland, who's written and directed episodes of Mr. Bean -- and Mauvaise foi (Bad Faith) -- a funny and touching look at religion and relationships, a sort of Look Who's Coming for Dinner for the 21st-century, that stars two of France's hottest young stars and is the directorial debut of one of them.

Here are my film reviews:

Sweeney Todd:

For his adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, director Tim Burton has mercilessly shaved about an hour off the 1979 musical's running time, and the opening number was the first to go. It's a real shame, since "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" has some of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical's best music and lyrics and sets the tone for the delights that follow.

Luckily, there aren't many other disappointments in this Todd, which is as brutal and bloody as the legendary man himself...

Atonement:
After a lavish reception in Europe, "Atonement" arrives stateside to take its place as one of the front-runners for the best-picture Oscar. It has all the ingredients of a leading nominee impressively felt performances, beautifully photographed scenery, ambitious themes and an impeccable literary pedigree.

So why did I leave the film feeling strangely unsatisfied?

The Savages:
It's taken Tamara Jenkins almost 10 years to release a follow-up to her highly lauded, bleakly funny debut Slums of Beverly Hills.

It actually wasn't enough time, though The Savages still needs a lot of work.

The story line of writer-director Jenkins' sophomore effort has a lot of dramatic and comedic potential. A brother and sister, living in different cities and not particularly close, must take responsibility for their long-ignored, aging father, who was abusive while they were young but now doesn't even always remember who they are as dementia hits.

Even better, the brother and sister are played by two of independent film's brightest lights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney.

So it's a shame that in almost two hours of running time, there are only a couple of scenes that stand out in a film that tries to be both funny and touching, but doesn't much succeed in being either...

The Kite Runner:
What little knowledge most Americans have of Afghanistan comes from the newspapers, but, of course, the country partially bordered by Pakistan, Iran and China had a long and storied history before the September 11 attacks brought it, through the ruling Taliban's connections to al Qaeda, to our attention again.

The Kite Runner offers us a glimpse of the decades before that, starting with the civil war that began in 1978 and continues today. But the film teaches us far more than the tragic recent history of this country, as interesting as that is; it teaches us that though it sometimes takes courage, we cannot ignore our responsibilities to be human.

It reminds us of this through one of the most gripping and well-told stories of the year. There are no big-name stars in The Kite Runner, and the only special effects seem to be the high-flying kites that gracefully soar over the sky in Kabul and San Francisco...

Starting Out in the Evening:
You might not have heard much about Starting Out in the Evening yet, but you will: Frank Langella is almost assured of an Oscar nomination as best actor for his performance in the film that has one of the year's sharpest screenplays.

This small movie is the sophomore effort of director Andrew Wagner, whose 2004 film starring his family, The Talent Given Us, made a splash at Sundance.

Mr. Langella plays writer Leonard Schiller. "He was one of the New York intellectuals Bellow, Schwartz," one character comments, but unlike the works of his contemporaries, his novels are no longer in print. He hasn't been able to complete a novel for 10 years. And why bother? "Most of the business we do is celebrity confessions and self-help books," an agent tells him, in one of the film's typically sad and human scenes...

Beowulf:
For a poem that everyone seems to avoid reading, written in a long-dead language, Beowulf, unlike its title warrior, seems surprisingly unwilling to die.

Most of us may have skipped the 1,000-year-old Old English epic in college, but it continues to inspire everyone from novelists to artists to filmmakers.

Just in the last few years alone, we've seen the film Beowulf & Grendel, a made-for-TV movie Grendel, a graphic novel, comics and even an opera Grendel, itself based on a 1971 novel.

Now comes a new film and with it the obvious question: Do we really need another Beowulf?

I can answer that question with three short words: Beowulf in 3-D.

Robert Zemeckis' latest film may have eye-rollingly obvious sexual innuendo, some bland dialogue and a Geats hero who sounds straight out of East London (everyone in the cast has a different accent). But it's also one of the most exciting film experiences of the year...

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium:
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a film about growing up and a film about rediscovering your inner child although not both at the same time, of course...
Margot at the Wedding:
Margot at the Wedding was made by the young American writer-director Noah Baumbach, but it's trying very hard to be a certain type of European film.

The atmosphere is tense and moody; even nature seems cold and forbidding. Accusations and recriminations follow a family reunion.

Plot isn't particularly important here; the relationships between people are. And just to drive the point home, most of the characters have French names.

Yet for all the similarities, Margot at the Wedding doesn't have the weight or the humor of the thoughtful, talky films of Eric Rohmer, the French director who was clearly one of Margot's inspirations...

And a theatre review, of Avenue Q:
"This is real life," Princeton (Robert McClure) says, with a sense of wonder, early on in Avenue Q. It's an apt line: Perhaps no musical has captured the truth of contemporary life as well as Avenue Q. In such numbers as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" and "The Internet Is for Porn," our conflicts with race, technology, work and even the meaning of life are laid bare on the stage.

Never mind that this "real life" is presented to us by a cast of adorable puppets that owe more than a little to the classic children's series Sesame Street.

Avenue Q opened at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway in March 2003 and moved four months later to Broadway, where it's still running. The adult-themed puppet musical, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book by Jeff Whitty, overthrew favorite Wicked to win the Tony Award for best musical. It picked up two other top awards as well, best book and best original score.

The score isn't actually that original, and in the national touring company production now at the National Theatre, the very small group of musicians playing it doesn't even sound live. But the music isn't really the point in this musical. The Sesame Street-influenced score serves as a cozily familiar backdrop for song after song of jaw-dropping comedy...

Here are a few weeks of Media Room, the weekly DVD column I usually write:

November 16's edition, featuring my look at some classical DVD releases:

Maria Callas died 30 years ago, but her voice remains eternal, as EMI Classics reminds us with the release next week of The Eternal Maria Callas ($24.98), a compilation commemorating the anniversary of the Greek-American singer's early death at age 53 in 1977.

The DVD features a generous sampling of material in three categories: "Maria Callas on stage," "Maria Callas her life" and "Maria Callas speaks." However, those seeking to understand what all the fuss is about should head directly to the recital clips...

Schubert's Fierrabras didn't get its first performance in Vienna until 1988. Yet it's filled with the same heartfelt, melancholic music as the composer's other works. This 2005 staging is both clever and cute by turns, although sometimes too much of the latter men in 18th-century clothes look a bit silly high-fiving each other but the quality of the singing is high, as are the production values...

November 30's edition, featuring the Live Earth DVD and the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

December 7's edition, featuring my look at the extras on The Bourne Ultimatum and a colleague's look at the HD DVD version of the latest Harry Potter movie.

December 14's edition, featuring some great releases from the Disney vaults and the long-awaited re-release of Blade Runner.

December 21's edition, featuring my review of The Kingdom:

Some observers made much of the fact that The Kingdom (Universal, $29.98) was the most successful of this year's crop of war-on-terror-themed movies although it didn't even make back its estimated $80 million budget in the U.S., with just a $47.5 million gross.

It's true that The Kingdom is the most friendly to American military and law-enforcement intervention. In the Valley of Elah suggested that the Iraq war, with its mixed motives, is having deleterious effects on the soldiers fighting it; Rendition focused on the CIA's use of regimes that torture to question suspects; Redacted told a story of American soldiers' crimes in Iraq and Lions for Lambs had some fierce debate about a less controversial operation, the one in Afghanistan.

However, it's probably its promise of action something those other movies were rather short on that put The Kingdom on top. I suspect many viewers were disappointed on that score, though...

And this is late, of course, but scroll down the page here to see my contributions to our last-minute gift guide.

December 27, 2007
RIP

"Whatever my aims and agendas were, I never asked for power. I think they need me. I don't think it's addictive. I think, if anything, it's the opposite of addictive. You want to run away from it, but it doesn't let you go."

--Benazir Bhutto, June 21, 1953 to December 27, 2007

December 04, 2007
Thought for the day

"The reason anybody chooses art is because they're probably representative of the human race. Then your life changes and you suddenly don't live with the rest of the human race. It changes your art because you're totally removed from reality. I think it's important to try and be a human being. Otherwise, what's your point of reference for representing humanity on the screen or in pictures or in novel writing or whatever?"

--James McAvoy