March 21, 2008
Nuts

CBS just canceled Jericho -- for the second time. I realized I never posted my Washington Times piece on the second-season premiere last month. Here it is:

Many people watch science fiction-tinged, post-apocalyptic movies and television for a wild escape from the often dreary, uneventful real world. But viewers of CBS' post-disaster series Jericho will get a dose of reality as it starts its second season tonight at 10.

A lame duck president who's taking orders behind the scenes from a bald guy in Wyoming. A private contractor cum mercenary who seems to be above the law. A shady company with government ties hired to do reconstruction amidst allegations of wrongdoing.

Sound familiar?

In print

In today's Washington Times:

I take a look back at David Mamet's career and find I'm not surprised at his piece "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain Dead Liberal,'" which got a fair amount of press after he published it in the Village Voice last week:

The entertainment industry — particularly the more intellectual professions of author and playwright — is well-known as a hotbed of liberalism. So when playwright, screenwriter, director and author David Mamet published a piece provocatively titled "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" last week, pundits from both the left and right took notice.

Even observers abroad found the writer's coming out as something of a conservative to be big news. Billed as an "election-season essay" and published in the dependably left-wing Village Voice, Mr. Mamet's piece "appalled many of his liberal admirers," the Independent newspaper of London declared, and left the intelligentsia "startled."

Anybody who has closely followed the writer's 30-year career, however, shouldn't be surprised...

I review this year's Oscar-winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, The Counterfeiters:
Countless films have been made about the Holocaust. It's one of those defining but inexplicable events we go over again and again, hoping finally to understand.

Surprisingly, though, it seems there are still Holocaust stories to be told.

The story of Operation Bernhard, for example, until now was explored only in a BBC miniseries. The Counterfeiters (Die Faelscher) is the first feature film — and straight drama — to tell the tale of the largest counterfeiting operation in history.

The Austrian film, written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, won the Oscar this year for best foreign-language film. It's hard not to make a moving film about the Holocaust. Mr. Ruzowitzky, though, also has made a fascinating and fresh one...

I also wrote most of this week's Media Room DVD column, mentioning new releases such as The Kite Runner and the new Criterion edition of The Ice Storm:
I Am Legend (Warner Home Video, $28.98 for one-disc DVD, $34.99 for two-disc DVD, $35.99 for Blu-ray) — It's not often that a big-budget Hollywood film chooses to forego the Hollywood ending — that's why, after all, it's so named. However, that's what happened with I Am Legend. If you buy the two-disc special-edition DVD or the Blu-ray edition, you'll get not only the theatrical version of the film — which made more than $550 million worldwide — but also an alternate version with a different ending...

Quote of the day

Tom Stoppard, on being asked what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is about: "It’s about to make me very rich."

Happy Birthday (sort of)

"Bach opens a vista onto the Universe. After hearing him, people feel there may be meaning to life after all."

--Helmut Walcha on Johann Sebastian Bach, born March 21, 1685 (O.S.)

"My work has been a shameless advertisement for Bach."

--Anthony Minghella

Confused

Let me get this straight. You can run for president of this country after admitting in your memoir that you did "blow." You can become president of this country after admitting to drinking "too much" alcohol, being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and refusing to comment on whether you did any illegal drugs before 1974. But you can't enter this country simply to talk about your memoir if you've admitted to previously having had a drug addiction.

(Oddly enough, Sebastian Horsley's Wikipedia entry says his claim to fame is not a rather checkered past nor a talent for writing about it, but rather that he's "best known for wearing a stovepipe hat.")

Driving Ms. Daisy (crazy)

Is The Week some sort of revisionist newsmagazine? Or did a feminist copyeditor prove a little overzealous in the latest issue's arts section?

MsPettigrew.JPG

The (delightful) film is actually called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, as was the novel on which it's based. There weren't too many women styling themselves "Ms." in the England of the 1930s, after all.

(On a slightly unrelated note, my colleague Christian Toto, in a spirit of equality, offers a treat for the ladies.)

March 19, 2008
RIP

My short appreciation of Anthony Minghella is in today's Washington Times. Look for a longer magazine piece from me in the upcoming weeks. The English Patient remains my favorite film and I'm glad I had the opportunity to interview the director in person before he died.

Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director who helped reinvigorate British cinema, died yesterday at London's Charing Cross Hospital after apparently routine surgery led to a brain hemorrhage. He was just 54...

March 14, 2008
In print

In today's Washington Times:

Funny Games is brilliant. I implore you to go see it this weekend, to boost its opening box office. I wrote the lead item in the Beyond Hollywood column, talking to Austrian director Michael Haneke about the film:

Many critics are asking why Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has remade his controversial 1997 Austrian feature Funny Games. It's a nearly shot-for-shot remake, so the only differences are the actors and the language spoken — the new Funny Games, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a vacationing couple with child who are taken hostage by a pair of young sadists, was filmed mostly on Long Island.

What I want to know, however, is why it has taken Mr. Haneke so long to make an English-language film. Funny Games, after all, clearly was meant to provoke American audiences and shows a deep interest in the effects of American cinema...

When I asked that question, he and his translator both laughed. "That's a new angle," the translator said. (He only used her for about half the interview, speaking English the rest of the time.)

I reviewed the first two installments of HBO's new miniseries John Adams:

If you want confirmation of Thomas Carlyle's great-man theory of history, look no further than the new HBO miniseries John Adams.

The first two installments of the seven-part drama premiere Sunday night at 8. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by historian David McCullough, John Adams chronicles the first 50 years of the United States of America through 50 years in the life of one man. According to the series, the former would not exist without the latter...

I wrote most of Media Room, the weekly DVD column, looking at both big releases and lesser-known titles:
Lake of Fire (ThinkFilm, $27.98) — It was a year for war documentaries at the Oscars in 2008. That's one explanation for why Lake of Fire didn't get a nomination. The other is that academy members seem to find discussion of abortion too difficult to bear — the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days also was robbed of a nomination, in the foreign-language category.

Lake of Fire easily bests some of the docs that did get the nod...

I also wrote the first item in the TV column Tuning In, taking a quick look at the new sitcom starring Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose:
The Return of Jezebel James, the Fox sitcom premiering tonight at 8, might strike a chord with American women. After all, more and more of them are putting off having children and finding, when they eventually decide to try, that it's not always easy to conceive.

That's basically what happens to Sarah (Parker Posey). She's a successful children's book editor in Manhattan who's newly single. If she wants a baby, it's now or never — though the thirtysomething woman seems unable to admit her age even to her father...

March 12, 2008
Thought for the day

"If he was man enough to order a woman as if he were ordering a sandwich off a deli menu, he should have been man enough to go out there and take it on his own."

--Manhattanite Kathleen Carroll, quoted in The New York Times

March 07, 2008
In print

In today's Washington Times:

I talked to English actor Jason Statham:

Jason Statham is enthusiastic about his new film "The Bank Job." He loves the story, he loves the central character he plays. The London-born actor enjoyed the extensive research that he and the director, Roger Donaldson, did before making the movie, which is based on a true story.

But he's surprised to learn, via this reporter, just how much of that real-life tale the movie apparently reveals.

"The Bank Job" is based on the 1971 robbery of a Baker Street bank in London. No one was ever arrested for the crime, in which safety deposit boxes were looted. It made headlines at the time, but only for a few days — the case was slapped with a D-Notice, an official request to quit publicizing it because of national security concerns.

Only after the heist is complete does Mr. Statham's leader discover that he's been sent in by a government agency to recover compromising photos of a member of the royal family that an unsavory blackmailer has been using to stay out of jail. The film names that member of royalty: Princess Margaret. The real Princess Margaret was, of course, Queen Elizabeth II's younger sister and notorious for a controversial love life.

Mr. Statham, speaking by telephone from Paris where he's shooting "Transporter 3" and reprising his role as the title character in the action franchise, sounds shocked to hear "The Bank Job" actually names a real royal personage. "We might be getting a knock on the front door soon," he laughs...

I enjoyed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a new film based on the 1938 novel:

Guinevere Pettigrew just can't catch a break.

First, the middle-aged governess in late-1930s London is unceremoniously fired without pay. Then, her single suitcase of possessions falls open when she bumps into a man just getting out of jail. Frightened and embarrassed, she abandons her stuff. The unassuming woman is bumped again at a soup kitchen and loses her last chance at a meal.

When she calls at her employment agency the next morning, she's told she'll never get a job from them again. So we don't blame Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) when she steals the calling card of a woman looking to hire someone.

When she arrives, she's immediately told by the fluttery American singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) to wake up her boy. But instead of the young charge Miss Pettigrew expects to find, it's a grown man in bed. The owner of Delysia's flat is about to arrive and wouldn't be too happy to find another man there.

Miss P, a vicar's daughter, is shocked by the proceedings — though she quickly dispatches the "crisis." Delysia, who wants to hire her as a social secretary, begs her to stay. "The crisis is ongoing," she cries.

The red-headed Miss Adams, who just performed a song from the Oscar nominated "Enchanted" at this year's ceremony, is so enchanting here in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" that Miss P is simply swept along on her energy, much as the audience will be by this supremely delightful film...

I wrote the weekly DVD column, Media Room, examining new releases including the movie that just won the Oscar for Best Picture:

No Country for Old Men (Buena Vista, $29.99 for DVD, $34.99 for Blu-ray) — I thought this genre flick was vastly overrated, a good film but not a great one. It certainly appeared to have something serious to say — Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff bookends the film with searching voice-overs. In between, though, we hear very little from the sheriff. "No Country" was simply a well-executed film whose desolation has been mistaken for moral gravity. Most people beg to differ, however. The film just won four Oscars, including best picture, and was the one most commonly on the very top of critics' Top 10 lists. So nothing I say will affect sales, which, if Amazon.com's preorders are any indication, will be very high...

March 05, 2008
Thought for the day

"It came down to money, the sweetness it added to the soul. Money was a kind of grace. Everywhere he had been, the having of it and the holding of it had set people apart. It gave men a beautiful distant control over the world, and it gave woman a poised sense of themselves, an inner light which even old age could not obliterate."

--Colm Tσibνn in The Master

In print

Let's play some catch up with recent Washington Times pieces.

I looked at how opera in high-definition might change the way the art is staged:

Few of the reviews of the Metropolitan Opera's current production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" had complaints about star soprano Karita Mattila's voice. The Met is presenting the work that made Puccini's name for the first time in 18 years simply so Miss Mattila can perform the title role.

Some critics, though, wondered whether a 47-year-old woman could convincingly play a young girl. "Youth Is Not Served in Met's 'Manon' " ran the headline in The Washington Post, whose reviewer wrote, "It is a tough job for any actress of a certain age to play a young teenager."

Few of those sitting in Lincoln Center's grand opera house would have noticed. Unless you've got a very good pair of opera glasses, you wouldn't be able to make out much of the singers' faces across the cavernous room.

Miss Mattila's lovely though aging face will be on full display for tomorrow's matinee performance, however: "Manon Lescaut" will be shown on huge movie screens across the country, including at Arlington's Ballston Common and Alexandria's Hoffman Center, as part of the Met's high-definition simulcast series.

With the great success of this series — last month's "Macbeth" by Verdi was sold out in hundreds of venues, including some in New York itself — the question opera critics around the country may be asking is: Are Karita Mattila and other middle-aged opera stars ready for their close-ups?

I wrote a piece about (now French First Lady) Carla Bruni, arguing that she's a lot more than just a pretty face. (You might recognize the topic. The Washington Post published a similarly-themed piece a few days after mine was printed.)

What seems to have captured public attention is not merely the fact that the 53-year-old head of one of Europe's most powerful nations is dating again. It's that Carla Bruni, the Italian-born, French-raised woman whom Mr. Sarkozy says he'll marry, is a beautiful 39-year-old former model.

Most men would be high-fiving one of their peers who managed to snag a catwalker, but Mr. Sarkozy has gotten almost nothing but grief since he embarked on the affair. Reacting to pictures of a smiling Mr. Sarkozy looking adoringly at his new girlfriend, most critics believe that the head of France has lost his head over a pretty ex-model. The general feeling has been one of resentment, not admiration.

Writing in the Washington Post, a snarky Robin Givhan summed up the sentiment: "Models already get the star athletes. The bookish debate-team captain should get the prime minister."

Notice how Miss Bruni is invariably described as an ex-model. Few columnists mention on first reference that she has a new career of her own now, as a singer-songwriter. It's her looks that matter, and in this context they work to her detriment.

Catholics like to claim that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in the Western world, but the case of Miss Bruni — and others — suggests something else: Bigotry against beautiful women is one of the oldest, and longest-lasting, forms of prejudice.

Miss Givhan wrote prissily in the Post, "Bruni posed and pouted for fancy European houses and, in the late 1990s, she cashed out and embarked on what has been described as a singing career. Alicia Keys, she is not."

Ouch.

Miss Givhan is correct on one count: Miss Bruni is not a melismatic singer like Miss Keys. But is that pyrotechnic American style the only standard of musical quality nowadays? Miss Bruni comes from a different tradition, and for pure enjoyment, I would choose one of her modern chansons any day.

Not too many people this side of the Atlantic have heard Miss Bruni's music, which might account for Miss Givhan's comments. Miss Bruni sold almost 2 million copies of her first album, the French-language "Quelqu'un m'a dit," which certainly sounds like a successful European career to me.

I've been listening to it since I first discovered the music in reviewing the indie movie "Conversations with Other Women" a year and a half ago...

I interviewed James McAvoy:

James McAvoy is on the verge of becoming the biggest Scottish leading man since Sean Connery. But whereas Mr. Connery is notorious for keeping his accent in his films, whatever the nationality of the character he's playing, Mr. McAvoy has proven to be a chameleon who can handle any role — and any accent.

In "Atonement," the best-picture Oscar nominee that has brought the young actor his greatest fame, he's the English working-class striver Robbie Turner. In "Becoming Jane," he's the Irish rebel who captures the heart of a young Jane Austen. In "Penelope," opening in theaters today, he's a down-and-out American who sounds just like Tom Cruise.

So it's something of a shock to talk to Mr. McAvoy by phone and hear a Glaswegian brogue even more pronounced than that of the character he plays in "The Last King of Scotland," one of the few Scotsmen he's actually portrayed.

In fact, though this reporter's own grandfather also hails from Glasgow, she had a bit of trouble understanding Mr. McAvoy when he apparently started talking and eating at the same time...

I reviewed Penelope, starring Christina Ricci:

"Penelope" made its debut at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and has been sitting on the shelf ever since. If it weren't for the newfound fame of Mr. McAvoy, who starred in the Oscar-nominated "Atonement," it might still be collecting dust...

I wrote a Beyond Hollywood column talking to Eran Kolirin, the writer-director of the great Israeli film The Band's Visit:

"The Band's Visit" ("Bikur Ha-Tizmoret") didn't win the Oscar for best foreign-language film on Sunday night. It wasn't even nominated. That wasn't because the hilarious and poignant story of culture clash isn't one of the best foreign films released in the last year — it most certainly is. It's because the academy decreed that the film, which Israel submitted as its official entry, contained too much English to qualify.

The English dialogue that's interspersed between the Hebrew and the Arabic, though, highlights one of the movie's most important themes: The Egyptians and Israelis in the film are near-neighbors who can only understand each other by speaking a language in which none of them are completely adept...

For another Beyond Hollywood column, I interviewed Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian writer-director of the Palme d'Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days:

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is a somber film about one aspect of life in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu purposely made it that way.

The idea for the film came in part, he said at the AFI Silver Theatre late last year while in town for the European Union Showcase, after he wrote a script for a series of shorts he wanted to make starting with "the urban legends of the late communist times" and "the small side effects of a grand dictatorship." A young actor, who wasn't old enough to know much about the 1965-1989 Ceausescu era, read the script and told him, "Wow, it must have been very funny to live then."

Mr. Mungiu realized, "If this is what you get from it, then it's not all right. That's not how it was."

I also reviewed 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days:

Every year, every critic feels some movie was snubbed when Oscar nominations are announced. It's not often, though, that so many people are upset about one film's exclusion that even the chairman of the category's committee promises to get the nominating rules changed.

That's what happened this month when "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" ("4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile") didn't even make the nine-film shortlist for best foreign language film, let alone the five-film list of actual nominees. The Romanian film had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and ended up on many critics' top-10 lists for the year, topping a couple of them.

There's no question the academy should be embarrassed. "4 Months" is a powerful film, so gripping in both theme and execution that you can't tear your eyes away even as it becomes almost too harrowing to watch...

For another Beyond Hollywood column, I talked to Jean-Jacques Beineix about his 1981 film Diva, which was just re-released here:

With its fantastically intricate plot and striking visual style, "Diva," a 1981 French film that exploded onto American screens in 1982, heralded a new movement in French and American film. As part of a 25th anniversary re-release, it opens today locally at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

The return of his film to the big screen must please the director, Jean-Jacques Beineix. Speaking by telephone from Paris, however, it turns out Mr. Beineix is happiest not for himself but for his country.

"It just shows that sometimes you shouldn't read too much into the magazines when they say French culture is decadent and doesn't exist anymore," he pointedly says. A provocative cover story in Time just two months ago, headlined "The Death of French Culture," argued that Gallic culture was in decline, particularly in terms of international appeal...

I reviewed In Bruges, one of the best films I've seen this year so far:

Watching a trailer for "In Bruges," you might wonder just what sort of film this is. Is it a comedy? A gangster flick? A drama? A thriller? A farce?

Yes, it is — all of the above.

And somehow, it works.

"In Bruges" is the feature film debut of London-born Irish playwright Martin McDonagh,who won the Oscar for best live-action short two years ago. With this practically perfect film, he's made an auspicious debut, combining satire and sensibility to make a hilarious but touching movie quite unlike anything else at the multiplex this season...

I reviewed the Oscar-nominated French animated film Persepolis:

"Persepolis" is an odd mix — a French-language film that tells the story of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath through the eyes of a girl using a relatively primitive form of mostly black-and-white animation. Yet for the first half of the film, this unlikely blend works wonders, creating captivating images of an almost unimaginable time without sacrificing insight into either political change or emotional realities.

Unfortunately, as the world changes around her, Marjane doesn't change much herself. That lack of emotional maturity on the part of the film's main character means a lack of emotional maturity on the part of the film that follows her feelings so closely...

And, though it's rather late now, you can read my Oscar picks for the major categories -- what I thought would win and what I thought should win.

I also reviewed the Oscar-nominated shorts:

It's hard for even the most die-hard film fanatics to see every Oscar-nominated film. There are, however, two categories you can knock off in a single afternoon or evening: live-action shorts and animated shorts...

Finally, here are a few weeks of the DVD column I usually write, Media Room. Most notable is the Oscar-themed edition, in which I interviewed In the Valley of Elah and Crash director Paul Haggis:

Paul Haggis is one of the best known progressives in Hollywood. "I'm a little left of Mao," he readily said during an interview in the District last year.

So critics expected "In the Valley of Elah" to serve as his artistic riposte against the war. The film stars Mr. Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant investigating both the murder of his son, who disappeared after returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq, and what his son saw while serving. In "Elah," however, Mr. Haggis focuses not on why we're in the war but rather on the people fighting it.

Mr. Haggis wrote two best picture Oscar-winners back to back, 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" the next year, which he also directed. Puffing away on Native American Spirit cigarettes — polite to a fault, he asked for permission first — the Canadian-born director says the idea for "Elah" came before he had even released "Crash."

Earlier, I spoke to Clueless director Amy Heckerling about a new film of hers that went straight to DVD:

It sounds as if it could be a box-office bonanza: a romantic comedy written and directed by Amy Heckerling, who has made such huge hits as "Clueless" and "Look Who's Talking," and starring Paul Rudd, who has been in recent megahits "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and the always-in-demand Michelle Pfeiffer.

So why has I Could Never Be Your Woman (Genius Products and the Weinstein Co., $24.95) gone direct to DVD, with no theatrical release?

It's certainly not because it's a bad film...

In January, I looked at another Oscar-nominated film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience:

In the old days, literary lights like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Evelyn Waugh chronicled the wars in which they served almost at the same time as they were fighting them.

How times have changed.

Now it seems we need the National Endowment for the Arts to send authors to military bases to teach writing workshops for the soldiers stationed there...

In February, I also looked at Valentine's Day releases and checked out The Brave One, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and some other releases. In the latest column, I reviewed new releases including The Darjeeling Limited:

The Darjeeling Limited (20th Century Fox, $29.99) is one of Wes Anderson's funniest films. Perhaps paradoxically, it's also his most grown-up.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman star as three brothers who embark on a trip through India on the titular train in search of their mother and themselves. Well, that's what they end up doing, anyway — Mr. Wilson's character has tricked his two brothers into joining him on his spiritual search. The trio have barely spoken to each other since their father's funeral a year before...