Monday, September 26, 2005

"The Constant Gardener" Digs Deep


directed by Fernando Meirelles
starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy, others

You might be a privileged middle-class liberal walk out of “The Constant Gardener” with an oppressive feeling of social guilt. (But let’s be honest here: chances are pretty good you’re a privileged middle-class liberal if you’re even seeing this movie in the first place.)

“Gardener” marks Fernando Meirelles’ much–anticipated follow-up to the stunning “City of God,” and bears the clear stamp of his style—rapid editing with quick jump-cuts, extensive work with hand-held camera, and a harsh yet vibrant use of color and sunlight. (He employs the same cinematographer who shot “City of God,” and it shows.) The non-linear narrative is likewise reminiscent of “City of God,” though it’s nowhere near as splintered or hyperkinetic: its structuring, after all, owes as much to the John Le Carré novel from which it’s adapted as it does to Meirelles’ direction. The story begins with the murder of one of its principals—Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), an impassioned do-gooder and wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a middle-rung British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The rest of the movie shifts back and forth between Quayle’s memories of Tessa, shown in flashbacks, and his attempt to unravel the mystery of who killed her and why. This investigation is in turn intertwined with the mystery of Tessa the person—what made her tick, and whether she was ultimately true to herself and to her husband.

I won’t give anything away as to the latter questions. As to the other, suffice it to say that Le Carré delivers a bleak indictment of big pharmaceutical companies—specifically, their exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa as both market and testing ground for their products—and the Western governments that abet them for economic reasons. “This is how the world fucks Africa,” one character comments tonelessly, and whether you find this view of Africa convincing (I do) will largely dictate how effective you find the film. In that respect, it’s cut from the same cloth as “Hotel Rwanda,” though in form and style it’s closer to the less politically charged “The Interpreter.”

But unlike both of those films, “The Constant Gardener” is also a love story, and those who resist its political message may still appreciate its sensitive and poignant portrayal of a marriage of opposites. For Tessa is everything Quayle isn’t, and vice versa. She is, or was, a firebrand who never hesitated for a second to speak her mind at the most inappropriate moments, or to embarrass important figures in delicate situations. He’s—well, he’s a diplomat, and a particularly mild-mannered, self-effacing one at that, who seems to reserve all his passion and energy for his pet hobby: gardening. Yet after Tessa’s death he displays a tenacity for truth-seeking that equals hers—no doubt the consequence of his love for her, but also, one senses, something residual in his nature.

Weisz and Fiennes are superb, individually and in concert, as the unlikely couple. Weisz glows with the righteous fervor of a woman who’s made herself a human projectile, and somehow manages to be at once intolerable and irresistible. Fiennes, meanwhile, is saddled with the even more difficult task of making an initially diffident, rather colorless character increasingly compelling and sympathetic; he succeeds so brilliantly that the change from passive bystander to dogged hero creeps up on the viewer unawares. The rest of the cast stays pretty squarely in the background, though Bill Nighy and Danny Huston are memorably shady as Quayle’s superiors, while Donald Sumpter adds wisecracking flavor as an aging, world-weary spy. Pete Postlethwaite also turns up as a mysterious medical figure of indeterminate nationality, who wins the prize for most outlandish accent.

Unfortunately, as the narrative shifts away from the Quayle-Tessa axis and focuses more on Quayle’s dealings with these and other, much more unpleasant characters, it flags noticeably, notwithstanding fitful efforts to amp up the suspense. By the time Quayle receives his final death threat, it’s already patently clear who the bad guys are and where the story is headed. Still, the film does achieve a certain somber beauty, and even a measure of catharsis, at the very end.

I’ve never read any Le Carré, and this is the first adaptation of his work that I’ve seen. If it’s any indicator, he appears to be the natural heir to Graham Greene, master of the political thriller or romance as lens for the psyche of postcolonial Britain. Some of that peculiarly British consciousness has been filtered out of the film, as Fiennes noted in a conversation on NPR. But, as Fiennes went on to observe with genuine admiration, Meirelles brings a different, more vivid, and pointedly un-British sensibility to the story by keeping the lens sharply focused on Africa—in particular, the black Africans, despite the fact that most of the major characters are white and British. As such, his vision of “The Constant Gardener” offers a more universal tale of how the world failed Africa—and two doomed but determined individuals who strove to make the world see.


Friday, September 23, 2005

The O.C. Report

Why didn’t they just kill Jimmy?

Well, he’s effectively dead to the show, at least...and this time, I say good riddance. He’s so clearly a guy who can’t stay out of trouble, I, for one, wasn’t holding my breath on the whirlwind re-marriage. Who didn’t see the Caleb’s will fiasco coming from a mile away? I never thought I’d say this, but poor Julie—from the looks of next week’s episode, she and Marissa are hitting the skids. (I wonder who’s going to pay for that expensive boarding school for the Cooper daughter we never see? Or are the writers finally going to have to show us that this Caitlin girl actually exists?) I’d feel sorry for Marissa, too, but she seemed surprisingly zen about the whole thing. That must have been some good sex. So at least one good thing did come out of the breakneck Cooper courtship: Ryan and Marissa getting yeah. With a little help from Seth & Summer, the dears - and some tiki torches...

I can’t say I’m too impressed by the new dean as figure of terror—he’s too much of a caricature to be at all menacing. At least he’s ditched that ridiculous powder-blue vest he was wearing in last week’s episode: if that’s the costume designer’s idea of an East Coast preppie from hell, (s)he has another think coming. And what’s with his twisted partnership with the annoying Tracy Flick-ish girl who’s trying to take over the high school? I devoutly hope the two of them get caught doing the nasty later in the show, so we can be rid of the pair of them.

And finally, Kirsten and Sandy are back together again, as they should be. The Cohens together, the Coopers rent asunder—the O.C. gods are in their heaven, and all’s right with the world. But I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the Jeri Ryan character, who majorly creeps me out. Was that a picture of the Cohens she stowed away in her suitcase? And what was that line about living on the beach? Is she going to pull a “Fatal Attraction” or “Single White Female” next? Nothing would surprise me at this point, but then everything’s par for the course on this show.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Proof" Lacks Life; "Lost" Still Has It

Capsule review:


directed by John Madden
starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis

What you see is pretty much what you get in this polished but inert adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that stars Gwyneth Paltrow (in a role first played by Mary-Louise Parker on Broadway) as Catherine, the daughter of a brilliant, recently deceased mathematician (Anthony Hopkins). As the movie reveals in flashback, the mathematician, Robert, went nuts late in life, and Catherine became his self-appointed caretaker in their fusty Chicago home. Consequently, she’s devolved into a reclusive bundle of frayed nerves, weighed down by an obsessive fixation with what she may or may not have inherited from her father. With his death and funeral, complications arise when two outsiders arrive to salvage what they can of Robert’s legacy. One of them—by far the cuter and more benign—is Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young mathematics professor who studied under Robert and hopes to find some lingering flash of his mentor’s genius among the meaningless scrawls of his final years. The other is Claire (Hope Davis, looking more and more like Hillary Clinton), Catherine’s older sister, an annoyingly put-together bobo from New York who sees Catherine as a task that must be managed with discretion. To say more would be to give away too much, though the plot is rather disappointingly by the numbers. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

While “Proof” does flirt with some potentially interesting ideas on heredity and transference, and the tension between proof and belief, it doesn’t dig deep enough to make them anything more than pretty thematic constructions. In the end, the film is little more than a foursquare showcase for the acting, which is good but unremarkable. This may be Paltrow’s weightiest performance, but it’s nothing she didn’t already do (and arguably did better) in the little-seen “Sylvia.” Also, she’s far too distractingly beautiful to sustain the fiction of an unkempt hermit who just may be a mathematical genius. Hopkins and Davis, both veteran players, are solid as always, doing the best they can with thinly sketched characters. But the breakout star, surprisingly, is Gyllenhaal, who finally rises to the hype by getting geeky-sexy just right.

RATING: ** 1/3

DOWN THE HATCH: "Lost" keeps the momentum going

I can’t blog everything I watch (or else I’d never have time to watch any of it), but I feel impelled to offer a few words on the season premiere of “Lost.” All I can say is I don’t know if the writers know where the hell they’re taking us, but getting there continues to be a blast...Tantalizingly little happened on tonight's episode, and yet it still managed to be a nail-biter—a vast improvement, methinks, on last season’s finale. What I love most about the show is the way it weaves a chapter from each character’s past with his or her present predicament, and tonight’s episode did that in spades. Though raise your hand if you *totally* saw what was coming when that guy said to Jack, “See you in another life!” It’s going to be interesting to see how that one gets explained...I also loved the parallelism between Sara’s miraculous recovery—specifically, her wiggling toes—and Locke’s similar “miracle” when the plane crashed on to the island. You can bet the “Lost” fanatics are generating a thousand theories on this as I write this. I'll leave them to it; meantime, I'm just having fun watching this Chinese box unfold.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Notes from Costa Rica

So I’m back from Costa Rica, with very few pictures worth sharing (so I ain’t sharing—couldn’t anyway, since I don’t have a digital camera) but great mental snapshots and a raft of stories. How best to condense these? I’ll go with a day by day summary, and I’ll try not to blather on too long—though as you all know, brevity is not one of this blog’s virtues. I went as part of a 9-day group trip, arranged by GAP (Great Adventure People) Adventures. My friend Rebecca and I were two of a group of 12, plus the guide. We were to start and end in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.

My trip started off extremely inauspiciously as I arrived less than 2 hours before my flight time, and between my own stupidity and poor direction by the folks at American Airlines, ended up checking in less than 40 minutes before departure...which meant I wasn’t allowed to get onto the flight at all. Cue panic attack - only temporarily alleviated by the AA employee very efficiently rerouting me on another, later flight with a connection in Dallas/Ft. Worth rather than Miami (as originally scheduled). Ok, I thought, breathing a little, I can still make it.

Then the plane to Dallas had engine problems, and we were grounded at LAX for two hours. It became very clear that I was going to miss my connection to San Jose, and there were no more Dallas-San Jose flights until the afternoon of the next day. Renewed panic attack, only slightly tempered by the realization that there were several other Costa Rican-bound travelers in the same boat. (None of them, however, had a group to meet that was moving out of San Jose the next day!) In the end, AA put us on a flight to Miami, so we could catch an earlier flight to San Jose the next day. So I ended up in Miami after all, but still more than 12 hours behind schedule, and I knew I was going to have to play catch-up with my tour group. AA put all the Costa Rica travelers up in hotels near the Miami airport. Some of us had dinner and drinks at the hotel and told our various stories, which was mildly pleasant. However, I hardly slept that night, because I knew the next day bid fair to be even more stressful than this one.

The flight from Miami to San Jose is about 3 hours long, and it left on schedule. I sat next to a retired gentleman who went through 2 gin & tonics before noon and told me he was going to try to smuggle saws and other tools past customs to help fix up his place in Costa Rica. He also told me how beautiful the country was, and not to drink the water.

I spent less than 2 hours in San Jose—just long enough to get to the hotel where my group had stayed and to pick up written instructions left by my tour guide, telling me to take a bus to one town, and change buses to get to another, La Fortuna, near the base of the volcano Arenal, which was where the group would be for the next couple of days. Total projected bus time: about 4 1/2 hours. This was all very daunting, especially since I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. Luckily, the people in Costa Rica (“Ticos,” as they’re called) are uniformly friendly and genuinely helpful, even when they don’t speak English. Perhaps they took pity on the stricken deer-in-headlights look in which my face was frozen for the better part of the day. Anyway, they directed me on to the right buses and off at the right stops, and no one (as far as I know) picked my pocket or ripped me off. I was more worried about the driving, which was pretty fast and furious up twisty mountainous roads, even when a thunderstorm cropped up and kept on raining. (It was the rainy season in Costa Rica.) However, the other passengers (all locals) seemed pretty blasé about it, so eventually I relaxed (slightly) and even dozed off a couple of times. I arrived in La Fortuna in the blinding rain, triple-checked with the driver that this was in fact where I should get off, and thereafter found my hotel and my guide, Nancy, without too much further difficulty. Nancy’s a pretty remarkable woman, in her late 40’s, who looks like the adventurer she is—weathered and tanned, and could easily whup my ass.

Shortly thereafter I met the rest of the group, which ranged in age from 20 to 30ish, and included a couple of bronzed babes backpacking from UC-Davis, a friendly but acerbic-tongued, chain-smoking New York lawyer, a Canadian urologist about to relocate to Seattle, a horny Canadian geologist, a Canadian accountant, a South African I.T. worker who moonlighted as an opera singer, a slender German psychologist carrying a backpack bigger than herself, and an endearingly funny young Irish couple on their honeymoon. Rebecca was glad to see me, though she had been betting that I would not brave the buses but would instead cough up a hundred bucks to take a taxi directly to La Fortuna. Oh ye of little faith...

I signed up to do whitewater rafting, which in retrospect may not have been the wisest choice for someone who’d never rafted, canoed, or kayaked before and possesses a retard-level of athletic I.Q. It was a class 3/4 river, which is not exactly beginner-friendly. It didn’t help that I got put in a boat with 3 other first-timers, though at least one of them (Rebecca) proved to be pretty good, and the other two eventually got the hang of it, after some major chewing out from our exasperated guide. I, however, never really quite got it, though towards the end I seemed to be getting a little (a very little) better. Part of the problem was I fell out of the boat about 30 seconds in: the guide fished me out immediately, but not surprisingly I became even more tentative in my rowing, and kept creeping away from the edge where I was supposed to be sitting. Still, when I wasn’t worried that my incompetence was going to capsize the boat, I found the rapids quite thrilling. I can totally see why people love to do it. I just wouldn’t wish myself on anyone’s boat. That night, some of us went to some volcanic hot springs that had been made into a resort with swim-up bars. Very relaxing.

The next day it was time to leave La Fortuna. We took a boat across Lake Arenal to a place where a trail picked up, and rode horseback for three hours up a mountain trail towards Monteverde. I was a little nervous at first since the last time I’d been on a horse was when I was about ten, but the horses were super-docile and the guides very competent. They matched the horses with riders according to previous experience, so it worked out that I got put on a relatively small, somewhat lazy horse, though one with a mind of his own: one minute he was urging along the other horses, the next he was lagging at the end of the pack, until the guides whistled and spurred him on. The scenery was lovely along the way—but it became even lovelier once the trail ended and we went the rest of the way by van. The roads were dirt roads and even windier than those from San Jose to La Fortuna, but there was something indescribably beautiful about those hills of shamrock-green, dotted with the darker green of windswept trees. It was much cooler and mistier up in the mountains. Monteverde itself is a tiny, quiet town that bears the obvious marks of tourism without being overwhelmed by it. We stayed in a cute bed & breakfast just outside town.

Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest, which differs from a rain forest in that the moisture is produced by condensation from clouds rather than actual rain. (I think.) In the morning we took a nature walk/tour through the forest and saw birds (including the famously elusive resplendent quetzal), beetles, and beautiful sapphire-blue morphos butterflies, as well as howler monkeys and a raccoon-like creature whose name escapes me. Our guide, a local who spoke excellent English, was absolutely first-rate, and the forest itself was gorgeous. Lush and green in a different way from the forests of the U.S., very quiet and peaceful, yet simply teeming with life.

That afternoon, we did the Sky Trek zip line over the cloud forest canopy, which I highly recommend to anyone without a severe fear of heights. It’s not one long cable, but a series of fairly short cables that gradually ascend in height: though you hold on to the bar with your hands, you’re also harnessed securely to the line, and started and stopped at both ends by guides. In between the cables you hike short trails. The scariest part was climbing the winding staircase to the first line. Or when one of the girls in our group somehow accidentally cut her hand on the cable. Otherwise, I didn’t think “Man, I’m high up” so much as “Man, how fucking beautiful is this forest?”

This was easily my favorite day. Monteverde generally was the highlight of the trip for me.

Long drive by bus and van down to the Pacific coast of Quepos, near the Manuel Antonio Nat’l Park. Would have enjoyed this segment of the trip more if it hadn’t been so warm and humid (and rainy). We stayed in the appropriately-named Villa Romantica, with rooms off a lovely verandah and a kick-ass pool. Quepos itself is a bit of a dump, but the park is great. Not quite as beautiful as the cloud forest, but it has lovely beaches, where the forest runs right down to the (very warm) water, and much more animal activity. White-faced monkeys and iguanas abound, emerging from the forest onto the beaches in search of food dropped by careless humans. And they are not shy. One iguana literally *jumped* at a woman holding a piece of bread (talk about leaping lizards). And one monkey ran up to a knapsack that had been left unattended, scrabbled through with its hands (paws), and removed a package of Kleenex. Disappointed, it rubbed itself with the Kleenex and then tossed all the contents to the winds before running off. It was the funniest damn thing I’d seen on the whole trip.

When not catching some elusive rays or sheltering ourselves from the torrential rain), we hit a couple of beach-side bars which served good piña coladas and daiquiris but also attracted a somewhat sketchier cross-section of locals at night than we’d previously encountered. Our second night there, one girl in our group got her purse stolen, and a prostitute stamped viciously on one guy’s foot after he told her to get lost. That was when I took my cue to leave early with a couple of other people from my group, though the others tripped the light fantastic until close to daybreak.

Nothing of note, except for (1) a very good lunch in (I kid you not) an Irish pub-like place in Quepos, and (2) our driver’s extraordinary mix tape, which included everything from Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise” to KC & Jojo’s “All My Life,” and which we finally replaced with U2’s greatest hits. I never thought of U2 as being a sing-along band, but that’s what they were for us—and it was rather fun. Our last night in Costa Rica was otherwise relatively unmemorable, mainly, I think, because everyone was tired.

DAY 9: Return to the U.S. Bad luck seems to dog me on American Airlines: thunderstorms in Miami grounded my plane for a couple of hours. Luckily this time there was no connection to miss.

All in all, a great trip. But next time I go international, I’m making sure I get to the airport 3 hours early.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Not Playing the Race Card...

...but I'm glad to see the subject isn't verboten:,0,1865227.story?coll=la-home-headlines

I'm not so cynical as to believe that any *conscious* racism is responsible for the horrors of post-Katrina New Orleans. But, in the words of a letter to the editor from earlier this week, nicely stating the obvious: "It appears that the 'haves' had the money and vehicles to flee New Orleans, and the 'have nots' - people of color - got left behind to fend for themselves. What a sad commentary on the United States!"

I'm off for the airport in about 15 minutes. See you all in a couple of weeks...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Tag, I'm It...

I've been tagged by echan, whose blog has all the virtues mine lacks: wit, concision (ok, that's not a word, but y'know what I mean), and, well...geeky chic. Also more technical expertise than me, who still hasn't figured out how to put active links into my blog. (I really will figure this out once I don't have a million things to do - which should be the case starting September 19...) Anyway, her link, which you can cut & paste, is

1) Total # of books you own?

I have noooo idea. A lot, most of which are in my bedroom in my parents' house in Virginia. And I was always bad at guesstimating the number of people in a room or gumballs in a jar, so I ain't even tryin' on this one...

2) What was the last book you bought?

Just today: Jasper Fforde's "Something Rotten" (the latest in the Thursday Next series, which really does get better after the first 2 - like Harry Potter...). Also Raymond Chandler's "The High Window." My goal is to read every book Chandler ever wrote...which isn't hard, cause there aren't that many.

3) What's the last book you read?

Fiction: Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go." Fantastic book - much better than his last - with a sci-fi-ish premise that's weirdly similar to that of the much-maligned Michael Bay disaster "The Island." But executed with much more subtlety and poignancy (though that isn't saying much).

Nonfiction: I only read fiction, sad to say. I should really break out of that.

4) List five books that are particularly meaningful to you (in no particular order)

Too damn many to choose, but here's a try:

"The Golden Gate" by Vikram Seth: Little-known novel that is *entirely in verse*, but flows as rapidly and smoothly as the best page-turner. All about the lives and loves of a group of twentysomethings in San Francisco of the early 1980's. If it's still in print, I highly, highly recommend everyone to get this book and read it. It doesn't matter if you don't dig poetry - I don't, either. (Shh, dirty secret of the former English grad student.) This isn't poetry, it's pure magic.

"The Great Gatsby": Hated it the first time I read it. Then the seductiveness of Fitzgerald's prose began to sink in. Still ranks among the most tightly and beautifully written novels ever published, in my humble opinion.

"Brave New World": The book that got me really thinking about the nature of human happiness. And society's role in promoting it. As a novel, it's flawed, but as a treatise on human nature, it's brilliant.

"Atlas Shrugged": No, I am NOT an Ayn Randian (aka an Objectivist), not by a long shot. But this book, read at the impressionable age of fifteen, up-ended my world view quite as much as "Brave New World."

Chronicles of Narnia: Ok, I'm cheating. But it's really a stand-in for every children's book I ever read and loved, because to be honest, those are the books that shaped me and stayed with me much longer than most of the books I read in college or thereafter.

5) Tag 5 people and have them fill the quiz out on their own blogs.

Gah, have to figure out how to link! Will do this when I get back from Costa Rica, I swear.