Monday, November 28, 2005

The well-oiled machine of "Syriana"


directed & written by Stephen Gaghan
starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Mazhar Munir, Alexander Siddig, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, others

One Manchurian, one interpreter, one gardener, and one imaginary Middle Eastern state later, it’s safe to say the global political thriller is back. Retooled for the twenty-first century, this latest wave of conspiracy-minded filmmaking reflects a post-Information Age, post-globalization, and post-9/11 sensibility that even the minds behind “Three Days of the Condor” could only begin to imagine. The underlying paranoia, however, remains essentially the same. It comprises a willingness to believe in the possibility that vast, shadowy networks of interests (usually some combination of corporations and nation-states) are colluding to control the invisible channels of power that affect you, me, and millions of other equally hapless and oblivious individuals.

Depending on your political stripe or level of sympathy for those much-maligned corporate interests, you may find this baseline suspension of disbelief too hard to swallow, let alone stomach, movies like “Syriana.” But you shouldn’t. For “Syriana,” at least, is no mere exercise in crackpot liberal conspiracy theory. It’s a tense, carefully mapped, defiantly cerebral exploration of the far-reaching consequences of the world’s dependence on oil. No surprise, then, that it’s directed by Stephen Gaghan, who adapted the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” though it was originally inspired by (and loosely based on) Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Warrior in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.”

“Syriana,” named for the geopolitical (fantasy) concept of an ideal, stable, U.S.-friendly Middle East, is a densely plotted film with at least four major plot strands and many more subsidiary branches, all involving dozens of characters whose paths cross in sometimes-surprising ways. Among the main players, there’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney, playing effectively against type), a career CIA agent who barely survives a mission gone horribly wrong, only to discover that his own government has hung him out to dry; Bennett Holiday (the chameleonic Jeffrey Wright), a D.C. energy firm lawyer assigned to oversee a prospective merger between two oil companies while fending off investigation of their agreement by the Department of Justice; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an expatriated American analyst who’s hired as adviser to Prince Nasir (a marvelous Alexander Siddig), the independent-minded heir to an oil-rich emirate; and a young Pakistani immigrant (Mazhar Munir) who loses his oil drilling job at the outset of the movie and spends the rest of it drifting towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Yes, these threads are all connected. No, you probably won’t catch all the finer points as to how, unless you have perfect hearing and a photographic memory. It’s like tossing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle up in the air and having two hours to put the whole thing together without the box to guide you. This total lack of guidance can be a tad frustrating at times. Still, it’s refreshing to see a movie that makes actual, substantial demands on the viewer’s intelligence and for the most part keeps its message unclouded by sentimentalism. The one exception is its vaguely sympathetic treatment of the potential suicide bomber, which is also, unfortunately, the most facile and ineffectual of the storylines—especially by comparison with the recent “Paradise Now,” a film that focused on much the same subject in far greater depth.

The other storylines of “Syriana,” in contrast, suffer from the opposite problem: the film maintains such a neutral, nonjudgmental distance from its protagonists that even when they suffer—and several of them suffer terribly—they seem less like three-dimensional characters who evoke our empathy than pawns in an immense, coldly calculated game. But that, in some sense, is precisely the point. If "Syriana" doesn't make you, too, feel like a pawn, then it hasn't done its job.

It did its job with me. I left the theater feeling like one sick, angry pawn. This is a movie that made me never want to fill my gas tank again.

RATING: *** 1/4

Friday, November 25, 2005

"Goblet" of Moulah vs. "Line" of Cash: Sizzlin' box office, O.K. movies


directed by Mike Newell
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson

What is the *point* of the Harry Potter movies? I mean from an artistic point of view, not commercial; the commercial rationale is a no-brainer. But having seen the latest installment of the film franchise, I’ve resigned myself to the rather dispiriting conclusion that a Harry Potter movie, almost by definition, can neither stand on its own merits as a film nor do justice to the book.

I think a big part of the problem is endemic to J.K. Rowling’s brand of magic, which is peculiarly hard to translate into film. Magic transfers to the big screen fairly smoothly in the case of a journey-adventure or straight-up battle, as in “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” (What is the Force, after all, if not a kind of magic?) It’s only an amplification, so to speak, of patterns and actions already familiar to audiences raised on history and hero-quests. But in Rowling’s world, it’s the magic of the everyday, the quotidien, that dominates a fixed, mostly *domestic* environment. It has to look natural, like a lived-in house (or in this case, school), with moments of wonder—not a CGI factory for kids. And that’s just hard to do, no matter who’s at the helm.

Not that “Goblet of Fire” is a bad flick. It’s actually pretty good, and may in fact be the best HP adaptation so far. I wasn’t as taken with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Prisoner of Azkaban” as most critics, though I acknowledge it represented an advance from Chris Columbus’ slavishly literal-minded transcription of books 1 and 2. Number Four represents a further step forward, towards the deepening emotional darkness that permeates the later part of the series. And though it’s the longest of the movies (which it had to be, considering the book was over 700 pages), clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours, it’s also the most streamlined. Screenwriter Steven Kloves, who’s adapted all of the movies, isn’t shy about trimming the fat from this narrative, and most of his excisions are smart ones. Gone are the nattering house-elves—the weakest part of Rowling’s narrative anyway—and the tiresome Dursleys. Gone is the subplot involving shifty Ludo Bagman, although the Weasley twins’ propensity for gambling survives in modified form. Gone, too, is any semblance of exposition: we are dropped right in medias res of every major event, which keeps things moving, all right, but sometimes feels too abrupt. The Quidditch World Cup, for instance, is truncated just as it seems to be starting (not that I really missed it, since Quidditch is one thing none of the movies has managed to get right), and before we know it, delegations from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang (two rival schools to Harry’s school, Hogwarts) arrive without a bit of preamble.

Apart from this occasional tendency to choppiness, the pacing is good, and the mood fluctuates appropriately between excitement and dread. Director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Mona Lisa Smile”) has a nice touch for comedy, which he puts to perfect use in capturing the school’s social dynamics and our heroes’ awakening hormones. (The movie earns its PG-13 rating as much from an innuendo-filled scene in a bathroom as it does from the violence of Harry’s confrontation with his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort.) But Newell also handles the action quite competently: the story is built around the three tasks of the prestigious Triwizard Tournament (in which Harry, of course, competes), and though many of the details are altered from the book, they’re still nail-biters. The last one, in fact—a dimly lit hedge maze—is a helluva lot creepier than Rowling’s version. And the final descent into darkness, while it doesn’t match the devastating impact of the scene in the book, is still far more intense than anything seen in the previous films. Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, may never be England’s next great thespian, but he’s matured a good deal—and by the end of the movie certainly looks like he’s been put through the wringer. All the kids, incidentally, are growing like weeds, and Emma Watson glows incandescently at Hermione’s crowning moment—the Yule ball, of course, which has to be the best part of “Goblet of Fire.”

As always, there are several new additions to the cast. The new students—competitors and potential love interest(s)—don't make much of an impression, with the exception of the tall, apple-cheeked Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory, Harry’s chief rival. The new adults fare somewhat better: Brendan Gleeson exudes menace, benevolence, and a touch of madness, as befitting the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher, Alistair Moody, while Miranda Richardson is a hoot as scribbler Rita Skeeter, Poison Pen of the wizarding world, even if she never gets the comeuppance she earned in the book. Last but by no means least is Ralph Fiennes as the resurrected Voldemort. How does he do as the most feared wizard in the world? Okay, I guess. His main problem is he looks too much like Ralph Fiennes (sans hair and nose), and not enough like a snake. I expected better, for Fiennes can certainly play evil: just watch “Schindler’s List,” or even “Red Dragon.” Still, I hope they keep him around for the rest of the series.

It’ll be interesting to see how the three remaining movies unfold, particularly the next one. I’m wondering whether I’ll like it better, considering that Book 5 wasn’t one of my favorites. I’ve noticed that generally the *less* I like a book, the more likely I am to enjoy the movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m more easily satisfied; perhaps there’s just less to be lost. Either way, it makes no earthly difference whether *I* think there’s any chance the next Harry Potter movie will be any good: the fans will still turn out like ravening wolves. And ya know what? I’ll probably be in line right behind them. Hope springs eternal in the Potterhead’s breast.

RATING: ** 1/3

Also saw:


directed by James Mangold
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, others

I really don’t have a lot to say about this movie. Yes, it feels very much like “Ray,” redux, except that it’s also a billowy, (soap) operatic love story that focuses on Johnny Cash’s obsessive pursuit of his muse and on-stage partner, June Carter. This fixation starts to feel a little too constricting as the movie goes on, but there’s no denying that real sparks fly between the two stars. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, channeling all his natural intensity into both the flash and the darkness of the Man in Black. Plus he does all the vocals, too, as well as the guitar work, even though he’d never played a guitar before taking on the role. But the real revelation here is Reese Witherspoon. She’s such a gifted comic actress (a side she also shows via June’s stage persona) that it’s easy to forget she has dramatic chops as well. This performance shows them in full force: never have her eyes conveyed such layers of sorrow, weariness, and conflicting emotions. Best of all, the girl can really sing—and more importantly, sing *country*. (Reese grew up in Tennessee, so maybe it’s in her blood in a way that it isn’t for Phoenix.) Phoenix, solo, can really tear up the stage—literally and figuratively—but it’s his duets with Reese that truly burn a ring of fire.

RATING: ** 1/3

My reviews of "Shopgirl" and "Capote" are also finally up: see entries, below, for Nov. 13 and Nov. 6.

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2005

"Pride and Prejudice" shows a new sense & sensibility


directed by Joe Wright
starring Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFayden, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn, Jena Malone, Judi Dench

The latest film version of “Pride and Prejudice” is proof that Austen’s most popular novel can be effectively reinvented for every new generation of moviegoers. This one is designed to please both P&P neophytes and long-time fans, since it remains faithful to its source without getting mired in literal-mindedness. Lively, funny, and heartfelt, it’s briskly paced and directed with flair by someone who’s clearly brought a fresh eye to an old story.

And left me oddly dissatisfied.

Why? Hard to say. I’m not an Austen purist, nor am I wedded to the 1995 A&E television adaptation that made Colin Firth an international heartthrob. (A six-hour miniseries, after all, is a very different proposition from a two-hour movie.) Still, I can’t let go of the feeling that this take on P&P exhibits a sensibility rather different from Austen’s. There's genuine emotion felt and expressed in the novel, as in all her novels, but it’s always several layers beneath the cool elegance and clarity of her prose. In the film, by contrast, the emotions run much closer to the surface, and always seem to be on the verge of breaking through. As if to accentuate this, many of the critical scenes from the book, which take place in enclosed rooms, are here moved outdoors, while the boundaries between indoors and outside are softened, so that at one moment it looks like pigs or cows are actually being led into the house. Additionally, we get several shots of the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), gazing pensively out on some vast expanse of nature (rugged cliff, or misty meadow) as she ponders the inner tumult of her mind. These liberties have stirred some complaints that the film gives Austen a treatment more suited to Byron or the Brontë sisters. If you don’t mind that, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t thoroughly enjoy the movie. (Except, I must gripe, for the very last scene, which is literally gratuitous—having been added only to the American cut of the film—and unbelievably cheesy.)

The casting of the two leads fits the movie’s tone. Knightley brings her characteristic verve to the role of Elizabeth, though she also shows greater depths than in her previous work. She conveys Lizzy’s saucy playfulness and physical spryness (a quality not at all realized in other adaptations), as well as her capacity for love, anger, and regret. The one thing she does *not* convey is Elizabeth’s intelligence. Which isn't to say she comes across as dumb - she doesn't. But what makes Elizabeth so attractive in the book is her wit and perception: it’s because she’s so smart that her mistakes and misjudgments are so interesting. That aspect of her character is obscured, if not obliterated, by the sheer force of Knightley’s élan, which feels closer to Marianne Dashwood than Elizabeth Bennet. On the other hand, Matthew MacFayden is pitch-perfect as her reluctant soulmate, exuding just the right combination of hauteur, reserve, and suppressed feeling—even if his hair persists in looking a little too romantically disheveled for someone as fastidious as Mr. Darcy. (And, to steal a quip directed at a different Mr. Darcy, he really should rethink the length of his sideburns.)

The rest of the cast ably provides comic relief, from the wonderful Brenda Blethyn as Elizabeth’s nerve-racked mother to Tom Hollander as the pompous Mr. Collins and Judi Dench as his overbearing patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. There’s a bit too much giggling and cavorting by the younger Bennet sisters (I get that Lydia and Kitty are supposed to be giddy flirts, but enough already!), and the edges are shaved off the character of Elizabeth’s father (a very appealing Donald Sutherland), though he still gets the best lines. The more serious supporting players get even shorter shrift: Wickham, in particular (played by a dead ringer for Orlando Bloom), is far too marginalized, though that’s likely a byproduct of the fact that the narrative had to be so tightly condensed. Still, as a foil to Darcy and a rival for Lizzy’s affections, he barely registers a presence.

P&P is of course as much sharp-eyed comedy of manners as fairy-tale romance, and the movie handles the satirical elements with some deftness. Director Joe Wright has a trick of moving the camera in one long take through a series of juxtaposed social tableaux, whether at a ball or the Bennets’ house, to capture the full flavor of a variegated “scene.” The film also acknowledges quite thoughtfully, without belaboring the point, the scary proto-feminist subtext underlying the comic sheen of all Austen’s novels: namely, the socially precarious position of women who were unlucky enough to lack both fortune and prospects. There’s a poignant moment, midway through the movie, in which Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent but plain young woman, still single at twenty-seven, with no money or connections, informs Elizabeth that she is going to marry a man whom Elizabeth finds unacceptable. “I cannot afford to be romantic,” she says. Cut to Elizabeth’s face, on which a sudden, sorrowful understanding dawns. The realization is that this could be Elizabeth herself, six or seven years hence: that the only reason Elizabeth can say “no” where Charlotte must say “yes” is that she is younger, prettier, and more hopeful. It’s only a moment: we know better. For if Elizabeth Bennet can’t afford to be romantic, then who can?

RATING: ** 3/4

"Shopgirl" offers love for sale


directed by Anand Tucker
starring Steve Martin, Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman
based on the book by Steve Martin

Claire Danes has a face in a thousand. Which is to say, a face that nine hundred ninety-nine out of a thousand passersby might overlook in the street—for it’s not a particularly beautiful face, or even a particularly striking one. But the thousandth will pause and perceive the quality that’s made her a star—an apt phrase in her case, for it’s a quality of luminosity rather than flash or glitter. As such, she’s perfectly cast as the fulcrum of “Shopgirl,”a slight, thoughtful film directed by Anand Tucker and based on Steve Martin’s novella of the same name.

Danes plays Mirabelle Buttersfield, the titular shopgirl, a young woman who’s relocated to Los Angeles from her native Vermont for the vaguest of reasons. She’s not an aspiring actress; she is, however, an aspiring artist who does, occasionally, sell a picture to an undisclosed buyer. By day, she sells gloves at the Saks in Beverly Hills—a counter that looks more like a museum exhibit than a place of commercial exchange. Perhaps that’s why she wears the air of something waiting to be discovered (a point the voice-over narration perceptively, if somewhat unnecessarily, stresses).

Two men present themselves as candidates to save Mirabelle from Eleanor Rigby-dom. The first is an unkempt, financially strapped young fellow named Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who accosts Mirabelle at a laundromat and convinces her to go out with him. Their subsequent encounters (I won’t even call them dates) turn out to be unmitigated disasters that are almost too painful to be funny. There is nothing remotely appealing about Jeremy in his natural state, as far as I could discover.

The second guy, played by Steve Martin, seems at first glance a closer fit for the role of knight in shining armor. His name is Ray Porter, and he’s courtly, charming, and rolling in money. It’s he who “discovers” the girl behind the glove counter; sends her expensive gifts; invites her to dinner at an upscale French restaurant, and then, later, to his home, a little slice of modernist heaven. But the morning after they first sleep together, he tells her that he doesn’t want anything serious. She continues to see him, however—still hopeful, still willing to be courted and charmed, and still patient enough to tolerate what appears to be a chronic state of emotional constipation on Ray’s part.

Both men are, in different ways, clearly wrong for Mirabelle. The million-dollar question is whether either of them can change enough to become her Mr. Right. The movie sets about answering that question, which I won’t spoil by answering. All I’ll say is that of this odd triangle, two end up happy and one ends up sad, if not alone.

There’s no question that “Shopgirl” is beset with serious flaws. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t tell whether the weaknesses derive from the text or from something lost or changed in the transfer. The initial contrast between Jeremy and Ray is overdone, and rather unfair to the former. Nowhere is this more obvious than the film’s treatment of sex: Mirabelle and Ray—too coy; Mirabelle and Jeremy—too grotesque. The one leaves too much to the imagination, thereby aestheticizing it (not that I really want to see Steve Martin and Claire Danes gettin’ jiggy with it); the other leaves far too little, thereby satirizing it. The story does modify and complicate its view of both relationships, but is much less successful in the case of Jeremy, whose character development feels absurdly contrived. Perhaps it wouldn’t if he weren’t made such a caricature at the outset. Ray, on the other hand, slowly starts to take over the story, which shifts subtly from being about Mirabelle to being about Mirabelle’s effect on him. (Then again, whaddya expect? It is, after all, Steve Martin’s story, no doubt drawn from a composite of his own experiences.)

Some of the flaws are definitely external to the story. The voice-over, as already noted, is superfluous. The intrusive, overbearing musical score (composed by Barrington Pheloung, who worked previously with Tucker, to much better effect, on “Hilary and Jackie”) doesn’t match the film’s tone at all. And Tucker seems to have a mild obsession with framing his characters’ pensive mugs in floating leaves—weird for a film that takes place in autumn-free L.A.

And yet, something about the film still lingers with me. It portrays loneliness and self-deception with genuine sensitivity. It shows some compassion and understanding for why people will continue a relationship that they know in their hearts isn’t the right one for them. And while some critics complain about the opacity of the characters, especially Mirabelle, I don’t necessarily perceive this as a flaw. The actors need only hint at what they’re thinking and feeling, which Danes and Martin, at least, do beautifully. Danes has possibly the most expressive eyes of any actress around—they really do seem like windows to the soul—and though she’s kept a lower profile in the past several years, it’s clear from this film that she’s matured considerably as an actress during that time. Martin, too, delivers a nicely understated performance: Once you get over the initial ick factor of his cozying up to a girl young enough to be his daughter, he becomes an oddly poignant figure, despite—or perhaps because of—his selfishness. He goes Bill Murray one better: this is the former funny man who can play a jerk (as opposed to The Jerk), and still make you care what happens to him. Few movies can offer more.

RATING: ** 1/2

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

As the polls close...

...well, in an hour, anyway, in California...It looks like the Virginia and N.J. governors' races have gone blue. Yay!

Meanwhile, here in kooky-Cali, I find I harbor a surprisingly deep-seated resistance to direct democracy - at least, California-style, proposition-happy direct democracy. I just voted "no" to 6 of the 8 propositions on the ballot, and abstained from voting on the only 2 on which I was leaning towards voting "yes." Fundamentally, even if I have some sympathy to the aims, I just don't think this is how laws should be enacted.

It's not that I have particularly deep faith in the ability of legislators to act in my interests - I don't - or that I fail to appreciate the partisan gridlock between Schwarzenegger and Sacramento that's produced this stupid and very expensive "special election." But for all their flaws, it's the legislators' *job* - not mine - to weigh, analyze, and research the implications of every law they create. Do they often do a lousy job of this? Undoubtedly. Do their aides tell them what to think more than half the time? Probably. Do they pander to special interest groups? Absolutely. Nonetheless, it is still *their* responsibility, and in most cases I simply don't think Joe Schmoe or I have the requisite knowledge to take it from them. (The one exception is redistricting, addressed below.)

Anyway, the rundown:

Prop. 73 (Parental notification for abortions by minors): No. Believe it or not, I am actually sympathetic to the intent behind this measure. But I don't think it will have any practical benefit: girls with good relationships with their parents will probably tell them anyway, and girls with bad relationships are only going to be hurt by it. Also, the law seems to be trying to sneak an anti-abortion definition of "life" into the CA Constitution, which, while not necessarily wrong from my own personal point of view, certainly shouldn't be cemented this way.

Prop. 74 (Public school teachers: making it easier to fire them, right now it's bureaucratic and expensive): Abstained. I don't think this is necessarily a bad idea, but it seems to unfairly target teachers as only one part of a systemic problem. Also, see gut reaction against becoming a lawmaker, above.

Prop. 75 (Placing stricter restrictions on public employee union dues): Voted no for similar reasons for abstention on Prop. 74 - not necessarily a bad idea, but why target the unions in particular? Because Schwarzie's not getting anywhere with them in the way. I feel your pain, guv'nor, but you're just gonna have to deal.

Prop. 76 (Limiting state spending limits, new budgetary powers to Governor): HELLS no - this gives *way* too much power to the Governator.

Prop. 77 (Redistricting: having retired judges rather than legislators draw election districts): Abstained. The one proposition I came very, very close to voting for, and the only one that in my opinion has any business being on the ballot - mainly because this is the one kind of law that no legislature would ever pass. Why didn't I vote yes? Partly because some people whose opinion I respect seem very opposed to it, partly because this measure, too, would amend the CA Constitution, which I'm leery of doing in this manner. Partly, also (I'll admit) because I'm a Democrat, and I don't see Texas reforming their redistricting process any time soon! Still, I won't be crying if this measure passes.

Props 78 and 79 (Prescription drug discounts): No and no. Prop. 78 being the toothless alternative the pharm companies were touting, that one was clearly out. Prop. 79 seems more consumer-oriented, but this is *precisely* the type of devil-in-the-details legislation that Joe Schmoe and I are ill-equipped to evaluate.

Prop. 80 (Utility regulation): No. See objection to Prop. 79.


And as long as I'm being politically minded, I have been monitoring with increasing incredulity the IRS's investigation into the All Saints Episcopal Church (local, of Pasadena) for an anti-war sermon delivered 2 days before the pres. election last year. Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, aren't supposed to endorse political candidates, and apparently the sermon, which was on the theme of what Jesus would say to Bush about the war (essentially, that it was immoral), is considered close enough to the line to warrant closer examination. Give me a fucking break. How many church sermons do you suppose there were the night before the election urging parishioners to vote for their moral values, i.e., no abortion and no gay marriage? Is the IRS going to investigate all of those? Maybe when hell freezes over...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Just what we need - "The Last Geisha." Not.

I haven’t read Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and am trying really hard not to let any preconceived prejudices shape my opinion of its merits. Likewise as regards the flashy, splashy big-studio screen adaptation coming our way in December. But the movie, at least, is already rubbing me the wrong way.

Everyone, say it together now: or-i-en-tal fan-ta-sy! (Male orientalist fantasy, to be precise...but that’s redundant.)

Yes, yes, I’m aware that “MOAG” is based on a true story, and that the geisha in question is a fully developed, fully dimensional character, not some submissive sex toy. Nevertheless, however exquisitely nuanced the book’s portrayal may have been, I really do not think that what mainstream America needs right now are images of exoticized Asian femininity arraying itself exclusively to charm men—images further enhanced by the grand style of Hollywood costume and art design. According to an article in today’s L.A. Times, the costume designer, Colleen Atwood, believed that “the subtlety of actual geisha dress wouldn’t have the right impact on film.” Fair enough. But then she’s quoted as saying:

“We were taking an art form that is a huge part of Japanese culture, but it was important to remember that we were making a movie, based on a book of fiction, written by a guy, about a geisha.”

Um, yeah...and that is exactly the problem, ma’am. You’re all perpetuating the erotic myth, and sexing it up for good measure.

Well, at least it’s an all-Asian cast. There is the tiny detail, of course, that the three leads are all played by Chinese actresses (two mainland, one Hong Kong): the ubiquitous Zhang Ziyi as geisha number one, Michelle Yeoh as her mentor, and Gong Li as her bitter rival. Chinese, Japanese...what’s the difference?

It’s not that Japanese should only be played by Japanese. It’s not even that the three actresses in question look very obviously Chinese, although they do. (Not that it’s always so easy to tell; if you pride yourself on being able to tell Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans apart, try this test: But isn’t there something absurd and a bit painful about the spectacle of *Chinese* actresses having to learn to speak broken *English* while playing *Japanese* characters in a movie that takes place exclusively in Japan? (I read in a N.Y. Times article that certain lines had to be rewritten because they were too difficult to pronounce. I assume not by Yeoh, who’s as fluent as you or I, but the others had never done a movie in English before.)

Racism has nothing to do with the silly casting—it’s all about the bottom dollar, and Hollywood, being Hollywood, is going to cast the closest thing to Tom Cruise (here, Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”) and Julia Roberts among Asian stars, especially in such a risky venture as an all-Asian story! The studio execs want face recognition and association. They want Joe Smith in the audience, watching the trailer, to recognize Zhang Ziyi and/or Michelle Yeoh and think, “Oh, that’s the chick from ‘Crouching Tiger.’ I dig that movie. I dig her. Ergo I will dig this movie about her playing a hot geisha – maybe I’ll get to see her nekkid!” (Fat chance, by the way, of that.) They’re probably also hoping Jane Smith, sitting next to him, will think, “Pretty Asian girl in sweeping love story, colorful background, women tutoring other women, women against other women – like ‘Crouching Tiger’ – only it’s in Japan! Japan is beautiful and exotic. I like Japan. I like stories of female bonding and female rivalry. Maybe I’ll like this movie.”

Well, whatever it takes. That’s Hollywood.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Cold-blooded "Capote" looks evil in the eye


directed by Bennett Miller
screenplay by Dan Futterman, based on book by Gerald Clarke
starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood

“Capote,” at its core, is the tale of a writer who makes a deal with the devil. In exchange for a work that will eclipse all his prior efforts and ensure his reputation for all posterity, the writer parts with his immortal soul. But it doesn't disappear with a flash and a bang. Rather, it’s drained from him, bit by bit, with the slow inexorability reserved for the damned.

Showing this type of gradual dissolution requires serious dramatic muscle, and it's no wonder the movie focuses on the front-and-center performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. It’s an extraordinary performance. For anyone new to Capote, or (like me) acquainted with his writing but not his life, Hoffman’s posturing, his mannerisms, his outsized effeminacy and self-aggrandizement, may come as something of a shock—clearly the intended effect.

Capote isn't the only famous writer whose outward persona differed markedly from the voice contained in his work. But if “Capote” is any indicator, the dissonance in his case was especially sharp. The narrative voice of In Cold Blood, that seminal account of a quadruple homicide in a small Kansas town, is neutral and dispassionate, yet deceptively so—it’s reporting made memorable not by the history it details but by its haunting lyricism, a poetry of starkness that echoes and subtly comments on the mysterious, implacable nature of the murder, its setting, and its consequences. “Capote,” on the other hand, is a kind of photographic negative of In Cold Blood. As a portrait of the writer behind the account, it shows a man at once deeply, painfully invested in his investigation and inhumanly detached from it; a man who saw it all through the prism of his own chance at literary greatness and thereby lost himself in a bottomless abyss.

I personally came out of “Capote” thoroughly disliking its main subject—but perhaps that, too, was the intended effect. Drawn largely from the widely praised biography by Gerald Clarke, the film traces the genesis of In Cold Blood and the toll it took on its author. The story starts off innocuously enough: it’s 1959, and Capote, author of Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the toast of the town, but still hasn’t, in his own estimation, fulfilled the full promise of his talents. (Of his genius, if you were to ask him.) Upon hearing of the massacre of the Clutter family, his journalistic instincts perk up, and he persuades William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, to let him write about the murders. Realizing that his own fey gayness, or gay feyness, is bound to meet a cooler reception in the plains of Kansas than in the clubs of New York, Capote recruits his childhood friend, Miss Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in her pre-To Kill a Mockingbird days, to accompany him.

Aided by the chief police investigator in the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), as well as Dewey’s wife and others dazzled by his celebrity, Capote gains access to the corpses, forensic evidence, and accounts of the locals who knew the Clutters. Later, when the two perpetrators—small-time grifters with no comprehensible motives for the slaughter other than petty robbery—are arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging, Capote bribes his way to unlimited visitors’ access, obtains them new counsel, and builds a strangely intimate, almost codependent relationship with one of them, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). His vampiric persistence pays off: the prospective article turns into a book, and a brilliant book at that. But it also exacts a stiff price: in posing as a friend to Perry and his partner in crime, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), and affording them real legal assistance, Capote allows them to delay their execution for years. What’s really terrible about the delay, from Capote’s point of view, is that it prevents him from finishing his book. For the truth is, of course, that only execution will provide satisfactory closure to both the book and this episode in his life. And so, with the coldest of calculation, he abandons the doomed pair—but again, at a price. Worrying that they’ll get off, and haunted by reproachful letters from Perry, he degenerates into a near-catatonic state from which he never recovers: In Cold Blood was Capote’s last work. He never wrote another.

The crack-up was real, of course, and Hoffman plays it to the bone. In the end, though, I just couldn’t feel much, if any, empathy for someone who spells his own fate by using every person he encounters—Lee, Dewey, Perry, even Capote’s patiently forbearing lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood)—and tossing them aside when he doesn’t need them. Hoffman conveys much of Capote’s character convincingly—his preening narcissism, his remarkable tenacity, and his serpentine powers of manipulation. What he never quite sold me on was Capote’s charm—the charm that courted and won new friends while keeping the old ones around. Instead, his Capote comes across as a leech and a whiner. Admittedly, the film is not designed to show him at his best; still, when Capote, waiting indefinitely for the executions to go forward, frets that he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, all I felt was a strong desire to slap him and tell him to get over himself. Luckily, someone does tell him to cut the crap. In response to Capote’s self-serving plaint that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the executions, Harper Lee says evenly, “Maybe. But the fact is you didn’t want to.”

Keener, Greenwood, and Cooper are all quite good as reality checkpoints to Capote-world. But the real standout is Collins as Perry, the man who unwittingly tears Capote-world to pieces. “Jack thinks I’m using Perry,” Capote observes at one point. “He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas.” How Jack can think both of those things at once, Capote mumbles pettishly, is beyond him. Jack, however, is right on both counts. As Capote himself recognizes and admits, Perry is his doppelgänger—a withdrawn, sensitive outsider, neglected as a child, possessing an artistic streak and a tendency to self-dramatization born of an inflated sense of his own importance. Even as Capote lies to Perry and manipulates him for the sole purpose of gaining his confidence, the predator finds himself increasingly entangled in his prey’s peculiar blend of expectations, delusions, and suspicions. At the same time, it’s never entirely clear to what extent Perry, for his part, is consciously or unconsciously jerking Capote’s strings. Collins plays Perry for most of the movie as a brooding, intense-eyed naif, but periodically reveals glimpses of darkness so black they make Capote look like an ineffectual and inconsequential fly on the wall. Small wonder that the latter melts into nothingness with their final encounter. “Capote,” like In Cold Blood, is a chilling meditation on the fundamental opacity and, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil. But it is also an equally chilling tragedy of hubris—a portrait of an egotist so monstrous that his punishment is to lose his sense of self.


Friday, November 04, 2005

I am the classical music QUEEN...

Ok, not really. Not at all, actually. But I have to give myself props for this. While driving home from work today, I switched to my favorite classical music station, KUSC (FM 91.5 for you Angelenos), as I am wont to do. A piece for piano and orchestra was playing that I'd never heard before. The piano part was very glittery, in a style I thought I recognized immediately: "Liszt," I said aloud. "That has to be Liszt."

But then the piece went on and it started to sound less like Liszt and more like...something else. Like the score to an opera, with a slightly Viennese flavor, even. I couldn't place it. "Almost sort of Weber-ish," I said (yes, I talk to myself in the car sometimes), because the melodic line vaguely reminded me of Weber's "Invitation a la Valse." Only it wasn't a waltz. Hell, I thought, I have no idea what this is.

The piece ended and the radio host identified it as a "collaboration between Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Liszt" - that is, it was Liszt's adaptation and orchestration of Weber's "Polonaise Brillante."

Am I good, or am I good?

It's quite ridiculous, the glow of pride I lasted the rest of the ride home.


And, in other news, Wal-Mart is EVIL - but we already knew that, didn't we?

The O.C. Report

In a word: YAWWNNNNNN...

Of course Ryan came back. Could the show survive sweeps month with him at sea the whole time? No suspense there at all. The only surprise was Marissa's comparing Ryan to her daddy. Psychoanalyze *that*, if you will...I always did think she had a bit of an Electra complex, that girl.

And that whole teacher-student liaison thing? In the words of "Taylor trash" herself: that is *so* mid-90's. At least the dean-from-hell is gone...and I hope he's taking that stupid powder-blue vest with him. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of the Taylor girl, though.

I will confess I did tear up a bit when Ryan said that line to Marissa about his future being in Newport with her. Then, of course, our preview for next week shows signs that he may have to rethink that one. Not sure what to make of Marissa's surfer dude. It's easy to think he set up Ryan's deep-sea fishing adventure in order to get a chance with Marissa...but he actually came across as a straight-up guy. (Then again, so did Zack from last season.)

The whole plotline involving Jeri Ryan isn't doing squat for me. I missed the last couple of episodes so I don't really know what her deal is - but what do I know is that when a creepy blond woman pops out of nowhere and offers you a free luxury condo, your best bet is to run as fast as you can. Julie may be desperate, but she's no fool. As she put it (with perfect Julie delivery), "If there's one thing I've learned, there's no such thing as a free lunch." And any woman who tries to out-scheme or out-evil Madam Cooper-Nichol is going to have her hands full. I suppose that could be mildly entertaining, but I'm not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, hearing everyone talking about college is making me wonder what the show's writers are going to do next season. Will they pull a "90210" and have everyone go to some local school? Probably. Will Seth head east and break the fabulous foursome? Possibly. Is it a bad sign that I don't really care? Definitely.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

"Little Nino" he's not...

Ok, I have to admit my heart sank a little when I heard the name of the latest Supreme Court nominee...After all, any judge dubbed “Scalito” is not, to put it mildly, going to be an easy pill for any true-blue Democrat to swallow.

But you know what? It could be worse. Consider the lineup for the final cut: Luttig, Batchelder, Brown (or was it Clement, I don’t remember). That’s a scary bunch of trick-or-treaters, and Alito doesn’t strike me as the scariest. Any hope that Bush would nominate a moderate was a fool’s hope: the writing was on the wall as soon as Miers bowed out. And I'm not persuaded that the current choice warrants a filibuster from the Dems.

Nicknames aside, if Alito’s in the “mold” of any Supreme Court justice, I’d have to say it’s our newly appointed Chief, John Roberts—who, let’s not forget, was originally slated to replace O’Connor rather than Rehnquist. Both Roberts and Alito appear to be highly intelligent, highly credentialed jurists who reach conclusions that may be unacceptable to liberals but are carefully reasoned from a legal standpoint. (And yes, that includes Alito's dissent in Casey.) The one striking difference is in the respective lengths of their previous judicial tenures (and corresponding paper trails). But I see nothing in the record to indicate that Roberts will be any less conservative a justice than Alito. That’s hardly consoling, to be sure. Still, if we must have a rightward shift, at least let’s have justices who can give us good reasons for it.

More later, although many others have weighed in on this topic far more expertly than I have. See for the best compilation of commentaries.