Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman

The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman passed away earlier today at the age of 89. There are excellent tributes to the man's life and filmography just about everywhere, including here, here, here, here, and especially here. Perhaps best known for his iconic image of Death playing chess with Max von Sydow's knight in "The Seventh Seal," he became one of the most revered figures in international cinema beginning in the late 1950's, only to have his reputation suffer something of a decline in recent years. For better or for worse, his name became associated with a heavily metaphysical, Strindbergian sensibility that some critics eventually found, at best, airless, and at worst, an artistic dead end. But no one could deny his brilliance as a filmmaker, from the sheer beauty of his symbolic imagery to the wonderful expressiveness he managed to elicit from his actors - most notably, among his regulars, von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and my personal favorite, Ingrid Thulin. Nor could anyone fail to see how deeply personal his films were - each film was like an exorcism of his most intimate fears, existential angst, and emotional experiences.

And it's this personal quality that still endures today. Perhaps fittingly, I will always associate him with my childhood and, most particularly, with my father. Both my parents admire his work immensely, but it was my dad who I realized quite early on was something of a Bergman fanboy. He was - and still is - particularly obsessed with "Wild Strawberries" and "Fanny and Alexander," finding the former to be the most poetic of Bergman's films, the latter the most joyous. I saw these two movies multiple times while I was growing up, and they still stand among the most indelible aesthetic memories engrained in my consciousness. The eerie dream sequences of "Wild Strawberries" seriously freaked me out when I was very young, and as a meditation on mortality and human selfishness it's pretty unsparing - yet what I remember most keenly about it is its exquisitely lyrical quality, and the gentleness of the protagonist's final reconciliation with his past life and approaching death. "Wild Strawberries" is haunting in the best sense of the word, and an indisputable masterpiece.

As for "Fanny and Alexander," it's well known for being the most frankly autobiographical of Bergman's films. But that's less interesting than how seamlessly it fuses Bergman's gothic and supernatural sensibilities with his appreciation of the richness and warmth of human relationships - and the connection of both to the world of theater. Told from the perspective of an imaginative adolescent boy (and to a lesser extent, his younger sister) during a traumatic year in which he endures death, alienation, abuse, and, finally, reunion and new life, it captures the child's perspective of these events better than almost any other film that comes to mind.

That's not to detract from the rest of Bergman's canon, from the feather-light "Smiles of a Summer Night" (another of my dad's favorites) to the uberdark "The Virgin Spring" and the searing psychological intensity of "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers." But that's what's so remarkable about Bergman, whose range has, I think, been rather unfairly deprecated: no matter who you are or what your tastes, you're pretty sure to find at least one of his films that will resonate powerfully with you. And that, to my mind, is the mark of a great director.

Apparently the Gods of Cinema got greedy on July 30 and decided to claim not just one but two giants for their pantheon...Michelangelo Antonioni passed away on the same day as Bergman. Now I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen an Antonioni film, so I feel ill equipped to pay a really meaningful tribute to him - but the New York Times has a a good obituary that's worth reading.

Get Your Fresh Hot Cinescope Today!

So I really should have linked this ages and ages ago, but better late than never...

About a year or so ago, my friend Ezra and a couple of his friends set up the coolest website, Cinescopes. Basically, if you set up a profile and enter your ten favorite movies, you can get your own personal "cinescope" - something like a horoscope but more like a personality test, based on the premise that you can tell a lot about a person's character based on the movies he/she loves. If you're like me you'll find it hard to narrow your list down to just ten movies, but it's still fun and very telling. Based on the ten I picked off the top of my head, I'm apparently a "Loyal Warrior."

You can use your profile to meet and network with other people who have entered profiles and even find "matches" based on people who have movie tastes compatible with yours.

You can also subscribe to their magazine and buy stuff, including a book that expands on the site, Cinescopes: What Your Favorite Movies Reveal About You, that's set to come out in November (but you can pre-order it now). Expect another plug here when it comes out...

In the meantime, explore the site and enjoy!

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Good Ending: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Can't believe it's only been a week since the seventh & last Harry Potter book finally made its official public appearance. Maybe it seems much longer because I wasn't able to post an immediate reaction upon finishing it - I read the book in a day, on the first day, but because I was on my way to Honoulu for a short vacation I didn't get a chance to put my thoughts in writing until today.

In sum: it's not the best of the Harry Potter books, as I was secretly hoping it would be. (That honor still belongs to Prisoner of Azkaban, with Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince tied for a close second.) But it's a worthy ending to the saga, and stays true to the spirit that Rowling's nourished all along in the previous six books. I hesitate to call the series an extended morality tale, yet that is basically what it is. Its morals are nothing we haven't seen before, and nothing that the world outside fiction doesn't cause us to doubt on a daily basis, but in our innermost hearts most of us still yearn for them to be true: that love is stronger than hate; that good outlasts and conquers evil, at a hefty price, but one that's never too high to pay; that there are greater things to fear than death (namely, the loss of one's soul); and most importantly, lest you think all of these too simplistic, that every person has the capacity for both good and evil in them, and how one turns out is ultimately an individual choice. It's an essential part of J.K. Rowling's genius that she's able to make these old maxims fresh and compelling by weaving them into a nail-biting, white-knuckled page-turner. She teaches not by preaching what everyone above the age of six knows already, but by showing the narrative consequences of one's moral choices - and making the reader care about those consequences.

There's a cost to this mission that, not surprisingly, makes itself most felt in the last book. Rowling brings so much emphasis to the moral dimension in The Deathly Hallows that it sometimes buckles a little under the weight. Apart from an occasional flash of wry humor, book 7 is almost completely lacking in the element of fun that made its equally dense predecessors so compulsively addictive. TDH is also more than a little overplotted: having found a very good idea and intriguing symbol for the splintering of the Dark Lord's soul in the Horcruxes, Rowling can't leave well enough alone and must introduce another set of death-defying objects called the Hallows.

She also puts in too many almost-gotcha moments with Voldemort and Harry and too many obstacle-course plot threads for the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio that feel more like detours than progressions. (The break-in to the Ministry of Magic, for instance, is a bit dull, and come on, did we really need to see Dolores Umbridge again?) And describing wizarding duels and battles, while perhaps unavoidable in this last book, is emphatically not where Rowling's strengths as a writer lie; I'd much rather read about "Potterwatch" - the funny, lively underground radio broadcast that carries on the good fight when Voldemort's forces have taken over every other form of wizarding media - than about the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters trading jets of red and green for the umpteenth time. Also, apparently the Unforgivable Curses are forgivable when the good guys use them, something I didn't like so much.

What ultimately allows Deathly Hallows to triumph over these flaws is its sheer heart - its recognition that we care so much about what happens to these characters because they care so much about what happens to each other. Not to themselves, but to their loved ones. To Harry. And for Harry: to those who would sacrifice themselves for him, and who did and do sacrifice themselves for him. What book 7 shows is nobility without pride - nobility that seeks no personal recognition, and is therefore all the more worthy of it.

I can't say much more without giving away crucial plot points, so if you haven't finished reading, stop now. If you have, scroll down.




You are now warned.

Ha ha, how spot-on was I about Snape, Dumbledore, and Lily Potter? The text of book 6 laid it out really quite clearly, as I pointed out in my analysis of Half-Blood Prince and my predictions for book 7. But more on Snape in a moment.

It's a curious thing that I did not find myself especially torn up by any of the deaths in the book, except perhaps Dobby's. Moody's happened too soon (and anyway we never really got to know the "real" Moody); Lupin's and Tonks' happened completely offstage, and even poor Fred...well, maybe anything would have seemed anticlimactic after Sirius and Dumbledore. As for Snape, his death was necessary, I would even say fated.

I had a feeling Ron and Hermione would both make it when I saw the book was almost over and they still hadn't gotten together.

The big death of book 7, of course, was - or should have been - Harry's. In a sense, Rowling cheated. I'm not sure I fully buy the reasoning behind why having Harry's blood in him meant Voldemort couldn't kill Harry (though that general idea was pretty heavily foreshadowed at the end of Goblet of Fire). The fact that Harry's willingness to die played a part in his survival reminded me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and in fact once Harry girded up his resolve to die and I saw there were still a couple of fat chapters to go, I vaguely suspected there would be an "out" of this kind. But I'm so glad I didn't peek at the last page to find out - it made the suspense that much more gripping. And I won't quibble with Rowling having her cake and eating it too, because it means we the readers can, too. Both sides of the "does Harry die?" debate won. Those who predicted he had to die because he was one of Voldemort's Horcruxes were right; and those who predicted he would live were also, as it turns out, right. Drinks all around!

In contrast, the "do we trust Snape?" debate had only one answer, and I'm immensely relieved and happy it was the one I was hoping for. I think "The Prince's Tale" was the strongest chapter in the book, as "Snape's Worst Memory" was in Order of the Phoenix. And I'm not just saying that because it confirmed all of my predictions. Snape, hands down, is the best character in the series. It's no coincidence that the three most poignant moments in book 7, for me anyway, all involved him:

1. (After Snape casts his Patronus for Dumbledore, revealing it's Lily)
"After all this time?"
"Always," said Snape.

2. When Dumbledore praises Snape's courage and tells him "You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon," leaving Snape looking "stricken." Makes you wonder, just for a moment, "what if"...What if Snape had been in Gryffindor?...

3. In the Epilogue, when Harry tells his son he was "named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."

The Epilogue was cute, but it didn't really tie up the loose threads I was wondering about. What careers did Harry, Ron, and Hermione end up pursuing? (Neville becoming a professor was a nice touch.) What happened to the Dursleys? Who became guardian to Lupin's son?

Also, something I never thought about before but suddenly thought to wonder about - how in hell did Pettigrew/Wormtail ever end up being in Gryffindor? That's got to be the Sorting Hat's worst decision in Hogwarts history, as far as I can tell. "Daring, nerve, and chivalry" - yeah, right.

But, in the end, these are all just details. What matters most - as Rowling realized - is who loved whom, and who passed on that legacy of love and friendship. It's kind of interesting that even the Malfoys, without ever really redeeming themselves, survived because in the end they cared more about each other than about power or ambition. Love doesn't necessarily make heroes out of the weak or flawed, but it does make them human...and that makes all the difference.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Defense of Pottermania...

Couldn’t have said it better myself – here is an adult critic’s defense of Pottermania, wittily titled “The Masses Aren’t Asses.”

Indeed they are not. Harold Bloom et al. can kiss my ass. Look, I seriously considered making a career out of studying great literature. I was in the English Ph.D program at Yale for a couple of years (though I didn’t study with Bloom). My roommate in grad school, who’s one of the most insightful readers and best writers I’ve ever met and who’s now teaching Shakespeare to undergrads, is nearly as addicted to Harry Potter as I am. So is my dad, who has a Ph.D from M.I.T. (admittedly, not in literature). So is my mom, who also loves Henry James and Jane Austen. So are many of my friends with postgraduate degrees. Are we all smoking something, or are we all blinded by some kind of regressive desire to be as little children again?

Neither. It’s worth noting that Bloom, as I understand it, never got past the first book, and many other adults willing to give Harry Potter a try give it up with a shrug after the first or even the second installment. To those people I say: please, please read book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If, by the end of that one, you are not hooked, then Harry clearly isn’t your cup of tea. But until then, don’t dismiss us Potterheads.

I’ve always respected Taylor as a critic (he wrote a very fine piece on Steven Spielberg some years ago for Salon, which confirms he’s firmly in touch with his inner child), and I now respect him more than ever. Building on what he gets so right in his editorial, here are my own thoughts on Harry’s immense popular appeal:

What is the secret of Harry’s success? In this reader’s opinion, it’s changed over time. The series started out as a fairly formulaic wish fulfillment fantasy: who hasn’t dreamed of being discovered and singled out as a Very Special Person—and better yet, a Very Special Person who can do magic? Even the shadow cast by the death of Harry’s parents and his cruelly unloving relatives had, in the beginning, the feel of Roald Dahl Lite, no more than a standard setup for the self-realization that was bound to follow. But what stood out initially about Rowling’s trek down this well-worn path was the richness of the world she invented—an alternative universe that brilliantly rendered the unfamiliar familiar by harnessing the fantastic in service of the mundane. Rowling constructed this universe with an unerring eye for detail, somewhat reminiscent of the miniature world of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. For every quotidian item, device, or activity in our world, Rowling created a magical counterpart with an ingenious twist: Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans in place of Skittles; Quidditch, played on flying brooms, in lieu of soccer; pictures in which the people move around instead of remaining in eternally fixed poses. The crowning feat of her vision was, of course, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a delightful riff on the British public school system, which our hero, like any British schoolboy, entered with no idea what to expect.

However, this sense of fun, of perpetual novelty and discovery (which reaches its apotheosis, appropriately, in Book 4, the midpoint of the series) gradually dissipated as Harry plunged deeper into both the darkness of his past and the ultimate showdown looming in his future. The plots became more convoluted, the endings less tidy, the general ambience darker, and of course the body count reached a point at which nothing and no one was sacred. None of these alterations, in themselves, guaranteed either ongoing popularity or greater literary merit. Though Rowling possesses a wonderfully supple and inventive imagination for the details of Harry’s life, the broad strokes of her narrative are, for the most part, heavily derivative. And her writing style frankly is all too often clunky and graceless, sometimes dreadfully so, which I suspect is the real reason literary gatekeepers like Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt have looked down their noses at her.

Here, however, is what Rowling got right: She presented a world so complete and so seductive that it drew us in, through the eyes of characters who were very recognizably children going (and growing) through adolescence. Half of her appeal as a writer lies in her sense of how children of that age range actually talk, think and interact, and in her wit, a quality most fantasy writers entirely lack. (See Exhibit A: J.R.R. Tolkien; Exhibit B: Ursula LeGuin; etc.) Rowling gave us characters we could believe in, despite their fantastical environment, and in whom we invested our interest and sympathies. Then she upped the emotional stakes. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, she tightened the screws of our anxieties, our fears that after all, everything might not come out right—or if it did, it would be at a terrible price. We were hooked, and there was no escape.

Of course I’m biased, but I know I’m far from alone. I remember the days after a new Harry Potter came out, I’d spot the unmistakable volume on the subway, in the park, by the pool, and of course in the bookstore, and feel an immediate fellowship with each person who held it. Especially those I saw reading with an intentness I recognized: the readers who wouldn't rest, who when not working would barely pause for meals and perhaps not even for sleep until they finished the book. Catching them in the act was like a secret handshake. Not much conversation, as there was a tacit taboo against revealing anything prematurely, but a clear understanding that linked us all—persons of varying races, classes, and, yes, ages. I expect a revival of that mutual goodwill this time round. I also expect to see a tinge of ruefulness, reflecting our shared awareness that this is it. The party is coming to an end, and we'll all be strangers again in the morning.

Predictions for Harry Potter 7

So having recently reread (and not, I confess, for the first time) Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I will venture to make the following predictions for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final (sniff) volume of J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut of a series:

• Harry will survive. After all, he’s not called “The Boy Who Lived” for nothing!
• The prophecy will turn out to have some trick or catch in it. After all, there’s something kind of dodgy about the phrasing “Neither can live while the other survives.”
• Hermione will also survive. I think Rowling has plans for her to spend the rest of her life doing good in some way, like lobbying for house-elves’ rights or something. And it would be a pity to waste all that brain power!
• Not as sure about Ron, who’s always been more of a follower than a leader, and for that reason is more dispensable. Therefore more likely to be killed off, if Rowling decides to split up our three musketeers. (After all, she’s shown no compunction in killing off those nearest and dearest to Harry.) But he won’t die before...
• Ron and Hermione hook up. Rowling’s as good as given away that this will happen.
• I actually think Ron will probably survive. But the Weasley family is going to take a major hit, if not several.
• Neville will avenge his parents and, perhaps, may even find a cure to heal them. (I mean, he is a great herbologist in the making, after all.)
• Snape will die. The real question: for which side? After rereading book 6, I’m more firmly convinced than ever that Dumbledore’s death at his hands was planned all along by both of them. What I’m not sure of is what Snape’s ulterior motives were in going along with it. It’s a genius of that character that it is absolutely impossible to tell whether he has truly repented or is just diabolically clever at hiding his true nature from everyone. I hope he’s not plotting to help bring down Voldemort just so he can take his place, or something like that.
• Assuming he didn’t completely fool Dumbledore, we will discover some connection between Snape and Lily Potter, previously unknown to everyone except Dumbledore. Personally, I think it will be (or at least appear to be) that Snape loved Lily, and it was remorse for causing her death that caused him to turn to the good. Certainly I think only this could be the “ironclad reason” Dumbledore had for trusting Snape. Dumbledore, remember, believes in the power of love.
• Dumbledore had better be right, or Rowling will turn a generation of readers into cynics. The one thing that gives me pause is some comments by her I’ve read in the past that suggest she doesn’t think of Snape as a particularly positive character and is amazed at how popular he’s become with readers. But on the whole, I think Snape will die for the right side. He will, however, die still hating Harry. Perhaps Harry will kill him.
• Peter Pettigrew will play some key role in saving Harry. Could be intentional, could be inadvertent (like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings”).

I may add to this list if I think of anything else.

Just two more days...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Order of the Phoenix" is best Harry Potter adaptation to date


directed by David Yates
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, with brief appearances by Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham-Carter, others

As an unabashed Harry Potter addict, I have a somewhat peculiar relationship with the Harry Potter movies. I always feel compelled to see them, I’m nearly always vaguely disappointed in them, but I don’t ever really blame the filmmakers for my disappointment. This is because I just don’t think J.K. Rowling’s brand of fantasy translates particularly well to film (see my reasons why in my review of the last Harry Potter movie). In the end, I’m usually able to appreciate the merits of the movie while feeling very little of the gut reaction I had to the book.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that I really liked the fifth and latest adaptation, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” At the same time, I came away with a distinct sense that only people who’d read the book could really appreciate the film, while faithful readers would be aggrieved at how much was cut. Not me. Much as I’ve come to like Order of the Phoenix, I still maintain that as a narrative it desperately needed judicious editing. Rowling’s books are highly readable because of the warmth of her humor, the believability of her characters, and the inventiveness with which she constructs her fictive magical universe. They are generally not remarkable for tight plotting or construction (the one shining exception being the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, which still holds a slim margin as my favorite of the series). Book 5 displays her rambling, shambling tendencies at their worst, mainly because she let them balloon to such immense length (something close to 900 pages) without advancing the overall narrative arc of the series very much, and spent far too many pages showing us how pissed off her hero was by making him a royal pain in the ass who yelled in all-caps. What saved Phoenix was its revelation of more complex moral shadings and emotional vulnerabilities in her characters that were only hinted at in the previous books.

And that proves to be the crux of the film adaptation helmed by franchise newcomer David Yates. With the help of veteran Harry Potter-streamlining screenwriter Steve Kloves, who pares down the plot so much that non-readers may find the movie simultaneously choppy and slow, he gives us for the first time a Harry Potter movie of unexpected emotional depth. “Order of the Phoenix” moves away from the wide-eyed delight of Harry’s introduction and acclimation into the magical world to enter much darker territory. Voldemort, Harry’s nemesis and the most evil of all wizards, has returned to full powers, is amassing allies, and, most terrifyingly of all, appears to have pervaded Harry’s subconscious mind. Yet the Ministry of Magic (the wizarding world’s government) stubbornly plays ostrich, denying the return of the “Dark Lord,” and sending one of their bureaucrats (Imelda Staunton) to take over Harry’s school, Hogwarts, and ruthlessly stomp out all signs of dissension on this point. The result is a fairly hellish and psychologically harrowing year for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), the sole bright spots being a brief romance (but a seriously long kiss) with his crush, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and his training of a group of renegade students to defend themselves against the “dark arts” (essentially, nasty spells designed to kill or incapacitate you).

I haven’t seen Yates’s TV work, such as the well-received “The Girl in the Café,” but from what I’ve read, he has a good instinct for the forces that connect human beings and pull them apart. That instinct is amply in evidence here. The theme he hammers home particularly effectively is Harry’s alienation from everyone around him: his mentor and strongest protector, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the headmaster of Hogwarts, is strangely, heartbreakingly distant, his schoolmates shun him for his conviction that Voldemort is back, and even his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are put off by his moods, his prickliness, and his own self-isolating tendencies. At the same time, Yates brings a new focus on the bond that draws Harry to his godfather and guardian, the unjustly condemned Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and to his fellow student and new friend, the spaced-out Luna “Loony” Lovegood (newcomer Evanna Lynch)—bonds rooted at least partly in a shared sense that they, like he, are outcasts.

The film also goes easy on the special effects, to which I say: bravo. I don’t know whether it’s my own limitations or the limitations of current technology, but even the most state-of-the-art CGI, applied to bring to life such overtly fantastical elements as witches and wizards riding broomsticks, elves cleaning house, and pictures with moving subjects (elements I loved and relished reading about in the books) have never looked anything but fake, even hokey, to me. Yates keeps the CGI to a minimum—I’ve heard he plans to do the same with the next installment, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which he’s also directing—but uses it to good effect in the requisite final showdown at the end. That showdown, which in reading the book gave me a distinct “haven’t we been here already?” feeling, is nicely streamlined here and packs a surprisingly strong emotional wallop.

A lot of that is also due to the fact that Daniel Radcliffe seems to have finally learned how to act. I read a rather disarming comment from him in an Entertainment Weekly article that “Phoenix” was the first movie he could watch himself in without wincing, or something to that effect. It’s true; in fact, he’s underselling himself. Though he’s surrounded as always by some of Britain’s finest thespian talents—Staunton, in particular, is fabulous as the “grand inquisitor” whose ridiculous pink togs and saccharine giggle only underscore her thinly veiled sadism (though she’s nowhere near physically repulsive enough for the part)—the movie’s heart and soul really belongs to his Harry, and for the first time, he really succeeds in holding his own amid his older and more distinguished co-stars. His anguish becomes the viewer’s, and his aloneness lingers like an echo. No previous Harry Potter film has managed to create that effect. I hope it’s one we continue to see in the next (and final) two films.




directed by Kasi Lemmons
starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall

“Talk to Me” deals with a little piece of social and cultural history—the career of D.C. radio and talk show host Petey Green, an ex-convict who attracted thousands of fans with his potty mouth and his irreverent, outspoken social commentary that tapped into what it meant to be black during the civil rights era and its bitter aftermath. But it’s really about the relationship between Green (Don Cheadle) and his producer, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who walked the fine line between placating his uptight white boss (Martin Sheen) and giving freedom to a new voice that he knew would strike previously untouched chords. (In some ways, “Talk to Me” plays like the serious, non-satirical obverse of Spike Lee’s corrosive “Bamboozled.”)

Strong performances by Cheadle and Taraji Henson as Green’s brassy but fiercely loyal girlfriend, and a solid one by Ejiofor anchor the film; the direction, by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) is workmanlike rather than inspired, and the historical background never really quite registers with the resonance one would expect. But as a vehicle for Cheadle’s rising star (or, for that matter, Ejiofor’s), it works beautifully. By turns comic, serious, and vulnerable, Cheadle’s depiction of Petey is compelling, and—for such a flamboyant personality—surprisingly subtle. The same could be said for Henson, who’s really quite spectacular but may end up being unjustly overshadowed by her better-known male co-stars. Ejoifor, meanwhile, plays a good foil as the well-spoken, more soberly tailored, upwardly mobile black man who’s more complicated than he initially appears. “Talk to Me” isn’t groundbreaking filmmaking, but it’s a remarkably nuanced portrayal of not only a tricky and exceptional man, but a tricky and exceptional friendship. That’s something one doesn’t see enough of in films today, and for that alone it deserves commendation.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Performance that Changed My Life: Jane Powell in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”

Emma at All About My Movies is hosting a blog-a-thon on the theme
The Performance That Changed My Life. A great topic, and one that’s already spawned a lot of thought-provoking responses. I’m entering a little late in the day, especially considering I’m on L.A. time and Emma’s apparently in London—but hey, better late than never.

There are a lot of performances that have made a deep impression on me, but I have to give pride of place to Jane Powell’s unforgettable turn as Milly in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I grew up watching a lot of classic movie musicals from the ’50s and ’60s, and “Seven Brides” has remained one of my very favorites ever since I first saw it. At first glance, it shouldn’t have aged as well as it has – especially considering it’s about a group of men who decide to reenact the rape of the Sabine women by kidnapping a bunch of women to make them their wives. Not to mention the fact that its lead male protagonist is, for a good nine-tenths of the movie, practically a caricature of a chauvinist pig. But I’ll argue that the reason it hasn’t been killed by the advent of feminism and political correctness—of course, apart from the fact that it features some infectious tunes and absolutely fantastic choreography (right up there with “West Side Story,” and in fact I’d argue the barn-raising sequence is, hands down, the best-choreographed dance sequence of any movie musical ever made), is Powell’s performance as the woman who somehow manages to be a good and loyal wife and at the same teach her boorish husband a thing or two about sensitivity and consideration.

This is no easy feat, but Powell pulls it off with grace as well as tunefulness. At the movie’s outset, her Milly is working as a cook and hired girl in a small town in the Oregon mountains. When a handsome stranger, backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), comes to town looking for a wife, she falls for him, accepts his proposal (which has about the subtlety of the caveman in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World”), and marries him on the spot. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Adam shares the farm he works on with six younger brothers, and the homestead is in desperate need of basic housekeeping (in his own summation, “Place is like a pigsty, and the food tastes worse”). Indeed, his initial assessment of Milly, like his assessment of all the women in town (in a song that could be offensive if it weren’t so hummable), sounds like he’s sizing up livestock:

Pretty and trim, but not too slim,
Heavenly eyes, and just the right size
Simple and sweet
(cut to Milly shoving a guy making unwelcome advances; Adam chuckles)
But sassy as can be!
Bless her beautiful hide,
For she’s the gal for me!

Turns out Adam’s actually right for once, except about her being simple. Oh sure, she may show questionable judgment marrying a total stranger who proposes to her in the manner of a business proposition, and yes, she allows herself to get a little moony and mushy in their ride up to Adam’s place. But she soon shows the stuff she’s made of: when she finds out that what Adam really wants is his own hired girl, she’s mad, of course, but rather than crumbling she sets about turning the Pontipee pad into a clean, well-ordered home and the six unmarried Pontipees (who are generally a lot more pliable, even rather sheep-like, than their eldest brother) into something resembling gentlemen. When she brings them to town, groomed and trained, to find their own wives, they almost succeed, but are goaded into a fight by the townies that, for a time, dashes their hopes. As the lovelorn brothers mope through the dead of winter, Adam gets the bright idea (from reading about the Romans’ rape of the Sabine) of leading them back down to town to carry off the girls they’re pining for. They succeed, and an avalanche blocks off pursuit from the girls’ families.

They haven’t reckoned, however, with Milly. As the weeping girls flock to her arms, in no uncertain terms she gives the brothers a piece of her mind and packs them off to the barn, where she makes it clear they’ll stay until the ice melts and they’re able to return the girls to her families. Cowed, they submit with scarcely a murmur. And she doesn’t make an exception for her husband, who goes off in a huff to play hermit for the rest of the winter and refuses to stop sulking even when he hears she’s given birth to a daughter (his reaction: “A girl! Might’ve known she’d have a girl”). In the end, however, he sees the error of his ways, and realizes what we’ve known all along, that he should be thanking his lucky stars for finding a wife like Milly.

None of this would work if Powell weren’t so convincing and fully dimensional as the strong-willed yet sensitive Milly. She’s not afraid to speak her mind to Adam and doesn’t stand for ill treatment, yet she continually lets him back into her life (and bedroom) because, under it all, for some reason—and I think most of us can sympathize—she really is in love with the guy and thinks he’s capable of changing. There are a couple of scenes that stick out in my mind: one when Adam, in a rare moment where he drops his he-man guard while talking to baby brother Gideon (a charming Russ Tamblyn, the tender heart of the Pontipee men), sings about what it’s like to be in love, and Milly, unbeknownst to him, is listening. Her face says everything, even though she doesn't: it glows, then saddens when Adam cuts off his song and dismisses the whole subject. The other is when Milly learns from Gideon that Adam is going off to a cabin in the mountains rather than submitting to sleeping in the barn. Gideon pleads with her to say something to dissuade him. At first Milly’s expression conveys inner conflict, then it hardens into resolution: “He’s got to learn he can’t treat people like this,” she says quietly yet firmly, and she’s absolutely right. She loves him, but she has to take a stand. And she does, and it feels only right and natural that he comes round as a result.

Of course add to that that she’s pretty and sprightly and sings like an angel, and you’ve got really the closest thing to a perfect woman that you can have. What’s remarkable about Powell’s performance, and what’s stuck with me through the years, is how she manages to make the character not only perfect but fully, recognizably human.

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Ratatouille" offers a feast for all ages


directed and written by Brad Bird
voices of Patton Oswalt, Brad Garrett, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole, others

I don’t know what’s in the water at Pixar Animation Studios, but whatever it is, this entire country could benefit from having it pumped into their drinking supply. The latest Pixar release, “Ratatouille,” just may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. If this statement makes you wrinkle your nose and query “Really?” in a tone of polite incredulity, that only proves Pixar’s work is not yet done. Until everyone realizes that they deserve to be considered and treated at the same level as today’s leading filmmakers, they’ll just have to go on making the kinds of movies they’ve been making. I, for one, won’t be complaining.

Of course the lion’s share of the credit for “Ratatouille”’s success goes to director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “The Iron Giant”) who’s rapidly establishing a name for himself as the go-to guy for animated movies that appeal to the adult intelligence as much as to the tiny tots. But not by relying on the annoyingly snarky cultural allusiveness that’s become the creative crutch of most (non-Pixar) animated films from “Shrek” onward. No, Bird focuses on such novel things as story, character, and thematic development and comes up with an end product that actually feels like something organically grown, not manufactured with an eye to the lowest common denominator. In the wasteland that is children’s or “family” entertainment today, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

The premise of “Ratatouille” is at once simple in concept and inspired, even singular, in its originality: Remy, one of a colony of French rats, dreams of being a chef. That’s right, a chef. Gifted with an unusually sensitive sense of smell and taste, he finds it impossible to resign himself to a lifetime of scavenging garbage. Instead, as he tells his father, he wants to create. He gets his chance when a series of near-catastrophic events fortuitously wash him up on the doorstep to a Parisian restaurant founded by Remy’s idol, Gusteau, a legendary chef. Remy’s timing couldn’t be better, as the restaurant’s reputation has been slipping into a decline following Gusteau’s death, and the rat’s arrival just happens to coincide with that of a gangly, awkward new scullery boy, Linguine, who can’t cook if his life depended on it but who accidentally discovers that Remy can. Remy and Linguine team up to create sensational dishes that soon become the talk of the town, even as they strive to keep their secret from the watchful eyes of the current chef, the corrupt Skinner, and a sexy but prickly assistant cook, Colette, who piques Linguine’s romantic interest.

There are plot complications, of course, and an eventual resolution, but neither are altogether what you might expect. Bird knows how to subvert the narrative conventions just enough to preserve an element of surprise, but not so much as to detract from the gut satisfaction of seeing wrongs righted and just des(s)erts delivered. Indeed, despite the state-of-the-art animation that Pixar can always be counted on to provide (a softly lit Paris never looked so inviting, and the food looks appetizing enough to eat,) there’s something essentially old-fashioned at the heart of its movies that hearkens back to the best of classic Disney. “Ratatouille” makes fine use of pure physical comedy in a way rarely seen on screen anymore—not farts or falling anvils, but something almost Chaplinesque or Buster Keaton-ish in the sight of Remy maneuvering Linguine around the kitchen of Gusteau’s, limbs splayed and flailing everywhere, narrowly missing disaster after sheer disaster.

The movie also avoids the trap of celebrity casting which plagues so many animated movies today, and which makes me, at least, yearn for the days when voice-actors made their voices fit the character, not the other way around. Remarkably, so it is here: despite a smattering of well-known names (Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Dennehy, and Brad Garrett, among others), you’d be hard pressed to identify them without knowing the casting in advance. The most recognizable is the great Peter O’Toole, who’s simply marvelous, not intrusive, as Anton Ego, a withering death’s head of a food critic.

All this contributes to a feeling of timelessness that stands in especially sharp contrast to the of-the-moment knowingness of “Shrek”’s inferior progeny, which one can feel fairly certain will not age well. “Ratatouille”’s only nod to a contemporary cultural phenomenon—and it’s a fairly subtle one—is a poke at celebrity chefs who use their name to sell products for mass consumption. (Here, it’s frozen dinners, conceived not by the poor dead Gusteau but by his unscrupulous successor, milking the Gusteau name for profit.) Even this is less a commentary on the obsession of today’s consumers with brand names than a variation on one of Bird’s favorite, faintly Ayn Randian themes: that great talent is continually diluted, unappreciated, used, and even abused by society at large, and subsumed to the ignorant and less able.

Which brings me back to Bird and the brilliance of his achievement. In interviews he’s made it clear that his films are targeted at the general audience, not exclusively or even primarily at kids. Some viewers may be concerned, not wholly without reason, that children will come away from “Ratatouille” thinking it’s all right to have rats in the kitchen and that rats are really sympathetic, misunderstood creatures. (Though no one seems to have that problem with the classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and it should be noted that Bird made sure not to gloss over the inherent ick factor of scurrying hordes of rats. Only Remy emerges as a truly cute, fully anthropomorphized rat, and he is, to say the least, not your ordinary rat.) But the fact is that except on the most basic level, this isn’t a movie about rats who can cook. Even children can appreciate that in a broader sense it’s about following your dreams, no matter how improbable or unattainable they may seem. And as they grow older, they’ll realize that it’s really a lot more complicated than that. Despite Gusteau’s famed (and reviled) mantra “Anyone can cook,” what Remy’s story proves—an insight given voice, interestingly enough, by the nasty critic—is not that anyone can do anything just by wanting it, but that talent can spring from anywhere and in anyone.

Adults will also spot a plethora of other themes threaded seamlessly throughout the film, such as the aforementioned struggle between talent and the forces of mediocrity; the age-old conflict between individual aspirations and family expectations; and (dearest to my own heart) the relationship between creator and critic. There’s a lot to chew on in this “Ratatouille,” yet what makes it exceptional is that no matter at what level you’re operating, it coheres into a satisfying whole. That’s a bar all too often unmet by movies generally, animated or otherwise. “Ratatouille” clears it with room to spare.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Late Spring/Early Summer Movie Roundup

As promised, I will be contributing much more regularly to this blog. One way I plan to do a better job keeping up is to write shorter reviews of movies as I see them, and only write a full-length review when I feel the film really merits it. As a kind of transition, I’ve compiled a series of “mini-reviews” of movies I saw in May and June – longer than capsules, but shorter than my usual meanderings. I’ll also be commenting more frequently on news and developments in the world of arts & entertainment, and on other random topics as they strike me, and linking to some of the other terrific blogs I visit.

So here’s my late spring/early summer movie roundup. Enjoy, and have a happy Fourth!

directed and written by John Carney; starring Glen Hansard, Markéta Írglova

An audience favorite at Sundance, “Once” is a scruffy little charmer of a film that reaches sublime heights through its music—music that was actually composed and written by real-life musicians, Glen Hansard (of the Irish band the Frames) and Markéta Írglova, who star as the two main characters. The one thought that dominated my mind as I left the theater was “I have to get the soundtrack.” I did so, and have been listening obsessively to it. It’s hard to say whether I’d have felt the same urgency if I’d heard the music before seeing the movie, because the emotional impact of the former is so much more powerful in the context of the latter.

As stories go, this one’s about as simple as it gets: aspiring rocker and part-time street musician meets young Czech immigrant who also happens to be a serious pianist and singer on the side, and the two make beautiful music (and eventually a studio demo tape) together. That’s it. There are no superfluous subplots, narrative twists or contrivances, no extravagant gestures or stormy confrontations, and—not to give too much away, but it really doesn’t spoil the movie to know—no nookie, and not your typical feel-good ending. And, whaddya know, not one false emotional note. This is a movie about the miracle of connecting with another human being (not for nothing have people been calling it a “Before Sunrise/Sunset” for musicians), yet it’s wise enough to show that that connection can be at once fleeting and, in some way, forever.

“Once” also shows, with more poignancy and emotional truth than any other movie I’ve seen in a long while, the bittersweet pain of love that failed or a love that’s fatally flawed yet impossible to end cleanly. Both characters are still nursing wounds from such experiences with love, and they show their suffering not so much through their words or their behavior towards one another, but rather through the music they share with one another. Hansard and Írglova are such consummate musical performers that they convey these pent-up feelings with more power than most professional actors could have done. It helps smooth over some of the rockier aspects of the film, which was shot on a shoestring budget and sometimes feels more like an exceptionally heartfelt music video than the full-on musical it essentially wants to be. But whatever genre it belongs to, it’s totally free of the sham glamour and glossy yet hollow production values that we’ve come to associate with the products of MTV and Broadway. And that, in itself, is marvelously refreshing.


directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin

Insouciance is not a word I normally use, but I can’t think of a more perfect descriptor for the Ocean’s series. Soderbergh and his band of fictional high-stakes con men have practically made an art out of it. Headed by the charm and style of the Clooney-Pitt duo and animated by the bubbling chemistry between them and the rest of the team, these guys make stardom look easy. You could argue, as many did, that “Ocean’s 12” coasted too much on aforesaid charm and style, though I think I was one of the few viewers who actually rather enjoyed that movie for its casual, we’re-on-holiday breeziness.

“Ocean’s 13” makes more of an effort than “Ocean’s 12” to suggest there’s an actual plot going on here. In a nutshell, Danny et al. seek to extract revenge from an evil casino and hotel owner (Al Pacino) who screwed over one of their own (Elliot Gould). But it's arguable how much the film benefits as a result. After all, these are people playing people we’d all love to be, and we derive a good part of our enjoyment not from guessing whether they’re going to get away with the heist (we know they will) but from watching them be so deliciously cool about it. This is the closest that movie actors these days get to old-school Hollywood glam, with an added shade of sly self-awareness. While there was perhaps too much of the latter quality in “Ocean’s 12,” “Ocean’s 13” dials down the insider self-indulgence a bit. Structurally, though, it comes across as a somewhat mechanical attempt to recreate some of the elaborate hijinks of “Ocean’s 11.”

Still, there’s no denying the result is as entertaining as ever to watch. The Ocean’s movies are one of the very few franchises that sports genuine wit, as supposed to heavy-handed humor, and the actors know just how to play it. In particular, Carl Reiner, whose Saul was always my favorite character of the group, is an absolute hoot as a faux hotel critic in ridiculous tweeds and an even more ridiculous toupee. As always, though, his mugging is just one small piece of the elaborate larger puzzle, which the film assembles with a curious mixture of scrupulous attention to detail and some pretty glaring suspensions of disbelief. But then, that’s nothing new, which only goes to highlight that “Ocean’s 13,” while an engaging enough trifle, should be the end to the series. Any more and this crew risks frittering its quota of cool into—oh horrors!—tedium and insignificance.


directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgaard, Chow Yun-Fat, Tom Hollander, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, others

As with Danny Ocean’s franchise, I’m in the minority in that I didn’t hate the second installment of “Pirates” or think that it represented a significant decline in quality. In fact, if anything, I thought POTC 2 upped the comic ante in ways that lingered in my memory far longer than the entire plot of POTC 1. Who can forget the sublime ridiculousness of three men swashbuckling while rolling on a giant wheel, or Johnny Depp running frantically from a horde of cannibals while still strapped to a stake?

Unfortunately, the third (and sadly, unlikely-to-be-final) installment is totally lacking in this pure, loopy sense of fun. In fact, it’s a bloated mess, in ways I can’t even begin to detail. Suffice to say it goes on way too long and has too many plot turns that serve no purpose whatsoever, too many scenes involving multiple Jack Sparrows that were probably meant to be quirky and existentially funny but just end up being irritating, and at least two major characters whose motivations end up being completely incomprehensible.

Redeeming points? Well, some of the visual effects are nifty, especially those involving the ship(s) “at world’s end”: ice, cataracts, deserts, you name it, we got it. Jack Davenport is swoonworthily dashing as Norrington, Elizabeth’s former suitor and man of shifting loyalties. And the movie does achieve a measure of surprisingly poetic pathos near the very end (though that’s thanks more to the inherent charm of the legend of the Flying Dutchman than to the hatchet-job the screenwriters seem to have made of it), and then a nice comic symmetry with the first POTC at the very end. Oh yes, and while I’ve never been an Orlando Bloom fan, he looks downright hot dressed up as a pirate.

But other than Save your money and your time.


directed by Curtis Hanson; starring Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, Drew Barrymore

It’s always sad when a studio decides to let a movie quietly die. That’s what happened to “Lucky You,” a movie that barely blipped on the public radar before it expired without so much as a whimper. Originally slated for release last fall, it was pushed back twice before it finally came out…the same weekend as “Spider-Man 3,” when it was shunned by critics and general moviegoers alike. It deserved better treatment, though it’s no misunderstood masterpiece. Set in Vegas, this likable if lightweight movie centers on the efforts of a talented but undisciplined professional poker player, Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), to secure a seat at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, Huck has to deal with the shadow of his father, L.C. (an excellent Robert Duvall), a legendary poker player who may have won the World Series twice but was—in Huck’s view, anyway—a shitty dad who abandoned his mother and family and is constantly trying to throw Huck off-balance in their periodic run-ins. Huck also becomes involved with an aspiring lounge singer, Billie (Drew Barrymore), who plays the dewy-eyed innocent to Huck’s smooth operator.

Neither romantic lead is particularly well cast, and they don’t give off especially bright sparks as a couple. Barrymore is characteristically one-note as the good girl who lets the bad boy work his way into her heart. (Her singing, which she apparently did herself, is ok, but this Billie’s no Holliday.) As for Bana, while he looks plenty yummy enough to be a player, he doesn’t really come across as one; this is an actor who naturally radiates earnestness, not glibness. (I still have a hard time believing he was a successful stand-up comedian before turning to acting.) However, in his interactions with Duvall, Bana’s very good. When Billie tells Huck “your face went all quiet,” she hits the nail on the head. Every time the two men come into contact, Huck’s entire demeanor and body language shift in a way that speaks volumes; you can practically see him seething inside. Unlike the by-the-numbers romance, the troubled father-son relationship actually works, even though it covers equally well-trodden ground, because Bana and Duvall have all the drama that Bana and Barrymore lack. In other, smaller roles, Debra Messing is unexpectedly affecting as Billie’s older sister, enough to make you want to know more about her character than about Billie’s; Jean Smart registers real presence as the lone female poker superstar; and Robert Downey, Jr., has a hilarious cameo as a pal who has even fewer moral scruples than Huck.

Beyond the filial angst, there’s not a lot of tension in this movie—other than the suspense that builds around the poker hands. You don’t have to know anything about poker to appreciate the stakes, literally and figuratively. Away from the tables, “Lucky You” has a rather leisurely feel that manages not to slip into dullness. Curtis Hanson is one director who knows not to over-direct, and the film benefits as a result.


directed by Adrienne Shelley; starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, Cheryl Hines, Shelley, Eddie Jemison

Another breakout hit at Sundance that I missed (for want of tickets, not interest), this movie has been building a steady buzz and very respectable box office since its release earlier this spring. Is it overrated? Slightly. Not very. I suspect the accolades have been at least partly colored by the horrible tragedy that struck the film’s director, Adrienne Shelley, who was murdered in her apartment in New York last fall and never lived to see her film’s phenomenal success. But “Waitress” is certainly a treat to watch, and despite its inherent sunniness, edgier and more complicated than the advertising makes it out to be. Yes, it’s about an unhappy waitress (Keri Russell), Jenna, who finds solace in love, friendship, and making scrumptious pies of her own invention (be advised that you will certainly be craving pie by the end of this movie). But it’s also about an unhappily married, abused wife in the deep South who becomes pregnant much against her will, and has an affair with her (also married) gynecologist (Fillion).

Remarkably, the film does nothing to dilute this stew of moral queasiness—other than to allow us to see how appealing the two characters are to each other, and how even a well-meaning person can allow himself or herself to stay trapped in a bad situation. The movie also goes easy on the sentimental hooey that’s traditionally enveloped Hollywood’s vision of pregnancy and childbirth: Jenna makes no bones about the fact that she can’t stand being pregnant with her husband’s baby, and given a diary to write letters to the baby, she writes one beginning, “Dear damn baby.” By mixing sweetness and acerbic humor, “Waitress” manages to turn potentially incendiary material into a bona fide crowd-pleaser, although it sometimes does feel like it’s searching for the right tone to strike.

Shelley herself has a supporting role as one of Jenna’s fellow waitresses, and she’s so winsome you forget about her real-life grisly demise. Fillion, too, is adorably awkward as Jenna’s loving (if highly ethically challenged) admirer, while Jeremy Sisto strikes the right balance of childishness and scariness as Jenna’s boorish husband. Andy Griffith also charms as an old curmudgeon who we know from the get-go is kindly disposed towards Jenna despite his outward crustiness. The real revelation here, however, is Russell, who leaves her “Felicity” days far behind her in what should be a career-making performance. Her Jenna may look as pretty as a doll and can be softly vulnerable, but she’s also tartly unsentimental and clear-eyed about both her own faults and those of the people around her. Like the movie, and like Jenna’s pies, she achieves that tricky but crucial balance between sugar, salt, and spice.