Friday, December 12, 2008

F. Gump Fitzgerald

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be released on Christmas Day, a fitting premiere for a sentimental, multi-generational saga that plucks shamelessly at the heartstrings.

A family picture is not what viewers expect from Fincher, best known for Fight Club, but Benjamin Button is a magical-realist movie about death. Benjamin Button is more eschatological than even the doomy Synechdoche, New York, another recent contender in the “way too long” winter glumstakes (this one clocks in just shy of three hours.) The narrative, as written by prolific Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, is a litany of loss, a meditation on mortality.

The movie is impressive in its technical proficiency and massive scope, but it saddens me that it takes its inspiration and title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant, laconic short story about a boy born as an old man who, to the surprise of everyone including himself, ages in reverse. It is my favorite short story in the world.

I couldn’t imagine that this jewel of a story, which occupies less than 20 pages, could be swollen into a two-hour-and-forty-seven-minute epic. Fincher does it by using Fitzgerald’s story as a mere kernel for an elaborate fantasia, which is disappointing if you care, as I do, about Fitzgerald. It’s like a rich, multi-course holiday dinner that leaves you wanting something lighter and more nutritious.

Fitzgerald’s story may not be easily adaptable to the screen, but I can imagine a short film that follows its perfect arc. Fincher doesn’t trust the material, so he makes the movie into F. Gump Fitzgerald. In the hands of Fincher, Fitzgerald’s gossamer magical conceit becomes a heavy, ornate fruitcake of a melodrama.

The movie transplants the story from antebellum Baltimore to New Orleans, so that star Brad Pitt can trot out his “Nawlins” accent and the story can be bookended between deathbed scenes at a hospital where the staff is preparing for Hurricane Katrina. The dying woman is Daisy (Cate Blanchett), attended to by her grown daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). Caroline reads a lengthy and revelatory “last will and testament” by someone named Benjamin. And so the narrative is launched.

Fincher’s Benjamin is born to a mother who dies in childbirth (a tragedy not in the original story) and a father who is horrified by the infant’s grotesque appearance. Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Benjamin’s arrival is brilliantly comic: Benjamin is born a white-haired, bearded old man. His father, Mr. Button, is alarmed to find him in the nursery, sitting and smoking a cigar.

This kind of humor is lost on Ficher, in whose hands Benjamin Button becomes a tragic story about a deformed infant. Mr. Button takes one look at the monstrously wrinkled, prematurely aged newborn, bundles him up and deposits him on the back stairs of a rooming house, where he is scooped up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a loving, God-fearing African-American old-age home caretaker who longs for a child. Queenie raises the funny-looking, wizened baby, who grows a funny-looking, wizened little old man who gradually, thanks to artful CGI effects, gains youthful vitality, muscle tone and hair, and becomes Brad Pitt.

In the short story, Benjamin falls for and marries the lovely Hildegarde Moncrief, whose parents are horrified that she is marrying an old man. He is in reality much younger than Hildegarde, though as the marriage wears on, she ages and he grows younger. She ceases to attract him, and he becomes enamored of “the gay life” of dancing and parties. The movie calls Benjamin’s inamorata Daisy, thinking perhaps of Gatsby's girlfriend. She is introduced as the precocious little granddaughter of one of the rooming house’s tenants. She is the same age as the elderly-looking Benjamin, but the odd pair are drawn to each other. Benjamin watches from afar as Daisy grows into a swan-necked ballet dancer played by Cate Blanchett.

Benjamin becomes a merchant seaman and battles enemy fire on a tugboat during World War II. He reunites with his father, who, in an example of the movie’s hyper-literalness, owns a button factory, Button’s Buttons. Fitzgerald, never so boringly obvious, made Mr. Button proprietor of a dry-goods store.

There are more pointless adventures as Benjamin grows up and grows younger. He visits a brothel. He has a passionate affair with a married Englishwoman (Tilda Swinton) who wants to swim the English Channel. He pursues Daisy, who turns him down in favor of her exciting bohemian life as a New York dancer. A taxi accident — which is, for no good reason, delineated as a metaphysical event — ends Daisy’s dancing career. She and Benjamin get together, become a swinging ‘60s couple and have a daughter. The window of time when their ages are compatible begins to close, and the increasingly sprightly Benjamin heads off on his motorcycle for regions unknown.

The movie meanders obsessively into meaningless digression – for example, an old man compulsively recounts the many times he was struck by lightning, and Fincher obliges by dramatizing each comical incident in sepia tones. It gets a laugh every time, but it has more to do with Fincher showing off than with telling of Benjamin’s story. The collection of "events" elicits little more than a bored sigh.

The movie’s not very profound theme isn’t “Life is like a box of chocolates,” but “Everybody dies.” The story recounts death after death, funeral after funeral, and it’s peculiarly unmoving. The movie is so stuffed with irrelevant characters, it’s hard to invest any feeling in them. It's reminiscent more of the the Dickens-manque novels of John Irving than the lean, economical writing of Fitzgerald.

At the screening I attended, some audience members were audibly choked up by the mournful denouement, in which Benjamin experiences childhood in reverse. I was struck by the silliness of Benjamin being equated to an Alzheimer’s patient “forgetting how to walk," since he is clearly becoming a baby. In the hands of the hyper-literal Fincher and scenarist Roth, Fitzgerald's magic becomes tragic

Over the years, Fitzgerald has been treated rather poorly by Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola’s embarrassing 1974 The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, may be the nadir of attempted Fitzgerald adaptations. But Fincher and Roth are the only filmmakers I can think of who had the arrogance to completely rewrite him.

Writing about the Gatsby movie, John Simon mused on the problems of adapting great novels for the screen: “Partly out of exploitativeness, but partly also out of stupidity, producers ignore a fact that the very schoolchildren of today have mastered: the form is the content. The shape of the novel on the page, its paragraph and sentence structure, the imagery and cadences of the prose, and all the things that are left to the imagination, these, as much as plot and character, are what the novel is about, and these, in good and great novels, cannot be transposed on screen.”

Nothing in this massive movie, for example, compares to the final paragraph of Fitzgerald’s story, which is as perfect an ending as can be imagined:

“Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Swollen Beyond Recognition

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was a story F. Scott Fitzgerald had a hard time selling to magazines like Collier’s, which wanted him to write more Jazz Age flapper stories. A delicate supernatural tale about a man who is born old and ages in reverse, “Benjamin Button” is a masterpiece of short-story writing.

In a letter to his agent, Fitzgerald explained the origin of the idea:

“The story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying to experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given the idea a fair trial. Several weeks after completing it, I discovered an almost identical plot in Samuel Butler’s ‘Note-books.’”

The story occupies about 20 pages. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) has made a movie based on this story that runs 167 minutes. This seems to me like taking a small, perfect jewel and pasting it on a huge, garish costume-jewelry brooch.

The movie opens December 25. I’ll write a fuller review in an upcoming post.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emetic Opera

There are some jobs best left to professionals, and opera writing is certainly one of them. Repo! The Genetic Opera, a gothic-rock musical and midnight-movie hopeful, shows what can happen when a person with no musical talent locks himself in a room with the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Moulin Rouge, and decides, “Hey, I can do that!”

A memo to Repo! “composers” Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich: No, you can’t. And you shouldn’t, forever until the end of time.

No words yet exist to describe how wretched this movie is. It originated as a play by Smith and Zdunich about a graverobber in debt to an organ-repossession man. For some reason, the play was successful enough to be made into this unwatchable movie, an all-singing gore-fest replete with vivisections, oozing intestines and music that, if used to compel terrorist confessions, would violate the Geneva Conventions. Smith and Zdunich seem to have been attempting a theater piece in the manner of Brecht and Weill, but lack any talent for it. Their idea of “opera” is to provide a chugging heavy-metal guitar track, over which the actors perform a tuneless singspiel of breathtaking banality. “I’m infected/by your genetics/that’s what’s expected/when you’re infected.” “Dad I hate you/Go and die.” “Surgery!/Surgery!” After you leave the theater, the effect is hard to shake. You begin to hear every thought sung in this way. “Time to get my laundry done/laundry done!” “Do you think the mail is here/mail is here?”

Brought to you by the producers of Saw and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the movie is about an evil biotech firm, GeneCo, headed by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino — what is he doing here?), which has capitalized on a worldwide epidemic of organ failure by selling transplants on credit. When payments are missed, GeneCo dispatches its killer “organ repo men.” Zdunich plays The Graverobber, a whitefaced Brechtian narrator who comments on the action while harvesting organs and selling intravenous painkillers.

A 17-year-old girl, Shilo (Spy Kids’ Alexa Vega), lives in isolation because she has a rare disease acquired when her doctor father, Nathan (Anthony Head), tried to save her pregnant mom’s life. The man actually responsible for the mother’s death was Rotti, whom the mother jilted. Nathan is secretly a GeneCo repo man whose next target is GeneCo spokeswoman Blind Mag (ex-Lloyd Webber chanteuse Sarah Brightman).

Rotti, who is dying, must contend with his disappointing sons Luigi and Pavi (Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre) and daughter Amber (Paris Hilton), who’s addicted to plastic surgery and painkillers. Rotti lures Shilo, who is desperate to experience the outside world, to The Genetic Opera, a stage show in which all secrets are supposed to be revealed.

This putrescent soap opera is illustrated by scenes of intestines being yanked out of abdomens and musical numbers in musty styles retrieved from the MTV vaults. The Genetic Opera, which should be a fantastically entertaining climax, is dull and dreary, enlivened only by the spectacle of a woman gouging out her eyeballs and getting impaled on a fencepost. There is also a dying-daddy-daughter duet that vaguely mimics real opera. By this point, though, anyone with eyes and ears has already fled the theater.

Visually, the movie is a muddy mess, badly lit and unbearably ugly. The backstory is told with comic-book panels that suggest the movie would have made more sense as a graphic novel, or even as a film using comic-book illustrations, like Persepolis. But then we wouldn’t have the treat of seeing Paris Hilton trying to act and sing.

The film targets young viewers, who may find something entertaining about it, and who don’t insist that songs have such things as melodies. But the movie has no discernible point. Is it a satire about the modern mania for easy credit and plastic surgery? A warning about a future corporate-controlled dystopia? Both, or nothing at all? I suspect the latter.

The main failure of Repo! is that it isn’t the least bit funny. No movie becomes a cult classic without humor, even if it’s unintentional (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Generations wouldn’t have slavishly followed Rocky Horror if it weren’t a fun, silly farce. Repo! hasn’t a whit of wit — and worse, it seems to take itself completely seriously.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Autumn Break

Penitentiary Glen, Kirtland, Ohio.

A Brand New Day

Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make Mine an Old-Fashioned

Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s period thriller based on a true Depression-era California story, is a traditionally minded movie with solid, old-fashioned values: fine acting, an absorbing, suspenseful story with clear moral lines, and a somber tone respectful of its sad, brave characters. (Somber seems to be Eastwood’s favorite mood.)

Written by veteran TV producer J. Michael Stracynski following a year’s meticulous research, the movie tells the story of Christine Collins, an L.A. single mother whose son, Walter, disappeared in 1928, setting off a bizarre series of events that exposed deep corruption in the LA police department. Angelina Jolie plays Collins, a phone-company supervisor who, in the mode of the day, glides across the switchboard floor in roller skates.

When her beloved Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Collins tries to enlist the help of an indifferent LAPD. After five months, the police announce they have found the boy in Illinois, but when the child arrives, Collins knows he isn’t her son. Unwilling to risk bad publicity, the police persuade her to take the boy home “on a trial basis.” The boy is clearly an impostor, but when Christine continues to press police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, with a sinister Irish brogue) to find her son, Jones brands her a delusional, unfit mother. Christine’s case attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, oddly reminiscent here of Vincent Price), who broadcasts a radio program targeting LAPD corruption. With Briegleb’s help, Christine goes to the press, and Jones has her committed to a snake pit of an asylum. The story grows even grimmer with the discovery of a series of grisly child murders at a ranch in Wineville, California and the arrest of their perpetrator, Gordon Stewart Northcott (the excellent Jason Butler Harner).

The movie hews closely to the facts of the case, though mercifully doesn’t dramatize the more sensational details of the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders” — the flashes of implied violence are more than enough to haunt your dreams. Despite some minor anachronisms, the period detail is impressive, from furnishings and cars to cloche hats and dropped-waist dresses. Jolie is affecting in a performance much quieter than her intense histrionics in A Mighty Heart, albeit so skinny she looks in some scenes like a pair of tremulous red lips on a stick. Someone, please get this woman a sandwich.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Celluloid Neros

Does anyone still care about Hollywood satire?

What Just Happened, directed by Barry Levinson, is a breezy satirical comedy about Hollywood, based on veteran movie producer Art Linson’s memoir What Just Happened: Bitter Tales from the Hollywood Front Line.

Linson, who wrote the screenplay, produced the well-regarded The Untouchables and Fight Club and the not so well-regarded Pushing Tin and Great Expectations remake. Robert De Niro stars as Ben, an aging producer struggling to hold onto his A-list ranking while dealing with multiple personal and professional headaches. Ben’s newest movie, a violent action picture starring Sean Penn, has evoked hostility and revulsion among test audiences because of a shocking scene involving the hero’s dog. The tough studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener) insists that the offending frames be removed, and the temperamental, pill-popping director (Michael Wincott) rebels. (The story seems to be based on the studio’s negative reaction to Fight Club.) Ben’s next film is jeopardized when egomaniacal star Bruce Willis shows up overweight and with a Rutherford B. Hayes-style beard that he violently refuses to shave — a story based on a similar incident involving Alec Baldwin. Ben must persuade Willis’ nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro) to get Willis to shave before shooting starts, a drama that builds to improbably huge proportions.

Ben’s personal life is also complicated. Twice divorced, he still pines for his most recent ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a passion further inflamed when he discovers she’s sleeping with his married screenwriter pal Scott (Stanley Tucci). With splendidly fast-paced editing by Hank Corwin, Levinson creates an entertaining landscape of phone calls, lunch meetings, tantrums, opportunistic sex, Ecstasy and ego-stroking.

As Hollywood satires go, however, this one is pretty mild — none of the dark sardonicism of The Day of the Locust or Robert Altman’s The Player. And, this being Linson’s story, Ben, the character based on him, is rather vanilla: a basically nice guy to whom crazy things happen. The movie is nonetheless amusing and enjoyable, with a great celebrity cast, many playing themselves and clearly having a fine time

Still, there is something so last decade about Hollywood satire. As election season brings serious global issues into focus, it does make people prattling on about glamorous movie-biz lifestyles seem like so many Neros fiddling while Rome burns.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

W. for Wreckage

Oliver Stone’s W. arrives at a peculiar time in history. George W. Bush’s approval rating hovers at 25 percent, the lowest of any president since Gallup began polling. Most Americans, fixated on the tanking economy and a contentious presidential election, have to be reminded that Bush is still president. Really, it can’t be auspicious to release a movie whose subject is a person no one wants to see, hear, or think about.

Bush said recently that history will vindicate him. That’s unlikely. The majority of historians surveyed recently called him the “worst president ever.” Most Americans agree.

If W. were the raucous satire its preview trailer suggested (George Bush Sr. to the incorrigible Junior: “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?”), it might be cathartic to watch. But Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) have taken Bush’s life — the stuff of low comedy — and painted it as a tragedy. The story of Nixon had a tragic-operatic quality, which Stone explored in the excellent Nixon. Even John McCain’s story has classically tragic elements. But Bush? The most fitting treatment may have been the short-lived TV satire That’s My Bush.

And yet however unwelcome its subject, W. is a worthwhile spectacle. Stone’s direction is powerful in places, and the performances, for the most part, are uncanny. Josh Brolin acts up a storm, splendidly animating Bush’s evolution from reckless fratboy to hapless Commander-in-Chief. Richard Dreyfuss slides into the skin of Dick Cheney and becomes the slithery, Machiavellian VP.
But Weiser’s conception of Bush relies heavily on caricature — Bush yellin’ and whoopin’ Texas-style, driving drunk, dancing atop a roadhouse bar. In reality, making fun of Bush’s cowboy style went out of fashion the minute he invaded Iraq. He became no longer a joke but a horror. Reproducing, as the movie does, his malapropisms (“Is our children learning?”) also doesn’t address the abiding mystery of whether Bush is more intelligent than his public persona suggests. If he really were the dumb lout portrayed in W., could he have graduated from Harvard business school or won the heart of smart, bookish Laura (Elizabeth Banks)? We may always wonder. Certainly his political skills are considerable, a quality all the more evident by comparison to the flailing candidate John McCain.

W. alternates scenes of Bush’s wasted youth with talky cabinet meetings before and after the Iraq invasion. As the two-hour movie wears on, the meetings, so dreary compared with the colorful personal segments, threaten to bore the audience to death (a woman was snoring loudly in a seat near mine.) Adding to the tedium is that we know where it is going — pretty much nowhere. Ho-hum, isn’t it November 4 yet?

It is fun, though, to see the Stone’s choices in casting the White House characters. Thandie Newton captures Condoleezza Rice’s pinched finishing-school smugness and adds a snotty contempt for Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), whom the movie makes the spokesman for all objections to the neocons’ imperialist designs. Unfortunately, Wright plays Powell with an accent that sounds more like Robert Downey’s blackface character in Tropic Thunder than the former Secretary of State. Diminutive Toby Jones is too innocuous as the sinister Karl Rove, who incidentally has criticized the movie for putting the F-word in Bush’s mouth — the same Bush who vowed, “Fuck Saddam, we’re taking him out!”

The movie’s narrative is a clichéd father-son conflict: a privileged wastrel’s lifelong struggle to earn the approval of his distant dad, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), who is portrayed as an exasperated patriarch and honorable statesman. Cromwell forgoes direct impersonation, playing Bush 41 straight rather than imitating his oft-lampooned patrician whine. The movie, unfortunately, accepts the Bushes’ all-American view of themselves. Why would the conspiracy-minded director of JFK overlook the nefarious Nazi-financing history of the Bush family? As for Bush mère, Ellen Burstyn is too sweet and lovely to be persuasive as the haughty Barbara Bush, who said Katrina victims were improving their lot by sleeping in the Astrodome.

The father-son narrative is biographically accurate, but should we be asked to care about the personal struggles of a man who wiped his feet on the Constitution, let a city drown and whose twisted messianic vision brought death and destruction to so many innocents? The movie recites the litany of sins, by now all too familiar to Americans: “enhanced interrogation techniques,” media blackouts on flag-draped coffins, Bush visiting horribly mangled soldiers and draping them with patriotic t-shirts. To be effective, though, W. needs to tie the personal and political into a strong, coherent statement. It doesn’t.

There are savory bits in W., but Stone for some reason passed on the opportunity to say something new and daring about the soon-to-be-ex POTUS. Its shallowness aside, the movie comes at exactly the wrong moment. The time is not yet ripe for a retrospective on the Bush administration, much less one sympathetic to “Junior.” Thankfully, though, in less than two weeks, the long national nightmare known as Bush will finally be over.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Cleveland Scene.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duke of Churl

The Duchess

There are a lot of reasons to like this historical biography starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), an ancestor of Princess Diana. One of them has nothing to do with the movie itself: Knightley, whose modest bustline is highlighted by the movie’s tightly corseted costumes, protested the studio’s plan to digitally enlarge her breasts in the movie posters. Somehow we like her much better for that.

Further, the movie, based on a book by Amanda Foreman and directed by Saul Dibb, is a dishy pleasure, all ravishing dresses, outlandish wigs, ornate sets and unusual sex — especially sex. Although Georgiana was an active campaigner for the Whig party and organizer of political and literary salons, she was better known, like her descendant Diana, for her trendsetting fashion and unusual marriage. The movie gives only cursory attention to Georgiana’s political activities, preferring to focus on the sexier parts of her life.

We first meet Georgiana at 17, when she is selected as a bride by the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), with the approval of her mother, Lady Spencer (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling).

The story is pure Jane Eyre gothic: Georgiana becomes a prisoner in her own home when she discovers, to her shock, that she has married the Duke of Churl. The Duke is cruelly distant, devoted only to his dogs, and prone to marital rape in his single-minded pursuit of a male heir when Georgiana stubbornly insists on producing only girls. Like Princess Di, she is beloved by the people but despised by her husband. Wearing a series of Bride of Frankenstein wigs (one of which catches on fire in a ballroom during a campy “mad scene”), Georgiana flourishes in style and bears many children without gaining an ounce, but remains deeply unhappy, pouting most petulantly. She seeks solace with a friend, Lady Bess (Hayley Atwell of Brideshead Revisited and Cassandra's Dream), who moves into their castle as part of a bizarre ménage a trios with the Duke. (The Duke and Duchess’ marriage was an inspiration for Sheridan’s School for Scandal.)

Desolate, Georgiana initiates a scandalous affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a future Prime Minister, and all sorts of bad things happen.

It’s all a bit silly and of absolutely no significance, but it's quite pleasurable all the same.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

None So Blind


Portuguese author José Saramago was reluctant to grant film rights to his 1995 novel about an epidemic of “white blindness” that strikes citizens of an unnamed country. Saramago worried about how the novel’s violence, rape and degradation would be treated by the wrong filmmaker. The well-regarded Brazilian director Fernando Meiralles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) won the rights, on the condition that he set the film in an unrecognizable city (it was filmed primarily in São Paolo). Some of the author’s fears, alas, were justified: Meiralles’ film is a technically accomplished but empty and often excruciating experience.

Meiralles and screenwriter Don McKellar changed the setting from the 1930s or ’40s to a contemporary period but retained its cast of allegorically named characters: Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore, who is excellent), Man with Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover), Bartender/King of Ward 3 (Gael García Bernal), Woman with Dark Glasses (Alice Braga).

The first section, in which the mysterious malady strikes First Blind Man (Yusuke Iseya) while he is driving, is the most compelling; we sympathize with the man’s panic and are shocked when he is robbed by Thief (screenwriter McKellar), who has offered to help him. Here Meiralles’ virtuosity is abundantly on display, with brilliant mirror-image compositions and other impressive stylistic touches.

First Blind Man seeks the help of Doctor, an ophthalmologist, who is stumped but soon succumbs to the blindness, a highly contagious condition. Doctor and other newly blind people are ordered into a quarantine camp; Doctor’s Wife, who still has her sight, accompanies her husband into the dismal facility, where concentration-camp cruelty, filth, chaos and moral degradation reign.

The setting resembles a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell rendered photographically. Meiralles has taken a fantastical story and rendered it in a gritty, realistic style, and the result is often unbearable. A lengthy scene of sexual violence, trimmed by the director after test-audience members walked out, is still a torment. The movie’s final section shows the liberated victims making their way through the devastated city, but the movie (unlike the book, perhaps) never makes clear what the blindness is meant to symbolize or what the parable means, aside from the inhumanity of man toward his fellows. In the end, the characters’ suffering (and by extension the audience’s) feels unjustified and unredeemed by any larger meaning.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Like a Hurricane (It Blows)

Wind in the Wallows: Nights in Rodanthe

Never do I admire the craft of acting more than when I see good actors giving everything they’ve got to make bad material work. It must take uncommon dedication to resist shredding the script into bitty pieces and stomping upon them screaming, “This is bullshit!”

In the case of Nights in Rodanthe, the hard-working actors are Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and the sow’s ear is a screenplay based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, an author known for a string of terrible — which is to say insanely popular — romantic novels

Sparks’ first manuscript, The Notebook, was plucked off the slush pile to net him a $1 million advance and propel him into the bestseller stratosphere. The book, later made into a weepy movie, launched a lucrative industry of Sparks novels aimed at sentimental women. The novels — Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, also filmed — feature heart-tugging variations on a basic Love Story plot, often told in flashback: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy or girl dies. Woven throughout the sappy prose are ideas about Christianity and fate. Sparks has found a winning formula, and it has made him very, very wealthy.

Does it matter that no one in the galaxy talks the way the author’s characters do? Of course not, because Sparks’ writing caters to a persistent romantic fantasy. His readers long for their men, who are likely to be found slouching in Barcaloungers, to spout poetry and say things like, “I know you’re hurting.”

Nights in Rodanthe tells the story of Adrienne (Lane), a middle-aged mother of two whose husband left her for another woman but now wants to return. Adrienne decides to think it over during a trip to look after a beachfront inn in North Carolina’s Outer Banks owned by her friend, lively African-American artist Jean (Viola Davis). Her children, meanwhile, are brattily pestering her to give Dad another chance.

The only guest at the inn that weekend is Paul Flanner (Gere), a wealthy dreamboat doctor with a troubled past. Having just left his marriage and sold his house, Paul has come to coastal Rodanthe to talk to an old man named Torrelson (Scott Glenn), who is suing Paul over the death of his wife on his operating table.

Paul continues on his path of redemption by joining his noble doctor son working in a clinic in Ecuador. It isn’t clear why Paul needs absolution, since the patient’s death wasn’t his fault, but according to the Sparks ethos, it’s because he didn’t care enough. “What color were her eyes?” the grieving Torrelson demands, as if any doctor would remember such a detail.

While in Ecuador, Paul writes long, romantic letters (letters -- how quaint!) to Adrienne every day, promising her a beautiful future with him. If you are familiar with Sparks’ books, you know that this blissful reunion can never be, but far be it from me to spoil the surprise as to which character joins the Choir Invisible.

Sparks’ novel tells its drippy tale in flashback, but screenwriters Ann Peacock and Joe Romano have set the story in the present, making it even less interesting, if that’s possible. What’s remarkable about the movie is the gulf between the skill of cast and crew and the banality of the material. It is the screen debut of the esteemed African-American theater director George C. Wolfe, who seems to have tried to make something lovely of the story, gracing it with a nicely windswept atmosphere, fine vintage music (Count Basie, Dinah Washington) and a grandiose hurricane scene that looks like something from a monster movie. But, like that precariously perched inn on sticks, these efforts are inadequate to defend against the gale-force winds of Sparks schmaltz.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene. Visit them here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Critical Mass

I wrote the article below in 2005 for the Cleveland Free Times; it earned an award in 2006 for Best Media Criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists.


Conduct Unbecoming : Plain Dealer Music Critic Spins Orchestra's West Coast Press

It's no secret to Plain Dealer readers that the paper's classical music critic, Donald Rosenberg, is not a fan of Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst. Ever since the Austrian conductor assumed the post in 2002, Rosenberg has spilled copious ink lamenting the orchestra's supposed error in judgment. After the end of Welser-Möst's first season, Rosenberg wrote a year-end review listing Welser-Möst's numerous perceived failures. Observers in the music community were taken aback by the vociferousness of the criticism, especially so early in Welser-Möst's tenure.

The years seem to have increased, rather than tempered, Rosenberg's choler. In a June 19 column, Rosenberg released another fusillade, this time questioning the conductor's worthiness to continue through 2012, the length of his recently extended contract. “That's a long time for a Cleveland treasure to be guided by a conductor of high proficiency and low inspiration,” Rosenberg caviled.

Rosenberg supported his criticism with a rather creative reading of reviews garnered by the Cleveland Orchestra on its recent West Coast tour.

For example, Rosenberg paraphrased the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed thusly: “Swed heard something new in Welser-Möst's conducting, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Of a performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Swed wrote that he was “still trying to figure it out. It wasn't explicable.”

Swed did write that. But he also wrote this:
“The tightness of ensemble, the depth of playing in every section (what's to say about those violas but “wow'?), the transparency of textures, the athletically smooth muscle of not just brass and percussion but even the delicate harp was all there to hear and savor Welser-Möst can drive the orchestra hard and he can relax in and relish its sweetness, but there is always a kind of restlessness to his performances. His rhythms have a lilt. He seductively anticipates or hesitates after the beat. These are fraction-of-a-second anticipations and hesitations, but they lead to a complex, fluid, grainy sound.

“I was continually taken aback by his Dvorák, by the stridency in the first and last movements and by his ability to make the winds steely when I thought the Czech way would be to make them burble. Welser-Most was not showing off the orchestra; he let the sound thicken, clot. The [Bartók] concerto's middle movement, an elegy with its weird sound effects and big tune, became haunted-sounding. The fugue at the end, based on a near-jazz riff, wasn't jazzy but something else.

“What else? I'm still trying to figure it out. That's what keeps people wondering about Welser-Möst. And for those who don't like to wonder when they hear a great orchestra play familiar music, he can be, I suppose, alienating. New tastes often are — until you start to crave them.”

So while Swed's review questions some of Welser-Möst's musical choices, it's hardly the unmitigated pan Rosenberg's selective abridgement suggests.

The Orange County Register 's Timothy Mangan wrote: “The jury would seem to be still out on this conductor. At least on this occasion, he proved to be neither the most charismatic of podium personalities nor a particularly imposing one. His interpretations were warm and genial and eminently flowing, their detail natural not forced.” And, a bit further into the review: “The reading [of Dvorák's Fifth] was smooth, flowing and properly flowery — the woodwinds extolling in ripe colors, the strings exhibiting a flawless sheen and evenness and never overplayed the exotic Slavic colorings.”

Rosenberg, however, quoted only this from Mangan: “[A] listener felt no strong individual point of view emanating from the podium, or from anywhere else for that matter. How much this mattered to the individual listener, in the face of such supreme orchestral talent, depended upon his or her focus. As for these ears, they remember when conductors had faces.”

Again, a mixed, mostly positive assessment was interpreted as a negative one by Rosenberg. Mangan's positive review of the orchestra's performance at the Ojai festival: “[In Mozart's ‘Linz’ Symphony], Welser-Möst worked with greater intensity of expression, coaxing from his eloquent Clevelanders a reading lacy in texture and delicate in poetry.”

Also unmentioned by Rosenberg were enthusiastic reviews in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury News and Ventura County Star.

Last Sunday, the Plain Dealer 's new “reader representative," Ted Diadiun, took up cudgels in Rosenberg's defense (though he didn't reveal who had complained to the PD). Diadiun's column reiterated the old trope about how critics are entitled to their opinions, that they know more than the rest of us do, especially when it comes to highbrow stuff like classical music ( “He hears things in the music I do not hear, and recognizes possibilities beyond my ken.”)
Perhaps he didn't know that Rosenberg has offered not just his opinions — to which he is indeed entitled — but also distortions of other critics' opinions. --- Pamela Zoslov

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Body of War

Who pays the price for an unjustified war of choice?

Former talk-show host Phil Donahue first met paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young while visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center with his friend Ralph Nader.

Donahue, whose highly rated MSNBC talk show was an early media casualty of war in 2003, decided to tell Young’s story in a documentary. He teamed up with filmmaker Ellen Spiro to co-direct and co-produce Body of War, a deeply moving account of the 27-year-old Young’s difficult adjustment to life in a damaged body, and his growing involvement in the antiwar movement.

Young was a 22-year-old from Kansas City who was inspired to enlist when he saw George Bush standing in the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers vowing to get the bad guys. He wanted to go to Afghanistan but was sent to Iraq, and within a month was shot while riding in an unarmored vehicle. The bullet struck just above his left collarbone, severing his spine and leaving him unable not only to walk, but also to cough, urinate, regulate his body temperature, or have sexual intercourse.

A bright and determined young man, Young persists in trying to have a normal life. He marries his fiancée, and the two struggle, along with Tomas’ devoted mom, to overcome enormous challenges, among them getting the medical care today’s returning vets are now having to fight for. The marriage, understandably, suffers.

The film juxtaposes Tomas’ story with footage of the historic Congressional floor debate on the Iraq War Resolution. It’s instructive to see Senate and House members parroting the White House talking points and ginned-up intelligence about “smoking guns,” “mushroom clouds” and Saddam’s supposed deadly-weapon capabilities, contrasted with the stirring, emotional oratory of the elderly Sen. Robert Byrd and the passion of others denouncing the reckless war of choice, including Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinich, and Ohio's recently departed congresswoman, Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

Body of War documents Tomas’ growing sense of betrayal and his decision, despite considerable physical discomfort, to travel around the U.S. speaking out against the war. It's a monument to courage, an indictment of a corrupt Administration, and a human story that is both sad and inspiring.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

O Canada! Adventures at the Toronto Film Festival

Posted 9.24.08

Here is a guest column by my colleague Milan Paurich, who recently returned from the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.

Toronto's reputation as a launching pad for award-winning films takes a serious beating in 2008.

By Milan Paurich

I've never walked out of a movie at the Toronto International Film Festival before, not even Golden Turkey Hall of Shame bow-wows like The Human Stain or Revolver. The sheer investment of time and energy that it takes to get into any TIFF screening (upwards of two hours for the really hot titles) discourages auditorium-hopping.

But when you see people fleeing in the middle of a brutally bad flick — and there were plenty this year, trust me — your mind begins to play tricks on you. Do they know something you don't?

As it turns out, nobody knows anything at TIFF. Everyone is capable of (repeatedly) making the same boneheaded decisions that you are. Some folks are just better at playing movie Russian roulette. I'm sure that it was possible to
have had a great time at the recently concluded 33rd edition of the Toronto Film Festival. That just wasn't my experience this annum.

Sure, there were plenty of good films to see, but even the best ones were overshadowed by the soul-crushing disappointments and flat-out stinkers, many of which, ironically, were the most difficult to get into.

The few "big" studio films to premiere at TIFF (Spike Lee's WWII epic The Miracle of Saint Anna; Oprah-endorsed The Secret Life of Bees; Pride and Glory with Colin Farrell and Edward Norton; Ed Harris' oater Appaloosa; supernatural romantic comedy Ghost Town; Greg Kinnear's Oscar wannabe Flash of Genius) sank without a trace, leaving the Great White North without the requisite bounce they were hoping for, and that many desperately need to make any sort of commercial inroads.

Toronto's reputation for being the official launching pad for the upcoming awards season took a serious beating in 2008. Conspicuous by their absence were such heavily touted Oscar contenders as Milk, The Road, The Soloist, Revolu
tionary Road and Doubt. The official line was that they weren't ready in time, but conspiracy theorists like me spent the entire festival debating the veracity of that claim. Anything to keep our minds off the (generally) underwhelming movies that did manage to show up.

With his shot-in-Pittsburgh romantic comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, former Sundance whiz kid Kevin Smith officially became culturally irrelevant. Like John Waters, whose shock-at-all-costs approach became passé once gross-out comedy went mainstream with the Farrelly Brothers, Smith's potty-mouthed, pop-culture-referencing schtick seems positively antiquated in the Judd Apatow era. Maybe Smith should do a Broadway musical version of Clerks (à la Waters' Hairspray) for his next act.

Any hopes that Sony's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist might become this year's Juno died halfway through the TIFF press screening when it became apparent that director Peter Sollett (of Raising Victor Vargas fame) was more interested in sophomoric toilet humor than pathos or insight. The only thing Juno and Nick and Norah have in common is the same leading man-child, Michael Cera.

Sollett wasn't the only TIFF filmmaker experiencing a precipitous sophomore slump. Rain Johnson followed his brilliant 2005 high school noir Brick with The Bro
thers Bloom, a failed Wes Anderson homage that repeatedly hits the same note of arch whimsy. Even with its spectacularly gifted cast (including Mark Ruffalo and Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), Johnson's grifter farce fails on nearly every conceivable level. And Neil Burger blew whatever indie cred he earned with 2006's The Illusionist by inflicting pedestrian Iraq homefront road movie The Lucky Ones on TIFF audiences.

It wasn't just relative newbies like Sollett, Johnson and Burger who came up short. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) self-indulgent, multiculturalism-with-a-trowel Rachel Getting Married squanders terrific performances by Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and long missing-in-action Debra Winger on piddling material. The result is as wearying as spending two hours in the company of a recovering addict which, come to think of it, Hathaway's sister-of-the-bride character is.

Despite a bravura performance by Jeff Goldblum in the leading role, Paul Schrader's Holocaust drama Adam Resurrected is so unfocused, meandering and overwrought that most of the audience at a morning press screening bailed before
the end credits. Currently without a U.S. distributor, its only hope of finding an audience is via the Jewish Film Festival circuit.

British stalwart Mike Leigh was represented by one of his least satisfying films to date. Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study about a young woman (Sally Hawkins' Cockney elementary schoolteacher Polly) who's more fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating than charming or endearing. After two hours with the relentlessly chipper Polly, I felt like wringing her scrawny neck.

Richard Eyre, who directed Iris and Notes on a Scandal erred
with the decently acted, if profoundly inconsequential The Other Man. Not even a reunion of Kinsey stars Laura Linney and Liam Neeson — playing a straying wife and her cuckolded husband — could make this movie a must-see.

Larry Charles created tsunami-like waves at TIFF with Borat in 2006, but his new documentary, Religulous, made in tandem with political satirist Bill Maher, was too scattershot and overextended at 103 minutes. Perhaps it would have worked better as a one-hour HBO comedy special.

Some of my fondest TIFF memories were supplied by films that arrived either sans buzz (the lushly appointed period romance The Duchess, starring an excellent Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes) or suffering from bad buzz. Maybe it was diminished expectations (they flopped at Venice and Cannes respectively), but The Burning Plain (the directing debut of Amores Perros and Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger) and Synecdoche, New York (another directorial debut, this one by surrealist scenarist extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman) both seemed pretty okay to me.

I was particularly taken with Synecdoche, which features a dream cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Hellzapoppin' comic phantasmagoria that felt like Kaufman's personal spin on Fellini's 8 1/2.

Most of my favorite Toronto films came from ringers — pet directors who never seem to let me down. Arnand Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum all told beautifully nuanced stories of families in crisis. Michael Winterbottom's superb Genova also dealt with a family trauma (Colin Firth takes his two young daughters with him to Italy for a teaching gig after the tragic death of wife Hope Davis), and Terrence Davies' Liverpool memento mori Of Time and the City proved that auteur filmmaking is alive and well, at least on the international circuit.

Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City continued the award-winning Chinese director's winning streak with an artful blend of documentary and fiction. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, featuring an award-caliber performance by Michelle Williams, displayed the same humanist rigor as Belgium's Dardenne Brothers.

Guy Ritchie returned from the dead with RocknRolla, another boys-with-guns gangster flick, but his most larkishly entertaining and accomplished work to date. Richard Linklater's winsome life-in-the-theater fable Me and Orson Welles features an amazing simulacrum of the "Citizen Kane" genius by newcomer Christian McKay that has to be seen to be believed. Veteran Swedish director Jan Troell (1972 Best Picture Oscar nominee for The Emigrants) reclaimed his rightful place in the cinematic pantheon with the exquisite Everlasting Moments, an intimate family saga set in the early 20th century. And genre specialist Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Near Dark) may have finally made an Iraq movie that audiences will actually pay to see. The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's crackerjack suspense thriller about a military bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad, opens in theaters next spring.

I could tell you about Lovely, Still, a lugubrious gender-reversal spin on Away from Her, reimagined as a 90-minute Twilight Zone episode; the repulsive French splatter flick Martyrs; or The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, based on a "rare original screenplay" by Tennessee Williams that had an early morning press screening audience howling with unintentional laughter, but I'd rather end things on a more positive note.

The happiest distributor leaving Toronto was undoubtedly Fox Searchlight. After wowing them at Telluride, Danny Boyle's irresistible, ingeniously structured Dickens-Meets-Bollywood Slumdog Millionaire maintained its exalted buzz status by winning TIFF's Audience Choice Award. And Twentieth Century Fox's boutique label was also the lucky winner of the "Wrestler" sweepstakes. Darren (Requiem for a Dream) Aronofsky's superbly gritty melodrama about a down-and-out pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke in a revelatory performance destined to win him at least a Best Actor nomination) parlayed its Venice Golden Lion into a $4-million acquisition deal with the company. Not surprisingly, F-S has already announced an awards-wooing December 19th release date.

Hmmm; maybe TIFF hasn't lost its Oscar-prognosticator status after all.


Another thing that made this year's festival such an ordeal was the increasingly obnoxious behavior of TIFF attendees. Blackberrys and cell phones were a routine annoyance at press and industry screenings. Jostling for a place in line — TIFF is all about queuing up — was more stressful than ever. I witnessed at least two fistfights break out during interminable waits for "Priority Press" screenings. Even Grand Poobah Roger Ebert got involved in a highly publicized fracas that made the front page of the New York Daily News. Or maybe everyone was just grumpier than usual because the movies were so bad.

Unlike TIFF '07, there was no Juno, Into the Wild, No Country for Old Men or even Atonement to make your heart beat a little faster, and give your weary bones — and even wearier posterior--a much needed shot of adrenaline. There were, however, a slew of marginal titles, most of which departed the festival still seeking a U.S. distribution deal.

Three movies that left empty-handed were Easy Virtue, a dawdling, decorous period romp starring Colin Firth, Jessica Biel (surprisingly good) and Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert); John Stockwell's clunky Middle of Nowhere that teamed real-life mother and daughter Susan Sarandon and Eva Amurri as, what else?, mother and daughter; and Uncertainty, a maddeningly opaque urban-romance-noir-whatzit by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End). And so it goes.

Some smaller films suffered from being viewed in a pressure cooker environment like TIFF. Neither Hunger (an impressionistic look at the final days of IRA political prisoner Bobby Sands that won the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes) or Norwegian minimalist Bent Hamer's low-key quirkfest O'Horten registered the way they might have in the real, i.e., non-festival, world. Hopefully I'll get the chance to take a second look when they open theatrically in 2009.

The lack of additional late-night screenings for some of the more popular movies was both confounding and irritating. Last year I was able to see Lars and the Real Girl, No Country for Old Men and The Visitor at 10:30 p.m. Sometimes it felt like the festival staff didn't want critics to see any movies at all. For example, a seemingly arbitrary last-minute scheduling change meant that I was forced to miss Lymelife, a buzzed-about Ice Storm-like drama set in late-seventies Long Island starring Alec Baldwin and Rory and Kieran Culkin. Produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by the talented Derick Martini (Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish), Lymelife is certain to find a distributor. Too bad I wasn't allowed to take an early peek.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Cleveland Scene.