Sunday, August 31, 2008

Juneau, The Movie

Is it too soon for a remake of Juno? Hollywood gossip blogs are abuzz with news of an upcoming re-do of the snarky teen-pregnancy yukfest. This one, whose working title is Juneau, will be set in frigid Alaska, where a bright, attractive high school girl finds herself in the family way, and has to deal with the reaction of her militantly pro-life mom, who happens to be a powerful state politician, and her dad, a burly snowmobiler with a goatee and a roving eye.

Mom, already busy with four kids of her own, decides to save the family name and her political career by faking a pregnancy and pretending the baby is her own! Sparks really begin to fly when Mom is tapped for a top-level job in Washington by a very, very old man.

"It's Northern Exposure-meets-Diablo Cody," explains one studio exec, "with contemporary politics thrown in." No word yet whether ex-stripper/Oscar winner Cody will be lending the script her patented "honest-to-blog" dialogue.

We'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Waxing Roth

Elegy: Like a Masterpiece Theatre version of Portnoy's Complaint

Philip Roth’s novella The Dying Animal is a strange choice for a movie adaptation. A brief coda to Roth’s Professor of Desire series about the sex-obsessed David Kepesh, who in the first book, The Breast, transformed himself into a giant mammary gland, the book doesn’t naturally lend itself to dramatic treatment. It’s basically a monologue in which college professor Kepesh recalls his affair with a beautiful Cuban-American student 38 years his junior, who ended their relationship and then returned to him several years later under sad circumstances.

Director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) evidently saw this slender, phallocentric story as a tender romance, and has made it into a glossy drama with the unusual casting choice of Ben Kingsley — currently starring in nearly every movie in the theaters — as Kepesh. Kingsley is a fine actor, if a bit overexposed, but making Kepesh an Englishman is a bad, bad idea; he sounds unbelievably awkward lamenting that is lover never begged for his “cawk.”

Penélope Cruz is lovely as Consuela Castillo, the object of Kepesh’s desire, though she doesn’t quite evoke the voluptuous young siren whose breasts drove Roth’s Kepesh into an erotic frenzy. The supporting roles are better: Peter Sarsgaard is intense as Kepesh’s resentful son, Patricia Clarkson is fine in the small role of Kepesh’s longtime bedmate, and Dennis Hopper is delightful as Kepesh’s friend, poet George O’Hearn. (Just the idea of Hopper as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a kick.) Former Blondie singer Debbie Harry shows up briefly as the womanizing George’s long-suffering wife.

The cinematography, by the director with Jean-Claude Larrieu, is pretty, if occasionally succumbing to visual cliché, and the soundtrack is filled with tasteful classical music, reflecting Kepesh’s interest in playing the piano. Ho-hum. The film’s overall approach is arthouse-tasteful, wildly inappropriate for the risqué Roth, like a Masterpiece Theatre version of Portnoy’s Complaint.

There also isn’t enough story to sustain a feature film; the book consists entirely of Kepesh’s interior musings about eroticism and aging, difficult things to exteriorize, though screenwriter Nicholas Meyer makes an admirable effort to flesh things out. Coixet’s My Life Without Me was about a woman dying of cancer, and that may be a theme that attracts this director. But Roth’s book really isn’t a tragedy about cancer; it's a cri de coeur by an aging Lothario.

Technical gloss and high-quality acting will make this arthouse entry seem like a good movie, but Elegy is considerably less profound than it thinks it is.

Appeared in a slightly different form in the Cleveland Scene.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Elegy for Erb

The remarkable composer Donald Erb died on August 12 at age 81. This is a brief article I wrote in 1999 after a wonderful interview with Erb at his home.

"I think about music as an act of love, even when it's angry," says composer Donald Erb. "Audiences think you're there to irritate them, and it's kind of sad. People misunderstand energy as antagonistic. I don't want to be misunderstood."
An avant-garde composer one critic described as "capable of shaking his musical fist at the heavens with a fury rivaling that of the German titans," Erb is the unofficial paterfamilias of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Aki New Music Festival, a two-week contemporary music showcase that was revived this month after a fourteen-year hiatus.

Of the eleven scheduled concerts at Aki, three will feature Erb compositions: Gregory Fulkerson will play the 1994 Sonata for Solo Violin, Ryan Anthony will premiere Dance You Monster to My Soft Song for solo trumpet, and the Case Western Reserve University Wind Ensemble will perform Cenotaph (for E.V.), Erb's homage to composer Edgard Varèse.
Aki (Japanese for autumn, the festival's original season) was founded in 1977 by Karel Paukert, the museum's curator of musical arts. In 1985, sparse audiences and budget cuts forced the museum to halt the event. This year, citing a resurgence of interest in new music -- sold-out Kronos Quartet concerts, Philip Glass film scores, and Steve Reich and John Adams's virtually mainstream minimalism -- Paukert and Assistant Curator Paul Cox decided the time was ripe to resurrect Aki.
Erb, a robust iconoclast whose music features startling sonorities and crushing climaxes, is also an acutely sensitive man. He recalls seeing the devastation of Hiroshima while serving in the Navy. "It destroyed everything I believed in," he says, growing tearful at the memory. And though he's earned numerous degrees, grants, fellowships, and commissions, his heart has never strayed far from his blue-collar roots in Youngstown, Ohio.
"It was a tough, tough town," he recalls of his boyhood home. "Everybody got drunk on Saturday night and broke each other's noses. I had my nose broken twice in the first grade."
Erb began writing music at age seven, after his steelworker father moved the family to Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. With a trumpet and music lessons provided by his aunt, he began playing gigs with dance bands in high school, then joined the Navy, hoping to enter its music school. Instead he was sent to Pearl Harbor. When he returned from the service, he studied music, earning degrees from Kent State University, the Cleveland Institute of Music and Indiana University. He retired in 1996 as head of the composition department at CIM.

In the studio of the sunlit Cleveland Heights home he shares with his wife, Lucille, Erb waxes wroth over the sorry state of American culture. "Serious art has become a kind of outcast," he says. "It's important for greedy people, who control the industries, to shut other people out. It started with the Beatles and Elvis Presley -- that's when it became a big business." He points to a kitschy Presley portrait on the wall. "My hero, who undid American culture."
"The amazing thing is, I'm still surviving after a fashion. Few composers in America have had as nice a career as I've had."
Still, Erb can't resist what he calls "throwing a little shit." Some years ago, he read that Cleveland classical music station WCLV-FM's president, Robert Conrad — no fan of contemporary music — said that modern composers "might as well be speaking Swahili." Erb's response was to print up bumper stickers that read "WCLV is Boring" — in Swahili.
"I'm not a tranquil person," Erb says. "I don't want to be. I've learned a lot from pain and energy. God gave me a very fast motor."

Friday, August 22, 2008

To Wine Own Self Be True

Bottle Shock has some of the qualities of the California wine whose emergence it celebrates: it is well-crafted, uncomplicated, and bathed in Napa Valley sunlight.

Directed by Randall Miller, Bottle Shock tells the story of the event that put California wines on the map: the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which California wines unexpectedly prevailed over some of France’s finest vintages The film focuses on Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a struggling vintner who gave up his law practice to run a vineyard, cultivating grapes and meticulously bottling Chardonnay with the help of his long-haired, easygoing son Bo (Chris Pine), his young Mexican-American assistant Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), and a pretty intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor).

Barrett can scarcely keep the winery afloat until his Chardonnay is chosen to compete in the contest by Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a supercilious British wine expert and merchant in Paris, who has devised the contest as a means of confirming the superiority of French wines. On a visit to the Napa Valley, Spurrier is surprised by the quality of the American product. The movie recreates a mid-’70s vibe with an authenticity seldom seen onscreen, from the cars (an AMC Hornet!), the jeans, the haircuts and music (Doobie Brothers, Foghat, Bad Company). Nostalgia for the ’70s gets to you in unexpected ways; when was the last time you heard "Tolouse Street"?

The story folds with a minor romantic rivalry as Bo and Gustavo compete for the affections of Sam, a father-son conflict between Jim and Bo, who work out their differences with boxing gloves, and some amusing cross-cultural humor between the California growers and “the Brit” Spurrier (“Why don’t I like you?” says Jim, to which Spurrier responds, “Because I’m British and you’re not.”). The beautifully photographed northern California landscapes and the script’s detailed appreciation of the winemaking craft create a marvelously sensual experience; it certainly makes you want to drink the delicious-looking wines. An added benefit is that someone has finally made a movie about wine that cleanses the palate of the insipid, overpraised Sideways.

Originally appeared in slightly different form in the Cleveland Scene.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Rest in peace, Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

John Nichols of the Nation has a good tribute to the late Congresswoman.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ladies of Spain

The advance buzz on Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was that it featured a hot lesbian sex scene between Scarlett Johannson and Penélope Cruz. The gossipers should have known better: Woody Allen movies are seldom about sex. Relationships, yes. Art and philosophy, certainly. But erotic heat is just not his thing.

The slight but enjoyable film does include a brief Sapphic dalliance, mostly rendered offscreen. But overall it is less about sex than love — Allen’s love of Barcelona, a city he describes as “full of visual beauty and quite romantic.”

It seems to me that Woody Allen movies have been greeted in recent years with responses ranging from indifference to outright hostility. Maybe some people still haven’t forgiv
en his “heart wants what it wants” justification for marrying his former girlfriend’s daughter (now 38 and mother of their two adopted children). Others may be disappointed that his films are so much smaller in scope than his early, ambitious works. His late career resembles that of Rossini, who retired from composing grand operas to write smaller, more intimate pieces. This one we might call “Serenade to a City in Spain.”

The movie finds Allen in a lighter mood than in last year’s tense British murder drama Cassandra’s Dream. The story, with narration by actor Christopher Evan Welch instead of Allen’s familiar voice, tells of two friends, dark-haired, sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and blond, impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who share a summer vacation, and a lover, in Barcelona.

Vicky is a graduate student whose interest in art and architecture gives Allen the opportunity to drop names like Gaudi and Miró into the script. She is engaged to marry ambitious, reliable Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina, restless and vaguely artistic, is trying to get over a painful breakup. They stay with Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), the kind of smart, successful couple who are a staple of Woody Allen films.

At an art gallery opening (another Allen staple), Vicky and Cristina spot Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a handsome painter who recently ended a violent marriage. At a restaurant, Juan Antonio approaches the Vicky and Cristina and suggests they join him on a weekend trip to Oviedo, where his plans include admiring the city’s pre-Romanesque architecture and making love — “hopefully the three of us.” Vicky is justifiably skeptical, but Cristina accepts, and Vicky reluctantly agrees to go along.

When Juan Antonio’s seduction of Cristina goes awry, he and Vicky enjoy the old city together, and one night make passionate love. After their return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio, to Vicky’s disappointment, takes up with Cristina, who moves in with him. Vicky resigns herself to marrying Doug, who seems, by contrast, hopelessly dull.

Cristina and Juan Antonio’s romantic idyll is interrupted when he is forced to rescue his suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). Juan Antonio moves his fiery ex into the house, and after some initial mistrust, the three fall into a comfortable ménage. Maria Elena, a painter even more talented than her ex-husband, helps Cristina develop her photography skills. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio, a couple seemingly modeled on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, decide that Cristina is the “missing ingredient” in their troubled relationship. Later, Judy, who is herself unhappily married, tries to help Vicky reignite the flame with Juan Antonio. The result is an absurd twist of fate characteristic of a Woody Allen short story.

It’s a mere wisp of a movie, but the clever, talky script and fine cast make it go down like a cool glass of limonada. Lissome English actress Rebecca Hall, who was in the underrated Cassandra's Dream, is a credibly American Vicky, and Cruz is ravishing and funny as the temperamental Maria Elena. Bardem, with his soft brown eyes, has guileless appeal in a role that happily doesn’t require a Monkees haircut and bolt gun.

I remain baffled, however, over Allen’s continued allegiance to Johansson, whose reciting of his artistic-intellectual dialogue about such things as Scriabin piano sonatas brings to mind a toddler scuffling about in mommy’s heels.
Nonetheless, at the movie's recent Los Angeles premiere, Allen pronounced her "one of the great American actresses." Johansson is the kind of child-woman Allen often idealizes in his movies, but is, I think, the least talented of any of the actresses he has cast. Maybe Allen sees something in her the rest of us can't. Or perhaps the explanation lies in the line Juan Antonio purrs seductively at Cristina: “You have very beautiful lips.”

This appeared in a slightly different version in the Cleveland Scene.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On the Air

This morning I was joined on WCPN-FM by my colleague John Urbancich of Sun News and People magazine's Jason Lynch on a show devoted to summer movies -- Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, Wall-E and others.

You can listen to the broadcast here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Teenage Wasteland

The characters in American Teen seem like stock figures from a high school comedy: the stuck-up prom queen, the ambitious jock, the pimply nerd, the misunderstood artist. It’s Mean Girls, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Revenge of the Nerds. But American Teen is a documentary, and the kids are real. That their stories conform to the tropes of teen movies demonstrates that these narratives are universal, rolling around somewhere in our collective unconscious.

Nanette Burstein, who co-directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, a biography of movie producer Robert Evans, made American Teen by living for ten months among a group of high-school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana. She filmed the kids constantly, capturing their dreams, struggles, misdeeds and occasional triumphs. The result was a staggering 1,000 hours of footage, which over a year she pared down to 95 minutes. The result is a superbly made, absorbing look at modern middle-American youth.

Burstein was influenced by Seventeen, an edgy PBS documentary centering on Indiana high school students. That film focused on issues like interracial dating, while American Teen is more concerned with social dynamics and the pressures placed on teenagers by their anxious parents.

Burstein selected a high school in Warsaw, a small northern Indiana town described by one student as “your typical Midwestern town, white, Christian, red state, middle-class all the way.” The town has only one high school, which means that Mercedes-driving students attend alongside students of more modest means. The social order, says one girl, is “a total caste system.”

The top caste is represented by Megan, homecoming queen and student council climber whose personality appears to be modeled on Tracy Flick from Election: ruthless, arrogant, “a total bitch.” And, of course, very popular among her posse of friends.

ehind Megan’s imperious façade lurks an insecure girl whose parents expect her to be accepted by the competitive University of Notre Dame, Dad’s alma mater. The film hints at darker family dynamics. Megan weeps while recalling the suicide of her learning-disabled sister, who struggled to live up to her parents’ demands.

Colin, an easygoing athlete, is also under duress from his dad, who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator. Basketball is a religion in the Hoosier state, and Colin was conditioned since toddlerhood to be a hoops star. Dad, counting on a basketball scholarship to pay for college, urges Colin to score big at games to impress college recruiters. Colin hogs the ball, and the team loses until he learns to be a team player. The film reminds us that college has become unaffordable for many families; Colin’s dad suggests that if he doesn’t get the scholarship, he can always join the military.

At the other end of the social spectrum is Jake, a classic geek with a bad complexion. He has two obsessions: video games and girls: “If I have a girl, I don’t feel like such a nobody.” During the film he goes through several relationships, proving that looks don’t matter, it’s persistence that pays off.

The most affecting story belongs to free-spirited Hannah, a bundle of creative energy who paints, photographs, plays guitar and dreams of becoming a film director. Painfully out of place in rural Indiana, Hannah is, like many inmates of landlocked Corn Belt states, desperate to leave for the coast, any coast. When a boyfriend breaks up with her, she plunges into a depression that leaves her terrified of going to school. In one of several animated sequences, the film explores Hannah’s haunting fear that she is becoming mentally ill like her mom, who is bipolar.

Hannah’s life takes a surprising turn when Geoff, a popular athlete, takes an interest in her. He waxes enthusiastic about how “different” she is, but his ardor soon caves under the pressure of the social hierarchy, which cannot be defied. He breaks up with her via text message.

Viral technology, in fact, is one thing that distinguishes this generation from its predecessors. In a moment of youthful exuberance, a girl sends a topless picture of herself to a boy. Within minutes, the photo has reached every computer and cell phone in the student body. The girl is cruelly harassed (“superskanky,” “pepperoni nipples”) and driven to tears. It’s Lord of the Flies, aided and abetted by the Internet.

The stories are dramatic, which makes you wonder if Burstein was merely lucky to find students whose lives were so interesting, or whether, à la Heisenberg, her presence somehow made their lives more poetic. Either way, American Teen is a first-rate documentary.

This originally appeared in Cleveland Scene.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An Instant Camp Classic

If it is even half as funny as the trailer, I think Oliver Stone's W will be a scream.

"Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?"

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Waugh Unto Them

A limp remake of Brideshead Revisited

Why anyone thought it necessary to make another Brideshead Revisited is a mystery. The fondly regarded 1981 British television miniseries should have been the last word on Evelyn Waugh’s elegy to friendship, art, aristocracy and religion in Edwardian England.

And yet the urge to revisit classic literature cannot be restrained. As Anthony Andrews, who portrayed Sebastian Flyte in the ’81 series, remarked, “Remakes are often an excuse to associate young movie stars with a good title. They think it adds up to magic."

The new adaptation, directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane) and written by Jeremy Block and Andrew Davies, is anything but magical. It’s a flat-footed, CliffsNotes condensation that strips every last bit of wit from Waugh’s novel, leaving the bare bones to rattle about onscreen for two and a quarter hours. It is like a bad term paper by a student who only skimmed the book.

Although the semi-autobiographical Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, is Waugh’s most famous novel, it is an uncharacteristically serious and florid work by a writer better known for lean, savage satire. Waugh remarked in letters that it was written during “a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster” — 1944 and 1945 — “and is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Some critics found other elements distasteful, particularly the book's religious component. Waugh, originally an agnostic, converted to Catholicism in the 1930s, and the novel reflects his conservative views on religion, ideas that led the atheist George Orwell to remark that Waugh was “about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions.” Brideshead’s protagonist, Charles Ryder, is enthralled by his friend’s noble and devoutly Catholic family, and by novel’s end has apparently adopted their faith.

The story is told from the point of view of Charles, an aspiring painter from a modest London background, who forms an intimate friendship with the charmingly childlike Sebastian while both are students at Oxford. Together they indulge liberally in wine and food and bask in a carefree prewar idyll.

Sebastian, a free spirit who carries around a cherished teddy bear named Aloysius, invites Charles to Brideshead, his majestic family estate, and Charles is enthralled by Brideshead’s beauty and the aristocratic family’s fealty to their demanding faith. Sebastian, haunted by his powerful mother, Lady Marchmain, and ideas of himself as a sinner, descends into alcoholism. Years later, Charles becomes romantically involved with Sebastian’s sister, Julia, while both are married to other people. Their marriage plans are doomed by Julia’s unwillingness to renounce her faith. Later yet, Charles, now a soldier, wanders through Brideshead, now being used as military housing. He enters the chapel, kneels and utters a prayer, “a form of words newly learned.”

The story is complex, but the film chooses disastrously to reframe it as a romance, exaggerating the affair between Charles (Matthew Goode) and Julia (Hayley Atwell) and inventing a jealous love triangle that didn’t exist in the book.

The casting is also problematic. Waugh describes Sebastian as “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.” In the television serial, Anthony Andrews was a charismatic Sebastian alongside Jeremy Irons’ Charles. In the movie, Ben Whishaw makes the character annoyingly effeminate. If Charles seems to forget about Sebastian in the second half — a source of regret in the novel — with this Sebastian it’s understandable. The viewer might like to forget about him too.

The film makes scant use of the novel’s fine prose, choosing to substitute its own clunky writing for Waugh’s words. Goode is a serviceable Charles, but without the author’s narration, the character is rather a cipher. The rest of the cast, including Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain and Andrew Gabon as Lord Marchmain, don’t fare much better by the lackluster script, though Atwell is a zesty Julia and Greta Scacchi is striking in her brief appearance as Lord Marchmain’s wise mistress, Cara.

Adapting literature is always problematic; good books, as a rule, make bad movies. If you want to revisit Brideshead, you’re best advised to watch DVDs of the ITV series, or even better, read the book.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Cleveland Scene.