December 31, 2004

MOVIES: The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator covers roughly 20 years in the life of Howard Hughes, from his 3-year struggle to make the movie Hell's Angels to his successful appearance before a Senate committee whose chairman was out to destroy him.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars, and he's quite good, especially in the early part of the movie, portraying the young, ambitious, dynamic Hughes. He's somewhat less successful later in the movie, when Hughes begins to slip into paranoia, delusion, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. (He's also struggling by that point to play older than his age, and isn't convincing.)

The Aviator makes a reasonable case that Hughes' madness is the flip side of the ambition and reckless drive that makes him successful; it's a bit facile, though, in trying to explain away that madness as the result of an overprotective, germ-phobic mother.

The movie looks spectacular, and the flight sequences are especially impressive, especially a plane crash in Beverly Hills and the flight of the enormous Hercules plane (popularly known as the "Spruce Goose").

Lots of good supporting players on hand here -- John C. Reilly as Hughes's financial advisor; Alan Alda as the senator out to destroy Hughes; Alec Baldwin as the head of Pan Am, chief rival to Hughes' TWA -- but best of all is Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. It's a sharp, crisp performance, and very funny; her body language during the scene in which she breaks up with Hughes is impeccable.

There are flaws -- Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner isn't much more than decorative; the movie's too long, and it ends rather abruptly -- but in a holiday season that's been generally disappointing, this is one of the better of the big studio movies.

December 30, 2004

MOVIES: The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004)

Anti-Semitism makes The Merchant of Venice one of Shakespeare's more troublesome plays for modern audiences. Even were that not an issue, the seriousness of the Shylock/Antonio plotline with its infamous pound of flesh feels seriously at odds with the romantic escapades of the other characters; it's hard to make that piece fit into what is, after all, classified as one of Shakespeare's comedies.

(Yeah, I know, "comedy" in the Shakespearean sense doesn't mean quite the same thing as it does now, but even so, it generally means that the play will be relatively light in tone with happy endings for nearly everyone. My college Shakespeare prof summed up the distinction as "If everyone ends up dead, it's a tragedy; if everyone ends up married, it's a comedy.")

Michael Radford's new film adaptation opens with a few screens of text that provide some historical context about the treatment of Jews in 16th-century Venice, and Radford's screenplay condenses the play a bit, cutting principally (I think; it's been a while since I read the play) from the romantic capers; this version of Merchant is definitely more drama than comedy.

Al Pacino stars as Shylock, and given his ever-increasing penchant for hamminess and bellowing, it's a pleasant surprise that this is a relatively quiet and understated performance; only in the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech does he get at all loud, and even that is entirely in keeping with the rest of his characterization.

He is particularly good in the courtroom scene, capturing Shylock's stubbornness, as well as the sense of grief and betrayal that motivates it. Jeremy Irons as Antonio is also very good in this scene; sadly, Lynn Collins's Portia does not come off as well, and even by the lax standards of Shakespearean cross-dressers, her Balthasar is painfully unconvincing.

The pruning of the romantic plots, and the shift in tone towards drama, makes what's left of those romantic plots play a bit more heavily than they probably should. When the four principal lovers have their argument about rings and promises, it comes off not as fluffy comedy, but as a cruel lie on the part of the women.

The Shakespearean blank verse is quite easily understood here; the actors deliver it in such a way that even when we don't follow every word and sentence, the gist of the action is abundantly clear. It's a solid production of the play, and an entertaining movie

MOVIES: Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004)

Hotel Rwanda tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who was the house manager of an upscale hotel in Kigala, Rwanda, when the violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis broke out in 1994. The president was assassinated, and there wasn't enough government or official military left to keep the Hutu militia from genocidal slaughter of the Tutsis. The United Nations, Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world refused to intervene; over a million people were killed in a matter of months.

Paul's hotel (I'm going to just call him "Paul;" everyone in the movie does, and it's a heckuva lot quicker than typing "Rusesabagina" over and over) becomes a de facto refugee camp for nearly 1300 people, most of them Tutsis.

Don Cheadle plays Paul, and it's a marvelous performance. At the beginning of the movie, we see him working before the chaos begins -- buying supplies, schmoozing local diplomats and military leaders, bribing various officials -- and while it's not the way business is done here, it appears to be standard practice in Rwanda, and Paul is good at it.

When the violence begins, those skills serve Paul well, and it's fascinating to watch him use his wide network of contacts in Kigali to keep his hotel safe from the militia for another week, another day, another few hours. You can see the wheels spinning in Cheadle's head as he schemes desperately to leverage every tiny piece of information or material into more safety for his hotel.

There are fine performances also from Sophie Okonedo as Paul's wife, Tatiana, who fears for her own safety and that of her children (she is Tutsi; Paul is Hutu); and from Nick Nolte as the UN officer forced to admit to Paul that there are no peacekeeping forces coming, and that the evacuation forces are there only to remove non-Rwandans.

Hotel Rwanda is not the subtlest of movies; director (and co-writer, with Keir Pearson) Terry George wants us to face up to our responsibility for what happened in Rwanda, and doesn't pull any punches in making that point. But while the political message comes across, the movie is ultimately the very personal story of one man trying to maintain some semblance of order and decency in a disintegrating society. A fine movie indeed.

December 29, 2004

MOVIES: In Good Company (Paul Weitz, 2004)

In Good Company is a solidly crafted comedy, one of what will surely be a flood in the next few years about the woes facing the baby boomers as they head into middle age.

This one gives us Dennis Quaid as Dan, the head of ad sales for Sports America magazine, whose publisher has just been bought by an evil conglomerate (Why is it evil? Why, because it's a conglomerate, of course!). In the corporate reshuffling, Dan is demoted, and his new boss, Carter (Topher Grace), is half his age; Carter enters the job with orders to fire several salesmen in order to cut payroll, but he lets Dan stay on, telling him he'll make "an awesome wingman."

The movie works a little too hard to draw parallels between the two men. Both are going through family upheaval (Carter's wife is leaving him; Dan's is unexpectedly pregnant); each man injures his arm, Dan playing basketball (trying to match Carter's youth) and Carter crashing his new Mercedes (trying to match Dan's wealth and prestige).

There is an obligatory romantic plot in which Carter begins dating Dan's daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson); Grace and Johansson are appealing enough that this isn't as dull as it could have been.

But I'd have been happier if the movie had stuck to the workplace story and the relationship between the two men; that's certainly the best part of the movie, and there's more than enough material there to fill out a movie.

The movie's well written and directed by Paul Weitz. The cast includes such fine supporting players as Marg Helgenberger, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, and David Paymer. Dennis Quaid is especially good here, and he and Grace work very well together. Not essential viewing, but better than a lot of year-end movies that will get far more attention.

December 28, 2004

MOVIES: Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach, 2004)

Meet the Fockers is an efficient retread of Meet the Parents. Again, Ben Stiller struggles to be acceptable by his uptight WASP in-laws-to-be; again, he's humiliated at every turn. The twist this time, of course, is that his own parents are on hand to aid in his embarassment.

Stiller's parents are played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, and they're terrific together, comfortable and relaxed. It's been more than 20 years since Streisand made a comedy, and it's a joy to watch her here; her timing is impeccable, both in broad moments -- giving a massage to a reluctant Robert De Niro -- and in quiet ones -- a conversation at the mall with Blythe Danner.

Yes, the movie is full of toilet jokes and puns on "Focker" and cheap sex jokes, and it's probably not quite as good as the first one, but it does precisely what it sets out to do in a reasonably brisk fashion.

MOVIES: Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby has been winning rave reviews, which baffles me. It's a slow, ponderous, self-important bore, utterly convinced of its own importance, and never remotely entertaining.

Eastwood plays (as usual) a grizzled, but ultimately lovable, old coot; this time, he's a boxing trainer/manager, working out of his run-down Los Angeles gym. He's approached by Hilary Swank, playing her usual role of Plucky Pore Whaht Traysh, who wants him to train her; he reluctantly agrees, despite the fact that she's about fifteen years too old to begin a boxing career. The whole thing is narrated by St. Morgan Freeman in his most wise and omniscient tone; he's a broken-down boxer who was managed by Eastwood and helps run the gym.

For a while, it looks as if Million Dollar Baby is just going to be an unusually somber Rocky retread. There's the obligatory training sequence, the montage of Swank's early victories and her rise through the ranks, and so on. We get a visit to Swank's family in the Missouri Ozarks, so that we may giggle at the depths which she is trying to rise above. (The talented character actress Margo Martindale works valiantly as Swank's mother, but the part is such an offensive and repellent cliche that she cannot redeem it.)

About 45 minutes from the end, there is a dramatic plot twist -- well, it's meant to be dramatic, at any rate, but it's so implausible that I wound up giggling -- and the movie heads into the territory of Important Social Issue Picture. Everyone gets misty-eyed, Eastwood croaks out the obligatory "you're like a daughter to me" speech (he is conveniently estranged from his own daughter for unspecified reasons), and we get an ending that clubs us upside the head with a message of ostensible redemption.

The movie is relentlessly heavy; the only brief glimmers of humor come in some early scenes between Eastwood and his priest, who is nicely played by Brian O'Byrne. Eastwood's score, largely for solo guitar -- the orchestra doesn't take over until after The Plot Twist -- only adds to the movie's bleak landscape.

I am perplexed beyond understanding that this movie has received any good reviews, much less the sort of glowing praise it's getting; I think it's a complete disaster.

December 27, 2004

MOVIES: Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004)

At the beginning of Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, we meet Enrique (Fele Martinez), a rising young film director searching for inspiration for a new project. He is visited by Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), a childhood school friend. The boys were only 10 or 11 when they were in school together, and it's been some 15 years since, during which time they have not been in touch.

Ignacio is now an actor, begging for a part in Enrique's next film. Enrique brushes him off, but Ignacio leaves behind a story he's written, "The Visit," based on the events of their childhood. It seems that Enrique and Ignacio were childhood sweethearts whose budding puppy love was broken up by the school's principal, Father Manolo, who loved Ignacio himself.

Much of Bad Education is taken up with various versions of "The Visit." There's the original version that Ignacio presents to Enrique, in which a fictionalized adult Ignacio blackmails Father Manolo; there's the "Visit"-within-a-"Visit" that Ignacio uses to blackmail Manolo; and there's the film version, Enrique having decided that Ignacio's story is perfect material for his next movie.

Not only that, but we get to find out how the story of Ignacio, Enrique, and Father Manolo wraps up in real life, a wrapup that is not at all what we'd been expecting.

Bernal has multiple roles to play here, tackling almost all of the various Ignacios, some of whom are drag artists or transsexuals. (Similarly, Martinez plays multiple Enriques, but there's far less variation among them than among the Ignacios.)

It would be easy to get lost in the maze of storytelling levels, but Almodovar does a masterful job of keeping the stories clear; we always know which version of the story we're seeing, and how many levels removed from reality we are.

On all of its levels, the story is a lush, overripe melodrama, constantly on the edge of self-parody, but never quite falling. The gorgeous score by Alberto Iglesias is often reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work for Hitchcock, and it helps greatly to maintain the tone of the movie.

I was in the small minority who did not care for Almodovar's last movie, Talk to Her, but Bad Education is marvelous, and should not be missed.

MOVIES: The Phantom of the Opera (Joel Schumacher, 2004)

Here's the first question that comes to mind after watching The Phantom of the Opera: Why is Minnie Driver in this movie?

Driver plays Carlotta, the great diva of the Opera Populaire; the role must be sung by a fabulous operatic soprano, and Driver is therefore the only member of the cast who does not do her own singing. There's not a lot of dialogue in the movie, and what little there is could easily be handled by any competent actress; and it's not as if Driver is the sort of box-office draw whose name on the poster is going to sell tickets. So why not just hire an actress who can sing the part?

The next question that comes to mind is this: Why do we think of Phantom as a musical, and not as an opera, or at least an operetta? At least 30% of the music is overt operatic pastiche, presented to us as performances of the opera company within the movie; the rest of it is certainly closer to opera than to traditional musical theater. There's not much dialogue between songs, and large chunks of it are performed in recitative style.

The role of Christine is certainly an opera role; it's not accidental that Broadway's Christines have not gone on to significant post-Phantom musical careers, and you certainly can't imagine most of Broadway's great leading ladies in the role. Patti LuPone? Bernadette Peters? Ethel Merman? Wouldn't work.

The new film version of Phantom is blessed with a very fine Christine in Emmy Rossum, and her performance alone is enough reason to see the movie. The men in the movie's romantic triangle -- Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Patrick Wilson as Raoul -- are competent enough singers, though not very interesting ones, and neither has the sort of riveting sexuality that would make us feel Christine's dilemma more intensely. Wilson is a particularly bland presence, and it's always hard to take seriously a leading man whose hair is prettier and more luxurious than that of the heroine.

The production is spectacular, with big, gorgeous, painstakingly detailed sets and costumes; the movie is a delight to look at, and should be seen on as big a screen as possible.

The music isn't any better than it's ever been (and the lyrics are dismal), but as Noel Coward noted, it is "extraordinary how potent cheap music is," and when Rossum sails through "Think of Me," or Butler hits the high note in the bridge of "Music of the Night," you can understand why this musical keeps running and running on the stage.

The Phantom of the Opera is certainly a magnificent movie to watch, and in the hands of these singers, it's as pleasant to listen to as one could hope for.

December 26, 2004

MOVIES: The Door in the Floor (Tod Williams, 2004)

I had missed The Door in the Floor during its brief theatrical run last spring, and I'm happy to have seen it now on DVD. It's adapted from part of a John Irving novel, and tells the story of a teenager who gets caught up in the collapse of a marriage.

Jeff Bridges plays Ted Cole, a successful author of children's books who hires Eddy O'Hare (Jon Foster) to be his assistant for the summer. Ted doesn't really need an assistant, and there's not much for Eddy to do but chauffeur Ted from place to place.

Eddy arrives at the Cole home just as Ted and his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) are beginning a trial separation; the stress in their marriage is at least partly caused by the recent deaths of their teenage sons in an auto accident.

Marion's lonely and depressed; Eddy's 16 and bored -- well, you can guess where that's going. But even as it goes there, it's not quite as predictable as it might be, and the story is told with such precision and attention to detail that it's always compelling.

The three central performances are very fine indeed. Kim Basinger is a terribly inconsistent actress, but she's good here, and her tendency to wooden inexpressiveness is a good fit with Marion, who's still in shock from the loss of her sons. Jon Foster captures perfectly the teenage romanticism that allows a boy to believe he's in love with the first woman to pay attention to him, and Jeff Bridges is outstanding as a man whose awareness of what's happening gets in the way of his understanding why it's happening. As the Coles' 4-year-old daughter, Ruthie, Elle Fanning is better than most child actors (I assume that she must be the younger sister of Dakota Fanning; they certainly look alike).

It's a quiet, subtle movie; well worth the time.

MOVIES: Beyond the Sea (Kevin Spacey, 2004)

Kevin Spacey's biography of Bobby Darin -- Spacey wrote, directed, produced, plays the lead, and probably did the catering -- finally reaches the screen, and it's a moderately entertaining mess.

The biggest problem, of course, is casting the mid-40s Spacey as Darin, whose career peak came during his 20s and who died at 37. Spacey tries to finesse the problem with his framing device, in which we see Darin directing and starring in the movie of his own life, presumably from some sort of afterlife; it's the high-tech version of what we saw earlier this year in De-Lovely. It works better here, mainly because the Darin/director figure doesn't pop into the action as frequently as the Cole Porter/director figure pops into De-Lovely; once Spacey's established the device, the movie becomes a relatively straightforward biopic. We return to that fantasy frame only occasionally, generally when Darin is visited by himself as a child (William Ullrich is a bit too precocious as young Bobby).

All of the major narrative points of Darin's life are dutifully checked off -- childhood rheumatic fever, early pop success, struggle to escape the teen idol box, acting success, fade into irrelevance, late-life comeback (of sorts) -- and Spacey doesn't ever manage to convince us that Darin's life goes beyond the standard showbiz rags-to-riches story in any way that's particularly meaningful or important.

So since what we're getting is just another variation on that standard showbiz tale, all that matters is whether the story's told in an entertaining fashion, and for the most part, it is. Spacey is surrounded by a talented cast: Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee (it's in the Darin-Dee courtship sequence that Spacey's age is the biggest problem; Bosworth is 20 years younger than Spacey, and it's impossible to see them as contemporaries), John Goodman as Darin's manager, Brenda Blethyn and Caroline Aaron as the women who raised him (Blethyn is especially good in her few early scenes).

Spacey sings and dances well, and he gets the style and the attitude right (he's aided greatly by the fact that the Darin family allowed him to use the original band arrangements), but he sounds nothing like Bobby Darin, and it seems a bit pointless to tell Darin's life story without ever letting us hear Darin's voice.

The other major problem is that the movie's tone veers all over the place. Most of the movie is naturalistic, but Caroline Aaron's performance borders on camp, as does that of Greta Scacchi, unrecognizable as Dee's mother, and a scene in which Darin and Dee argue about which will leave the other wallows in it.

Beyond the Sea isn't an awful movie, and you'll probably have fun watching it, but Spacey's vanity -- the insistence on playing a role he's much too old for, the refusal to let us hear the singing of the man he so greatly admires -- keeps it from being a great one.

December 25, 2004

BOOKS: Favorites of 2004

The ten novels I most enjoyed this year:
Chris Bohjalian, Before You Know Kindness
Joseph Finder, Paranoia
Eric Goodman, Child of My Right Hand
Wayne Johnston, Human Amusements
Steve Kluger, Almost Like Being in Love
David Liss, A Spectacle of Corruption
David Maine, The Preservationist
John Searles, Strange But True
David Sosnowski, Vamped
Julia Spencer-Fleming, Out of the Deep I Cry

Didn't read much non-fiction this year, but I did enjoy Steve Almond's Candyfreak and Tom Shone's Blockbuster, and Mark Obmascik's The Big Year was my favorite book of the year.

MUSIC: Favorites of 2004

Ten albums I loved this year (one or two of which were actually released in late '03):

Keren Ann, Not Going Anywhere
Pink Martini, Hang On Little Tomato
Kings of Convenience, Riot on an Empty Street
Patrick Davis, Chances Are
Ralston, Carwreck Conversations
Magnetic Fields, I
Caetano Veloso, A Foreign Sound
Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot
Jessica Molaskey, Make Believe
The Musical of Musicals (off-Broadway cast recording)

And some songs from other albums that had me obsessively punching the REPEAT button:
Big & Rich, "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)"
Jonatha Brooke, "Eye in the Sky"
Judith Edelman, "No One to Love"
Nelly & Tim McGraw, "Over and Over"
Scissor Sisters, "Take Your Mama"
Sondre Lerche, "Two Way Monologue"

MOVIES: A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)

A Very Long Engagement is a gorgeous production, but all the effort is wasted in service of a story that starts off dull and only gets more so as the movie plods along.

Audrey Tautou stars as Mathilde, whose childhood sweetheart and fiance, Manech, is reported dead during World War I. Mathilde, being the insufferable romantic that she is, refuses to believe that Manech is dead -- "Oh, if he were truly dead, I would know it in my heart!" and such twaddle -- and sets out to find him.

The story of what really happened to Manech isn't laid out very clearly, and Mathilde's progress from one clue to the next is a murky mess. None of the people involved are likable or interesting, including Mathilde, and we don't see enough of Manech (there are a few flashbacks) to have any real rooting interest in his survival beyond Mathilde's own obsessive quest.

The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and a few of the movie's visuals -- a shot of rows of crosses in a military cemetery, a zeppelin explosion -- are dazzling; if that's enough for you, you might enjoy A Very Long Engagement. But if you want interesting characters, a gripping story, or coherent storytelling, look elsewhere.