Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teach Me Tonight

A few years ago a great movie came out, Little Children, about a woman in the suburbs who begins having an affair with a stay-at-home dad. Separate but loosely inter-twined plots concern a registered sex offender and a retired cop who is after him. It's a brilliant script and people told me the book, by Tom Perrotta, was even better. The voiceover narratives in the movie, presumably lifted from from the book, were really good. I wanted to read the book but never got around to it.

So when I read the reviews for Perrotta's new book The Abstinence Teacher I was intrigued. Time magazine called him the Steinbeck of suburbia (so what does that make Cheever? or Updike?).

It's a good read, a real page turner, but I did not find it particularly sophisticated. In fact it was a jolt to my palette, because I had just finished Pride and Prejudice (my first Austen). Her prose is psychologically insightful and masterfully florid, definitely a product of its time stylistically, but it's easy to see why we still read Austen.

The Abstinence Teacher is a little too self-consciously political, however. Perrotta has tried create dual portraits, both sympathatic, about somewhat extreme characters on the culture war continuum. The first is about a born again Christian, Tim, who was once an addict, but came under the seductive spell of an evangelical pastor. He finds purpose in the church and eventually even marries a young congregant partly to please the pastor and partly to patch his broken heart. When he was using, he fucked up up his life so bad his marriage fell apart, the usual story. He soldiers on, though, and he's noble. And he's not a conservative Christian jerk. He's an ex-rock 'n' roller, and misses it all. He stays open-minded. To illustrate this, there are long patches explaining why he doesn't agree with his church's stance on gay marriage and other extreme positions.

His foil is Ruth, a sex-ed teacher in town who has braved a controversy caused by her telling her ninth graders that some people like oral sex. She is reprimanded, and the conservative school board adopts an abstinence-based sex ed curriculum she is forced to teach. She's miserable. Add to that, she can't get laid and she thinks she's always going to be single.

They are connected by their daughters' soccer team that Tim happens to coach. Ruth makes a scene one day when Tim, spontaneously, asks the team to join him in prayer after a particularly triumphant win.

They become unlikely friends, and the novel is really about how they are managing their own lonliness and ultimately how they let their attraction for each other (more than physical) subvert their socio-religious leanings.

It's a sweet story and I enjoyed it, couldn't put it down, but it's kind of shallow. A beach read.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elegaic? Yes, but. . .

Elegy will make you think, and it will make you feel, but I'm not sure it's a great movie. I would love to hear what others think.

Without being overly personally and so completely subjective, I will say that the movie struck a lot of chords for me: what is the nature of aging and age and what roles do aging and age differences play in romantic love? What is the nature of obsessive love (the Kingsley character, an aging but emotionally and sexually vibrant professor/writer/critic says of his lover (in essesnce), "I was anxious all day until we would speak and then I was I was anxious afterwards." And what is the nature of sex, romance, intimacy, long-term connection? It's all explored here.

I think about these things all the time; I have lived the situations in the film from all sides. And at the same time I have had, for many years, a negative reaction to one particular Hollywood formula: the on-screen love affairs between male actors in their 60's and actresses in their 30's. Pairing Sean Connery with Michelle Pfeiffer--or in the case of Elegy, pairing Ben Kingsley with Penelope Cruz, is quite simply playing out the masturbatory fantasies of the producers who finance these films. No doubt that the world is full of such romances, but how many times is it the reverse situation? So few: The Graduate, a smattering of others.

Okay, so trying to put aside my personal judgments is not easy nor is it entirely possible or required with this hobby (criticism). Even the Kingsley character David Kapesh says (advancing Roland Barthes' thesis): a book is a different book depending on the reader, and the reader will change such that re-reading a book 10 years after reading it the first time, the reader will experience the book through a diffent lens.

Still, that aside--I am really am trying to get to the point: is the movie good?

I just don't know. I have to think about it more. It's a story of Kingsley as an aging writer, David Kepesh, as I said, who falls in love with a student, Consuela Costilla, played by Cruz. He also has a lover who he sees regularly, the more age-appropriate Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson). He lies to Carolyn about Consuela, and never tells Consuela about Carolyn. He is almost estranged from his son, Kenneth (played by the excellent Peter Sarsgaard who needs a leading role, and soon--I love him) who can't seem to get over his past grievance--how Kepesh divorced his mother and abandoned him. And Kepesh has a best friend, George, played by, of all people, Dennis Hopper, who serves as Kepesh's Id in a way--encouraging him to go for the sex, but not get hung up on Consueala. And believe it or not we also have a cameo by Deborah Harry as George's wife--it's brief but credible. Yes, Deborah Harry!

Re-reading the paragraph above, I realized that, for me, the movie's interesting dimensions were in the relationships of secondary characters. Clarkson is a total favorite of mine, and she delivers another of her intelligent, subtle performances. And Sarsgaard as I mentioned does the seething, aggrieved son quite well--totally believable.

And the movie is gorgeously shot. Meaningful light and shadows, deep colors, sensual angles. It's beautiful, if obsessively mannered somehow--perfectly art directed, a little too perfect sometimes, but pretty to look at.

So what's the rub? As you all know I'm a huge Cruz fan. I can't get enough of her, but I have to say I did not like her in this role. I felt she was objectified, and I felt her stretching too hard to be a serious "actress." (P.S. to Penelope: you already are a world class, legendary talent. You have nothing to prove.) I thought the plot was contrived--you'll understand when you see how a certain body part of her is fetishized and then exactly what disease she gets. I thought her vulnerability was forced and her natural charisma was tempered. I found myself actually kind of angry that she was somehow used. Kingsley, on the other hand, played the role with sufficient depth and found many levels to his character.

I want to hear from others on this. What was wrong with Cruz's performance here, or with the direction? Why did the movie ultimately ring somewhat hollow? I've read zero reviews of this film so far. I'll be interested in your opinions, and the real critics.

Forget After Seeing

I usually don't concentrate too hard on reviews before I've seen a movie that I'm really looking forward to. I will sort of glance at the review sometimes, get the gist, and see the movie anyway, even it's bad. And I try not to read many reviews before I blog about a movie.

The movie I've been most anticipating this fall, the Coen brother's Burn After Reading, has already opened. I saw that the New York Times hated it, said it had no heart. But of course I went anyway.

The preview for this movie is so compelling: Pitt, Swinton, McDormand, Clooney, Malkovich! And the serious auteur filmmakers, returning back to their black comedy tone (Fargo, Raising Arizona) which I prefer over the violently malevolent shades of No Country for Old Men.

Clearly this movie was a palette cleanser for the Coens and their fans. After No Country for Old Men; I'm sure they just needed a break. Problem is, though, you can't go back and make a first film at the height of your career. That's what this felt like.

This movie disappoints on several levels. Pitt is playing a one-dimentional caricature, and frankly so is Swinton, Clooney and Malkovich. You can't like any of them, and worse: you can't really understand them or care about them. There's some giggles, sure, but their talents are wasted here. I really don't feel like dissecting what's bad about each of the performances, but here's a small detail that just drove me crazy: Pitt is supposed to be playing a dumb jock sort of personal trainer. An idiot who gets in way over his head as he tries to blackmail an ex-CIA operative after finding a disc of his personal data. The plot is simply about some how Dormand and Pitt try to get money out of this guy (Malkovich) and then, failing that, out of the Russians. A bunch of little inter-twined sup-plots keep the pace brisk. Anyway, Pitt's character is always carrying a water bottle. When he drinks from it, he holds his elbow up high like a little kid and sucks on the end like a nipple. He does this again and again and it's a piece of body language that is supposed to signal how childish he is, but it's way overdone, and he ends up playing the role (and the directors are at fault here, not Pitt) like a character in a one-laugh Saturday Night Live skit.

As for Swinton, she better be careful. After the (nuanced and interesting) role she had in Michael Clayton as an uptight PR professional, she dons similar hair and affect here to portray a surly adulterous doctor. Swinton could do anything--now that she's proven she can reign her exotic looks and ethereal technique into mainstream Hollywood (yes, the Coen bros are mainstream now), she ought to take a page from Julianne Moore's book and find material that offers more opportunity to display her otherworldly range (check out her early Jarman work) movies that work with rather than hide her rarity.

After seeing the movie I read the New York Times review more carefully and the New Yorker review as well. They panned it. But I disagree with them on McDormand. She's the hardest working actor here, for sure, and though she's plays a raging narcisissist whose sole purpose in life is to get four cosmetic surgeries which she believes will make her more desirable, I kind of liked her. I liked the single-mindedness of her vision. She starts Internet dating and she really knows what she wants, recognizes it when she sees it (someone handsome with a good sense of humor--Clooney), and doesn't take no for an answer--when it comes to the blackmailing scene, not from the CIA, not from the Russians, not from the insurance company who won't pay for her surgeries ("My doctor approved them!"). She kept me chuckling, but one can't help compare and contrast her role here with that in Fargo. In the latter, she was wholly sympathetic and complex.

A few things keep the movie watchable. I loved the short scenes in CIA headquarters--the way the big boss dismisses the blackmailing / murder incident casually, after the under-boss explains sheepishly what's happened. That was classic. And the actor Richard Jenkins (played the dead father in Six Feet Under) plays a really interesting character. So if you watch the minor roles, you'll see some complexity, but it's not enough. And I am entranced by the Coen's camera techniques and quick editing. Also, they can take something that is absolutely gruesome (a character gets shot in the forehead) and make it funny (the shooter freaks out). But this is trickery, not real film making, the kind that moves you and changes the way you see or understand something.

If you like the Coen brothers, I'm sure neither this blog nor wild horses will keep you from seeing this flick. You'll go anyway. I understand. I faithfully march to everything Woody Allen puts out, and usually walk out somewhat disappointed (not this year though). But check out Rotten Tomatoes--the audience rating is in the 70's; the critics' rating in the 50's. I stole the headline from the Wall Street Journal critic. It's appropriate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hamlet 2

If you liked Waiting For Guffman, and you loathe movies like Dead Poet's Society and Mr. Holland's Opus, you'll love Hamlet 2. Standout performances by Steve Koogan as Dana Marschz, the lead character, Catherine Keener as his depressed wife, Amy Poehler as an ACLU lawyer, Elizabeth Shue (as herself), and unknown Shea Pope as the 9th grade theater critic, Noah Sapperstein. He almost steals the show. He had me at Roland Barthes.

It's a story about a crazy-assed, somewhat moronic, but ultimately sympathetic high school drama teacher who stages adapted versions of movies like Erin Brockovich instead of the usual high school fare (West Side Story, Death of a Salesman). Sapperstein, the critic, who pans all of his productions tells him that he should try writing original stuff. It tells you a lot about the movie and the writing and the characters that the protagonist turns to a Freshman dramaturge for advice--and then follows it. In any case Marschz knows he has to do something big to save the deapartment which is being cut due to budget cuts.

To save the department Marschz decides to write and produce a sequel to Hamlet. You may remember that at the end of Hamlet almost everyone is dead. "I have a device to fix that," he tells his wife. "What? A time machine?" she asks. "Yes." And someone named Jesus shows up in the sequel too, inexplicably, but probably just as an excuse for the showcase number Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.

Hamlet 2 is graced by balls-out performances. Most notable is Coogan's anti-hero, the caftan wearing, totally clumsy and admittedly untalented Marschz. But there's als0 the drama geeks Rand, a delightful closet case and Epiphany, a goody two shoes with a dark side.

In a way this movie is solidly in the "lets put on a show" genre, or the genre of British and American formulaic comedies, or inspirational dramas, that show the underdog rising predictably to great glory (Billy Elliott, Kinky Boots, Seabiscuit, Rocky, The Great Debaters, Calendar Girls, The Full Monty, Strictly Ballroom, etc.). Nine times out of ten, I hate this shit, because I like to be surprised

And surprised I was.Here's what got me. The show within the show--I'm not giving anything away by saying that it's a smash. I expected that, but I didn't expect to be moved. I think it was the Tucson Gay Men's Choir singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Magic. What is better in life than completely unexpected tears?